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.”

Keep You With Me…

Whether its the casual fan, the die-hard or someone in between, there’s a fair number of people peering through NHL Draft guides hoping their favorite team can get the next big thing or big find.

Of course you’ll see players from the three Major Junior leagues. You’ll see college players along with players from the USHL. Yet what you cannot help but notice (if you are a USHL fan) is how three former USHL players left the league and are now set to be taken in the Top 60 picks.

We jokingly call it, “The All our-lives-got-better-once-we-left-the-USHL Team”

TSN’s hockey chief Bob McKenzie released his Top 60 rankings and on it were former USHLers Henrik Samuelsson, Daniil Zharkov and Brady Vail. Despite not making the list former USHLer Logan Nelson has also come on as of late to be what might be a third-round pick, a significant jump for someone who was undrafted last year.

Here’s a look at all four players and the circumstances that led them to where they are at:

Henrik Samuelsson, forward (ranked 36th by McKenzie): He spent last season in the NTDP’s program and if he would have stayed, probably would have added to what was a talented U-18 this season. Instead, he returned to his father’s (former Penguins star, Ulf) native Sweden where he played pro hockey. He did fine in the Modo system’s U-16 and U-18 teams before having limited success (two points in 15 games) playing against grown men. He went to the Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL) where he re-discovered his touch scoring 23 points in 28 games along with having a torrid playoff stretch where he had 14 points in 17 games.

Daniil Zharkov, forward (ranked 47th by McKenzie): Zharkov’s tale is appearing to be a recurring theme with players of his ilk. The theme being: How did a guy like this struggle in the USHL going into somewhat obscurity only to shine in a league like the OHL, which might be the best proving ground for any NHL prospect? He played 36 games in 2010-11 with the Tri-City Storm and did have 11 points to his credit. But he then leaves and goes to the Belleville Bulls putting up 36 points in 50 games. Maybe if he had stayed, perhaps he’d still be a potential second-round pick. We’ll never know.

Brady Vail, forward (ranked 60th by McKenzie): With this one, we are going to give some serious credit to Chris Peters at the United States of Hockey. Peters (as he often does in our phone conversations) pointed out how one of the things hurting the USHL is allowing 15-year-olds to come into the league only to leave and develop somewhere else. Ergo Brady Vail. Vail played 48 games scoring eight points in his lone season in Waterloo. His first season in Windsor wasn’t so hot either playing 61 games and scoring 10 points. This most recent season is where Vail really started to show promise. He put up 52 points in 68 games and in the process did something which Peters said made his value go up. He pointed out how Vail played against the top lines in the league meaning he had to go up against some of the top players in the OHL. Oh and by the way, the OHL is set to have three players (two forward and one defenseman) go in the Top 10 this year.

Logan Nelson, forward: Let’s go ahead and ask the most obvious question when it comes to Nelson. How in the hell does he score 62 points in the WHL a league which has four defensemen set to go in the Top 10 yet he only scores nine points in the USHL? Nelson’s transformation could be chalked up to just a player simply developing over a year. But it is still remarkable how he was able to make the jump from the USHL to the WHL and have success. At the time, Nelson’s decision to play for the Victoria Royals was a bit of a weird one given how there were times he did look invisible. Looking back, however, it appears it could have been the best decision he ever made. It appears he could go in the third or fourth round and that’s a serious jump up from last year when every team passed on him in the draft. Des Moines fans probably don’t want to read the following so the best suggestion is to look away. But imagine if this guy stays. Imagine if he could translate his WHL success onto a USHL platform? That probably would have been the difference between making the playoffs and missing out for a fifth-straight season and having what might have been one of the most embarrassing seasons in team history.

Down By The Ohio…

Fargo Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis said today forward Dave Gust has committed to Ohio State.

Gust, 18, was a mid-season call up for the Force and turned out to be one of the reasons why they finished fourth in the Western Conference. Gust in 43 games, scored 30 points ranking fifth on the team in scoring.

He combined with forwards Gabe Guertler (Minnesota) and Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth) to become a potent line for the Force during the regular season combining for 20 percent or 90 of the team’s 455 points.

But it was in the playoffs where the group really made its mark accounting for 40 percent of the Force’s points.

The line, known as “The High School Musical”, led the Force in points during the entire postseason. They combined for 12 points with Gust getting three of them off two goals and an assist.

Gust had said during the team’s first-round playoff series he’d be committing to a school before the end of the summer. He apparently didn’t waste any time by choosing Ohio State.

Committing to Ohio State gives the school a class that has depth but has also enjoyed success in midget, prep and junior hockey. Ohio State now has 13 commits and seven, including Gust, are forwards, according to Chris Heisenberg.

Those forwards include Zach Stepan, who scored scored 65 points playing at Shattuck-St. Mary’s (MN-HS) among others. Stepan told NHL.com’s Mike Morreale on Wednesday he would play next season with the Waterloo Black Hawks. Stepan is the cousin of New York Rangers forward Derek Stepan.

Ohio State’s recruiting class also consists of Green Bay forwards Matthew Weis and Nick Schilkey plus NTDP goaltender Collin Olson. The Force said in a release, Gust would go to Ohio State in 2014.

What Ohio State will be getting in Gust is a 5-9, 170-pound forward who used a combination of speed, scoring and playmaking prowess to establish himself during a game.

It was those qualities which prompted the Force’s coaching staff to call up Gust on a permanent basis. Gust, who started the season on the team’s affiliates list, had been playing midget hockey back in his native Chicago.

Teaming up with Guertler and Iafallo gave the line more speed and three players who were able to work well with each other, on or away from the puck. Some of Gust’s performances drew comparison to Force forward Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth), who before a foot injury was on pace to shatter several franchise scoring records.

Having all three return for next season gives the Force, what will likely be the team’s No. 1 line. With all three having college commitments and a year of experience, there’s a strong possibility the line could buoy the Force which have up to 16 players returning for next season.

Of the 16 players returning, Gust becomes the fourth with a college commitment joining his linemates and defenseman Justin Wade (Notre Dame).

Hell Of A Life…

Regardless of what league it is, you never really get ample opportunities to speak with a commissioner.

Fortunately, I caught USHL commissioner Skip Prince at the right time. He was driving back from Dallas where he was speaking to area youth about the option which exists in the USHL/college model.

We talked about Texas, a place dear to both of us because each of us lived there. We spoke on a subject for a story that’s coming out a little bit later. We then talked about Seth Jones.

If you’ve read or not read this blog or any hockey blog as of late, Seth Jones is a 6-3, 205-pound defenseman who could screw around and be the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

Or as Prince put it, “I’ve had people involved in hockey tell me he could be one of the 25 greatest players over the last 50 years by the time he’s done.”

The conversation continued about Jones and Prince brought up how he hopes it all doesn’t become too much for Jones. By too much, he means the media exposure, the talk about being No. 1 overall and being the face of a movement.

Movement, in this case, being the black face of a sport which has been predominantly white.

Or as I put it to Prince, “You mean trying to be the Tiger Woods of hockey?”

Seth Jones hasn’t been drafted. He hasn’t played in the NHL. He hasn’t even played in the WHL yet these are the questions so many have slightly discussed but it seems like no one ever outright wants to say it.

Can Seth Jones bring about an entire change? Can this kid be the one who goes from being a “black” hockey player to just a hockey player?

Even while writing this, I realize it is a hell of a thing to ask of anyone let alone someone who is still a teenager. But let’s face it. That’s the situation he and the rest of us are all looking at.

Let’s assume, even for a minute, Seth Jones is everything we all think he is going to be and more.

He’s going to be that player fans – regardless of race -are going to want to see. He’s going to be the player kids are going to annoy their parents about and eventually bug them into submission into playing hockey.

Call me or this column far-fetched, but that’s the exact impact Woods had on golf when he broke into the PGA what’s been 16 years ago. Golf, for anyone who played it before Woods, was seen as a game for the rich, the stuffy, the privileged and rarely did you see anyone outside the country club crowd playing the game.

Films such as “Caddyshack” and “Happy Gilmore” are proof of how restricted the sport was with its fan base.

Yet when Woods broke in, he attracted everyone to the point where anyone who wanted to play golf could play golf and when it came to youth, his First Tee program gave them options.

To even suggest Jones could have that impact is taking a big gamble, but what if we’re right?

Say what you want but, for now, it appears Seth Jones has all the tools needed to pull this off and bridge the gap. When he was deciding between the WHL and the NCAA, he made it clear to both sides what his intentions were. That alone made many people achieve a respect for him because he was honest with what he was doing and didn’t commit only to decommit, leaving a school in peril.

Covering this league, you hear things about players and no one has ever said a negative thing about him. The only negative I’ve heard even remotely close is, “You wish there were more like him.”

Maybe if there were more like him we’d already be at a point where this discussion wouldn’t need to happen. Where we wouldn’t see hockey try to prove time in and time out it has evolved with diversity only to have incidents such as the one with Joel Ward happen.

But because there is one Seth Jones, it could make what we see even that more impressive.

 

So Appalled…

We’re six days away from the USHL Entry Draft and we decided to take a look back at what happened with the Force last year.

The Entry Draft is a funny thing and the Force are proof. Some teams like Omaha used the Entry Draft to practically build this year’s team which finished second in the Western Conference during the regular season.

As for the Force, of the 15 players they drafted last year eight – or more than half – are no longer affiliated with the team. That means either their rights were traded or released by the Force.

Here’s a look at the familiar, not-so-familiar and now infamous names the Force selected last year.

-At No. 9 the Force take Jordan Nelson: Nelson came in with some hype given he was North Dakota’s Mr. Hockey as a senior while playing at Williston. He came to the Force from Alexandria (NAHL) this season and finished with 18 points in 53 games. Nelson really came into his own around the midway point of the season performing solidly in a third-and at times, fourth-line role. An injury about two-thirds into the season, hindered him for the rest of the campaign. It was a setback for Nelson, who will return to the team next season where he could be one of the team’s most relied upon players.

-At No. 24 the Force take Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth): It can be debated Iafallo might have been the best selection the Force made. Iafallo was a highly-coveted player the Force snapped up early in the second round. It turned out to be a move which paid off as he teamed up with Gabe Guertler (Minnesota) and Dave Gust, another Entry Draft pick, to become what was this team’s best line during the postseason. Iafallo had 32 points making him the Force’s fourth-leading scorer in the regular season. The trio – known as The High School Musical – will all return next season as it looks to be not only the Force’s primary line but possibly, one of the most formidable in the entire USHL.

-At No. 35 the Force take Zach Urban: Urban was a defenseman former Force coach Jason Herter was really high on. So was Penticton (BCHL) and that’s where Urban ended up. He was part of the Penticton team which has destroyed virtually every Canadian Tier I record and his rights are no longer owned by the Force.

-At No. 53 the Force take Max McHugh: He was with the Force for about five minutes during camp and it didn’t pan out for either side.

-At No. 65 the Force take Brady Riesgraf (Bemidji State): Another defenseman with a lot of promise given his highlight reel moves from his time at Holy Family. He played three games with the Force and became the odd man out on the defense. Riesgraf was traded to the NAHL and his rights are no longer owned by the Force.

-At No. 80 the Force take Brendan Harms (Bemidji State): Harms came to prominence in the MJHL and continued to do so this year with the Portage Terriers. He overcame a shoulder injury to score 57 points in 42 games and then lit up opponents in the playoffs by scoring 20 points in 15 games. Harms will play in Fargo next season before going to college.

-At No. 84 the Force take Zach Pochiro: Pochiro was at camp but his time with the Force didn’t last long. In fact, his most notable contribution to the team came when he was a punching bag for Brian Cooper during pre-season camp. He, like quite a few others on this post, are no longer on affiliated with the Force.

-At No. 99 the Force take Dave Gust: Gust was the mid-season call up who really changed things for the Force. He was paired up with Iafallo and Guertler to become a line which gave glimpses of what next season could bring for the Force. Gust, who played in just 43 games, scored 30 points making him the team’s fifth-leading scorer. His play has resulted in him being on the radar of a few colleges. Gust said during the playoffs he hopes to have a college chosen by the end of the summer.

-At No. 189 the Force take Blake Clarke: Clarke was 15 at the time and choosing him raised a lot of eyebrows given THIS year’s Futures Draft would have been the time to take him. Clarke made the team out of camp playing in 13 games only scoring one goal and later went back to his native St. Louis. He was later given his release by the Force. Clarke said he learned a lot during his time in Fargo and it showed as he represented Team USA at the World Youth Olympic Games and a few weeks ago was a first-round selection in the OHL Priority Draft by the Brampton Battalion at 15th overall. He was the highest chosen American in the draft and by all accounts, could very well be a first-or-second round pick in his draft eligible year.

-At No. 204 the Force take Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth): Toninato played this season at Duluth East where he helped them become Minnesota high school hockey’s dominant power in the regular season. Toninato and Duluth East had their title dreams dashed with a first-round loss. He later came to the Force playing in four games and in the process, impressing Force coach John Marks. Toninato will be with the team next season.

-At No. 211 the Force take Anders Franke: Franke came into last off-season as one of the possibilities to back up Zane Gothberg (North Dakota/Boston). Gothberg’s back up was ultimately Reed Peters. Franke played this high school season at Elk River (MN-HS) and his rights are no longer owned by the Force.

-At No. 234 the Force take Trevor Hamilton (Miami (Ohio)): Hamilton was drafted as one of the players who is in the NTDP but because of where he is in school, will have one more year before going off to college. The Force took him and are now a season away from having him on the roster.

-At No. 264 the Force take James McNulty (Army): He was with the Force in camp, long enough to commit to Army but later went back to the SJHL where he played the season before. The last we heard, he and Major Rawls were still going back and forth about him being on the boat in Season 2.

-At No. 279 the Force take Zach Doerring: Doerring spent this season at Blake (MN-HS) where he ranked as one of the state’s best passers finishing in the Top 10 in assists among both classes. At 6-3, 195 pounds, his size also has made him an intriguing prospect as he’s received offers from a few schools in Hockey East where his brother, Blake, plays for Vermont. He will be with the Force next season.

TRADES:

-Don’t forget the trades that happened either and some of them had a big impact on the Force. The Force traded defenseman Brandon Carlson to Lincoln. Carlson helped the Stars reach the playoffs where they advanced to the Western Conference finals. They beat the Force en route to meeting Waterloo.

-The Force also traded forward Joe Rehkamp, who went from being at Waterloo to being at St. Cloud State in one season. Force assistant Byron Pool said earlier in the season, Rehkamp wanted top-line minutes and there was no guarantee he’d get it thus the trade.

-Finally, there’s the much-discussed trade where the Force received the rights of A.J. Reid (Army) from Omaha in a trade for Jimmy Murray (St. Cloud State). Reid, though a popular player with coaches and teammates, never panned out for the Force and went to the NAHL. As for Murray, every time played the Force, he put on a show single-handedly winning two games by himself. He also finished in the Top 3 in assists throughout the entire USHL.

 

The Merchant of Portland…

The father of National Team Development Program defenseman Seth Jones said Wednesday it was a “no-brainer” for his son to go to the WHL.

Former NBA forward Popeye Jones said there were a lot of items which helped his son decide if he wanted to spend next season with the Portland Winterhawks. Jones, 17, chose to play for the Winterhawks on Monday ending a tug-of-war for his services between the WHL’s premier franchise and the University of North Dakota.

“He put a lot of thought into it,” Popeye Jones said. “He did not want to choose a college early like a lot of kids do. We told him if you are not sure, to keep your options open. If a college is planning on you coming there, back it up. As parents, we felt it wouldn’t be a good thing to do and he didn’t think so either.”

Jones choosing Portland over North Dakota brought an end to one of the more publicized recruiting battles in recent hockey history. The 6-3, 205-pounder is projected to be the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick in next season’s NHL Draft.

Popeye Jones said what made Portland stand out was the reputation of coach Mike Johnston, who has turned the team into one of Major Junior’s elite over the last few seasons.

Another thing, Popeye Jones said, that helped was the fact his son could continue his education while playing in the WHL.

“There is a great academic program there,” he said. “It was really important to us becuase he’s not playing in college. We want him to get a degree and get into a strong academic program. He’s a smart kid and skipped a year of high school and that in itself lets everyone know that as a family, we put education ahead of sports.”

Popeye Jones added his son wanted to stay in the United States and it is another reason why Portland made sense.

Jones’ rights were owned by the Everett Silvertips (Wash.) and were later traded to Portland further solidifying the chances he’d be staying in America.

Staying in the United States, playing for one of Major Junior’s elite franchises, having a 72-game regular season schedule coupled with producing four first-round draft picks since 2010 is what helped put Portland over North Dakota, Popeye Jones said.

“I think will all the success Portland has had,” Popeye Jones said. “And the guys they’ve developed, it was a no-brainer for him to go there.”

Popeye Jones did add that his son did enjoy his visits to North Dakota.

Though there is one question that remains for the Jones’ family. Will it be enough to convince Caleb Jones to follow his brother?

Caleb Jones was taken in the third round by Portland in last week’s WHL Bantam Draft.

Like his brother, he is a defenseman and is currently playing midget hockey in the Dallas Stars’ youth program. Popeye Jones said Caleb was a different player than his older brother describing him as “bigger and more physical.”

“He’s still trying to decide,” Popeye Jones said about Caleb’s future. “He’s a very mature kid also as is Seth and that is what he’s thinking about right now. One thing that he’d love to do, is playing in Ann Arbor. That is his goal right now.”

Should Caleb Jones follow his brother to the NTDP, which fosters what is considered to be the nation’s best talent, it appears it may not be a problem for Popeye Jones.

Popeye Jones said he was impressed and grateful for everything the NTDP did for his son’s development on the ice and way from it during his two-year stay.

He said the NTDP was everything Jones wanted it to be and more given the demands the program has on its players from an academic viewpoint as well as the mindset it takes with development.

“For me and Seth may say something different, but any kid that has the chance to go to Ann Arbor and go to the NTDP, it’s a great program,” Popeye Jones said. “It is everything as a player that Seth wanted and everything as parents we wanted. The education aspect, even the grind of it. I don’t mind the grind of it and for a young kid, that is important. Seth’s billet mother was wonderful and he also lived with Quentin Shore (Denver) and they’ve been good friends for a long time. All of that has been great for him. The gains he has made while he was there were great. He was around 170 pounds and is leaving at 205 and the strength training and hockey training of Coach (Danton) Cole, they ride kids pretty hard there and they are very disciplined there as well.”

Portland Song…

Defenseman Seth Jones finally answered the question on the minds of many junior and college hockey fans across North America.

Would it be Portland and the Western Hockey League or North Dakota and the NCAA? Turns out Mr. Jones is headed to the Pacific Northwest after all. The National Team Development Program defenseman said Monday he would be playing in the WHL next season forgoing his college eligibility.

His younger brother, Caleb, was drafted by Portland last week in the WHL’s Bantam Draft with the 64th overall pick.

Jones’ decision, in regards to junior hockey, was a landmark choice for the season given his potential. Many NHL scouts and pundits have projected Jones to either be the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.

At 6-3, 205 pounds, the 17-year-old Jones has shown in various USHL games and international competitions why he’s so coveted. His smooth skating stride, ability to deliver a heavy check, his crisp passing and powerful slapshot are the qualities he has become known for.

He scored 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists) in 20 games for the NTDP’s U-18 team which had a light USHL schedule compared to other teams which play 60 games. The NTDP’s U-18 team faces a schedule comprised of international competition, college exhibition games and the USHL regular season.

Jones’ decision takes him to a Winterhawks franchise which has certainly been dominating the WHL as of late. The Winterhawks have won 40 or more games the last three years and in the process have produced four first round picks since 2010.

This season has also allowed the WHL to continue its reputation of being a league which grooms defensemen as up to six blueliners could go in the first round of this year’s NHL Draft.

Jones’ rights were initially owned by the Everett Silvertips, a struggling franchise also in the WHL. His rights were traded weeks ago further fueling the idea he would bypass North Dakota for a chance to play in what might be the hottest spot for Major Junior.

Losing the shot at Jones adds to what has been a hard year for North Dakota’s recruiting class, which opened the season as arguably one of the best in the nation.

NTDP forward Stefan Matteau, who played alongside Jones this year, announced he was decommitting to play next season in The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where his father is an assistant coach. North Dakota then took another hit two weekends ago with forward Miles Koules declaring his intentions to play in the WHL next season with Medicine Hat.

The two departures combined with losing Jones takes what was an impressive-looking recruiting class and adds a bit of a tarnish even if next year’s incoming class will include up to five players such as Fargo Force goaltender Zane Gothberg (Boston Bruins), who is the frontrunner for the USHL Goaltender of the Year.

One player who is still committed to North Dakota is Green Bay Gamblers defenseman Jordan Schmaltz. Schmaltz, who is expected to be a second-round pick this summer, has been linked several times with a move to the Ontario Hockey League as the Windsor Spitfires have allegedly made aggressive advances towards getting him.

Spitfires general manager and former Colorado Avalanche forward Warren Rychel said in The Windsor Star earlier in the season the team would be making a run for Schmaltz and that going Major Junior would be better for his development.

Man Machine…

Most kids who were taken in Tuesday’s USHL Futures Draft were probably huddled around a computer with family watching to see where they’d be taken.

Some were probably doing whatever they normally do on a Tuesday. Andrew Blumer falls under that category as he was playing in a high school baseball doubleheader when he was drafted by the Sioux Falls Stampede in the sixth round.

“I asked my dad during the game for a Gatorade and he showed me the news of where I had been drafted,” Blumer said. “Being drafted was great. I was dehydrated so getting the Gatorade was great too but the getting drafted was huge and exciting.”

“Huge” is something that could easily describe the 6-5 Blumer, who was a defense at Fargo South this season. “Exciting”, in the case of Sioux Falls, is something the team hopes Blumer can be when he arrives to the team.

Blumer was on the radar earlier in the year of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. It is a program which fosters what is considered to be the nation’s best talent and trains them for two years in the hopes of being America’s future NHL stars.

He didn’t receive an invite from the NTDP and if he would have, he’d have been the third player in North Dakota’s history to play for the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based program.

Even still, Blumer is happy with knowing he has a chance to play and develop in the USHL, which two years ago sent 98 percent of its players to Division I colleges.

“College hockey is a great accomplishment,” Blumer said. “I’ve always wanted to play at North Dakota and it has always been my dream. If baseball takes me there or hockey takes me there, it is a dream I want to pursue.”

Blumer, who is a pitcher and a shortstop, said he’ll play next season – his junior year – for the South/Shanley co-op and then look at making the jump the USHL.

He wants to play one more year so he can have a chance to work on a few items such as his speed before heading into the USHL where he will see undoubtedly faster, stronger and better talent.

Blumer’s approach is similar to many drafted in the Futures Draft. Nearly half of last year’s first-round picks didn’t play in the USHL as the Futures Draft is seen as a chance for younger players to develop and then in a year or two, advance to the league.

“I am a big guy and cannot move that fast and the game was faster this year than it was in bantams,” said Blumer, who has a year of high school hockey under his belt. “At first, it was really fast jumping from bantams to high school but I thought I got used to it. I am not 100 percent of the way there and I want to come back next year and improve getting faster and quicker and hopefully slowing down the game and making better decisions.”

When the time comes for Blumer to arrive in Sioux Falls, he could be walking into what could be a good situation.

Sioux Falls was the youngest and least experienced team in the league. They finished with the worst record in the Western Conference but appear to have the pieces in place to be better next season.

The Stampede, which also have former Moorhead forward Eric Brenk, also had a strong Futures Draft and in two years could be a realistic threat to win the Western Conference.

“I didn’t think I was going to get drafted to tell you the truth,” Blumer said. “But it all worked out. I had never talked to (Sioux Falls). I had talked to some other guys but I am glad they drafted me.”

Tiptoe…

Get to know the name Andrew Blumer.

Blumer is a sophomore at Fargo South who was apparently being looked at by USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. The NTDP, as its often known, collects what is considered to be the nation’s best talent and cultivates them into NHL hopefuls.

The NTDP sends scouts across the nation to find talent for its selection camp in Ann Arbor, Mich. It is at this camp where 40 to 50 of the nation’s best 15-and/or 16-year-old players, depending on the birthday, work their way onto the team.

Blumer was not invited to the camp this year but having NTDP scouts look at him is a big deal given the state of North Dakota has only produced two players good enough to play at the NTDP.

Minot’s Quinn Fylling, who played at North Dakota, was the first player in state history to play at the NTDP. The most recent is Devils Lake standout and former Force defenseman Keaton Thompson (North Dakota), who just finished his first season at the program.

“There’s potential there,” said Fargo Force chief scout Jesse Davis about Blumer. “He’s also a baseball player and because of the season hasn’t had the chance to skate with us.”

Davis, who is also an assistant with the Force, spoke Monday about a story in today’s Forum looking at the steps North Dakota high school hockey players go through to get noticed by college and junior coaches.

He was addressing a question he’s commonly asked about why don’t the Force have more Fargo-area players on their roster. While answering the question he mentioned Blumer.

Davis said NTDP scouts were at Scheels Arena during the high school hockey season and scouted him during a game either against West Fargo or state power Grand Forks Red River.

It is conceivable Blumer could be selected in next week’s USHL Futures Draft, which is a draft used to select the premier 15-and/or-16-year old players in the nation.

“He’s a kid guys know about,” Davis said.

The 6-5 Blumer played in 24 games last season and had two assists for the South/Shanley co-op which went 12-12.

Blumer being on the NTDP’s radar, however, does signify the growth which exists among North Dakota’s youth hockey scene. The Force resume its Western Conference semi-final series against the Lincoln Stars which feature Grand Forks’ natives Luke Johnson and Paul Ladue, who are both North Dakota commits. The Force also have former Mr. Hockey winner, Williston’s Jordan Nelson, on its roster.

Minot’s Alex Schoenborn, who was set to play for the Stars next year, opted out of playing in the USHL by signing with the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League a few months ago.

The Winterhawks are a Major Junior team which means Schoenborn forgoes his college eligibility. But the Winterhawks, as of late, have become one of Major Junior’s better franchises having won 40 or more games the last three years and have produced four first-round NHL Draft picks since 2010.

It Just Is…

About a year ago, this could have been a lineup that could have won at the Minnesota state hockey tournament.

These days, however, they’re shooting for something greater. A Western Conference title would be nice. A Clark Cup would be a lot better.

Omaha’s roster has plenty of stories to it. The latest one is its defense and goaltending are spearheaded by five Minnesotans who a year ago weren’t even on a USHL roster.

“First of all, a big part is Alex Lyon (Yale) our goalie,” said Lancers defenseman Kevin Schulze (Wisconsin). “Our defense, we don’t give up a lot of quality chances. We may give up a lot of shots, but they are not quality chances.”

Omaha heads into Friday with the second-best record in the Western Conference and are a point out of first with two games left. Defense is a big reason why. Based on goals allowed, has the fourth-best defense in the USHL and it ranks second in the Western Conference.

The Minnesota-based defense has a lot to do with it. Apple Valley’s Vince Pedrie and Edina’s Ben Ostlie were drafted by the Lancers and have been with the club since Day One.

Ostlie and Pedrie, who were at Edina and Apple Valley last season, have had to adjust to what is a considerably more demanding USHL schedule. Minnesota schools play from 24 to 25 regular season games and assuming a team reaches the state title game, a player can at most play 31 or 32 games.

The USHL season is 60 games and Pedrie has already played 40 games this season while Ostlie has played in 52 games.

“Its a big transition. Teams here are a lot deeper,” said Ostlie, who has scored nine points this season. “Every player out here is skilled. In high school, usually the top two lines are skilled. But with the guys on the team, the season does go by pretty fast.”

Ostlie and Pedrie were both drafted by Omaha. Lyon, who is from Baudette, Minn., was acquired via a trade with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders.

It still didn’t stop Omaha from making a few more moves to bolster its already Minnesota-heavy defense.

The Lancers traded for Schluze, who is from White Bear Lake, Minn., and played for Hill-Murray, and about a month ago added high school free agent, Jake Bischoff (Minnesota), who played this season at Grand Rapids, which was knocked out in the second round of this year’s playoffs.

Omaha, in all, has six players on its roster from Minnesota. Forward Tanner Lane (Nebraska-Omaha) is from Detroit Lakes and was acquired earlier this season from the Fargo Force.

Everyone Minnesotan on the team came in with promise based off what they did in high school. Lyon won the Frank Brimsek Senior Goaltender Award last season. Ostlie helped Edina finish fourth at the state tournament while Schulze helped White Bear Lake pull off one of the state’s biggest upsets in the section tournament by beating title contender Hill-Murray in the section finals.

Pedrie, despite missing out on last season’s state tournament, was part of one of the state’s most promising teams in Apple Valley, which featured forwards A.J. Michaelson and Hudson Fasching (both Minnesota). Michaelson is now with Waterloo while Fasching is with the National Team Development Program.

Then there’s Bischoff, who is considered to be one of Minnesota’s best defenseman and he still has another year of high school left.

Oh and as for Lane. Even though he’s not a defenseman, he still scored 90 points as a junior.

“It’s been great,” Schulze said of playing in Omaha. “A lot of the kids we know each other growing up. I didn’t play with them but I knew who they were. Its nice to come out and show what Minnesota does have to offer.”