Gone Gone Gone…

Talking about the people his hockey club put in place, Brad Kwong knew this particular blueprint could work.

He just didn’t see it working out this well.

For a league which promised multiple first-round draft picks, the USHL delivered during last Friday’s first round of the NHL Draft. The league had seven players taken and of those seven, the Dubuque Fighting Saints had three players in forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont), defenseman Michael Matheson (Boston College) and forward Mark Jankowski (Providence), a prospect who said repeatedly he would be playing next season in Dubuque.

Three first-round selections comes in Year 2 of a franchise which made its way into the league winning a Clark Cup in its inaugural season. Kwong, one of the team’s principal owners, said there was a plan but even now, what has occurred with the Fighting Saints has gone well beyond what was expected.

“I think it was surprising and we didn’t expect to win Clark Cup in the first year,” Kwong said. “We had a good sense with the hockey people and staff we had that we’d be successful.”

When it comes to those “hockey people” the first place to start should be with Kwong and the rest of the ownership. Kwong was a former hockey player at Harvard while the rest of his fellow owners Philip and Mark Falcone, brothers who are part of the Minnesota Wild’s ownership group along with Peter Chiarelli, the general manager of the 2011 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.

The group returned a USHL team to Dubuque following a 10-year hiatus and made hires which they believed could have a major impact. The franchise hired up-and-coming executive Adam Micheletti as its director of hockey and business operations. Former Maine great Jim Montgomery was then hired as head coach along with hiring Bobby Kinsella as an assistant and Joe Coombs, as an assistant and director of scouting.

All four worked together in the franchise’s first year to bring a Clark Cup and this year surpass whatever NHL Draft expectations there might have been.

“If you would have asked (about three first-round selections) four months ago…we had a good sense (Girgensons and Matheson) would go in the first round,” Kwong said. “When all those different names went up we thought Mike was going to go down and when it happened, it wasn’t a total shock. Jankowski was a surprise and we’ve heard a lot of great things and we’ll see what kind of player he is.”

USHL commissioner Skip Prince, who said he has known Kwong for 20 years, said when the two talked about bringing a team to Dubuque, Kwong’s group had an idea.

The philosophy was to take what had been done in the NHL in terms of the quality of items such as marketing and scouting then applying those ideals to work on a smaller scale to work within the USHL’s parameters.

It has turned into an organization which has used the draft to get players who had an impact with Dubuque and in the case of some, beyond. The Fighting Saints took the promising yet high-risk project that was Vinny Saponari and got him back into college hockey at Northeastern and scored 23 points in 34 games.

They helped John Gaudreau go past being a 5-6 forward into being a Calgary Flames draft pick who might have been the most impressive freshman in the nation last year at Boston College.

Maybe the success wasn’t expected this quickly but Kwong’s ownership has put together a successful model which could continue to have strong results.

“We know it is ultra-competitive and we know going on with only six or seven returnees, we are going to be a new team,” Kwong said. “That first part of the season – in the fall – there is going to be a lot of learning to be done with the talent we have coming. With Jim and his guys coaching, we are confident we can make a good run at it.”

Follow The Leader…

Thunderstorms left USHL commissioner Skip Prince stranded for hours in an airport on Friday until he reached his hotel in Pittsburgh for the NHL Draft.

Prince used every cell phone battery in reach to find out how many players in the USHL had been taken. He was talking about the league’s fruitful exhibition in the first round before talking about the second round, which starts Saturday.

“We have high hopes for those players in the second round,” Prince said. “Like Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota). He’s a guy-”

That’s when Prince was informed Schmaltz, the Green Bay Gamblers defenseman, had been taken in the first round. Prince was blown away admitting he didn’t know Schmaltz had been taken 25th overall.

Prince chalked it up to only checking to the 23rd pick.

It was in that moment where Prince, like many, was surprised yet pleased with the remarkable night had by the USHL. A record seven USHL players/prospects were taken in the first round. Dubuque had the strongest showing of any non-NTDP team as it had three players/prospects selected.

Forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and defenseman Mike Matheson (Boston College) were the bread in the Fighting Saints’ draft sandwich. Prospect forward Ryan Jankowski (Providence) was also taken.

It was then reported by The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy that Jankowski, nephew of Montreal Canadiens scout Ryan Jankowski, would play for the Fighting Saints next year. Jankowski will be the second-ever first-round pick to come into the USHL and play a season.

Blake Wheeler was the first when he was drafted by the Green Bay Gamblers in 2004 when he was the fifth overall selection.

NTDP trio Jacob Trouba (Michigan), Brady Skjei (Minnesota) and Stefan Matteau rounded out the seven picks from the USHL to go in the first round. For those wondering, that’s 23 percent or nearly a quarter of the entire first round having ties to a league constantly jockeying against a Major Junior model which is often billed as the faster track to a NHL future.

It is a dominant figure for the QMJHL, which only had one first-round pick this season after having five last season. Werger said this year’s first round surpasses the previous high of four taken in the opening round.

“It is a lot of hard work,” Prince said. “The programs we are talking about needed to be a lot more soundly promoted and delivered to high-end prospects. We think there were others we lost in the last years or so. And hopefully, one of these players taken tonight can show the next 200 or 300 players out there the USHL isn’t the equivalent of the safe school but a power to be reckoned with.”

Prince said repeatedly he hopes what happened Friday is the latest step in showing that the American development model does have its positives.

Depending upon the source, the American development model has had its critics on both sides of the spectrum. Proponents believe the model can compete because it allows players a chance to develop and spend more time in the weight room along with playing against competition which could be anywhere from three to five years older.

Opponents, on the other hand, have said the model should be used for talents who need longer to develop and that the Major Junior model is a more affective plan given its history of producing major stars and the willingness of NHL teams sending their players to junior programs.

“We knew from the beginning of the year this was going to be a strong round for us,” Prince said.

It appeared the USHL could have a strong year as it had a plethora of players listed on NHL Central Scouting’s pre-season watch list with a number which matched that of the OHL, WHL and QMJHL.

Then there was the profile of existing and arriving players.

Girgensons, Schmaltz and Fargo Force defenseman Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha), a likely late second or early third round pick, were billed as the three players to watch in the latter half of the 2010-11 season by NHL Central Scouting’s Jack Barzee.

The NTDP, a hotbed for first-round picks, were already being considered to have numerous picks given its reputation and the players it already possessed.

Yet the league received a serious jolt when Matheson, a native of Point-Claire, Que., opted against the QMJHL to come to the USHL, a move which was seen as the American model working its way into French Canada.

And of course, came the story of the season when fellow Quebecois Kevin Roy (Brown) chose the Lincoln Stars and went on to have a 108-point season defying the status of the USHL being a defensive-minded league where a 50-point season was considered a success.

Roy is also slated to be taken on Saturday.

“I love what this league stands for,” Prince said. “But like every good Broadway show you need first-and second-rounders who bring sixth-and seventh-rounders in and kids who won’t get drafted but will sign a free agent contract. Today is one of those good days.”

Ring My Bell…

Let’s think about this one for a second.

The Dubuque Fighting Saints are in their second season and have accomplished quite a bit in that time. There’s winning last season’s Clark Cup title. There’s last season’s phenom John Gaudreau, who in a year picked up several trophies, was drafted by the Calgary Flames and is now at Boston College playing in the Frozen Four.

And then there’s players like Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and Michael Matheson (Boston College), who could be the USHL’s first set of non-NTDP teammates to go in the first round in quite a while.

You might think that’d be enough but you’re dead wrong. There’s another accolade this franchise is gunning for and that’s the Cowbell Cup.

No. We’re not joking. It really is called the Cowbell Cup.

We’ve seen a season where coaches have had toilets placed in their parking spots a day before they were fired by the team. So why can’t there be a team trying to become the first-ever Cowbell Cup Champs?

Dubuque sent out a release late Wednesday explaining how a win on Friday over the Waterloo Black Hawks would give them the trophy-clinching win.

“The Black Hawks and Rough Riders are our two closest rivals,” said Dubuque coach and Maine legend Jim Montgomery in a release. “Their fans come to our games, and our fans go to Waterloo and Cedar Rapids in droves when we play there.  It’s an opportunity for us to stake a claim to being the best team in Eastern Iowa.”

The Cowbell Cup Series (yeah, that thing needs a dairy farm as a sponsor) is a three-team series between Dubuque, Waterloo and the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. Whoever finishes first between the three teams, of course, takes the cup.

For as cool as this is, it makes us wonder why aren’t there more rivalry trophies in the USHL? Just saying. If a life-sized bust of Tom Osborne went to the winner of the Lincoln/Omaha/Tri-City series, we could see some classic games.

Or not.

Either way, we’ll be back later today with a few items such as the USHL Coach of the Year candidates and some insightful stories from Popeye Jones on his son, Seth, who by all accounts could be the No. 1 pick in next season’s NHL Draft.

Until then, have a good one.

 

Can It All Be So Simple…

Because its Wednesday and all, it means its time for the weekly USHL Power Rankings.

The rankings take quite a few things into account such as winning streaks, injuries, the way a team has played as of late along with how they’ve done all season just in case you needed a reminder.

So without further wait, here’s the rankings.

 

1. Green Bay Gamblers (27-6-1): Look who is back at No. 1. Given what they did this past weekend they should be. Say what you want about the NTDP and the record they have in the USHL but we all know they are the most talented team in the league. Green Bay isn’t too far behind and they stuck with the NTDP throughout the weekend. Take the players already drafted and we’re willing to bet between last draft and this one, there’s at least 15 or so players who played in that series who will be the property of some NHL team. This might be something people may not want to read but it needs to be thrown out there. We need to see Green Bay play Penticton (BCHL), which has won in excess of 20 consecutive games this season. Penticton is said to have this unstoppable offense. Wonder what would happen if they played Green Bay. In the team time, they’ll make up for a Discount Double Check-less Super Bowl. LW: No. 2.

2. Indiana Ice (21-8-4): The time at the top of the power rankings was short lived but something says they’ll probably remain in at least the Top 5 if they keep up what they’re doing. They’re eight-game winning streak was ended with a 5-4 loss to Dubuque, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Can’t stress how good they’ve been this year it just so happens Green Bay is not only having a better year but frankly, a historic year to put it mildly. They should do well this weekend but next weekend when they play Green Bay should be pretty interesting.  LW: No. 1

3. Fargo Force (18-13-3): They’ve won nine in a row and on Thursday look to make it 10 in a row. It has been an impressive turnaround for the Force who appear to have solidified things with their line combinations coupled with Zane Gothberg’s (North Dakota/Boston) play in net. They’re only five points out of first. Who say that coming? LW: No. 3

4. Omaha Lancers (22-11-2): We said they’d be fighting for first place but we didn’t think they’d take it literally as they did against Lincoln. Should be a fun three-game weekend considering they get Tri-City to start, Des Moines as the salad and Fargo for the main course. Yum. LW: No. 4

5. Dubuque Fighting Saints (20-10-3): They can’t stay healthy yet they find ways to win games. Forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and defenseman Michael Matheson (Boston College) missed the prospects game due to injuries but it appears the Fighting Saints keep rolling along. They found a way to get past Indiana and that’s saying quite a bit within itself. LW: No. 5

6. Lincoln Stars (20-13-2): Yeah, they lost two of three this past week and it wasn’t pretty but at least they didn’t do what Youngstown did. LW: No. 7

7. Youngstown Phantoms (19-12-3): They lost to Chicago. It was a three-game weekend and we get that but you should be beating Chicago unless things with the Steel really are changing. Though the Steel are making games closer (compared to earlier in the year) they still lost 10 in a row until playing Youngstown. LW: No. 6

8. NTDP (17-12-4): Things are going well for both the U-17s and the U-18s these days and its showing in their record. Between these two groups, they should make the playoffs. Too much talent there. They are three points out of fourth after all. LW: No. 9

9. Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (15-12-7): They’ve won three in a row and four of their last five including a surprising 7-2 win over Dubuque. We’ve been saying all year how this is a young team looking to hit their stride. Maybe this is the point where they’ve finally figured things out. If so, this could be a fun group to watch. LW: No. 10

10. Waterloo Black Hawks (17-10-4): Not exactly the best time to be losing to Tri-City considering Fargo is gaining momentum along with Omaha and Lincoln showing they are going to be tough this season. Black Hawks get a nice three-game weekend and could gain some ground. LW: No. 8

11. Des Moines Buccaneers (13-15-3): A split over the weekend for the Pirate Ship sees them hold steady at fifth. Given the way the Western Conference is going, Des Moines sits nine points out of fourth. Maybe the five spot is where they’ll stay all season but beware, they only have a slim margin over the rest of the pack for fifth. LW: No. 11

12. Sioux City Musketeers (13-21-0): What’s the best way for your team, which has the second-worst defense in the league, to gain confidence? Face the hottest team in the USHL (Fargo) as a trial…twice…for book-end games. LW: No. 12

13. Tri-City Storm (12-23-0): OK. They’re in last place in the West but they made Waterloo work over the weekend. LW: No. 15

14. Sioux Falls Stampede (12-19-1): Had Fargo on the ropes but suffered some mental lapses en route to a 5-2 loss. A two-game weekend against Sioux City and Tri-City can either work wonders or make things more difficult. LW: No. 12

15. Muskegon Lumberjacks (10-17-2): They split against the U-17s and had the USHL Prospects Game so they have that going in their favor. LW: No. 14

16. Chicago Steel (10-23-1): They got a win over Youngstown and they’re at least keeping games closer these days. Problem is they’ve still lost 10 of the last 11 games. But they did get Luke Voltin (North Dakota) as a free agent pick-up yet something says we could hear the following in a few months: “With the first pick, the Chicago Steel select….”

Champion…

Now that previews are done, let’s get to some predictions for the week-old USHL season.

There were some surprises in that first weekend such as the U-17 NTDP team scoring nine goals in its opening game against Youngstown. And of course, there were plenty of games that went into overtime.

So here’s some predictions on a variety of categories ranging from who will win Forward of the Year to who will in the Clark Cup.

Teams most likely to make the playoffs: In the East, that’s going to be a dogfight with the kind of talent that exists. Expect it to be like the West last season where four teams were legit threats to represent the conference in the Clark Cup Finals. Expect to see Dubuque, Green Bay, Indiana, Cedar Rapids and Muskegon in there. As for what team wins the sixth and final playoff spot? Youngstown is a dark horse pick that got a lot shadier following its loss against the U-17s. But we’ll stick with the Phantoms to make the playoffs. Unless they go all Casper and then it has to be Team USA for the final spot.

With the west, it’s more or less Waterloo’s conference to lose with the talent and experience on that roster. From there, it gets kind of tricky because the remaining seven teams all have a real chance at making the playoffs. For the purposes of this preview, the remaining five teams that will qualify will be Omaha, Sioux City, Fargo, Lincoln and Sioux Falls. Yet don’t be too surprised if Tri-City finds a way in. Its a talented roster, they just have to stay healthy. If they do stay healthy, it could get interesting in March.

Best Forward: At this point, it’s a toss up between Dubuque’s Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) or Indiana’s Daniil Tarasov. Neither one is a bad choice and it call comes down to really who can be more dynamic and who can get most help. Girgensons is going to have guys like Max Gardiner, a former Golden Gopher, on the same line with him while having an offensive defenseman like Mike Matheson (Boston College) on the power play. Tarasov on the other hand, has Jacob Fallon, a former Wolverine, that could be playing on his line along with Robert Polesello or Robbie Baillargeon (both Boston University) who could help do some damage. It’s a tough one, but Girgensons is the Slightly Chilled pick for who will win Best Forward.

Best Defenseman: Yes. Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) is in our backyard and yes, he’s very good. So is Ducks draft pick and Gamblers defenseman Andy Welinski (Minnesota-Duluth). But the man to watch and potentially fear is Sioux City’s Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota), who last year looked like the best scoring defenseman in the league. He scored 44 points (13 goals, 31 assists) last season and had a stretch at the end where he had points in his last 10 games and 12 of his last 13 helping the Musketeers reach the playoffs. Perhaps Cooper or Welinski makes a serious run. Or maybe someone else does too. But for now, the pick is Schmaltz.

Goaltender of the Year: Lot of interesting choices here considering the returning goalies (Ryan McKay, Adam Wilcox, Jon Gillies, Zane Gothberg and Matt Morris to name a few) along with some new guys such as Alex Lyon (Yale), Charlie Lindgren, Charles Williams, Phoenix Copley and Mathias Dahlstrom. We’ll take McKay (Miami (Ohio)) as the pick considering last season he had a dental floss 2.00 GAA. It doesn’t matter that he splits time with Wilcox (Minnesota) because the guy is good and he’s proven it the last two seasons.

Coach of the Year: Call it crazy, but we’re going to go out on a limb and pick Brett Larson in Sioux City. He has a talented roster and it is always interesting to see how first-year coaches do. There are guys like Derek Lalonde (Green Bay) and John Marks (Fargo), who are coming in, but there’s something about Larson and his situation that’s gives off an interesting vibe as to how they will do.

Rookie of the Year: Quite a few choices to go with considering one can choose someone who’s coming from midget hockey, high school or the NAHL to win this award. Waterloo by itself has at least three players in Tony Cameranesi (Minnesota-Duluth/Toronto Maple Leafs), Eddie Wittchow (Florida Panthers) and Taylor Cammarata who are easy favorites. Then there’s Fargo’s Gabe Guertler (Minnesota), who has attracted some attention this summer with what he’s done. And as was mentioned, goaltenders like Lyon could get a few votes too. For now, we’ll take Cammarata.

Clark Cup Champs: From the East, let’s take Green Bay. Yeah, Dubuque is the defending champs but Green Bay has so much depth and talent on that squad that its hard to argue against them. Out the West, it is easy to say Waterloo. In fact, it is almost too easy to say Waterloo, but they look pretty good too. Green Bay’s been there before and they’re pretty good at winning titles in that town. Slightly Chilled takes the Gamblers as the 2011-12 champs.

 

So yeah, that’s pretty much it for the predictions. We’ll check back in from time to time and see how these picks are panning out. Some maybe right or they could all be wrong. Either way, it should be fun to see how it all pans out. In the mean time, leave some of your thoughts too on what player and/or what team could breakout this season.