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.”

All Around The World…

Fargo Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis said defenseman Victor Bjorkung (Maine) will play with the team next season.

Bjorkung, 19, was a late-round selection last month in the USHL Entry Draft.

“We just offered him last week and he’s coming for sure,” Davis said. “He had to work on getting his visa and stuff like that. He got everything in place and booked his plane tickets and he’s coming to play in our league. The rumors that he was looking at other options are pretty much all done.”

Bjorkung has spent three of his last four seasons playing with the Djurgarden program in his native Sweden. He also spent a season with Malmo. He played 42 games last season scoring 17 points (4 goals, 13 assists) for the U-20 team. In the 2010-11 season, he split time between Djugarden’s U-18 Elite Team, the program’s U-18 Allsvenskan and one game in the Super Elite league.

Between the three leagues, he scored 27 points in 38 games. Altogether, he played in 120 games scoring 77 points during his time in Sweden.

Davis previously said leading up to the draft the team hadn’t heard about Bjorkung but kept hearing his name come up from various parties.

Those same parties told Davis that Bjorkung had accepted a scholarship to play at Maine but was also weighing options to play professionally back in Sweden. It is why the Force took him in the later rounds and it’s what Davis called taking a pick on a player whose still sorting over their future.

“He’s all set to come over and we spoke with his father,” Davis said. “Now they’re just trying to figure out what to bring over. I just told them to pack some warm clothes.”

Bjorkung has been described as a, “high-end, skilled defenseman” at the time the Force took him in the draft. The plan would be for Bjorkung to play on the power play, which was one of the best in the entire USHL last season.

Getting the 6-foot, 174-pound Bjorkung could also help make up for the losses the Force’s blueline have suffered this off-season. The Force were already losing Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth) and potential second-round selection Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) to college for next season.

Shortly after training camp, the team lost Taylor Richart who accepted a scholarship from Miami (Ohio), where he will be playing next season.

It leaves the Force with at least four defensemen expected to return from last year’s team in Justin Wade (Notre Dame), Dominic Racobaldo, Neal Goff and Taylor Fleming. Defenseman David Mead’s future is still up in the air with the team which could leave another opening on the blueline.

The returning four defenseman plus Bjorkung and tender signee Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) give the Force at least six justified defensemen before heading into their pre-season camp which will begin in August.

Nothin’ On You…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posse…

Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis said yesterday the team had three priorities heading into the USHL Entry Draft and goaltending was the No. 1.

The team selected Fresno (NAHL) goaltender Tomas Sholl (Bowling Green) with its first pick in the second round. Davis said Sholl was the closest thing available to outgoing goaltender Zane Gothberg (North Dakota), who was named the USHL’s Co-Goaltender of the Year this week.

Davis said the team’s remaining priorities were getting more defensemen and adding toughness, which became important following the Force’s second-round elimination against the extremely physical Lincoln Stars.

Sixteen players are set to return to the Force next season which could put the team in position to contend next season. Here’s a look at the players the Force drafted and as Davis said, there are some who have a strong chance of making next year’s roster.
Tomas Sholl, goaltender (Bowling Green): We’ve seen him in the NAHL and he was a pretty skilled goaltender there. Our tryout camps are going to tell us a lot about our goaltending situation and all of our players. As far as goalies go, he can stop the puck and we have confidence in him. If we decide to go with him and he’s our guy, that’s what its going to be.

Matt Pohlkamp, forward (Bowling Green): He was a guy that we saw last year in the Elite League and in Minnesota high school hockey who we thought was pretty good. A kid that grew year after year as a hockey player and we just kept watching him closely. Came and skated with us at the end of the high school year. He’s committed to Bowling Green and we have a good relationship with those guys there. A little bit of what we are losing in Jonny Brodzinski (St. Cloud State), we are getting back in Matt Pohlkamp. He and Tomas were the two guys we wanted to get and we did.

Charles Hemstrom, defenseman: I have known Charlie for a ling tome. I coached him the past back in Detroit and when you start looking down the list of our needs for a hockey team for next year, Charlie has junior experience. He’s a hard-nosed defenseman and brings a lot of toughness with him and that was something we were lacking looking at roster for next season. I watched Charlie closely this year in the NAHL. Watched him in NAHL Tournament and we decided around that time we’d take him and we did. Big body, hard-nosed, hitter, likes to be a hitter. Defensively sound and not a power play guy but could because of his good shot. Just a solid, solid puck-moving defenseman.

Jared Dedenbach, forward: Jared is another Detroit kid I’ve known a long time and it’s fun seeing these kids when you’ve known them for so long. You’ve seen where they’ve come from and where they are at now. He played in Chicago for the Fury with Dave Gust two years ago. He has good size, skates real well, very very physical and guy we brought in for toughness. He has some good skill and shoots the puck really well. One of few guys who could step in from midget hockey to our league. That’s a big step coming from Triple A to our league. We feel Jared fits the role. Not asking him to come in and score 50 goals but we want him to score, finish checks and he should be tough to play against. We feel he can do that. I don’t know what his potential can be from here.

Teemu Kivihalme, defenseman: He’s a guy we’ve had our eyes on. We had them on him last year for the Futures Draft and kept him on our list. (Force assistant Byron Pool) loves him and was always talking about him this year. We decided that we wanted him to be part of our roster. I don’t think he is going to leave and make our team next year. We took him and when you take guys in the draft and three or four teams are mad at you, that’s when we know we made a good move. He’s still growing. He got a lot bigger this season and growing form a young boy into a man and now he’s just a puck mover. You don’t notice him because he does not make mistakes. By the time he is ready for us, he could have more to him. I can see him getting a Division I scholarship soon.

Mikey Eyssimont, forward : Another guy we were looking to fill on our affiliates list. We had open spot with tendering (defenseman Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan)) and we had an open ’96 (birthyear) spot. He was on our list to draft and saw him two years ago for the first time and was a high-end skilled centerman and was injured for most of this season. As Futures Draft went by, we didn’t see anyone take him. I saw him this spring in a showcase tournament and was one the best players there. His skill translated from last year to this year and he got better and we knew at that point we needed to get him on our affiliate list.

Chase Priske, defenseman (Qunnipiac): He was another guy we had on our list for the Futures Draft. We cannot take everyone and we decided we could get him later and that’s what we did. We have a feeling that (Futures Draft picks) Mason Morelli and Michael Booth will make our club and there will be another open spot. We’ll move him over to the affiliates list. He’s from Florida originally and played at a new prep school program. He’s already committed to a school and it is time for him to grow and getting bigger and stronger.

Aaron Herdt, forward: Aaron is a local talent. He’s been out to skate with us on some practices and was a kid we wanted to keep our hands on. My feeling is his potential is just unknown. Has a really good skillset right now and we didn’t want to miss out on him and was excited just when we would call him and tell him to come to practice. We have a good relationship with Moorhead and felt we had to have him in our program.

On Herdt, a Moorhead native, possibly being the first Fargo-Moorhead kid to ever play for the Force: Yeah, that’s a big thing. I know we get criticized on why we don’t take more local kids and (critics) don’t understand what else is out there. He has the potential to make our hockey team one day. We’re excited to sit back and watch what he is going to do. There’s no real set idea on how good he can be. He’s a rink rat.  His grandpa (Moorhead Youth Arena manager Dennis Bushy) runs the rink over there and they gave him a key to the place.

Hudson Friesen, defenseman: That’s one John kind of threw in there. He coached against him. We had him on the board and leading up to the draft, when we started calling different college guys and different people, his name kept coming up form different guys. Guys with no vested interest other than they saw him play. First step is to get him to camp. He was excited when he called him.

Perry Holcombe, defenseman: Perry is another guy we’ve been on for a few years. He’scComing from a remote area (Georgia) where there is not a lot of hockey. That’s why he got out. He moved on to prep school and is just a guy that always made the national camps and had opporuntity to skate with us and practice and did pretty good. Sometimes kids come in a little bit nervous and he fit right in. He felt like was one of the guys when he was here. We were surprised he was still around at that point. When you look at needs we got a goalie and Pohlkamp and some guys we figured could get.

CJ Garcia, defenseman: CJ, I guess, the one player on the Don MIlls team I was looking at and as a result we also ended up drafting (Futures pick Sal Filice). As we moved on to this draft, he was still a guy we had interest in. They (Garcia and his family) are bartering back and forth between the NCAA and OHL route and that’s something a lot of Candaian kids do. CJ was drafted pretty high in that league. He was drafted by Barrie. We worked diligently talking with his adviser and figured we don’t have a 100 percent “No.” The way the USA Hockey and Hockey Canaida rules are, he could not come here next year and figured, let’s draft him and easiest way to convice him that we want him here is to draft him. He’s a high-end player whatever route he goes.

-Victor Bjorkung, defenseman (Maine): He’s a guy we really didn’t know about. Leading up to the draft we were making our phone calls to talk to people and his name came up. He’s a Maine commit and another player kind of similar to CJ with the different options. He has options in Europe to play pro hockey. He also wants a college education and got the scholarship to Maine and is on the fence on what to do. They are brought up one way over there and don’t know about the USHL. Its an education process and we want to show him that we like him. We want to get him over here and go from there. Unsure where he’s going to go and it is not a 100 percent “No” on coming over here. Now we’ve drafted him and kind of go from there. The later rounds is about getting flyer picks. You are sure they can play but not sure of the direction they are going. High-end skilled, power play type guy. Maine was excited we took him and they feel it would help bring him over here. He’s another guy who when we took him, a lot of teams said, “Whoa. That was a good one.”

Brett Boehm, forward (Minnesota-Duluth): We knew a litlte bit about him before he even committed form Duluth. It’s good to get a kid like this in our league. Not just to Fargo but for our league as a whole. That being kids deciding to go to the college route or going to play for soon-to-be former WCHA teams. They are going to play in our area in college so why don’t they play in our league and play for Fargo?

Hometown Glory…

Add finding a forward for tonight’s USHL Entry Draft plans for the Force as Jonny Brodzinski said this morning he would not return to the team.

Brodzinski, instead, will be playing next season at St. Cloud State. He said in a text message he would be going to college. The 6-0, 185-pound former Blaine (MN-HS) star committed to St. Cloud State shortly after he joined the Force last season.

He becomes the seventh known player to leave the Force due to a college commitment and is the fourth forward to depart.

Brodzinski was used in a multitude of roles during his one-plus year tenure with the Force.

Under former Force coach Jason Herter, he was used as a winger on the second and third lines putting up five points in 10 games. Under John Marks, Brodzinski became a third-line player who took a more active role in his defensive game.

He scored 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 58 games which tied for third among Force players with most games played this season. Brodzinski was tied with Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth) while Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth) and Taylor Richart, Brodzinski’s former high school teammate, played all 60 games.

Brodzinski and his line of Nate Arentz and Neal Goff were one of the Force’s strongest during the postseason playing a hybrid offensive/defense role, which got the team to the second-round for a tightly-contested series against the Lincoln Stars.

Back in February 2011, he came to the Force as a free agent signing as he led Blaine in scoring and to another Minnesota state hockey tournament. Following Blaine’s elimination, he and his family drove through blizzard-like conditions for him to make his Force debut and to get in the 10 games needed to stay protected for the following season.

His senior season and exposure with the Force resulted in Brodzinski being recruited by multiple schools including Bemidji State and Maine, which offered him a scholarship. He was also slated to visit with Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan before he committed to St. Cloud State.

Brodzinski’s father, Mike Sr., set numerous school records at St. Cloud State including most goals in a season.

Going to St. Cloud State adds to what is already a robust pipeline between the school and the Force. Former Force forwards Nick Oliver and Joe Rehkamp – a mid-season addition – played there along with former goaltender Mike Lee. Lee recently signed a contract with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Brodzinski will also be joined by former Force teammate and Omaha Lancers forward Jimmy Murray next season. It remains to be seen if former Force coach Steve Johnson will be at St. Cloud next season.

Mick Hatten of the St. Cloud Times recently reported Johnson was under strong consideration for an assistant opening at Nebraska-Omaha, another school with a Force pipeline.

Brodzinski’s decision comes a day after his younger brother, Michael (Minnesota), had a successful operation to remove a tumor. Brodzinski posted a photo of his brother via Twitter, which showed bandaging around his head.

Michael Brodzinski led Blaine to another state tournament appearance this year and afterward, came to the USHL where he played with the Muskegon Lumberjacks. He played in three games with the Lumberjacks picking up one point.

“He’s doing great,” Brodzinski said in the text about his brother.

Futures…

Tonight marks the USHL Futures Draft where every team in the league will look to get better whether its right away or in the future.

Last year’s Futures Draft watched Waterloo and Fargo strike it rich by selecting Taylor Cammarata and Gabe Guertler (both Minnesota) first and second overall. Both were a big part of their teams reaching the Western Conference playoffs.

And there have been other players such as Muskegon defenseman Michael Brodzinski (Minnesota) who despite not playing a full USHL season, has impressed quite a bit of people with what he did in high school before making the jump.

Omaha holds the No. 1 overall pick followed by Waterloo and now Fargo after it traded up from seventh with Tri-City, which initially held the No. 3 pick.

There’s no guaranteeing who each pick will pan out but here’s a look at a few players who could certainly either have an impact on your team whether it be next season or beyond.

-Shane Gersich, forward: Let’s get this one out of the way. He’s already been one of the most talked about forwards, OK, players that could go in this year’s draft. USHL scouts have said Gersich should go No. 1 today. One scout said in a text, “I think he’s a no brainer.” Gerisch might have been the most impressive freshman in Minnesota high school hockey this year. He scored 60 points (30 goals, 30 assists) in 21 games for Holy Family. At 5-11, 174 pounds, he already has good size for a player at his age level. Feeling is Gersich will be a first-round pick. Assuming he doesn’t go No. 1, he should be selected really high in this year’s draft. He was also played for Team USA at the World Youth Olympic Games this past January. In fact, he was one of three Minnesotans to make the team.

-Adam Baughman, defenseman: At 6-2, 175 pounds, this will be one of the defensemen to watch in this year’s draft. He played this season for the Chicago Mission in the first-year High Performance Hockey League. Offense didn’t appear to be his forte picking up three points in 22 games. But he was a force in those 22 games as the Mission only lost once and tied twice with him in the lineup for the U-16s. He also represented Team USA at the World Youth Olympic Games.

-Marcel Godbout, defenseman (Michigan State): Like Gersich, Godbout comes in with an extremely high profile. He spent this past season at Shattuck-St. Mary’s (MN-HS), He appears to be the next prospect touted for success of the Shattuck assembly line given what he did for the school’s U-16 team. He scored 42 points (18 goals, 24 assists) in 46 games. At 5-9, 175 pounds, he isn’t the biggest player but the impact he could have on a team would be huge. The Detroit native also played two years for Belle Tire scoring 102 points in 61 career games. He also played at forward in the Youth Olympic Games.

-Nick Magyar, forward (Ohio State): Here is another guy that will probably go really, really high. At 6-2, 185 pounds he was an absolute monster for the Cleveland Barons this season scoring 94 points (42 goals, 52 assists) while committing to college in the process. Magyar, who is from Mentor, Ohio, is another one of these players who impressed USA Hockey enough to make the Youth Olympic Games team.

-Robby Nardella, defenseman: Nardella was actually teammates with Baughman at Chicago Mission, a program which has certainly been fertile for USHL clubs. Nardella, compared to Baughman, is a bit more offenisve-minded having scored 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists) in 29 games. His father actually played in the USHL scoring more than 100 career points for the Des Moines Buccaneers.

-Jack Walker, defenseman: Now here’s the other guy who could challenge Gersich for Minnesota’s most impressive freshman. Walker was part of an extremely young Edina team which reach the state tournament and lost in a one-goal thriller to Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the opening round. Walker played in a total of 29 games scoring 14 points (2 goals, 12 assists) while being reliable for the Hornets, which are a favorite to win state next season. Keep this in mind. Walker’s rights are owned by the Victoria Royals in the Western Hockey League where his brother, Ben, plays. It’ll be interesting to see who takes a chance on Walker knowing he might never end up in the USHL.

-Joe Snively, forward: Snively spent this past season at South Kent School (CT-HS), which is certainly a prep hockey power. He won the team’s MVP award having scored an impressive 35 goals in 47 games this year. The most updated roster we’ve seen has him listed at 5-7, 140 pounds. He’s also an attacker for the school’s lacrosse team.

-Liam Pecararo, forward (Maine): Here’s a guy who has already received excitement from quite a few Maine fans awaiting his arrival. He spent this past season at Boston Advantage where he scored 52 points (11 goals, 41 assists) in 40 games while playing for the U-18 team for the second year in a row. Yes, you read that right. He’s played for the U-18 team for two years. He bounced back from a first season where he played 20 games scoring five points before having an impressive season this year.

-Mason Morelli, forward: Morelli from what we’ve heard from scouts and others had his draft stock soar when he attended the USHL Combine. He opened with a hat trick in his first game and from there has certainly captured the attention of quite a few people. Now here’s where it gets rather interesting. Morelli, is 5-11 and a 185 pounds, is from Minot, N.D. and we all know the Force have had a fondness for North Dakota kids. Morelli played this season at Minot (ND-HS) and for the city’s NAHL team. In high school, he scored 40 points (22 goals and 18 assists) in 26 games and then made the transition to score 3 points in 11 games in the NAHL.

-Ryan Norman, forward: Once again, here’s another guy off that Shattuck team who could very well go in the first round. Norman, as a ninth-grader, was second on the sophomore and junior heavy U-16 team and was second in scoring. He scored 33 goals and 28 assists for 61 points. He’s 5-10 and 180 pounds and is only going to get bigger and better. Schools have started to take notice as Wisconsin is allegedly showing interest in him.

-Christian Dvorak, forward: Get to know this name. Get to know it quickly because it appears this kid has quite a bit of potential. He was part of the Chicago Mission U-16s and did quite a bit of damage this year. Dvorak had 45 points (21 goals, 24 assists) in 29 games this season. From his 2006/07 season to his 2010/11 season, Dvorak registered an impressive 172 points (90 goals, 82 assists) in 144 games. He joins Norman as a player apparently on the Badgers’ recruiting radar.

Blue Train…

Because gearing up for a playoff run isn’t enough.

Tuning up for the playoffs has been a focal point at Fargo Force practices lately. Practices have also been used as a bit of a tryout camp for players the Force either have on their affiliates list or they are looking at drafting in the upcoming USHL drafts.

“We’ve had guys who’ve been are on Spring Break at school and they’ll fly or drive out for a few days,” said Force assistant and chief scout Jesse Davis.

Quite a few players have practiced with the Force with the most notable being former Duluth East forward Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth) and former St. Thomas Academy defenseman Eric Schurhamer (Maine). Both Toninato and Schurhamer were finalists for the state’s Mr. Hockey award.

Toninato, who is on the Force’s affiliate list, has already played a few games with the team and will play again this weekend, Davis said.

As for Schurhamer, he’s in a bit of a different situation. He’s a two-time Minnesota state champion with a college commitment who just doesn’t have a place to play junior hockey for next season.

“I just want to find a home where I can play and find coaches that will develop me so I can go on to the next level,” said Schurhamer, who also played high school hockey with Force defenseman Taylor Fleming. “I just want to out there and prove myself too.”

Schurhamer admitted playing against stronger and faster competition is certainly a change compared to what he’s used to seeing.

He’s not the only one. Many of the players the Force have had at practice have played high school hockey or midget hockey, which usually doesn’t feature the size and speed seen in junior hockey.

“Going into it people you know are a committed kid,” Schurhamer said. “It could put you up in the ranks a little bit higher above other kids. You are still really driven to get to the next level and for me, it’s like having a target on my back so I strive to be better in tryouts.”

Schurhamer said he had a tryout with the Chicago Steel but his only other USHL tryout, for now, has been with the Force.

He added he’d like to play in Fargo given how close it is to where his family lives in the Twin Cities.

Something says he might not be the only one. The team’s practice on Thursday featured quite a few players from Minnesota including Blaine forward Tyler Cline and Totino-Grace’s Kai Barber.

If Cline were to come to Fargo, he’d be the latest extension in what has become a mini-pipeline between the Force and the Bengals. Current Force players Jonny Brodzinski (St. Cloud State) and Taylor Richart played at Blaine where Richart’s dad is an assistant coach. Cline, a sophomore, scored 33 points in 25 games for Blaine last season.

As for Barber, he was a member of a Totino-Grace team which fell to Schurhamer and St. Thomas Academy by a goal in the section finals.The 5-10, 195-pound Barber played varsity as a sophomore last season with five points in 22 games.

Should Barber get drafted and come to the team, he’d add to a list that could have some famous family members.

Barber, Davis said, is the nephew of former NFL running back and Minnesota star Marion Barber. Barber did play football at Totino-Grace this season rushing 32 times for 162 yards in two touchdowns over six regular season games while catching 13 passes for 110 yards and one touchdown.

Then there is Toninato – the godson of NHL Hall of Famer Brett Hull, who played hockey with Toninato’s father at Minnesota-Duluth.

“We’re happy with the guys we’ve had here at camp,” Davis said. “In practice when we run our power play and penalty kill, our guys know what to expect against each other. These guys don’t so it’s good to have that this late in the year.”

Ring My Bell…

Let’s think about this one for a second.

The Dubuque Fighting Saints are in their second season and have accomplished quite a bit in that time. There’s winning last season’s Clark Cup title. There’s last season’s phenom John Gaudreau, who in a year picked up several trophies, was drafted by the Calgary Flames and is now at Boston College playing in the Frozen Four.

And then there’s players like Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and Michael Matheson (Boston College), who could be the USHL’s first set of non-NTDP teammates to go in the first round in quite a while.

You might think that’d be enough but you’re dead wrong. There’s another accolade this franchise is gunning for and that’s the Cowbell Cup.

No. We’re not joking. It really is called the Cowbell Cup.

We’ve seen a season where coaches have had toilets placed in their parking spots a day before they were fired by the team. So why can’t there be a team trying to become the first-ever Cowbell Cup Champs?

Dubuque sent out a release late Wednesday explaining how a win on Friday over the Waterloo Black Hawks would give them the trophy-clinching win.

“The Black Hawks and Rough Riders are our two closest rivals,” said Dubuque coach and Maine legend Jim Montgomery in a release. “Their fans come to our games, and our fans go to Waterloo and Cedar Rapids in droves when we play there.  It’s an opportunity for us to stake a claim to being the best team in Eastern Iowa.”

The Cowbell Cup Series (yeah, that thing needs a dairy farm as a sponsor) is a three-team series between Dubuque, Waterloo and the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. Whoever finishes first between the three teams, of course, takes the cup.

For as cool as this is, it makes us wonder why aren’t there more rivalry trophies in the USHL? Just saying. If a life-sized bust of Tom Osborne went to the winner of the Lincoln/Omaha/Tri-City series, we could see some classic games.

Or not.

Either way, we’ll be back later today with a few items such as the USHL Coach of the Year candidates and some insightful stories from Popeye Jones on his son, Seth, who by all accounts could be the No. 1 pick in next season’s NHL Draft.

Until then, have a good one.

 

New Lands…

As we promised, we’re back with the candidates for Rookie of the Year.

Figuring out Rookie of the Year can be a bit of a tricky one. Take Taylor Cammarata (Minnesota) and Austin Cangelosi (Boston College) for example. Both players have come in and have really shaped their teams. Cammarata is 16 while Cangelosi is 17.

Then there are the players like Alex Lyon (Yale), who graduated last year from Lake of the Woods (MN-HS) in Baudette before coming to the league.

-Kevin Roy, forward, Lincoln (Brown): He has a league-leading 96 points. He has a league-leading 49 goals. He’s helping break the myth the USHL is a challenging league for forwards. He’s a Player of the Year frontrunner. He’s a Forward of the Year frontunner. He just might be the Rookie of the Year frontrunner too. Disagree with the following statement if you want: Kevin Roy is having arguably the best individual season in USHL history.

-Taylor Cammarata, forward, Waterloo (Minnesota): On a team full of draft picks and former Minnesota high school stars, Cammarata has really guided the ship. He’s been consistent with how he’s sculpted this team’s identity. He opened the season creating plays before taking over as a goal-scorer. He and his 62 points (25 goals, 37 assists) have helped Waterloo, which now finds itself in striking distance of a first-round playoff bye with two weeks left in the season.

-Michael Matheson, defenseman, Dubuque (Boston College): Give Matheson some credit. He came into the season with expectations regarding his offense but has shown he certainly has two-way capability. Dubuque’s defense has been tested all year especially when it lost goaltender Matt Morris (Maine) to an injury. Take a look at Dubuque’s defense and you’ll see when it comes to the numbers, they challenge Fargo and Green Bay for the title of the league’s best.

-Austin Cangelosi, forward, Youngstown (Boston College): Similar to Cammarata, except Cangelosi didn’t have to shoulder the burden by himself. He’s had help but he’s certainly managed to have an impact. His 55 points are second on his team and are 10th in the entire USHL. All of this has helped Youngstown have maybe the best season of any team in the USHL that isn’t Green Bay.

-Robbie Baillargeon, forward, Indiana (Boston University): Ball So Hard has been incredible on a team which has been defined by its more experienced players. He’s made people realize there’s more to Indiana than just Daniil Tarasov, Sean Kuraly (Miami (Ohio)) and Jacob Fallon (Vermont) up front. He’s added another scoring punch especially on the power play. He’s scored 20 points (4 goals, 16 assists) on the one-man advantage this season.

-Michael Downing, defenseman, Dubuque (Michigan): Remember what we were saying about the Fighting Saints’ defense being one of the best in the league? Downing is a reason why. Dubuque has the top penalty killing unit in the USHL. It is third in goals allowed and has no issue suppressing a team in one-goal games. Downing has been Captain Consistency given that he’s played in 50 of his team’s 56 games which is quite a bit for a rookie. Especially a rookie defenseman.

-Alex Lyon, goaltender, Omaha (Yale): Take a look around Omaha’s roster and it cane be argued there’s four or five Rookie of the Year candidates in general. We’re going with Lyon because he’s been solid for them all year even when the offense was sputtering. Lyon has that ability to make just about every game close and has established himself in a goalie-heavy conference. Lyon, in the course of a month, could face Tri-City’s Adam Wilcox (Minnesota), Fargo’s Zane Gothberg (North Dakota), Waterloo’s Stephon Williams (Minnesota-Mankato) and a bonafide stud in Sioux City’s Matt Skoff (Penn State), who is second in the USHL in shutouts. Lyon is 25-15-3 with a 2.80 GAA and a .909 save percentage. Oh and then there’s this little note, he’s doing all this while playing for a first-place team.

-Bryn Chyzyk, forward, Fargo (North Dakota): We’ve watched Chyzyk get severe back spasms with the way he carried the Force at certain times this year. Guy was the best forward to open the season and has continued to be that during injuries, losing streaks, nine-game winning streaks and everything else. Chyzyk’s 26 goals are tied for 10th in the USHL. But he does more than score. Chyzyk has the ability to stop a power play dead in its tracks by stealing the puck at the point and turning it into a shorthanded breakaway chance.

VERDICT: Quite a bit of names. Lot of deserving names at that. If we narrow it down to four, we’ll take Roy, Lyon, Matheson and Cangelosi. And from those four, we’ll narrow down the final two to Roy and Matheson. Roy has certainly been the engine that makes Lincoln run. Though Matheson has helped anchor a defense which has withstood the likes of Green Bay, Indiana, Youngstown and a young, but mad gifted U-17 and U-18 team out East. Roy is the Everything of the Year and it is hard to argue against anything he is done. Matheson’s been great but where would Lincoln be without Roy? They’d be playoff-bound for sure but would the this much of a threat to challenge for a Clark Cup? We’re not so sure. Our winner for Rookie of the Year is Roy.

 

NEXT: Coach of the Year

Leader of the Pack…

Now that the Minnesota state boys hockey tournament is over, it means USHL and NAHL teams are going to be taking a look at some undrafted players.

There were some players everyone knew about while there were others who used the tournament to boost their stock and maybe increase their chances of playing junior hockey and beyond.

Here’s a look at 10 players who not only helped their teams but themselves:

-Christian Horn, forward, Benilde-St. Margaret’s: Horn really couldn’t have asked for a better last two weeks of the season. He scored six points in the section playoffs and six points in the state tournament helping the Red Knights win the Class 2A title. Horn is a former Omaha Lancers draft pick but isn’t on the team’s affiliate’s list. It means he’s eligible for the upcoming USHL Entry Draft. With what he did in the playoffs and the whole season scoring 70 points makes him a likeable option for a team needing a forward with skill, pace and goalscoring ability.

-Michael Bitzer, goaltender, Moorhead: If you’ve read this blog, you know we don’t ever mention Bitzer. OK. Slightly Chilled has been on Bitzer Watch since Thursday and as we’ve detailed, he has options. Bitzer, who won the Frank Brimsek Award for Minnesota’s best senior goaltender, signed a tender with Alexandria (NAHL) earlier in the year but it appears he could very much have a future in the USHL too. Bitzer said Sunday afternoon he’s talked with a few colleges but nothing has been offered. He’ll likely spend next year in juniors. Where? That’s anyone’s guess.

-Charlie Sampair, forward, Hill-Murray: Yeah, we had a hard time believing he wasn’t on any affiliate lists either. The Pioneers only have two players on USHL affiliates list (Blake Heinrich and Jake Guentzel – both with Sioux City) but that could certainly change. Sampair, a Mr. Hockey finalist, finished the year with 51 points and had a decent tournament. He had three points in three games but only one goal. But he did other things to really help his cause like using the body to deliver a hit along with being part of an impressive defense that stifled Moorhead and Maple Grove before falling apart against Benilde-St. Margaret’s.

-Sam Becker, defenseman, Hill-Murray: Let’s get this out of the way. If any player in Minnesota deserves some serious consideration it is Becker because he moved from forward to defense. In his first season he helped his team reach the state title game and made the all-tournament team. Becker was a project at Hill-Murray but he worked out being part of a defense which gave up five goals in five playoff games prior to the state title game.

-Terry Leabo, defenseman, Moorhead: This kid got the crap kicked out of him. Against Eagan, he took a puck to the neck and legs. Against Hill-Murray he had his chin split open and against Lakeville South, he stopped an empty net goal by diving and sacrificing his shins. Leabo blocked shots, went up against top-line forwards and still made it out OK even if he was the walking wounded. He like Bitzer signed a tender with Alexandria (NAHL), but don’t be surprised if he ends up somewhere else.

-Meirs Moore, defenseman, Duluth East: Lost in what was a tragic tournament for the Greyhounds was Moore. Moore has been a steady presence on the blueline with the offensive he can provide. He scored 47 points (13 goals and 34 assists) on what was a grossly talented team. East did win the consolation title and he could be the next name from East to make an impact. Moore is a junior so he has another year left but if selected by a USHL club, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

-Zach Lavalle, forward, Hill-Murray: Getting the sense Hill-Murray has some talent? Lavalle opened up with arguably the best first game of any player scoring four points (2 goals, 2 assists) in a domineering 5-2 win over Maple Grove. He only scored one more goal and that came in the 5-1 “title game” win for Benilde-St. Margaret’s, which stormed through the tournament. Lavalle got love on press row from quite a few people with how versatile he is and he still has a year left to grow. He’s a junior so don’t expect him to make the jump yet if he is taken by a USHL club.

-Eric Schurhamer, defenseman, St. Thomas Academy (Maine): Schurhamer’s a two-time state champ who was without question the best defenseman in Class 1A and maybe the whole state. He’s the only guy on this list committed to a school and has already stated he wants to be in the USHL next year. His sparkling regular season and state tournament surely helped him get notice and will more than likely be taken by a club in the upcoming draft.

-Wesley Iverson, forward, Breck: The talk, and rightly so, has been about his brother, Keegan, who could be playing in the WHL next season. Though Iverson did plenty this postseason to potentially pop up on someone’s radar. Aside from the semifinal loss against St. Thomas Academy, he grabbed at least one point in every game this post season. In fact, he scored 13 points in six games. Iverson has size and in the USHL, if a team can get a scorer with size, it goes a long way towards being a popular man.

-Conor Andrle, forward, Breck: He ripped this season apart with 79 points between the playoffs and the regular season. Andrle showed Breck was a multi-faceted threat which extended beyond Grant Opperman (Dartmouth). Given his consistency, one would think a team could take him in the mid-to-later rounds of the draft.