It seems as if every year the United States Hockey League makes a little more noise at the NHL Entry Draft.
The USHL had a great presence this past June as 28 players who participated in the 2011-12 season heard their name called at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Putting those numbers in perspective, the OHL lead all North American leagues with 46 players selected while the WHL had 33 and the QMJHL had 22.
With rosters beginning to become finalized and released by the 16 USHL clubs, it appears as if the USHL will continue their positive trend with more players being selected by the various 30 NHL organizations. A major upgrade in the USHL’s draft statistics this upcoming season could come in a larger number of high-end picks in comparison to the 2011 draft. Potentially seven USHL players could be selected in the first round—the same number of USHL players taken in last year’s first and second round combined.
Much of the USHL’s draft success has gone hand-in-hand with the success of the US National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. This year, the 15 other USHL organizations look to be have their own presence as the league’s many of the top draft eligible players come from teams not wearing the USA hockey crest. While the US NTDP still features the top draft eligible player in defenseman Jacob Trouba, players such as Sioux City’s Jordan Schmaltz and Dubuque’s Zemgus Girgensons and Michael Matheson are close behind with high draft stock.
Below is a look at this year’s top ten draft eligible players slated to play in the USHL this season.
Jacob Trouba – USNTDP U18
Jacob Trouba is one of the few players who spent time with NTDP U18 team last year to return to the Ann Arbor, Mich. based program. Trouba began his season with the U17 team, but was moved up mid-January to a fulltime position on the U18 blue line. The move was a true testament to the then 16-year-old’s skill as the U18 team already featured future 2011 draft picks Connor Murphy (Phoenix, 1st), Michael Paliotta (Chicago, 3rd), and Robbie Russo (New York Islanders, 4th).
Trouba’s skating and defensive awareness are as strong as defenseman in this year’s draft class. He has a very quick first couple of strides and is very hard to knock off the puck. Unlike many flashy defensemen, Trouba welcomes the physical play both from a giving and a receiving standpoint. While he has a strong shot, it is debatable on whether or not Trouba will be a goal scorer at the next level. The defenseman had just three goals in 31 games last season, but did have 14 in 38 games playing against his own age group for Detroit Compuware’s U16 team the previous year.
The Rochester, Mich. native has yet to commit to a US college and all indications point towards Trouba wearing the red, white, and blue again next year, but this time suiting up for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers.
Zemgus Girgensons – Dubuque Fighting Saints
Placing as much importance in his play in his own end as he does in the offensive zone, Zemgus Girgensons appears to be the best two way centre available in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Girgensons is a real shifty player, but also displays flash with the puck on his stick. One of his strongest attributes is his skating as he has a very powerful stride. Enough cannot be said about the six-foot-two centre’s ability to put the team on his back and be a leader despite his age. His “lead by example” attitude will help the much younger Fighting Saints team this season.
The Riga, Lativa native played on a loaded line last year for the USHL champion Dubuque Fighting Saints, playing alongside the league’s second leading goal scorer in John Gaudreau (Calgary, 4th) almost the entire year as well as the league’s third leading assist getter in Vinny Saponari (Winnipeg, 4th) and current NTDP forward Riley Barber fairly frequently. While Girgensons was a key contributor on his line, all of his linemates have since left Dubuque. It will be interesting to see how the recently appointed 17-year-old captain does with new, younger linemates this season. Many would like to see Girgensons play a more physical game this season and if he does, it should improve his draft stock.
Despite the Kelowna Rockets’ attempts to get the Latvian to leave Dubuque, Girgensons appears committed to his decision to attend the University of Vermont next year.
Jordan Schmaltz – Sioux City Muskateers
Jordan Schmaltz returns for his second full year with the Sioux City Musketeers after having a very impressive 2010-11 campaign as a 17-year-old. Schmaltz, like other 2012 NHL Entry Draft defensive prospects Ryan Murray and Nick Ebert, works wonders quarterbacking the power play. Last season, the Verona, Wis. native led all USHL defensemen in power play goals and assists notching eight goals and twenty assists in 53 games last season.
Enough cannot be said about Schmaltz’s overall skating ability. He is extremely agile and moves well in his team’s own end. While he is a strong skater, it seems as though Schmaltz would rather make the smart breakout or regroup pass rather than skating the puck himself. This is certainly not seen as necessarily a bad thing, as he sees the ice extremely well with the puck on his stick.
The spotlight has been on the six-foot-two defenceman before he was a freshman in high school playing in the Chicago Mission program. Before the 2008-09 season, Schmaltz made waves as he gave a verbal commitment to the University of Wisconsin—four years before he could have suited up for the Badgers. Since then, Schmaltz has been wooed by the Windsor Spitfires who drafted him in the seventh round of the 2009 OHL Priority Selection Draft. He has remained set on going the US College route, but changed his college choice after decommitting from Wisconsin and committing to the University of North Dakota last September.
A.J. Michaelson, -Waterloo Black Hawks
After turning down an offer to play for the USNTDP last season, many find it odd that A.J. Michaelson is playing in the USHL this season and equally head scratching that he is not playing for a team not based in Ann Arbor, Mich. After all, Michaelson was not offered the vacant forward position on the NTDP this summer—a sign that some believe means his stock is spiraling downward. Nonetheless, Michaelson had an impressive junior year last season as his 60 points led his Apple Valley High School team in Minnesota.
What sets Michaelson apart from other 2011 draft eligible is that he can flat out fly and uses his speed to beat defenders wide on scoring opportunities. Michaelson seems to have made a fairly easy transition to the junior game, as he led the USHL in goals this preseason. It will be interesting to see if Michaelson will be able to rely on his speed to find the same success he had in high school come the regular season playing in the faster, stronger USHL. The University of Minnesota commit plays a very gritty game and will go into the traffic areas to battle for loose pucks. One aspect of Michaelson’s game that needs improvement this season is getting more behind his very accurate shot.
Over the last several years, there has been mixed results in Minnesota native players leaving Minnesota High School Hockey to join the junior ranks. Look for Michaelson to see more Derek Forbort-like success rather than Seth Ambroz-like disappointment. Michaelson’s stock will likely stay constant and keep him as a mid to high first round selection come June.
Michael Matheson – Dubuque Fighting Saints
After the losses of several USHL players who bolted to Major Junior this summer, Michael Matheson was a major pickup for the USHL/college route. Matheson opted to suit up for the Dubuque Fighting Saints this season rather than play for the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes who selected Pointe-Claire, Quebec native 27th overall in the 2010 QMJHL Draft.
The Boston College commit, like most of the USHL top eligible defensemen, stands out because of his strong skating and ability to skate the puck up the ice. Matheson is extremely poised with the puck and shows patience that few 17-year-olds at the USHL level possess. Matheson will likely never be a huge goal scorer and needs to work getting stronger to elevate his game to the next level.
Matheson will really benefit in playing in the USHL in that he will be able to focus on getting stronger through a less demanding game schedule.
Matheson’s game fits perfectly into the type of team Dubuque Fighting Saints General Manager and Head Coach Jim Montgomery has assembled this year in that Matheson’s puck moving ability will pay dividends for the skilled forwards upfront. Look for Matheson to pick up lots of assists, especially on the power play, by simply making the smart pass that leads to an odd man rush goal for the Fighting Saints.
Nicolas Kerdiles – USNTDP U18
With all of the flashy-like forwards on the U18 NTDP’s roster this year, left wing Nicolas Kerdiles fits in well providing the grit night in and night out. Kerdiles’ thrives in the traffic areas, especially around the net, where he can score from almost every angle. To put his game into perspective, Kerdiles seems to fill J.T. Miller’s role on this year’s team in that he is extremely strong and can win battles for the loose pucks. Like Miller, Kerdiles does not shy away from the rough play, but is not as frequent in dropping the gloves as Miller is known for.
The six-foot-one Kerdiles is an average skater, but appears better than average as he covers a lot of ice through his commitment to constantly be involved in the play.
The Irvine, Calif. native has committed to the University of Wisconsin though it should be noted that his WHL rights are owned by the Kelowna Rockets who selected Kerdiles in the eighth round of the 2009 Bantam Draft. Look for Kelowna to make a strong play on the shifty forward come this summer.
Stefan Matteau, USNTDP U18
Out of all of the USNTDP forwards, Stefan Matteau has the most complete all-around game. While Matteau is most known for this physical play, he has very under rated on ice vision. With the puck on his stick, the left winger makes the smart play more often than not. Matteau plays a very similar game to that of teammate Nicolas Kerdiles, but is much more of a setup player than a finisher. Playing for the U17 NTDP, it seemed as if there were games where the entire momentum of a game would change after a big shift from Matteau.
Despite only having nine points in 28 games last season, Matteau is posed for a much better season statistically. The North Dakota commit has already gotten off to a strong start as he was the leading point getter in the NTDP’s preseason with one goal and four assists in four games.
D Brady Skjei, USNTDP U18
Brady Skjei returns to the USNTDP playing again with a very talented group of defensemen. It is safe to say that Skjei is the fastest skating defenseman on the U18 team and may be the fastest player in the entire program. While Skjei has never been a huge point producer and likely never will be, he loves to take the puck up himself and create opportunities for his forwards. Last season, Skjei had a minus-14; six worse than any other player in the program. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the U17 team struggles against the bigger, older competition, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on this season. Ironically, Skjei reversed the trend at the USHL Fall Classic, finishing a team best plus-4.
University of Minnesota head coach Don Lucia has the two fastest commits eligible in 2012 playing in the USHL this season. Skjei, like Michaelson, will both play for the Gophers as true freshmen next season.
Brian Cooper – Fargo Force
Brian Cooper enters his draft year returning to the Fargo Force for his third season with the team. Cooper made great strides in his sophomore season with the Force, more than doubling his points and was a key component to Fargo’s success on the power play.
Cooper’s defensive game compares nicely to that of Carolina Hurricanes’ 2011 first round pick Ryan Murphy in that, despite being small in stature, his high hockey IQ helps him be effective in his own end. One aspect of the Anchorage, Alaska native’s game that seems to hurt him is that he spends a lot of time in the penalty box. Of the 132 penalty minutes Cooper accumulated this past season, only five of those minutes was a fighting major. The five-foot-nine defenseman loves the offensive aspect of the position—whether it is moving the puck up the ice himself or manning the blue line in the opponent’s zone.
This past summer, Cooper was one of two players yet to be draft eligible to be invited to the US Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. Despite not surviving the first round of cuts by his head coach next year at the University of Nebraska Omaha, Dean Blais, the selection in itself speaks volumes of Cooper’s game.
Robbie Baillargeon – Indiana Ice
While the Indiana Ice missed out on having top Northeastern based high school player Cristoval ‘Boo’ Nieves (16th overall in Future Considerations’ Preliminary Rankings) suit up this year, they did manage to add very talented Robbie Baillargeon. Baillargeon has been somewhat under the radar until recent as the Ice managed to snag him in the 17th round of the 2010 USHL Entry Draft.
The centre has great on ice vision and works extremely hard both on and off the ice. Baillargeon is listed at a skinny 160-pounds, but does not seem to get separated from the puck as often as one would think. Baillargeon should fill out this year and it will be interesting to see what he weighs in at come draft evaluations this summer. Baillargeon put up an impressive amount of points last year at Cushing Academy in Massachusetts and will certainly benefit from playing alongside talented returning forwards Sean Kuraly, San Jose’s 2010 5th round pick, and Danill Tarasov, the USHL’s second leading scorer last season. Biallargeon is expected to return to Massachusetts in 2013 after committing to Boston University.
Andrew Weiss is a draft correspondent at Future Considerations and can be found on Twitter. For all the latest Future Considerations news and posts, follow FC’s Official Twitter Feed, on YouTube and on Facebook!