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.”

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.

Let It Loose…

North Dakota commit and forward Luke Voltin has been added to the Chicago Steel, according to league sources.

Voltin, 16, was dismissed from the National Team Development Program late Tuesday night and the NTDP confirmed the news on Wednesday morning.

Voltin was playing with the U-17 team and was dismissed for what is believed to be a violation of team rules. NTDP spokesman Jake Wesolek could not discuss the reasons for Voltin’s dismissal from the program.

USHL Director of Hockey Operations Tony Gill said this morning there is a process in which a team could add Voltin to its roster but declined to further describe how it all works although with Chicago obtaining his rights, it could be determined the process allows a player like Voltin to go to whoever is first in line in the league’s waiver wire.

Chicago, which is 9-21-1 this season, has the worst mark in the league.

Voltin tweeted prior to the news breaking he was not going to play in the Western Hockey League and would honor his commitment to North Dakota along with playing in the USHL quickly.

He could realistically play this weekend when the Steel having three games agianst Indiana, Youngstown and Cedar Rapids.

Voltin, 16, played in 11 league games this seasons scoring six points for three goals and three assists. He was part of the United States team which won its third consecutive Four Nations Title.

In Voltin Chicago is getting a forward considered to be among the best American-born forwards in his age group.

He played on varsity last season as a sophomore at perennial Minnesota power Hill-Murray, scoring 31 points (18 goals and 13 assists) on a team which had been favored to make a serious run at a state title before losing in the section finals.

Before going to Chicago, Voltin had two other options which didn’t include the USHL.

Voltin’s Major Junior rights are owned by the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, who lately have had a knack for getting and seriously tempting players from North Dakota and Minnesota to join their team.

Portland recently signed Minot, N.D. native Alex Schoenborn to a contract for next season and are believed to be in the hunt for Breck freshman defenseman-turned-winger Keegan Iverson.

There have also been more Minnesotans going to play Major Junior as of late. Voltin’s former Hill-Murray teammate, defenseman Travis Wood, signed a contract to play this season with the Erie Otters in the Ontario Hockey League.

Edina’s Ben Walker left the Hornets, another Minnesota perennial power, to sign with the Victoria Royals, which also play in the WHL.

Another possibility would be to return to Hill-Murray but now he is going to Chicago he will be expected to help jump start what has been one of the league’s most beleaguered offenses.

The Turn…

NHL Central Scouting released its mid-term rankings on Wednesday morning and there are a few surprises on the list.

NTDP defenseman Jacob Trouba (Michigan) is the highest-rated blueliner in the USHL on the list while Dubuque forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) is the highest-rated forward. None of this comes as a surprise.

Indiana’s Jon Gillies (Northeastern) is having the best season of any draft-eligible goaltender in the league and he’s rated as the fourth-best goalie among all North American skaters.

Below is a list of the Top 25 USHL players and where they were ranked:

Skaters:

-Jacob Trouba, NTDP (Michigan), defenseman: No. 9 overall

-Zemgus Girgensons, Dubuque (Vermont), forward: No. 12 overall

-Stefan Matteau, NTDP, forward: No. 13 overall

-Brady Skjei, NTDP (Minnesota), defenseman: No. 18 overall

-Nic Kerdiles, NTDP (Wisconsin), forward: No. 27 overall.

-Michael Matheson, Dubuque (Boston College), defenseman: No. 29 overall

-Patrick Sieloff, NTDP (Miami (Ohio)), forward, No. 34 overall

-Jordan Schmaltz, Green Bay (North Dakota), defenseman: No. 35 overall

-Matt DeBlouw, Muskegon (Michigan State), forward: No. 37 overall

-Robbie Baillargeon, Indiana (Boston University), forward: No. 43 overall

-Brian Cooper, Fargo (Nebraska-Omaha), defenseman: No. 51 overall

-Thomas Di Pauli, NTDP (Notre Dame), forward: No. 72 overall

-Zach Aston-Reese, Lincoln (Northeastern), forward: No. 76 overall

-Dakota Mermis, Green Bay (Denver), defenseman: No. 77 overall

-Alex Kile, Green Bay (Michigan), forward: No. 82 overall

-AJ Michaelson, Waterloo (Minnesota), forward: No. 83 overall

-Austyn Young, Sioux Falls (Minnesota-Duluth), forward: No. 100 overall

-Gavin Stoick, NTDP (Cornell), defenseman: No. 101 overall

-Cameron Darcy, NTDP (Northeastern), forward: No. 103 overall

-Kevin Roy, Lincoln (Brown), forward: No. 106 overall

-Quentin Shore, NTDP (Denver), forward: No. 109 overall

-Frank Vatrano, NTDP (Boston College), forward: No. 118 overall

-Matthew Lane, NTDP (Boston University), forward: No. 133 overall

-Nikolas Olsson, NTDP (Northeastern), forward: No. 136 overall

-Vince Hinostroza, Waterloo (Notre Dame), forward: No. 137 overall

 

Goalies:

-Jon Gillies, Indiana (Northeastern): No. 4 overall

-Collin Olson, NTDP (Ohio State): No. 9 overall

-Alex Lyon, Omaha (Yale): No. No. 19 overall

-Stephon Williams, Sioux Falls (Minnesota State-Mankato): No. 23 overall

-Matt Morris, Dubuque (Maine): No. 28 overall

Rough Draft…

Great thing about the Internet. Everyone is an expert.

From iPhones to airlines, the web is never short of opinions and the same can be said for hockey. Or in this case, the NHL Draft. The NHL Draft is still six months away but there are quite a few sites and people dedicated to the draft and those who could get selected.

With the USHL resuming its second half tomorrow, here’s a look at a few players in the league who are either draft-eligible or in their second draft year and where some people see them going in their mock drafts.

Don’t worry Force fans. We’ll include a few of your guys too.

-Zemgus Girgensons, forward, Dubuque (Vermont): Just about every website has Girgensons as the top USHL-based pick going in the draft. Some sites have him going as high as sixth. Others have him going anywhere in the middle of the first round. Girgensons, who is Dubuque’s captain, has helped the Clark Cup Champs to second in the Eastern Conference standings. Right now, he’s off on international representing Latvia in the U-20 Tournament. The 6-1 Girgensons has 12 goals and 14 assists through 22 games this season.

-Jacob Trouba, defenseman, NTDP (Michigan): Here’s the other guy extremely high on a lot of lists right now. The 6-1 Trouba will for certain be a first-round pick by the looks of things and like Girgensons he’s getting the Web’s seal of approval. Many mock drafts have him going either in the Top 10 and a few, not many, have him being a middle-round selection. Like Girgensons, he’s is playing at the U-20 Tournament and is the youngest player on Team USA’s roster. Trouba is the team’s only 17-year-old. With the NTDP playing a mix of USHL teams, international competitions and college teams, his USHL stats might be deceiving. He has three points in eight games.

-Jordan Schmaltz, defenseman, Green Bay (North Dakota): The opinions on Schmaltz suggest he’ll be another first-round pick and could anywhere in the teens into the 20s. The offensive-defenseman made news earlier in the year when he was traded from Sioux City to Green Bay. He’s been part of the league’s best defense and could very well be a major part of why the Gamblers could return to another Clark Cup Finals. He has 12 points (6 goals, 6 assists) in 21 games, which is tenth among USHL defensemen.

-Nic Kerdiles, forward, NTDP (Wisconsin): It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Kerdiles the most talent forward the NTDP has at the moment. He has size, stickhandling and knows where to be on the ice. Those merits are why he’s been touted as another first-rounder the USHL and NTDP could have come the summer. He only has two points in eight USHL games. Those two points came here in Fargo where he absolutely stole the show helping the NTDP take the to a shootout before losing. The projection is Kerdiles will go mid-to-late first round.

-Michael Matheson, defenseman, Dubuque (Boston College): Feeling is Matheson could go late first or early second, which isn’t bad by any stretch. Right now he’s helping keep Dubuque very much in the picture for who can challenge Green Bay for first place in the East and a team which could make a run for a Clark Cup repeat. Matheson’s stock could rise in the second half if he scores more. He came into the league touted as an offensive-defenseman. His eight points don’t even register in the Top 20 among league blue liners.

-Stefan Matteau, forward, NTDP (North Dakota): The 6-1 winger has been talked about as a player with quite a bit of upside. Sites are suggesting he could be a third-round pick. He has four points in nine games and is a bit edgy with 57 penalty minutes – the most of any player in the NTDP.

-Jon Gillies, goaltender, Indiana (Northeastern): Gillies is practically fighting it out for Youngstown’s Matthew O’Connor (Boston University) for the league’s best netminder this season. Gillies has been a constant presence for the Ice this season with 13 wins and has logged more minutes and saves than any goalie in the USHL. Very few sites go past the second or third round so it is a bit harder to get a feeling for where he could go. A site called draftsite.com has him being a fifth-round selection.

-Kevin Roy, forward, Lincoln (Brown): Roy was draft eligible last season but no team took a pass at him. Given his season, something says no one will be passing him by. Roy, who played at Deerfield Academy (MA-HS) last season has taken the league by storm topping the scoring charts. Draftsite has Roy going in the sixth round.

-Mike McKee, defenseman, Lincoln (Western Michigan): Similar to Roy, was draft eligible last season. He got a lot of press but in the end, he went unselected. McKee could get taken anywhere past the third round. Draftsite actually has McKee going as a third-rounder.

-Brian Cooper, defenseman, Fargo (Nebraska-Omaha): Where Cooper ends up in the draft could be anyone’s guess. A year ago, he was decently high on a few mock drafts and could have gone in the third round. He still could. Draftsite has him going in the fourth round.

-Justin Wade, defenseman, Fargo (Notre Dame): Draftsite actually has Wade going a few spots before Cooper in the fourth round. Wade’s height and size are why so many scouts like him. They also like his defensive-minded approach.

-Austin Farley, forward, Fargo (Minnesota-Duluth): Believe it or not, there really isn’t much to find on Farley in regards to the NHL Draft. It’s pretty surprising given he’s been one of the most offensively-dynamic players in the USHL. He headed into the Christmas break in fourth place in the points race, second in the scoring race and either leads the league or is tied for the league in at least three offensive categories.

Young Americans…

The NTDP’s U-18 Team may have left Fargo with a shootout loss, but they certainly left an impression for sure.

For your Sunday reading pleasure here’s a look at the five players on the U-18 team who were the biggest standouts. Some might not come as a shocker but others could be guys to keep an eye out for.

5. Jacob Trouba, defenseman, committed to Michigan: Trouba had a busy night but was really active in the third. His assist helped Kyle Osterberg tie the game at 2-2 and he helped spearhead the U-18s comeback and sent the game into a shootout. Trouba was physical. He was consistently keeping away from the crease. Trouba didn’t mind using his 6-2, 194-pound frame to finish checks and establish he’s not going to let much get by him. Aside from his assist, he had four shots in the game and was really busy on the power play. It was the second straight game Trouba had four or more shots.

4. Kyle Osterberg, forward, committed to Minnesota-Duluth: Given all the names on this team who are frequently discussed, Osterberg flies under the radar. If he keeps having games like this, it won’t continue for long. Osterberg had a goal and an assist and really came alive in the third period. He scored the game-tying goal to open the third and helped set up another game-tying goal late in the frame. Osterberg has three points in his last two games, which could be a sign. Osteberg could be breaking out of his shell. He only has seven shots on the season. He had one in the game against Fargo. He has two goals on the year. Maybe he should look into shooting just a bit more. That and he’s the kind of player who proves a hypothesis I keep having. If the USHL didn’t exist and Lakeville never split into two high schools, guys like Osterberg would make that community the new Edina when it comes to dominating Minnesota High School Hockey.

3. Stefan Matteau, forward, committed to North Dakota: You know he’s a guy to watch. Matteau shows you why. No.1, he’s just gifted. No bones about it. Guy was always around the net looking for anything. If there was a loose puck, he was nearby. If offense needed to be generated, he was right there. Matteau just does a lot of things to help his team win beyond scoring goals. He has three points in his last four games and is a plus-4 during this stretch. That and dude has hands. He showed it in the shootout making a nice move against fellow North Dakota commit Zane Gothberg. Matteau started his stride and stopped firing a quick but hard shot to handcuff Gothberg. There’s really a lot to like about Matteau especially if you’re a UND fan.

2. Nick Kerdiles, forward, committed to Wisconsin: He came real close to being the No. 1 guy on this list. He was that impressive. Osterberg had two points but he was really the U-18s No. 1 threat. He had a game-high six shots which was as many the Force had in the first and second period. Kerdiles just made people take notice of where he was on the ice at all times. Though his best moment came when he tied the game at 3-3 eventually forcing overtime. Osterberg played a pass to him and from there, Kerdiles went around the net and just quickly threw one by Gothberg on the wraparound. He went around the net virtually untouched. His one blemish on the night was the shootout. With a chance to win the game he put a shot on net, which went way, way wide. Other than that, he was the U-18′s most consistent forward.

1. Seth Jones, defenseman: Remember the scene in “Friday Night Lights” when Booby Miles is going off about how hype isn’t real and how he is? Well, it might be a decent way to describe Jones. It’s easy to understand why so many people are enamored with him. He makes a lot of smart decisions. He doesn’t put himself in position to take not just bad penalties but really penalties period. It’s probably why he has six penalty minutes in just the seven USHL games he’s played this season. His 14 points in 28 games last season could be eclipsed this season. Jones has five points (1 goal, four assists) through seven games this year. He has three points in his last five. Assists may be his forte, but his shot is absolutely killer. The U-18s had an extremely long 5-on-3 chance and it gave Jones a chance to showcase what we can do. He found his teammates with tape-to-tape passes but when it came time to shoot, he had no trouble pulling the trigger. Jones has a straight-line shot, which was really hard and really fast. The only times it didn’t reach net is if someone got in the way of it or if it just missed net. Neither one happened often.

 

Anyways, that’s it for today’s Sunday Funday reading. Check back tomorrow where we’ll take a look back at the Force’s weekend and perhaps a little bit more.

Yankee Doodle Dandy…

Today’s preview is actually different than most and that’s because the focus is on USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.

USA Hockey’s program or The NTDP, for short, basically houses, trains and cultivates what is said to be this nation’s top talent. It has two teams – a U-17 and a U-18 – that both play in the USHL and if the program makes the playoffs, it is the U-17 team that will compete in the postseason.

They also play in international competitions as well. Bear with me but here’s what makes this preview different. The players from last year’s U-18 team are either in college or playing juniors somewhere else because they have aged out. The players from last season’s U-17 team just moved up to the U-18 team while new players were brought into the program to comprise this year’s U-17 team.

Although different than the rest - Cedar Rapids, Chicago, Dubuque, Green Bay, Indiana and Muskegon – here is a preview for the NTDP for the upcoming season.

Team USA (2010-11: 30-25-5; lost in the first round of the playoffs)

Coach: Danton Cole (U-18) and Don Granato (U-17)

Who’s New (U-18): Seth Jones, defenseman; Jacob Trouba, defenseman; Miles Koules (North Dakota), forward; Brady Skjei (Minnesota), defenseman; Nick Kerdiles (Wisconsin), forward; Stefan Matteau (North Dakota), forward; Quentin Shore (Denver), forward; Riley Barber (played last season at Dubuque/committed to Miami (Ohio)); Collin Olson (Ohio State), goaltender; Jared Rutledge, goaltender.

Who’s New (U-17): Gage Ausmus (Denver), defenseman; Keaton Thompson (North Dakota), defenseman; J.T. Compher (Michigan), forward; Trevor Hamilton (Miami (Ohio)), defenseman; Mike McCarron (Michigan State), forward; Will Butcher (Denver), defenseman; Hudson Fasching, forward.

What’s Going On: The NTDP got a bit of a shake up over the summer when coach Ron Rolston left the program to become the head coach of the Rochester Americans, the AHL affliate of the Buffalo Sabres. That resulted in the program hiring Don Granato to replace him. Here’s how it all works, per Chris Peters over at the United States of Hockey blog.

Cole will coach players with even-numbered birth years (i.e. 1994, 1996) while Granato has the players with the odd-numbered birth years (i.e. 1995, 1997) so that way both stay with their group and coach at the U-17 and U-18 level.

Another significant change to the NTDP this season was goaltending coach Joe Exter leaving to take the same position at Ohio State. Exter was responsible for developing talent like former first-rounder Jack Campbell (Dallas Stars) and John Gibson, who was drafted last season by the Anaheim Ducks. The program went with former New Hampshire star Mike Ayers, who will look to foster the next crop of high-end American goaltenders.

As for the talent, well, they’re obviously pretty good. There are many names to watch out for in regards to the coming draft. Trouba and Kerdiles have been the two most talked about players on the U-18 team. Jones, who’s father, Popeye, played in the NBA, is a guy that many are high on for his poise and maturity. So basically expect another year of hearing Gary Bettman say (insert team name) selects (insert player) from the Team USA National Team Development Program.

On the U-17 level, there’s also a lot to be excited about. Fasching is a name that stands out for many as he was one of the most gifted forwards last season in Minnesota while playing for Apple Valley.  He scored 50 points (18 goals, 32 assists) in 28 games last season. He also has a hulking and still growing frame as he’s 6-2 and a 190 pounds. Another player to watch is Thompson, who actually spent last season with the Fargo Force before accepting an invite to play with the NTDP. He’s the second North Dakotan-born player to ever play for the NTDP and earlier this summer he committed to the Sioux. He started for Devils Lake, his high school team, as an eighth grader and last season led the state’s defensemen in scoring before jumping to the Force. Thompson might be the only U-17 player with USHL experience but in truth, this will be his first full season with the team.

The NTDP made the playoffs last year and there’s a good chance that the same thing could happen this year. There’s obviously enough talent that lends itself to grabbing one of the Top 6 spots in the East. How far they go in the playoffs, however, that remains to be seen.

 

Friday’s Preview: Youngstown Phantoms