Synthetica…

Days later, we’re all still looking back at what happened during the weekend’s NHL Draft trying to process it all.

Last night I was on The Pipeline Show back in Edmonton and we were doing the same thing. A point I made on radio is a point I will make right here. If you’re looking for the end-all, be-all moment for the USHL in the NHL Draft, it is a toss up between Dubuque’s Michael Matheson (Boston College) and Saint-to-be Mark Jankowski (Providence).

Part of it is that they went in the first round. The rest of it is they are Canadians who came/are coming to America and went in the first round.

Crazy as that may sound, it may be the optimal item we can take away from the USHL’s draft results.

The last year has seen the American model come under scrutiny with a massive amount of high-end players bolting to the Major Junior system for one reason or another. To say that practice will stop would be indeed foolish.

But is it foolish to think the USHL model could be a growing option in Canada?

Matheson took a chance on coming to the United States and it turned out to be a good one as he did go in the first round. It can be debated that it was Matheson who got himself into being a first-round pick instead of the USHL. Then again, can’t it be argued as a whole it is all about the kid, not the system, that can be the difference between being a first-rounder or not?

Having Matheson come through the USHL and still end up as a first-round selection was probably the best news the league received all year. Then for Jankowski to say he is coming to Dubuque only helps strengthen the league’s case for not being what Skip Prince said.

“We don’t want to be a fallback school,” Prince said last week.

Take a look around the web or a newspaper and it seems like the USHL is getting its due from large and small media outlets.

People are noticing and the following is a point that has been previously made: If you are a Canadian kid, why wouldn’t you consider the USHL given what happened this season?

Lincoln’s Kevin Roy (Brown) practically had one of the greatest individual seasons in league history and all of junior hockey this year scoring 108 points, winning a Western Conference regular season title, reaching the Western Conference finals, taking the league’s Forward of the Year Award, Player of the Year Award (maybe should have been Rookie of the Year too) and he managed to get taken in the fourth round by the Anaheim Ducks.

Roy did come into the league with talk given his impressive collection of YouTube videos but nonetheless, he still had questions to answer thus that is why he wasn’t drafted in 2011.

At the end of the day, it really comes down to the player and the route he feels is the best for his development.

Its just that the biggest difference from last year is, if you are a Canadian, you might have one more option that might be worth taking a look at.

Gone Gone Gone…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow The Leader…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was the profile of existing and arriving players.

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

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

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

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

Roy is also slated to be taken on Saturday.

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

All For One…

We’re around halfway done with touring the Western Conference and today’s entry will be centered around the Sioux City Musketeers.

The Musketeers had a pretty interesting season to say the least grabbing the final playoff spot down the stretch last season. A good bit of their late season run was fueled by defenseman Jordan Schmaltz, who could be a first-round pick in the upcoming draft.

Here’s a look at this year’s group:

Sioux City Musketeers (31-23-6; was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs)

Coach: Brett Larson

Who’s Gone: Caleb Herbert (Minnesota-Duluth), forward; Ryan Carpenter (Bowling Green), forward; Jake Suter (UMass-Lowell), defenseman; Alex Velischek (Providence), defenseman; Max McCormick (Ohio State), forward; Max Gaede (Minnesota State-Mankato), forward; Adam Krause (Minnesota-Duluth), forward; Matt Paape (Wisconsin), forward; Tommy Olczyk (Penn State), forward.

Who’s Back: Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota), defenseman; Brad Robbins (Bemidji State), forward; Tim O’Brien (Dartmouth), forward; Brett Patterson (Dartmouth), forward; Matt Skoff (Ohio State), goaltender; Jake Hildebrand (Michigan State), goaltender; Sam Piazza (Boston College), defenseman; Jose Delgadillo, defenseman; Larry Smith Jr., defenseman; Maxim Gaudreault (New Hampshire), forward; Noah Nelson, forward.

Who’s New: Geoff Ferguson (played last season at Wenatchee/Aberdeen (NAHL)/committed to Dartmouth), defenseman; Kyle Criscuolo (played last season at Choate Rosemary Hall/committed to Harvard), forward; Cliff Watson (played last season at Appleton United/committed to Ohio State), defenseman; Jackson Leef (played last season at Texas (NAHL)), forward; Josh Erickson (played last season at Roseau (MN-HS)), forward; Kirill Vorobyev (played last season at CSKA Moscow Youth), defenseman.

What’s Going On: Sioux City was one of the seven teams this offseason looking for a new head coach and they hired Larson, who was an assistant at Minnesota-Duluth. His departure, oddly enough, is what led the Bulldogs to hire Fargo’s coach Jason Herter creating another opening.

Sioux City last season was a very tough, physical team that didn’t mind sticking up for one another. But they could also score goals too and they could score them at the right time. In a sense, they were a good representation of what the Western Conference in relation to how tough of a league it was last season.

This season’s big theme, yeah, shocker here, is going to be Schmaltz. The OHL tried prying him away this season but he decided to stay and is now one of the players being talked about in regards to being a first-round draft pick. Offensively, he’s the most gifted defenseman in the league and showed it last year scoring 44 points (13 goals, 41 assists) in 53 games making him the team’s third leading scorer. Expectations suggest that Schmaltz will have another big year and when looking at the roster, that could happen.

Robbins, the team’s fifth leading scorer, and O’Brien, the team’s seventh leading scorer, return from last season so there is some experienced, proven firepower up front. Then there are players like Gaudreault and Patterson who had solid seasons but will be asked to score and do more this season. In all, the Musketeers have 11 returning players with the breakdown being: 5 forwards, 4 defensemen and two goaltenders. That amount of returners places them at the high end when it comes to teams with returning talent.

As for what’s coming in, this should be a group that could complement what’s already there and make Sioux City strong for another year. Criscuolo is the incoming forward that jumps out based on what he’s previously accomplished. For starters, he tore it up at the Fall Classic scoring 5 points (4 goals, 1 assists) in four games. This really isn’t a surprise considering he’s been a consistently good scorer at every level he’s been at. He scored 186 points in 107 AYHL games while scoring 98 points in 48 high school games back in New Jersey, according to Elite Prospects.

Having Schmaltz is a plus. So is having a defenseman like Piazza, who with time will be able to show is offensive skills. But an incoming d-man to look at has to be Vorobyev. The Russian played in the famed CSKA Moscow program and he’s only 16 years old making him one of the youngest players in the league this season. Stats on Vorobyev were hard to find, but usually when a Russian makes their way to the USHL, most times they turn out to be pretty successful. So keep an eye out on Vorobyev to see what he does this season.

The Musketeers have a stud player that can win games, experience that’s gone through a grinding season before and incoming talent that should be able to adjust quickly. Sioux City appears as if it should have no problem getting a playoff spot this season and perhaps make a bit of a run in the postseason.

 

Thursday’s Preview: Sioux Falls Stampede

Omaha…

Our tour of the Western Conference continues today with the Omaha Lancers.

The Lancers, once again, had another solid season finishing second in the Western Conference yet was knocked out in the second round following a first-round bye.

Here’s a look at this year’s team:

Omaha Lancers (2010-11: 34-19-7; lost in the second round)

Coach: Bliss Littler

Who’s Gone: Ben Marshall (Minnesota), defenseman; Seth Ambroz (Minnesota), forward; Nick Oddo (Ohio State), forward; Stefan Demopoulos (Providence), forward; Michael Chiasson (Michigan), defenseman; Aaron Ave (Princeton), defenseman; Todd Mathews (aged out of league/ineligible for college due to playing in Major Junior), goaltender; Ryan Daugherty (Northern Michigan), forward; Justin Crandall (Minnesota-Duluth), forward; Mike Tabrum (Denver), forward; Colin Markison (Vermont), forward.

Who’s Back: Michael Ferrantino (committed to Michigan State), forward; Anthony Hamburg, forward; Jonathan Liau (Princeton), forward; Ken Babinski (Ferris State), forward; Adam Chlapik, forward; Nathan Widman, defenseman; Dominic Racobaldo, defenseman; John Keeney, goaltender.

Who’s New: Kenny Gillespie (played last season at Shattuck-St. Mary’s (MN-HS)/committed to UMass), forward; Matt Gaudreau (played last season at Team Comcast/committed to Boston College), forward; Alex Lyon (played last season at Lake of the Woods (MN-HS)/committed to Yale), goaltender; Myles McCauley (played last season at Penticton (BCHL)/Peterborough & Sault St. Marie (OHL)), forward; Jimmy Murray (played last season with Texas (NAHL)/Fargo Force); Ben Ostlie (played last season at Edina (MN-HS)), defenseman; Casey Bailey (played last season at Alberni Valley (BCHL)), forward; Peter McMullen (played last season at Delbarton School/committed to Boston College), forward; Greg Gozzo (played last season at Avon Old Farms/committed to Harvard), forward; Victor Newell (played last season at Nanaimo (BCHL)/committed to Harvard), defenseman.

What’s Going On: Omaha enjoyed another strong season fighting off teams like Fargo for the second seed in the West and making the most of it until its second-round exit after getting a first-round bye.

Omaha was loaded with talent last year the most notable names being Marshall, a Red Wings draft pick and Ambroz, a guy who entered the season as a first-rounder and fell to Columbus in the fifth round. Point is, the Lancers had a lot of talent last year up front and on the blue line and as you can see, a lot of it is gone. But then there’s the flip side of all this and noticing that Omaha has a LOT, maybe too damn much, coming into the team. The Lancers have a good number of returners with eight so there’s that. Yet its what they have coming in is what will make this team pretty appealing to watch.

Considering there are so many options, let’s look at one player at forward, defense and goaltender (OK, that’s real easy) to watch for that’s new. At forward, the guy with a lot of talk has been the 17-year-old Gillespie. The UMass commit had 55 points (13 goals, 42 assists) in 49 games last season at S-SM. He’s 6-feet and 201 pounds and could be that explosive forward that could win games for the Lancers. Not to mention, he’s a guy that plenty of UMass fans are excited about. If Gillespie lives up to what’s been promised, the rest of the league will quickly understand why.

Defensively, there are so many options but the spotlight here goes to Newell. At 5-10, 176 pounds, he fits that physical model that Marshall has last season. His numbers last season also suggest he could be a guy that runs the power play as he scored 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists) in 58 games last season. The fact he’s committed to Harvard shows he’s smart but another thing that proves it is his penalty minutes. He only had 12 last season. Having a defenseman that makes smart decisions with and without the puck is never a bad thing.

Finally, there’s this goaltender Lyon, who was kind of, sort of a big deal in Minnesota last year. All he did was win the Frank Brimsek Award for Senior Goaltender. All Lyon did was prove he was the best goaltender in the state by making 743 saves. He just only had a 1.60 GAA and a .945 save percentage through the regular season and playoffs. In a 5-1 loss, he stopped 66 shots. So in short, he’s kind of good.

Omaha has a lot (can’t stress that enough) of good incoming talent and this year they play in a conference that should be easy to win in. That could come in handy because this is a team will be working in players that are new to the league and how it works. But even if this Omaha team played in last year’s Western Conference, something says they’d do well. Expect to see the Lancers in the playoffs again this season.

 

Wednesday’s Preview: Sioux City Musketeers

Ruff Ryders Anthem…

Now that the previews are done with the Top 5 forwards, defensemen and goalies to follow, it is now time to make our way to the team previews for the upcoming season.

These previews will focus on one team a day leading up to the start of the season. For those of you who are new, you may have noticed that the title posts are a song that in some way links to the subject matter. So in the case of the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, I decided to go with DMX. Because you know, when you think Cedar Rapids, Iowa, DMX is the first thing that comes to mind.

Anyways, here it is:

Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (2010-11: 42-12-6; lost in the Eastern Conference Finals)

Coach: Mark Carlson

Who’s gone: Brady Hjelle (Ohio State), goaltender; Justin Kovacs (Western Michigan), forward; Jayson Megna (Nebraska-Omaha), forward; Thomas Fallen (Yale), defenseman; Josiah Didier (Denver), defenseman.

Who’s back: Nolan Zajac (Denver), defenseman; Ian Brady (Nebraska-Omaha), defenseman; Ryan McGrath, forward.

Who’s new: Matt McNeely (played last season at the NTDP/committed to Minnesota-Duluth), goaltender; Brent Norris (played last season at Nepean (CCHL)/committed to Providence), forward; Chris Dienes (played last season at Traverse City (NAHL)/committed to Western Michigan), defense.

What’s going on: The RoughRiders had the best regular season record of any team in the league last season and mimicking that could be a challenge  Losing players like Kovacs and Megna, the team’s No. 1 and 2 scorers, is going to be a big blow. Really, that’s only part of it. Cedar Rapids is losing its top five scorers from last season and McGrath, who scored 42 points last season, comes in as the team’s leading returning scorer. When it comes to defense, the RoughRiders will only have three returners there most notably led by Zajac and Brady, two of the league’s better defensemen. Though losing Didier and Fallen will be a bit of a challenge to overcome. Then there’s the loss of Hjelle, who virtually had the best season any goaltender in USHL history by going 40-8-5 with a 2.21 GAA and a .923 save percentage.

Still, don’t feel too bad for Cedar Rapids. They’ve got some good incoming talent with the big name being McNeely. One worry could be the fact that he only played in nine USHL games last year. Even still, the Roughriders run a system that allows any talented goalie to flourish as Hjelle did last year. In front of him, at least in terms of new faces, will be Dienes, who is a big body at 6-2, 190 pounds. The numbers indicate that Dienes isn’t much of a scorer as he only had five points last season in the NAHL. He helped Traverse City actually have one of the better defenses in the NAHL last season in regards to goals allowed so don’t be surprised if he can help do the same thing for Cedar Rapids. Norris, perhaps, could be the new face that comes in with the most noticeable impact. He should be able to give the RoughRiders a potential big-time scorer up front. He scored 41 goals last season and showed his playmaking ability with 34 assists. His 75 points were a team-high. To put things in perspective, Norris had 41 points altogether in his first season at Nepean.

The RoughRiders, under Carlson, have been one of the league’s better franchises and find a way to compete for a top playoff spot. With Dubuque moving to the East, it appears that it isn’t going to be an easy year in the conference this season. Expect Cedar Rapids to really be a player in the top portion of the Eastern Conference.

 

Tomorrow’s Preview: Chicago Steel

Rhode Island’s It For Me…

Some know him as a budding Twitter star. Some know him as the young umpire calling JV baseball and softball games across northwest Minnesota.

Former Roseau star and Providence forward Tyler Landman is known as a lot of things. He’s just hoping that he can use the summer to help Providence come back from a disappointing season and be known as one of the better teams in Hockey East next season.

“It was a tough season and we had a good team along with a great nucleus of seniors,” said Landman, who scored three points in 24 games last season. “We had some puck luck in some games and I thought we were in every game but couldn’t find a way to win and it snowballed. It was a frustrating season.”

The frustration led to the school releasing coach Tim Army and bringing in new coach Nate Leaman, who led Union to a 26-10-4 mark along with a NCAA berth.

Landman, who’ll be a junior next season, said the school’s search for a new head coach was uneasy because there were unknowns that made it hard to figure out what could be in store. But when the school hired Leaman, he had a quick team meeting before school ended.

Landman and Leaman will talk sometime in June about the goals for the upcoming season and what they hope to accomplish. One thing Landman can tell his coach is that he’s been busy in the weightroom. Landman is spending the summer in Roseau working with multiple players including former Force forward and now St. Cloud freshman Nick Oliver and St. Cloud goaltender Mike Lee.

“I think it helps when you are surrounded by good people who know what they are doing,” Landman said. “Its not like your in high school and you’re doing squats. That’s not good enough. You have to go above and beyond in the weight room and make sure you are around good people.”

This week, he’ll be around New York Islanders prospect and former Gopher Aaron Ness, who’ll be working out with the group for a few days.

Landman’s pretty straightforward when it comes to his workouts. He wakes up early in the mornings and takes care of business right away.

But after that’s over, he’s just like any other hockey player enjoying the off-season. He’s getting in as much golf as he can while hanging out with friends he hasn’t seen since last summer.

Some of the things he and his friends have talked about has been the Thrashers would be move to Winnipeg. If and when the team moves, it’s going to be a hit in Roseau for a few reasons.

“I think there has been a lot of excitement and you’ve already had people ask, ‘Hey do you want to get in on season tickets’ and and a lot of people want to go see (former Roseau star) Dustin (Byfuglien),” Landman said.  “It would be nice to not drive six or seven hours to see and NHL game and I think it’d be good to have the Jets back in Winnipeg or whatever they’ll be called.”