Keep You With Me…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stationary Robbery…

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

 

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.

He Got Game…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change Will Do You Good…

Monday’s USHL Entry Draft will give the Force a chance to plan for the future, but there’s been some news about a few players from the team’s recent past.

By recent, I mean, as in this past season. Former Force forward Ben Johnson on Friday signed with the Windsor Spitfires of The OHL. You might be asking who’s Ben Johnson and that’s a fair question. He only played five games with the team in November before returning to Calumet, Mich., his hometown, and became the second sophomore to ever win Michigan’s Mr. Hockey. Detroit Red Wings forward and former Michigan State hero Justin Abelkader was the first sophomore to win the award.

Weird how that happens, isn’t it? Johnson was a fourth-round draft pick of the Force in last season’s Futures Draft. His USHL career started by playing a few games with the NTDP’s U-17 squad and then he bounced to the Force and you know the rest of the story.

Johnson, according to The Windsor Star, was looking to get more exposure and going to the Windsor Spitfires will do just that. Those not familiar with the Spitfires, lately, they’ve been one of the more dominant teams in the OHL. The team produced two first round draft picks in the 2010 NHL Draft in Taylor Hall, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, and defenseman Cam Fowler, who was selected in the mid-first by the Ducks. This year’s team wasn’t short on talent either as it featured Nashville Predators top prospect Ryan Ellis along with former NTDP player and Dallas Stars first-round draft pick and goaltender Jack Campbell.

Another player Force fans have probably wondered about is Brandon Carlson. Carlson was traded to Fairbanks (NAHL) in February and helped the team win the league championship.

Carlson spoke with me the other day and said that he enjoyed his time in Fairbanks but admitted leaving Fargo was hard.

“I really loved living there and I got close with a lot of people,” he said. “I was very close with my billet family and with guys on the team. I’d talk with guys like Colten (St. Clair) who’s my best friend on the team. I’d talk with Demmy (Chad Demers), (Ryan) Massa and Nick Oliver too. We’d talk once a week.”

Carlson said the trade became easier to accept when he got a chance to be around some former teammates and guys he knew from California, where he grew up.

Right now he plans to hang out in California for a few weeks before returning to Minnesota where he’ll spend the off-season training in Brainerd.

As for college, he hasn’t made any commitments but he’s hoping to use the next two seasons to grab some attention and show a team that he’s worth adding to their roster.

That’s pretty much it for now. I’ll be back Sunday to take a look at what the Force could do in the Monday draft.

Until then, take care everybody.