SPECIAL REPORT: Former Moorhead, UND star Lee signs a two-year contract with Tampa Bay

Former Moorhead and University of North Dakota star defenseman Brian Lee has signed a two-year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Lee, according to the Lightning’s Twitter account, was a restricted free agent. The former Mr. Hockey winner and first-round pick was sent to Tampa Bay during the NHL’s Trade Deadline in February by the Ottawa Senators, the team which drafted him back in 2005 with the ninth overall pick.

After the trade, Lee played in 20 games with the Lightning scoring eight points. In all, he played in 55 games between his time with Ottawa and Tampa Bay – two more than his previous career high of games in a season. His 16 points were also the most in his career.

Lee will return to a Tampa Bay franchise looking to rebound from a rocky season finishing 38-36-8 where it missed out on the playoffs, a year after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals and losing to eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Boston Bruins.

Prior to his NHL career, Lee was a star at Moorhead scoring 48 points as a junior and 38 as a senior en route to winning Mr. Hockey. He had a 12-game stint with the Lincoln Stars before playing two years at the University of North Dakota where he scored 53 points in 82 games before leaving school to pursue his pro career.

 

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.”

Vitamins…

Today is the first day college coaches are able to call players born in 1996 and to no surprise, Mason Morelli has received quite a bit of interest.

Fargo Force assistant and director of player personnel Jesse Davis said this afternoon numerous college coaches asked for Morelli’s phone number so they could gauge his interest.

“It’s all across the board,” Davis said about the geographic range of schools interested in Morelli. “We had a lot of schools at our camp and from all different areas and we also had close to 50 college coaches at our tryouts. There have been WCHA schools, guys from out East and everyone else trying to get a hand in there to see where he is leaning. Is he Ivy League? Will he come out east? Will he play in the Big Ten? That’s why today is big for the college level and now they’ve seen his talent level and they want to see if they can get him in school.”

Davis declined to name specific schools when he was asked if the University of North Dakota did enquirer about Morelli. He said “it wasn’t a hidden secret” there is interest in Morelli.

Morelli will feature in the team’s plans next year having made what was certainly one of the biggest jumps of any player prior to the USHL Futures Draft a few months ago.

The Minot, N.D. native was on the Force’s radar and the team appeared to be set to take him without what could have been much opposition. It is until Morelli messed up those plans by scoring a hat trick in the opening game at the futures combine.

It resulted in his stock increasing and on draft day, the Force traded up to No. 3 to get him.

At 16 years old, he played both high school and junior hockey last season further showing he could be able to handle the demands that come with junior hockey.

Morelli has previously said he would like to play at UND given his grandfather, Reg, scored the game-winning goal in the team’s 1959 title season over Michigan State in the national championship game. His father also played at UND.

Davis said Morelli is one of the many 1996-born Force players colleges have called about today.

One thing Davis has reminded his players is that for now, it is interest and there should be no rush to make a decision.

“We tell them it is not a sprint right now,” he said. “That it is more of a marathon and you have to finish high school and take your time with it.”

Davis cited current forward Dave Gust (Ohio State) as an example.

Gust exploded onto the scene last season following a mid-year call up and his 30-point season resulted in the Force having a No. 1 line which helped them reach the second round of the playoffs.

Gust was a commodity throughout the season but took his time and committed to Ohio State just a few weeks ago.

“We’ve told our kids to do their homework,” he said. “And if they could get some visits in, that’s even better. It is their choice, not anyone else’s.”

Nothin’ On You…

Turns out the chat between Miami (Ohio) and Taylor Richart turned out to be a good one after all.

Richart committed to Miami on Friday and will be at the school for the fall bringing his tenure with the Force to an end after one season, which was certainly successful.

He was only one of two players to play all of the team’s 60 games last season and put up an offensive punch every now and again by scoring 16 points. Richart burst onto the scene picking up the league’s defenseman of the week award to open the season.

Richart might not have put up the numbers as he did finish outside the Top 25 among defensemen in points. Yet what he did do was give the Force a defenseman comfortable enough to play in every scenario.

The 5-9, 160 pound Richart was part of a power play and a penalty kill which finished in the Top 5 last season helping the Force overcome a torrid start to end the season in fourth heading into the playoffs.

Richart to Miami started to really generate momentum after the Force’s tryout camp, which was held last week here in the Minneapolis area. Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis addressed the rumors Richart committed right after camp stating both Richart and Miami were seen talking to each other in the lobby of the rink where the camp was held.

His departure now means the Force have lost two players for next season who could have come back. Forward Jonny Brodzinski, who played at Blaine (MN-HS) with Richart, said weeks ago he will play next season at St. Cloud State.

Richart’s departure also means the Force’s defense will have a bit of a different look. He becomes the third defenseman to leave the team meaning Justin Wade (Notre Dame), will be the team’s only Top 4 returning defenseman.

It appears, at least for now, Wade will be joined by fellow returners Neal Goff, Taylor Fleming and Dominic Racobaldo. Defenseman David Mead’s future with the team is in flux after he was one of four Force players selected in the NAHL Draft.

Assuming the Force only return four defensemen, the team does have its options. Tender signee Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) will be on the roster next year as league rules require the Force to dress him in a specific amount of games.

Though the Force do have plenty of options. Entry draft pick Charles Hemstrom appears to be one of the players the Force will rely upon to fill that void. Hemstrom spent last season in the NAHL and was a plus-19 in 38 games last season. Davis hinted weeks ago Hemstrom will make the team  when he said Hemstrom fit the one of the needs the Force would have for the 2012-13 season.

Another option could be another entry draft pick Victor Bjorkung (Maine), who is also weighing offers to turn professional in his native Sweden.

This also means there’s a stronger chance both Charlie Pelnik (North Dakota) and Dante Suffredini among others could be included in the team’s plans for next season.

Pelnik, who at 6-4 and 185 pounds, might have been the team’s most vaunted prospect for the entire year. He committed to North Dakota at 15 becoming the first person from North Carolina to do so.

It was expected for Pelnik to play for the Force last season but he spent the season at Shattuck-St. Mary’s (MN-HS) to further his development.

Suffredini, however, spent last season at Detroit Honeybaked playing midgets.

Brain…

So far the latest not-so-shocking news with the Force is captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) was named the USHL’s Scholar Athlete of the Year.

Cooper, 18, practically held a 4.0 grade point average while he was here in Fargo and finished with a 3.9 GPA. He graduated from Fargo South last weekend as a member of the school’s National Honor Society.

Per a release from the USHL, Cooper won the award based on his grade point average, coursework and overall school participation.

Cooper, the release said, took classes in pre-calculus, psychology, advanced math, physics, English, government and forensics. He was also named of one of South’s “students of the month.”

He pulled this off in one of what was easily one of the more demanding years an individual Force player could have had.

Cooper, who is eligible for the NHL Draft, was heading into his third year with the Force. He was named captain and led a group which featured 13 first-year players and guided them to a fourth-place finish after losing 13 of their first 15 to start the season.

Though he didn’t have the offensive outburst many expected, he scored 24 points (6 goals, 18 assists) in 55 games, tying a career-high in games he’s had with the Force. In the playoffs, he had three points in six games. He also marshaled a defense which ranked third on the penalty kill, a year after it was ranked eighth.

In addition to all that, he represented and captained Team USA at the World Junior “A” Challenge in British Columbia leading the team to a bronze medal.

He recently completed the NHL Combine in Toronto further cementing the chances he will be taken this summer.

Cooper has said in previous interviews his goal, should hockey not work out, is to attend Creighton University and become a doctor.

Winning the award wraps up what has been a trophy-case heavy season for the Force. Cooper and goaltender Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) were named to the all-USHL team last week. Gothberg was a first-team selection while Cooper was a second-team choice.

Gothberg was also named the league’s co-Goaltender of the Year with Green Bay’s Ryan McKay (Miami (Ohio).

Game of Thrones…

In case you haven’t heard, former Force coach Steve Johnson has left St. Cloud State to become an assistant at Nebraska-Omaha.

Johnson’s departure was not a shocker given his ties to UNO coach Dean Blais, who coached Johnson at North Dakota back in the 1980s.

Of course this is just the latest notch in what has become an extremely formidable pipeline involving the Force and Nebraska-Omaha. Think we’re kidding? Just take a look at the following parties.

Dean Blais: He’s the head honcho at UNO and former Force coach. When Blais was the coach here, Johnson was one of his assistants. Once he left the Force, Johnson replaced him here in town. Then of course, as an assistant position opens up at UNO, surprise, surprise, in comes Johnson. That and Blais is still a part-owner of the Force.

Steve Johnson: As mentioned earlier, he was a Force assistant, then Force head coach and now he’s going to work for Blais again. Not only does Johnson have ties to Blais but his family has ties to Nebraska. He was the longtime coach of the Lincoln Stars before coming to the Force. His brother, Chad, is the team’s current head coach and Johnson’s son, Luke (North Dakota), is one of the team’s star forwards.

Johnnie Searfoss: He, to our knowledge, was the first Force player or player with Force ties to play for Blais at Nebraska-Omaha. Searfoss spent two years in Fargo and just completed his sophomore season under Blais.

Ryan Massa: Before Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) turned into a one-man wrecking crew, there was Massa. He was the answer to the post-Mike Lee crisis for the Force in net. He led the Force to a Clark Cup Finals in his first season and in his second season, guided the team to a second-round playoff appearance. Massa just finished his first year at UNO.

Tanner Lane: A former Minnesota high school scoring champ, he was much vaunted upon his Force arrival. Lane never lived up to expectations in Fargo and was traded to Omaha where he flourished. He had more points (32) in his 48 games with Omaha than he did in his 69 games with the Force (22). Lane, a Winnipeg Jets prospect, will be at Nebraska-Omaha next season.

Brian Cooper: Cooper has said on previous occasions how much he respected Johnson and Blais for bringing him into the fold in Fargo. It appears those three will get more time together. Cooper just recently finished his time at the NHL Combine. He’ll more than likely be taken in this year’s NHL Draft before heading off to college.

 

Work Hard Play Hard…

It’s becoming clear the Force’s roster plans are getting murky.

The last week has seen the Force’s roster, which was set to return up to 16 players, undergo potential changes which could give the team a bit of a different and younger look for next season.

It appears the Force could lose up to five players from the 2011-12 team heading into next year.

Forward Pavel Zykov was drafted in the second round of the KHL Amateur Draft less than a week ago by Metallurg, the program which produced Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin. Zykov was also one of four Force players drafted in last week’s NAHL Draft.

Defenseman David Mead along with forwards Nick Stoskopf and Stanislav Dzakhov were also taken in the NAHL Draft.

The Force already lost forward Jonny Brodzinski (St. Cloud State) to college after he’d been teetering back and forth between school and staying another year with the team.

“We’re in a situation where we can only have four (1992-born) players on our roster for next season,” said Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis. “We have some guys who are on the fence for next year.”

Davis said its a situation which is up in the air right now and final plans will not be determined until later.

Whether or not those players will return becomes even more of a question considering none of them were at the Force’s tryout camp, which was held in the Minneapolis area over the weekend.

Davis said last week in a text message Zykov was back in Russia making it unlikely he would fly back for the team’s camp regardless.

As for Dzakhov, Mead and Stoskopf, not being at camp isn’t exactly damning. Last season, defenseman Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha), was not at the team’s camp as he was back home in Alaska.

Twelve players expected to return for next season’s team were present at the camp.

The only notable absentee from Sunday’s all-star game was forward Nate Arentz, who was a senior this year at Fargo South which held its graduation ceremonies on Sunday.

If the departures were to occur, it means there are five potential openings the Force have and plenty of options to choose from.

Affiliates list forwards Brendan Harms (Bemidji State), Zach Doerring and Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth) are just a few of the forwards the team could rely upon to fill the gap next year. Davis also said following the USHL Draft, incoming forwards Matt Pohlkamp (Bowling Green) and Futures picks Mason Morelli and Michael Booth are expected to make the team next season.

That’s not including if the Force find favor in a forward who they didn’t draft similar to the way they did with Bryn Chyzyk (North Dakota), who came out of nowhere to become one of the team’s best players.

Defensively, the Force would return five defensemen and will already have Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) coming into the fold. Similar to their forwards, the Force have a number of options off the affiliates list such as Charlie Pelnik (North Dakota), Dante Suffredini or any one of the players they took in the Entry Draft.

Davis said he was pleased with how the camp went as they saw some promising performances from their Futures Draft players.

It also appeared to be a good camp for defenseman Taylor Richart, who spoke with Miami (Ohio), Davis said. Davis acknowledged the rumors of Richart accepting a scholarship with the school, but said that isn’t true.

Richart, who played at Blaine (MN-HS) with Brodzinski, only played one season with the Force after coming over from Aberdeen (NAHL). He put up 16 points for the Force and was one of two players to play in all 60 games during the regular season.

Miami recently lost NTDP defenseman Patrick Sieloff, who opted to play next season with the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League.

“He hasn’t accepted anything from them,” Davis said. “I think what it was, was people saw him talking with Miami in the lobby.”

That Heat…

Just a few minutes ago, I was going through some old notes when I noticed something which happened a year ago today.

What happened was Jason Herter leaving the Fargo Force for Minnesota-Duluth to become an assistant. Herter’s departure opened the door for John Marks, who led the Force to a second-round playoff appearance.

And of course a year to the day, the Indiana Ice hire a new head coach, Ron Gay.

Pretty interesting given what’s gone on in the last year with USHL coaches. Let’s use May 22, 2011 as a starting date. Since then, 12 of the league’s franchises have replaced their head coaches.

No joke. Here’s the proof of what every team has done with its coaching situation.

In the Eastern Conference:

-Green Bay Gamblers: The Gamblers replaced Eric Rud, who left for his alma mater, Colorado College with Denver assistant Derek Lalonde. Lalonde, in his debut season, leads the team to one of the USHL’s greatest ever seasons and a Clark Cup title.

-Indiana Ice: Technically, they’ve gone through three coaches and four coaching changes in the last year. Charlie Skjodt was the team’s head coach when the season ended before he returned to the front office. The Ice hired Yale assistant Kyle Wallack, who was fired shortly before the playoffs. Skjodt returned to the bench and then the team hired Gay.

-Dubuque Fighting Saints: Former Maine great Jim Montgomery remains the team’s head coach. But here’s where it’s really interesting. He just finished his second season and he’s already the third most-tenured coach in the league. Interpret that one however you want.

-Youngstown Phantoms: Curtis Carr left the team late in the summer to become an assistant at Merrimack. Days later the team promoted assistant Anthony Noreen, who led the Phantoms to fourth in Eastern Conference.

-Cedar Rapids RoughRiders: Here’s the second team which hasn’t made a coaching change. It may never look that way either as Carlson has been there for 12 seasons and has a partial stake in the team’s ownership. Carlson, a former Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, has won everything imaginable from the Clark Cup to the Anderson Cup to the USHL’s Coach of the Year during his time in Cedar Rapids. He also led this year’s team to the playoffs, something he’s done every year he has been in the league.

-NTDP: USA Hockey lost Ron Rolston last season to the Rochester Americans (AHL), which is an affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. It resulted in the team hiring Don Granato. The NTDP also lost Kurt Kleinendorst and replaced him with Danton Cole. The program made the USHL Playoffs for a second straight season.

-Chicago Steel: The 2010-11 season wasn’t kind to the Steel, as the franchise suffered through a 9-43-8 season, easily one the worst in any realm of junior hockey in the last few years. It’s what led to the dismissal of Jon Waibel and the promotion of Scott McConnell. McConnell was made the team’s full-time head coach last summer. In his first full season, he led the Steel to a 25-31-4 mark and were just three points out of the playoffs.

-Muskegon Lumberjacks: Former Wisconsin assistant Kevin Patrick was among the 2011-12 season’s first coaching casualties. The team hired former NHL toughman Jim McKenzie, who had no previous junior experience. McKenzie and the Lumberjacks, despite improvement, still finished last in the Eastern Conference.

 

In the Western Conference:

-Lincoln Stars: Another weird case of the fluidity of this league. Stars coach Chad Johnson just finished his second year and he’s No. 4 in the league among tenured coaches.

-Omaha Lancers: Omaha got the trend going early in the 2011-12 season when it fired longtime USHL coach Bliss Littler. He was replaced by Mike Aikens, who led the team to a second-place finish during the regular season. Aikens signed an extension during the season.

-Waterloo Black Hawks: Behind Carlson, P.K. O’Handley is No. 2 when it comes to tenured coaches. He just finished this 10th season with the Black Hawks leading them to a Clark Cup Finals appearance. Like Carlson, O’Handley has won virtually every trophy a coach could win and when it comes to wins, ranks in the Top 10 all time.

-Fargo Force: Hiring Marks gave the Force their fourth coach in as many seasons. Marks, who is the sixth-most tenured coach in the league, already said he will stay this season and looks forward to a second year in Fargo.

-Sioux City Musketeers: Larson is technically the man who started the trend. He was hired May 22 by the Musketeers. He was at Minnesota-Duluth as an assistant. His departure resulted in the Bulldogs hiring Herter and the Force hiring Marks.

-Tri-City Storm: The team replaced Drew Schoneck with Josh Hauge during the middle of the year. Hauge led the Storm to a first-round appearance where they lost to eventual Western Conference champs, Waterloo. Even with an early exit, Tri-City returns all but six players and has what could be considered the strongest affiliates list in the USHL.

-Des Moines Buccaneers: Turmoil more or less blanketed the Bucs this season. Off-ice issues coupled with losing is what led to Regg Simon being fired. He was replaced in the off-season by Gamblers assistant Jon Rogger.

-Sioux Falls Stampede: Maybe no team has undergone more changes in the off-season than the Stampede. They fired longtime head coach Kevin Hartzell and in the span of a week, hired former North Dakota assistant Cary Eades. Eades oversaw the team’s Entry Draft and heads into next season with at least 15 returning players from the 2011-12 team.

Where I’m Going…

Last night’s USHL Entry Draft and tonight’s Clark Cup Finals are the only items left before this season comes to an end.

It’s been a season which has seen quite a bit. Some good. Some bad.

Yet what you can’t help but look at is next season. Let’s rephrase that. You can’t help but look at what Sioux Falls will be next season.

Here’s a team which a month ago was finishing one of the worst seasons in franchise history finishing a dismal last in both the USHL and the Western Conference. It led to a myriad of changes including dismissing longtime head coach Kevin Hartzell.

But when you look at what’s happened since the firing, this already looks like a different team.

Sioux Falls went out and hired former North Dakota associate coach Cary Eades to become the team’s general manager and head coach. Getting Eades already put the Stampede in a position to make the playoffs in some minds.

And then throw in what happened yesterday during the Entry Draft.

Sioux Falls used the first pick to select Victory Honda forward Tony Calderone (Princeton), who dropped 65 points (38 goals, 27 assists) in 40 games. He was part of a blueprint which involved the team investing heavily at forward but getting strong pieces everywhere else like taking NTDP defenseman Gage Ausmus (Denver), who will join the team when he ages out of Ann Arbor.

Yet the biggest moves Eades made might have come before the draft. He traded for Cedar Rapids duo Dennis Kravchenko and Tom Forgione (both Vermont) giving him two players who certainly had their dominant moments last year.

Kravchenko, despite playing in 34 games, put up 21 points providing a much-needed shot in the arm for a RoughRiders team which nearly played themselves out of the playoffs. Forgione had 16 points in 40 games last season. And as we’ve seen, this is a league where second-year players make a significant adjustment.

It adds to what could be a promising situation with the Stampede returning up to 16 players with the biggest one being goaltender Charlie Lindgren. Lindgren, a former prep star in Minnesota, showed flashes of what made him so coveted at draft time a year ago.

Not many teams can boast having double-digit returners and the ones that do, usually make strides. Youngstown, which had 14 returning players to start this season, showed it can be done as it reached the second round of the playoffs.

When you think about it all, it’s almost the perfect storm for a team which was indeed shipwrecked not too long ago.

A new head coach with a track record of recruiting, drafting what might be one of the nation’s top midget players, trading for two experienced forwards, a roster full of returning pieces along with a Futures Draft which saw Sioux Falls take Cody Milan with its first pick makes for a pretty good mix.

It also is going make next season worth watching.

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star…

Looks like area hockey fans could see Moorhead goaltender Michael Bitzer wearing black and blue after all.

It’ll just be the black and blue of the Lincoln Stars. Bitzer was taken by the Stars in the second round of the USHL Entry Draft this afternoon.

The Stars’ drafting Bitzer means the Moorhead star said he will spend next season with the Stars. Bitzer signed a tender with the now-Brookings, S.D. team in the NAHL and played part of the season with the team.

But by getting drafted by Lincoln, it very well means Bitzer could come in and start in the USHL, something not often guaranteed for first-year goaltenders.

Lincoln has been one of the USHL’s perennial powers and finished first in the Western Conference during the regular season. The Stars beat the Force in a best-of-five series en route to making the conference finals, where they lost to Waterloo.

Bitzer’s future has received quite a bit of interest after he had one of the more stellar seasons of any high school player in the United States.

The 5-10 Bitzer went 22-8 with a 1.80 goals against average, a .933 save percentage, seven shutouts and 750 saves.

He was practically flawless in Moorhead’s state tournament run, leading the team to an upset over title-favorite Eagan in a 4-0 win where he stopped more than 30 shots.

Bitzer allowed Moorhead to nearly hang on in the next round before losing to Hill-Murray in overtime, en route to finishing fourth the following day.

The tournament was a coming-out party for Bitzer who in 24 hours won a first-team all tournament selection nod, the Class 2A Herb Brooks Award, the Frank Brimsek Award for Minnesota’s best senior goaltender and was named an Associated Press first-team selection.

Should he go the USHL route, he has a chance to emulate what has been some pretty lofty and successful company.

The Force drafted the 2010 Brimsek Award winner in Zane Gothberg (North Dakota), who this season set several franchise records and was named the USHL’s Co-Goaltender of the Year on Tuesday.

Omaha traded for the 2011 winner in Alex Lyon (Yale), who helped the Lancers finish second in the West during the regular season.