Keep You With Me…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Heat…

Just a few minutes ago, I was going through some old notes when I noticed something which happened a year ago today.

What happened was Jason Herter leaving the Fargo Force for Minnesota-Duluth to become an assistant. Herter’s departure opened the door for John Marks, who led the Force to a second-round playoff appearance.

And of course a year to the day, the Indiana Ice hire a new head coach, Ron Gay.

Pretty interesting given what’s gone on in the last year with USHL coaches. Let’s use May 22, 2011 as a starting date. Since then, 12 of the league’s franchises have replaced their head coaches.

No joke. Here’s the proof of what every team has done with its coaching situation.

In the Eastern Conference:

-Green Bay Gamblers: The Gamblers replaced Eric Rud, who left for his alma mater, Colorado College with Denver assistant Derek Lalonde. Lalonde, in his debut season, leads the team to one of the USHL’s greatest ever seasons and a Clark Cup title.

-Indiana Ice: Technically, they’ve gone through three coaches and four coaching changes in the last year. Charlie Skjodt was the team’s head coach when the season ended before he returned to the front office. The Ice hired Yale assistant Kyle Wallack, who was fired shortly before the playoffs. Skjodt returned to the bench and then the team hired Gay.

-Dubuque Fighting Saints: Former Maine great Jim Montgomery remains the team’s head coach. But here’s where it’s really interesting. He just finished his second season and he’s already the third most-tenured coach in the league. Interpret that one however you want.

-Youngstown Phantoms: Curtis Carr left the team late in the summer to become an assistant at Merrimack. Days later the team promoted assistant Anthony Noreen, who led the Phantoms to fourth in Eastern Conference.

-Cedar Rapids RoughRiders: Here’s the second team which hasn’t made a coaching change. It may never look that way either as Carlson has been there for 12 seasons and has a partial stake in the team’s ownership. Carlson, a former Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, has won everything imaginable from the Clark Cup to the Anderson Cup to the USHL’s Coach of the Year during his time in Cedar Rapids. He also led this year’s team to the playoffs, something he’s done every year he has been in the league.

-NTDP: USA Hockey lost Ron Rolston last season to the Rochester Americans (AHL), which is an affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. It resulted in the team hiring Don Granato. The NTDP also lost Kurt Kleinendorst and replaced him with Danton Cole. The program made the USHL Playoffs for a second straight season.

-Chicago Steel: The 2010-11 season wasn’t kind to the Steel, as the franchise suffered through a 9-43-8 season, easily one the worst in any realm of junior hockey in the last few years. It’s what led to the dismissal of Jon Waibel and the promotion of Scott McConnell. McConnell was made the team’s full-time head coach last summer. In his first full season, he led the Steel to a 25-31-4 mark and were just three points out of the playoffs.

-Muskegon Lumberjacks: Former Wisconsin assistant Kevin Patrick was among the 2011-12 season’s first coaching casualties. The team hired former NHL toughman Jim McKenzie, who had no previous junior experience. McKenzie and the Lumberjacks, despite improvement, still finished last in the Eastern Conference.

 

In the Western Conference:

-Lincoln Stars: Another weird case of the fluidity of this league. Stars coach Chad Johnson just finished his second year and he’s No. 4 in the league among tenured coaches.

-Omaha Lancers: Omaha got the trend going early in the 2011-12 season when it fired longtime USHL coach Bliss Littler. He was replaced by Mike Aikens, who led the team to a second-place finish during the regular season. Aikens signed an extension during the season.

-Waterloo Black Hawks: Behind Carlson, P.K. O’Handley is No. 2 when it comes to tenured coaches. He just finished this 10th season with the Black Hawks leading them to a Clark Cup Finals appearance. Like Carlson, O’Handley has won virtually every trophy a coach could win and when it comes to wins, ranks in the Top 10 all time.

-Fargo Force: Hiring Marks gave the Force their fourth coach in as many seasons. Marks, who is the sixth-most tenured coach in the league, already said he will stay this season and looks forward to a second year in Fargo.

-Sioux City Musketeers: Larson is technically the man who started the trend. He was hired May 22 by the Musketeers. He was at Minnesota-Duluth as an assistant. His departure resulted in the Bulldogs hiring Herter and the Force hiring Marks.

-Tri-City Storm: The team replaced Drew Schoneck with Josh Hauge during the middle of the year. Hauge led the Storm to a first-round appearance where they lost to eventual Western Conference champs, Waterloo. Even with an early exit, Tri-City returns all but six players and has what could be considered the strongest affiliates list in the USHL.

-Des Moines Buccaneers: Turmoil more or less blanketed the Bucs this season. Off-ice issues coupled with losing is what led to Regg Simon being fired. He was replaced in the off-season by Gamblers assistant Jon Rogger.

-Sioux Falls Stampede: Maybe no team has undergone more changes in the off-season than the Stampede. They fired longtime head coach Kevin Hartzell and in the span of a week, hired former North Dakota assistant Cary Eades. Eades oversaw the team’s Entry Draft and heads into next season with at least 15 returning players from the 2011-12 team.

Better Man…

A few weeks ago during a Fargo Force game, I was having the usual back-and-forth with NHL scouts.

Those guys are apt for discussing anything hockey-related. Doesn’t matter what the topic is. We were talking about something and out of the blue one of them asked about Waterloo Black Hawks forward Taylor Cammarata (Minnesota).

Specifically, the scout asked when am I going to do the story on how “amazing” the Waterloo forward has been as a rookie this year. I responded that I actually did that story but there’s a story no one knows that really tells it all about Cammarata.

This got him intrigued and with that, here is the story you don’t know about Cammarata.

Anyone who has read this blog since November knows my mother was diagnosed with cancer and I took time away from this thing to go visit her in Florida.

Several people – Force parents, Force officials, officials within the USHL, officials within USHL teams, parents of players in the league and total strangers – were all extremely kind and gracious by saying they were thinking and/or praying for my mother.

When I got back to Fargo practically every kid on the team wanted to know how she was doing and the same goes for the Force’s coaching staff and front office.

But of all the players in the USHL, Taylor Cammarata was the only one who emailed me about it.

Let that sink in for a second.

The NHL scouts that heard this story didn’t let it sink in as they were stunned to hear about this. It generated one of those, “you’re making that up” or “you’ve got to be screwing with me” looks.

Yeah, I write for a living but even I couldn’t make that one up. He really did send an email – most likely between school and practice – to let me know he was hoping my mother was getting better from cancer.

And no, I am not screwing with you.

Here’s a 16-year-old who I’d interviewed only once and he’s emailing me to see how my mother is doing and to let me know that he and his family are praying for her.

Very rarely will you ever read a column on this blog regarding the personal interactions I have with people within this league. As a journalist, I feel the storyteller should never be the story or even involved in the story unless its for something like a column. Even then, make it about the subject.

This is not one of those times.

Cammarata has certainly impressed many with what he’s done this year.

A year ago, he was the No. 1 overall pick in the USHL Futures Draft. Now, he’s a 60-plus point scorer in a league often dominated by older, more experienced players who are considerably taller and bigger.

Yet here he is – all 5-6 and a 146 pounds – and he’s a series away from leading the Black Hawks to the Clark Cup Finals. Pretty impressive then again, this is the same kid who did score 170 points in Midget AA at Shattuck-St. Mary’s and last season scored 139 points for Shattuck’s U-16 Team.

On the ice, there is an expectation with him that he could be one of the better talents to play in the USHL in recent years. And let’s be honest, if he scored 69 points (27 goals, 42 assists) as a rookie, it’s fair to suggest he could have a 100-point season next year.

Off the ice is what makes Cammarata, in this case, different than most of his peers.

Those differences are what will ultimately define Cammarata throughout his young and promising career.

And those differences are what made this the greatest story about Taylor Cammarata you didn’t know.

Until now.

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.

Hands On The Wheel…

Quite a few things can be taken away from the Force’s first-round sweep over the Sioux City Musketeers.

There’s no denying that if the Force can continue what they did in the third period of Game 2, this could be a team that could challenge for the Western Conference title.

But before we look ahead, let’s look back. As in, let’s look back at the three Force players who made a big difference in the first-round sweep and what they could do later down the road.

3. Neal Goff, defenseman/forward: As its been written about quite a bit on this blog, there was mystery into who would play alongside Nate Arentz and Jonny Brodzinski (St. Cloud State) on the third line. Goff won the role and certainly sparkled. He used Game 1 to get comfortable in the role giving the Force a defensive-minded, shutdown line which certainly did its job in a 2-1 overtime victory. Goff stepped it up on offense in Game 2 adding a few more shots including one move where he worked his way around the defense to get a shot on net. As the Force started flexing its muscle, he played a little bit more at defense showing his versatility. Force coach John Marks said last night he liked what he’s seen from Goff in this series and that he should be a vital piece to next season’s team.

2. Zane Gothberg, goaltender (North Dakota): Before this goes any further, we’d like to announce the following: Zane Gothberg really is the best goaltender in the USHL and he showed it in this series. Gothberg went 2-0 with a 0.98 goals against average and a .964 save percentage. There just never seemed to be a moment where Gothberg appeared be rattled and/or taxed for that matter. We’ve gone into great detail about his regular season but let’s re-hash it again. He went 26-16-7 with a 2.22 GAA, a .921 save percentage and seven shutouts. All he did was set the franchise records for: Most wins in a career; Most wins in a season; Lowest GAA in a season (a record he held from last year); Lowest GAA in a career; Highest save percentage in a season; Most shutouts in a season and finally, yes, finally Most shutouts in a year. Marks has told us repeatedly the Boston Bruins, which drafted Gothberg, are extremely high on him. Let’s go ahead and open this debate because we really want to see the opinion here. But is it fair to ask: Is Zane Gothberg the best player in franchise history? It looks like he could be.

1. Gabe Guertler, forward (Minnesota): Guertler might have not only been the team’s most consistent forward but he might have been the team’s most consistent player. Guertler had the kind of series where it felt like he tried to generate something every time he was on the ice. His first shift opened with him scoring a goal less than a minute into the game for a 1-0 lead. Guertler and the rest of The Musical went on to generate decent scoring chances that just got stopped by Sioux City’s Matt Skoff (Penn State), a goalie who has won at least 20 games a year over the last three seasons. Guertler didn’t look different in Game 2 creating chances but also getting physical when he needed to picking up four penalty minutes. Like Marks pointed out in a story we did on The Musical in Monday’s Forum, Guertler believes he’s 6-2 but he’s really 5-9. His strongest period of the series came in the third when he set up Dave Gust for two goals. Guertler’s finest feed came when he flew down the right wing, slowed the pace, was left by himself on the wing and then found a trailing Gust for a goal and what was a 5-1 lead. Marks labeled Guertler as one of the best competitors in the league and he’s still only 16 years old. Remember. It was this time about a year ago when the Force drafted Guertler second overall in the USHL Futures Draft. At the time, someone asked us on Twitter if we’d have a Taylor (Cammarata) vs. Gabe scenario at some point in the season. Cammarata (Minnesota) certainly won the regular season battle scoring 69 points in 60 games for the Waterloo Black Hawks, which is unheard of for a 16-year-old. Guertler scored 28 points in 57 games, which isn’t bad either. But with both players having three points and leading their respective teams in the playoffs, it seems like the Taylor vs. Gabe debate could be an interesting post-season topic.

A Little Deeper…

Now that the playoffs are close, it officially closes the books on the USHL’s regular season.

It now means six teams have to use to the rest of spring and summer to think about what could have been. The rest of the league can still decide its fate but there’s no doubting there will be another four teams who will soon join the ranks of those not playing.

But here’s something we can all agree upon. This season showed us quite a bit and with that, here’s what we learned from each team this season.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

-Green Bay Gamblers: That if Derek Lalonde and that front office is really good at dominating the USHL on and off the ice, we’d sure hate to make them mad in a game of ‘Risk’ and/or ‘Battleship’.

-Indiana Ice: That Daniil Tarasov really DID score 88 points and it won’t be remembered because of what some guy in Lincoln did this year.

-Dubuque Fighting Saints: Two projected first-round picks in Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and Michael Matheson (Boston College) help. Talent and depth have certainly defined the defending Clark Cup Champs. So did winning the Cowbell Cup. That also helped.

-Youngstown Phantoms: They proved you can recruit to Youngstown and furthermore, you can win there. It also showed a continual theme. Returning experienced players gives you a chance at winning. Youngstown certainly has shown that to be true with how it has been good all long. And its also showed that this Austin Cangelosi (Boston College) might be something special.

-Cedar Rapids RoughRiders: That even without experience or even the best players for his system, Mark Carlson might have had one of his best seasons as a head coach.

-Team USA: They’ve shown this nation’s best hockey talent keeps improving.

-Chicago Steel: They will be next year’s Youngstown. They have a coach in place who wants to work and a ton of returning talent. Next year will be the year in Chicago.

-Muskegon Lumberjacks: Year 1 brought playoffs. Year 2 brought dread. What Year 3 will bring is anyone’s guess.

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

-Lincoln Stars: They’ve shown us that between Kevin Roy (Brown) and Ralf Freiburgs (Bowling Green), it might be a good idea for the USHL to open up that import rule to a few more players.

-Omaha Lancers: That if you make the right moves and draft smart, you can rebuild and reload in one season.

-Waterloo Black Hawks: We saw this on a message board, so there’s a chance it could be wrong. The post said Taylor Cammarata (Minnesota) was the first 16-year-old in league history to score 60 or more points in a season. If that’s true, what he does next year could be scary. If its not true, what he could do next year could be scary.

-Fargo Force: Losing 13 of your first 15 is no need for people to panic about a coach and blaming it on the fact he’s 64 years old. Its proof things really can turn around if given a chance. Oh and as for that coach he feels its, “letting people know Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) is the best goaltender in the USHL.”

-Sioux City Musketeers: You don’t need a superstar, first-round projected defenseman to go far. That you can parlay that into getting more pieces, fighting in a tough division and then coming out with equally or even maybe a better chance at going far in the playoffs.

-Tri-City Storm: That if its possible, clone Adam Wilcox (Minnesota) for next season and pair him with the incoming talent to make them the deadliest force imaginable.

-Des Moines Buccaneers: You can’t go home again as Regg Simon learned the hard way. Oh and toilets are the new pink slip.

-Sioux Falls Stampede: Remember what your team did to them this year. Because next year, it’s not happening. They’ll be more experienced and with Charlie Lindgren in net, it won’t be easy.

The Start of Your Ending…

Just in case you needed a reminder, the USHL Playoffs are here.

First-round action kicks off tonight while the second round will start later this week.

Playoff runs are dictated by the best team but having one player could make the difference between your team trying to grow a patchy playoff beard or your team taking an earlier-than-expected team golf trip.

Here’s the list of the 10 players to watch this postseason:

-Nolan LaPorte, forward, Green Bay (Western Michigan): LaPorte was extremely good for the Gamblers when they reached the Clark Cup Finals last year. He scored eight points in 11 games and has continued to prove his postseason performance was not a fluke. LaPorte and the phalanx that is Green Bay have just hammered opponents up front. He’s led the way scoring 70 points (36 goals, 34 assists) this season. Add LaPorte to the list that reads “Embarrassment of Riches” that someone is probably jotting down about the Gamblers.

-Jon Gillies, goaltender, Indiana: Gillies with his large frame (6-5, 215 pounds) and 31 wins this season has been a wall at so many points and it should continue to be that way. Maybe we’re over analyzing here but getting the No. 2 seed could benefit Gillies quite a bit. He’ll get some days off to rest while others have one day off between the end of the regular season and start of the playoffs. Maybe that gives Gillies an edge of what could be some weary forwards and if that’s the case, good luck. Remember. Gillies did lead the league in minutes played and saves. Time off could help him and possibly make him harder to beat.

-Matthew Caito, defenseman, Dubuque (Miami (Ohio)): For one, Caito has been on fire lately scoring five points in his last eight games. Caito has been a major part of Dubuque’s defense which ranks third in the USHL in goals allowed and ranks first in the penalty kill. This defense has been consistent all year long and there’s no reason to think that would change. And one more note on Caito. Scoring five points in five games isn’t a fluke. He’s been chipping in on that end too scoring 26 points in 59 games. Between Caito, Michael Matheson (Boston College) and both Downing boys, this defense is nothing nice.

-Mike Ambrosia, forward, Youngstown (Princeton): Youngstown has quite a bit of talent but Ambrosia stands out because of his vision. He finished third in the USHL in assists with 47 helpers. Ambrosia plays on arguably one of the best lines in the league with Austin Cangelosi (Boston College) and J.T. Steinglein (UMass-Lowell) who each had 50 or more points this season. That’s a line that could do some serious damage. If it does, expect Ambrosia to be the one setting it all up.

-Ian Brady, defenseman, Cedar Rapids (Nebraska-Omaha): Brady has already turned things around from last season. He had five points in 46 games last year and finished this season with 25 points. Offense aside, he’s helping Cedar Rapids get hot at the right time having won four of its last five games. That and he’s been solid on the power play with 12 assists on the one-man advantage. This was a young team who earlier in the year struggled on offense and even lost six in a row. But things have turned around as of late. Question is: How will that momentum carry over into the playoffs?

-Bryn Chyzyk, forward, Fargo (North Dakota): Chyzyk might be one of the more complete forwards in the league. When it comes to the penalty kill, he’s one of the reason’s why the Force are No. 2 in the league. Chyzyk, on multiple occasions, has pilfered the puck when it gets to the point on the opposition’s power play turning it into a breakaway chance. Not too many guys can turn defense into offense that quickly. And when he does get on the offensive side, be careful. He has 28 goals this season and has scored five points in his last five games.

-Kevin Roy, forward, Lincoln (Brown): When you score 100 points, score 52 goals, dish out 48 assists and lead the league in points, goals, assists, plus/minus and domination, you’d be on a FBI-like watchlist let alone a USHL Playoff watchlist. Kevin Roy doesn’t just beat people, he destroys them.

-Jimmy Murray, forward, Omaha (St. Cloud State): Take Roy away from this for just one minute. Maybe no forward has impacted a team in the Western Conference this season like Murray has with Omaha. He was told he could be the guy in an offense needing a playmaker and has lived up to it. Murray, who finished second in assists, finds ways to get open and pick apart a defense. But there are times where he can take over a game. Just ask his old mates, the Force. They’ve seen it happen…twice.

-Taylor Cammarata, forward, Waterloo (Minnesota): Anyone wondering if Cammarata, a rookie, would be slowing down doesn’t need to ponder. He’s scored four points in his last two games and appears ready to take on the postseason. Cammarata has lived up to the billing that has come with being the first overall pick in last season’s USHL Futures Draft. Most guys in the Entry Draft either have a bit role or aren’t even playing in the league yet. Then there are some guys like Fargo’s Gabe Guertler (Minnesota), who was No. 2 last season, who have played a whole year and have contributed. Then there’s Cammarata who makes every defense aware of what he can do, how he can do it and how you might not be able to do anything about it. Nabbing 69 points in as a 5-6, 145-pound rookie is pretty special. Cammarata can only enhance his reputation with a solid playoff performance.

-Adam Wilcox, goaltender, Tri-City (Minnesota): There’s debate to whether you could choose Wilcox or Fargo’s Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) for the USHL Goaltender of the Year. What cannot be debated is how Wilcox isn’t exactly someone you want to face in a short series. Wilcox has the tools needed to steal not just a game but maybe even a series. If a team were to make a mistake leading to a goal, it makes getting past Wilcox an even more daunting task. But he has looked shaky have only grabbed one win in his last five starts. Which Wilcox will show up? The one we’ve seen lately or the one most teams don’t want to see?

It Just Is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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