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.

Stationary Robbery…

With it being the off-season and weekend, here’s a little nugget to take with you.

Remember Zach Pochiro? OK. Probably not. He had a training camp stint with the Force last season after being taken by the team in last season’s USHL Entry Draft. He was drafted again by Lincoln in Tuesday’s USHL Entry Draft but today signed a contract with the Prince George Cougars in the Western Hockey League.

The move kind of came as a surprise as Pochiro put 34 points playing for Wichita Falls (NAHL) this past season.

Signing with a Major Junior team adds to an interesting trend the Force have had with former players. The trend being the Force keep having guys who got little if any playing time but they go Major Junior.

For example:

-Ben Johnson, forward: When Johnson came to the Force, not much was really known about him other than he was from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He had five games with the Force scoring no points and decided to return home. Since then, he went on to become Michigan’s Mr. Hockey and this season finished his first campaign with the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League.

-Marek Hrbas, defenseman: Hrbas played 40 games in his first and only season with the Force before heading to the WHL. The promising Czech defenseman had 17 points in 64 games with Edmonton and spent this season with the Kamloops Blazers putting up 25 points in 67 games.

-Blake Clarke, forward: Here’s some more message board fodder for Force fans. Clarke was drafted by the team last year and became the youngest player in the league at 15. He spent a few months with the Force playing in 13 games getting one goal. Clarke returned home to St. Louis and in a matter of months represented Team USA at the World Youth Olympic Games and last month was drafted 15th overall by the Brampton Battalion in the OHL Priority Draft. He was the highest American taken and given his current trajectory could very well be a first or second round pick when he becomes draft eligible.

 

He Got Game…

NHL’s Central Scouting released this morning its final rankings of North American skaters, a list which features six Fargo Force players.

There are 29 listed players from the USHL but the number might be higher when adding players like the Force’s Jay Dickman and Indiana’s Boo Nieves (Michigan), who are now playing in the league after playing for their high schools earlier in the year.

Defenseman and team captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha), to no surprise, was the highest-rated Force player checking in at 68th overall. The 5-10 Cooper was touted last season by Jack Barzee, now formerly of Central Scouting, as a player to watch in the USHL this season.

Cooper, 18, has scored 23 points in 54 games while leading the Force to what appears to be a fourth-place finish in the Western Conference.

Forward Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth) is listed at 112th overall. Farley exploded this season as he was on a pace to break every team single-season scoring record until suffering a foot injury. The injury left him out for a month. He has scored 10 points in 12 games giving him 58 points in 49 games.

Fellow Bulldog commit Alex Iafallo came in at 133rd overall. Iafallo was drafted nearly a year ago by the team and made the squad out of camp. Iafallo along with linemates, Dave Gust and Gabe Guertler (Minnesota), have formed a partnership that has given the Force a secondary offensive threat to Farley’s line. Iafallo,who has four points in four games, has scored 31 points in 56 games this season. He will play next season in Fargo before going off to college.

Defenseman Justin Wade (Notre Dame) came in at 144th overall. Wade, in his second season, has been living up to the promise of being a shutdown defenseman. He’s been one of the reasons why the Force are statistically the second-best defense in the entire USHL. Wade’s punishing checks, annoying pokechecks and stay-at-home style has made him one of the league’s best shutdown defenseman. He’s also been able to contribute on offense picking up seven points in 55 games. He’s also a plus-17 on the year. Wade will be back with the team next season before going to Notre Dame.

Five spots after Wade was forward Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth), who has played the last few weekends with the Force. Toninato played high school hockey at Duluth East this season which went 27-1 heading into the Minnesota state hockey tournament but left with a consolation tournament trophy. Toninato scored his first goal on Saturday in the Force’s 5-1 win over Sioux Falls. Toninato, who wore No. 9, will be with the Force next season.

Forward Jay Dickman, who was still listed under St. Paul Johnson, rounded out the Force’s list at 203. Dickman has five points – all assists – in 11 games with the Force but made his name in high school. Dickman scored an impressive 45 goals this season to become Class 2A’s leading goal-scorer. At 6-5, 228 pounds he has been described as a draft dark horse. Ryan Kennedy, of The Hockey News, tweeted that an NHL scout said Dickman was built like an all-state wrestler but had soft hands to go along with his game.

NTDP defenseman Jacob Trouba (Michigan) was the league’s highest rated player nine while Dubuque’s Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) was rated at 18.

Lincoln phenom Kevin Roy (Brown), who has 100 points this season, was rated 78th.

Former Force forward Ben Johnson was rated at No. 52 on the list. Johnson had a short stint with the team playing in five games. He returned to Calumet (MI-HS) where he was Michigan’s Mr. Hockey. Johnson then left high school signing with the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL.

Johnson is one of three former Force players to play or intend on playing with a Major Junior team in the last three years. Blake Clarke, who played with the Force earlier in the year, was taken 15th overall by the Brampton Battalion on Saturday in the OHL Priority Draft.

Big Guns…

Names such as Matt Duchene and Cody Hodgson have helped the Brampton Battalion become a destination point for young forwards.

Blake Clarke is certainly aware of that. He’s also aware that he could possibly be the next name off the Brampton assembly line as he was drafted by the team with the 15th overall selection in the OHL Priority Draft on Saturday.

Clarke, who spent the first half of the season with the Fargo Force, was the highest American-born player taken in the draft.

“Nothing is official until I’ve signed with them,” Clarke said. “There will not be a rush for me to sign but unless something changes in the next few weeks I plan on playing with Brampton. That’s where I want to play and I am just waiting for everything to be signed.”

He also becomes the third former Force player to be scooped up by a Major Junior team.

Clarke burst onto the scene around this time a year ago when the Force drafted him in the USHL Entry Draft making him the youngest player to be taken in either the entry draft or the USHL Futures Draft that year.

He made the team right out of camp becoming the youngest player in the USHL this season, a title which was later claimed by Green Bay Gamblers’ affiilate list forward Nick Schmaltz (North Dakota).

Clarke had one point in 13 games with the Force and left the team to return to his family in Wildwood, a St. Louis suburb. He joined the St. Louis Amateur Blues team upon his return.

All this happened as Clarke was chosen by USA Hockey to represent his nation in the first-ever Winter Youth Olympic Games, which is an International Olympic Committee sanctioned event.

Clarke suffered a concussion as Team USA failed to win a gold medal at the tournament in Austria.

“I feel good,” Clarke said about recovering from his concussion. “I recovered fairly quickly from it and missed two or three weeks. I could have played more last week but I didn’t want to risk anything. I haven’t had an recurring symptoms.”

He returned to score six points in 17 games as the Blues fell short of making the national midget major tournament falling in the regional round.

Clarke said he spoke with numerous teams prior to the draft and Brampton was one of them.

Talking with OHL teams was only part of Clarke’s hectic schedule as he also attended the National Team Development Program’s camp in the hopes of being invited to join the program next season.

The NTDP, which fosters the development of what is consider to be this nation’s top players, is currently finalizing its list for next year’s incoming class.

“I don’t have an offer to join the team yet,” Clarke said. “I was at the final 50 camp and I had a great weekend there. It was one of my best weekends. As far as I know, the roster is not finalized but I haven’t been invited yet either.”

If Clarke were to receive and invite, he’d have to ponder between a program which has developed American stars such as Vancouver Canucks star Ryan Kessler or going to the OHL, which continually establishes itself as the best league within Canada’s three-league Major Junior system.

Brampton, which was formed in 1998, has produced six first-round picks since 2000 and qualified for the OHL Playoffs this season.

The Battalion’s two most well-known products, to this point, are Duchene who was drafted third overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2009; then began playing immediately in the NHL and Hodgson, who was drafted 10th overall in 2008 by the Canucks before being traded earlier this year to the Buffalo Sabres.

“Yeah, that’s huge,” Clarke said about Brampton’s recent track record with first-round forwards. “When I look at a team like that and see what Coach (Stan) Butler has done with developing players and the success they’ve had, it is impressive. Duchene went into the league at 18 and Hodgson at 20 and I cannot think of many teams who had top forwards in back-to-back years like that.”

Love Me Tender…

What the Fargo Force did Monday could be the first step towards the USHL being able to compete with Major Junior and the National Team Development Program.

Defenseman and Detroit Compuware star Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) became the first player to sign a tender with a USHL club as the Force added him to the roster. Each team is allowed two tenders to sign 15-year-old players in the hopes of building for the future.

Signing Ghafari to a tender it means the Force will not have a first round pick in the upcoming USHL Futures Draft. If they were to sign another player to a tender, the team would forfeit their second round pick.

Hypothetically speaking, the new tender process could eliminate the need for a Futures Draft assuming every team were to use the league’s newest method.

Force spokeswoman Whitney Baumgartner said Ghafari would not be joining the team until the 2012-13 season.

“I’ve looked at their history and they are always moving players to the next level,” Ghafari said in a phone interview with the Force. “I’ve talked to guys in the USHL and they say that when they go to Fargo, they always have a great atmosphere.”

Force assistant and chief scout Jesse Davis said in the release he expects Ghafari to play three seasons with the team before heading off to Western Michigan. Ghafari, in turn, would be the fourth player in team history to play at Western Michigan.

Per league rules, according to the release, the Force would have to play Ghafari in half of their games next season and will not be able to be traded.

Getting a Michigan-born player isn’t a surprise given how heavily Davis recruits and knows the area because he is from Detroit.

Adding Ghafari for next season could add to a defense which is slated to lose quite a few pieces heading into next season. The Force, for sure, will be losing Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) and Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth) to college. Defenseman Taylor Richart is undergoing the recruitment process and there’s a chance he could also be gone for next season. There’s also a chance Racobaldo could be gone next year if he makes a college commitment this season.

Assuming Racobaldo stays for another season, it could leave the Force with a defense headlined by a three-year player in Justin Wade (Notre Dame) along with a few more experienced defensemen in Racobaldo and David Mead. Then there’s also Neal Goff, who has been splitting time lately with Mead.

Ghafari with the addition of the 6-4, 185-pound Charlie Pelnik (North Dakota) could add offense to a Force defensive corps which would be known more for providing a shutdown role as opposed to scoring.

If it all works out that way, it also gives the Force a big defense where the average height would be 6-2 and the average weight would at least be around 195 pounds.

Ghafari, who is 6-feet and 175 pounds, has scored 13 points (1 goal, 12 assists) in 24 games with Compuware, which is in its first season in the newly-established High Performance Hockey League.

Just The Two Of Us…

Hope the three-day weekend was fun for everyone. Speaking of having fun, I got a chance to speak with Dean and Guy, the hosts of The Pipeline Show.

The Pipeline Show is a twice-a-week radio show out of Edmonton that discusses hockey prospects from a CHL level, NCAA level and USHL level. Dean and Guy last week kind of got some folks talking when they asked their listeners and readers (they operate a blog too that’s on the blogroll to the right) about a potential USHL-CHL game down the road.

It lead to a lot of discussion and it also led to doing a Q&A with both Dean and Guy who were more than happy to talk. So here is what they had to say:

 

Q: You guys put the question out there for fans to answer (in regards to a CHL/USHL game.) Were you surprised by the answer the fans gave?

Dean: he only thing that really surprised me was the people who didn’t want to see this happen.  One person said it would be like the NHL playing the KHL…I would love to see that.

Guy: The question actually came to us from a fan on Twitter so I don’t think we can take credit for coming up with the idea. We were asked what our thoughts were on whether the USHL should compete for the Memorial Cup. Dean and I both said, and still feel, that the CHL clubs would prove to be superior in that match up but that we’d love to see it happen. Everything since then has just snowballed.

I can’t say that I’m surprised in one aspect; the passion fans have for the league they follow is obvious as there has been a lot of “my league is way better than your league” stuff which is fine to a degree. I think it’s fair to suggest that fans of every league underrate the other leagues, it’s natural.

What I am surprised about is the amount of feedback and interest that is being shown. I expected there to be some response but it’s been off the charts from emails to traffic to our website and blog. I’m surprised by that part of it because I didn’t know if general fans would have as strong an interest in the topic as we do. Glad to see I was wrong.

 

Q: You had a chance to speak with Branch and got a letter from Prince; after that talk, how do you two feel about the chances of this happening?

Dean: I think the chances of this happening are better then I thought they were..but then again I thought there was zero chance of it happening.  I would say now it’s up to 10 per cent.  I spoke to a WHL executive today who told me the CHL had everything to lose and nothing to gain by it.

Guy: It’s encouraging to hear that both Presidents are at the very least, open to the idea. I think there are a ton of hurdles to clear before it could become a reality (several of which Skip Prince outlined for you on Wednesday) so it may be years before it’s feasible. I’m not at all surprised that the USHL would be all for it, nothing to lose and plenty to gain for them, but I was surprised that the CHL would like to give it a go.

 

Q: Let’s say a game is played between a CHL and a USHL team, would there ever be a chance where a USHL could enter the Memorial Cup?

Guy: As of right now, the Memorial Cup is a 4-team tournament consisting of the winners of each seperate Major Junior League (OHL, QMJHL, WHL) and a host team which is rotated through the three leagues. David Branch confirmed on our show that there have been talks about opening up the Memorial Cup tournament to include a European champion. He didn’t go so far as to say the USHL by name but did suggest an American junior league and short of creating an entirely new league, the obvious choice would be the Clark Cup winner.

Dean: No, I don’t think a USHL team will play for the Memorial cup.  If this was to happen I think it might be the Memorial Cup champions vs. the Clark Cup champions.

 

Q: Considering how this summer has gone, do you think a USHL-CHL game would quiet or increase the battle that is Major Junior vs. College/USHL

Guy: I think some of that would depend on the outcome. Hypothetically, if the CHL won by a large margin it would look bad on the USHL and only reaffirm what most north of the border currently feel – that Major Junior has no comparison. On the other hand, if the USHL won or the game/series was close then it would open the door to much more debate and I would have to think it would also raise a lot of eyebrows in Canada.

Dean: I think it would ramp it up no matter what and I don’t think this debate will ever go away

 

Q: Finally, what do you two guys think about this summer and the amplified feelings that have come with the NCAA/USHL-Major Junior battle?

Dean: I think it’s been great as it’s put all leagues in question in the spotlight…I love the passion that fans, executives, players have for their respective leagues and would be disappointed if that passion wasn’t there.

Guy: First, I think people need to understand the difference in ideology between Canadian and American sports. In the States, the path to pro sports goes through high school, continues on to the NCAA and then to the major leagues. In Canada, hockey is much less tied together with school. We don’t have the same passion for collegiate sports like there is down there for NCAA football or basketball so the exposure and interest in anything NCAA is very small by comparison. Even when it comes to NCAA hockey.

NCAA hockey gets almost zero coverage in Canada. College Hockey Inc. is a supporter of our program because, as they told us, we’re the only show in this country that talks NCAA hockey in a balanced, fair way and on an ongoing, regular basis. The 2011 Frozen Four was seen in parts of Ontario on Leafs TV but as far as I know, no one outside of that region was able to find it. Having no exposure to NCAA hockey either on TV, print or radio… Canadian kids are largely unaware of what the NCAA option is all about.

NCAA hockey has virtually zero exposure in Canada and the the USHL… even less. I would guess that if I asked a serious hockey fan to name the 16 USHL teams he might be able to get half of them. Hell, I still get Sioux Falls and Sioux City mixed up half the time. Generally speaking, many Canadians have no idea what level of hockey is even played in the USHL.

Likewise, American players who grow up with the “high school to NCAA to pro” model aren’t as aware of the CHL option that they have. We’ve talked to numerous players, including NHL guys, who said that they knew almost nothing about the CHL and went to play college hockey for a year or two because that was always their plan. Some of those guys didn’t have the academic ability to keep their place and had to leave and you wonder why a non-student would even try to play college hockey.

That’s a lengthy rant but I think it’s important to note that on our show and on our blog, we try extremely hard not to have a bias. We’ve adopted the mantra that we aren’t “pro-NCAA” or “pro-CHL”, The Pipeline Show is pro-hockey. Period. Dean and I both know and respect players, coaches, GMs on both sides of the debate and I don’t think there is any question that the CHL or NCAA is a viable option to get to the NHL. Neither are feasible for every player though and I think it’s critical for kids on both sides of the border to educate themselves on both options so they know what is best for their specific situation.

I much prefer when the leagues promote themselves and the strengths of their own league as opposed to trying to rip the other option. If I’m a 15 year old kid and I’m trying to make a decision, I want to know what ’A’ has to offer to benefit me and my career, not what ‘A’ thinks is wrong with ‘B’. Thankfully, I think that is happening more than it was even a couple of years ago.

I like that the WHL holds evaluation camps and information sessions in California and is considerng the same in Minnesota. Players in those areas should know what the WHL is about. Likewise, I also applaud College Hockey Inc.’s efforts over the last year going across Canada holding their own camps and info sessions for Canadians who aren’t well versed in the NCAA route.

I am for anything that furthers the sport at the junior and collegiate level and maybe the end result of the public/media “battle” over players (your word, not mine) is that players and their families will take the time to weigh all of their options.

Ice, Ice Baby…

Man, if it wasn’t for the fact Peyton Manning’s coming back, the good folks of Indianapolis would be marching towards London, Ont. right now.

This time it is because of Max Domi. Domi was selected by the Ice with the 20th overall in this past spring’s Futures Draft.  His mom said she wanted him to attend college (presumably at Michigan) but his father, Tie, said he wanted his son in Major Junior.

Well, the former NHL enforcer won (big shocker there) and his son is now a Knight ending a long, Canadian nightmare that’s made it easier to cope now that Timmy’s has made its cup sizes larger.

It isn’t a surprise but here’s the funny relationship (depending on how you view it) between the Ice and the Knights. A few years ago, the Ice had Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson who later left the team to go play for the Knights. Carlson played a full season in Indiana before jumping to London and eventually becoming one of America’s best up-and-coming defensemen.

A few years ago the Ice took a gamble with a late, late round pick in John Tavares, who just went on to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. Though he started his Major Junior career with the Oshawa Generals, he was later traded to the Knights. Tavares going Major Junior was no surprise but it is interesting to see how his path went.

Domi choosing The OHL also sums up what’s been a tough year for the Ice when it comes to battling Major Junior. Don’t forget Adam Erne, who spent last season with the Ice, said goodbye as he decided to go play in The QMJHL.

Don’t feel too bad for them though. After all, they had the league’s best offense last year and had two players – Blake Coleman (New Jersey Devils) and Brian Ferlin (Boston Bruins) – get drafted. Their linemate, Daniil Tarasov, wasn’t drafted but he’s in the Penguins system after going to the team’s development camp. Tarasov is coming back so there’s that. Plus, they are keeping goaltender Jon Gillies around this year after it was rumored that he’d be going north too. So see, it hasn’t been a horrible off season for the ice.

Coaches and scouts around the USHL have said the Ice have been known for drafting certain guys in an attempt to hit a home run. Just seems like this time, they got robbed at the warning track. Or in foul territory depending on the perspective.

The Right Profile…

Well, USHL, you finally got your chance to prove you do belong with the big boys in Major Junior and you’re not a “stepping stone.”

The numbers suggest it. After all, it was the USHL (37) that had more players on NHL Central Scouting’s Prelim Futures List than the The QMJHL (31), than The OHL (29) or The WHL (26).

People, both in and out of America, have ripped you and your league so badly that you’d think JWoww and Vinny put you on blast like that.

They say the USHL can’t produce first-round draft picks unless the NTDP comes in and does an Obama to help them save face. It appears the USHL might not need a bailout with three projected first rounders in Jordan Schmaltz (Sioux City/North Dakota) and Dubuque duo Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and Michael Matheson (Boston College).

Oh and you did manage to keep Schmaltz away from the OHL, Girgensons away from the WHL and Matheson away from The Q.

Problem is, nobody cares about that and given this summer, why should they?

American hockey has taken a public relations kick to the groin this off-season. So many top-flight Americans are going Major Junior and in some cases (see Jamie Oleksiak) they rather just not be American altogether.

Then there’s what happened with Penticton in the BCHL fleecing seven Americans – most notably Wayzata’s Mario Lucia (Minnesota Wild) and Edina’s Steven Fogarty (Notre Dame/New York Rangers) – from USHL teams.

Don’t forget even younger top-end Americans like Brandon Shea and Adam Erne. Shea was set to play with the NTDP and opted instead for the The Q. Same goes for Erne, who spent last season with the Indiana Ice before deciding to take his talents to Quebec.

And then there’s what happened with Anthony DeAngelo exchanging Cedar Rapids for Sarnia.

Having so many high-end kids leave is more than a slap in the face. And if you think I’m wrong Elin Nordegren is on Line 1 to say otherwise.

Point is American hockey needs a bounce-back year. They need it the way school needs teachers, the way that Kathie Lee needed Regis or the way Kanye needed Jesus. This summer’s NHL Draft was a start. The USHL (27) had more players drafted than The Q (22). But more needs to be done.

We know the USHL can’t exactly send a Zack Morris-like telegraph before every game saying they need to beat Valley or in this case Major Junior. But you know damn well that they want this to work.

This could be one of the most, if not the most important season in the USHL’s history. For all the talk they’ve done about being a viable option along with college hockey to reach the NHL, they better hope to God this is the year that can jump start it.

It is the kind of year where the USHL needs to sit down and ask the following question: Will 2011-12 be our Waterloo (not like Bliss Littler, though his team can help) or will this be our Normandy, where we really entrench ourselves in a long, long battle with Major Junior?

That’s only a question the league, its teams and to a degree, its players can answer.

Whatever the answer may be, there will be critics. There will be some Canadians touting that no matter what the USHL does, it can never compete with Major Junior. Those people probably feel the USHL needs to keep to itself and not mess with those three eighth-grade boys waiting to take their lunch money.

Yet if the USHL has a good year at the draft among other things, maybe people won’t have to wonder if they belong at all.

And maybe more will see it as a viable option – instead of stepping stone -after all.

Make A Move…

We’ve seen a lot of things go on this summer with Americans leaving for the CHL but here’s a storyline that might not have been discussed a lot depending on where you live.

The situation, not the one from Jersey Shore, has to deal with Americans Adam Erne and Brandon Shea going to The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Some might say what’s the big deal about two more Americans going to the CHL?

What’s so interesting is that Erne and Shea are going to become guinea pigs in regards to how Americans will fare in The Q. Earlier in June, The Q said it will mandate its organizations to draft at least two Americans every year.

Forcing such a mandate does give Americans another option while shattering the feeling that The Q only caters to French Canada and The Maritimes.What it would also do is dissipate the feeling that Americans are not welcomed.

Before that all happens in Summer 2012, we’ll get a chance to see how it works with Erne, a former Boston University commit, and Shea, who was set to go to Boston College. Erne, 16, and Shea, who also born in 1995 with Erne, will show what The Q can do towards building young American talent.

Erne will spend next season with the Quebec Remparts while Shea will play for the Moncton Wildcats.

The question is: Will it all work? The Q has a history of producing amazing talent but it hasn’t really been a place, as of late, that Americans have come to in the hopes of furthering their development.

Depending on how Erne and Shea do, that could play a large role. Erne has experienced the junior hockey life by playing a season with the Indiana Ice. He was a contributor to a team that was among the most offensively gifted in the USHL last season. As for Shea, who was set to play with the National Team Development Program, this will be a chance for him to experience junior hockey for the first time.

With Erne, it will give The Q an opportunity to showcase that it deserves to be in the conversation with The OHL and The WHL in terms of being a legitimate option for Americans who might want to experience life outside of the USHL.

With Shea, however, if he is indeed successful, it can show that the transition of prep players into The Q can be done and could also attract more Americans.

The story with quite a few American hockey fans has been how the OHL has been getting top-end American players to give up the college life to make the trek north. But if people don’t pay attention, The QMJHL could give Americans another option to come to Canada well before an NHL team comes calling.

Rolling Up To The Rim…

Figured it would be a good time to bring back the Q&A sessions and today’s guest is Sunaya Sapurji, who is the junior hockey editor for yahoo.ca

It has been written multiple times on this blog that the way things work back in Canada with juniors are far different than they work here. Sunaya was more than happy to take time out of her busy day to answer some questions. Because when she’s not covering hockey, she’s off saving languages. (see her Twitter page @sunayas to get that joke.)

Here’s the interview:

Q: What strides, if any, do you think the USHL or American junior hockey has made over the last 10 years when it comes to developing players and producing good talent?

A: I think they’ve made great strides when you look at the number of players with USHL & NTDP experience taken in the 2010 NHL draft. That’s probably a reflection of the growing number of kids in the U.S. who are serious about pursuing hockey, so it almost becomes self-fulfilling. When you have good programs to foster and develop talent you’re going see growing numbers from those programs end up playing pro and when young kids see pro success, they’re going to want to emulate it.

 

Q: Juniors is big back there. In America, it can be lukewarm at times. What do you think juniors in America will have to do to gain more interest from people?

A: In order for any hockey program to be successful in terms of fan interest, I believe there has to be a connection to the community at a grass-roots level. I spent quite a bit of time in north Georgia and if you look at the way many high school football programs are run – particularly in the South – there is a real connection between those schools, the community and the local media. So not only is it an affordable family event, it’s a shared community experience. The same is true of many successful junior hockey franchises, be that NCAA or CHL.

 

Q: Do you ever see the WHL, OHL or even The Q continuing its expansion into America or no?

A: At the present time: No. I could see the OHL at some point perhaps venturing into Western N.Y., to gain a greater foothold in that area, but I think that’s a long ways away with the current economy – and even then it’s more likely to be via relocation rather than expansion.

 

Q: Do you ever think the USHL, someway, could break its way into the Memorial Cup or is the gulf on that one too big?

A: I can’t see that ever happening. The Memorial Cup is the pinnacle of the CHL, so while it might be great for hockey fans, I don’t know what the league could possibly gain by allowing the USHL to take part in their showcase event.

 

Q: As for Canadian and American juniors, Max Domi has been a big topic. Do you see more kids like him willing to explore the college route instead of going into the CHL?

A: I think it remains to be seen whether Max Domi does in fact take the college route. It’s become almost common place now – particularly in the OHL – to hear players say they’re interested in pursuing the NCAA or even committing to college programs only to use it as leverage to circumvent the draft process. As a result the OHL was forced to put in rule regarding compensatory picks to give GMs a little more security when taking players who say they’re NCAA bound. Of course you are always going to have players like Mike Cammalleri who are legitimate about their intentions and have benefitted greatly from the NCAA.

Players and parents should most definitely explore every option available to them when it comes to deciding their future in hockey – there are pros and cons to both routes. The CHL might be the fastest route to the NHL, but it’s not for everyone… just like not everyone is cut out for the rigors of NCAA hockey and university. Essentially it comes down to which program is the best fit is for you.

 

Q: Finally, why can’t there be a Timmy’s in every American city?

A: I don’t know, but I really wish there was that kind of expansion – particularly in the South — where is really hard to get a good cup of plain ol’ regular coffee.