The L.C. Walker Arena, located along the harbor’s edge in Muskegon, MI. was the birthplace to the inaugural USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Tuesday Night.
The newly conceived event showcased 40 of the United States Hockey League’s finest draft-eligible talent, 37 of which could hear their names called in June, and three eligible for 2013. With nearly 200 scouts in attendance, including 150 from National Hockey League staffs, the hockey community was well represented alongside fans who came out to take in the action.
While there were injury withdrawals before the event, including to the high-profile and much touted duo of Dubuque Fighting Saints Zemgus Girgensens and Michael Matheson, their absence did little to damper the excitement that surrounded the event and the product which resulted on-ice made for a tightly contested game that legitimately came down the final horn.
Team West got out to an early 2-1 lead after the first Period, largely thanks to the trio of AJ Michaelson (Waterloo,) Austin Farley (Fargo,) and Luke Johnson. That line showed great skill and grit, and seemingly made things happen with every shift. Alex Lyon (Omaha), starting goaltender for Team East, struggled but righted the ship.
His East teammates quickly tied the game in the middle frame, as Robert Baillargeon (Indiana) notched his second of the game, with Nicholas Schilkey (Green Bay) following his lead soon after, giving East and its new Goaltender Jon Gillies (Indiana) a 3-2 lead until late, when Justin Selman (Sioux Falls) connected off of a feed from his Stampede teammate Austyn Young to tie it. East broke the tie halfway through the third Period when Jeff Kubiak of the Chicago Steel was able to get the puck past Jay Williams (Waterloo), who had taken over for Stephon Williams (Sioux Falls) when the goaltenders switched around the midway mark of the game.
Kubiak’s goal would stand as the game winner, as East held off a furious charge from Team West for the rest of the 3rd Period- Alex Kile (Green Bay) made it academic for Team East with the game’s final goal with a little over a minute left, giving East a 5-3 victory.
Most Valuable Player Awards were given to a player from each team: Farley took home the honor for his one goal and one assist performance for Team West, and two goals gave Baillargeon the honor for Team East.
– What a story Jeff Kubiak was. He scores a goal Sunday in Chicago’s 3-1 win over Youngstown, and finds out Monday morning that he will be participating in The Top Prospects Game, as Zemgus Girgensens (who missed a game Thursday due to injury) pulled out of the game. What does Kubiak do? Has solid game, notching the game-winning goal.
– The inclusion of the three 2013 draft eligibles is a curious one; on one hand, fans and scouts are exposed to the names we will all know next season, but does their participation take away exposure from someone who is deserving of a spot in the lineup alongside his Conference rivals?
– Big reception for the four hometown Muskegon Lumberjacks – forwards Adam Chlapik, Matt DeBlouw, Jordan Masters, and defenseman Mark Yanis. Encouraged by the local support, all four played very solid games, specifically DeBlouw, who may have been the best player on the ice. His play simply got stronger as the game went on.
– Whenever you take in a showcase game like this, you wonder “Who will steal the show?” Michaelson, Farley, and Baillargeon all started very strongly but couldn’t sustain their high level of play and by the end of the game, all three were non-factors.
– Who did stand out? I DeBlouw and his Lumberjack teammates, but Kevin Roy (Lincoln) was impressive in terms of gaining the offensive zone with the puck, and showed off some impressive hands. West Defenseman Brian Cooper (Fargo) was rock steady the entire game, using his quickness to stifle attacks and create opportunities, and even at five-foot-nine he wasn’t afraid to step up and hit players from East in open Ice. Jaccob Slavin (Chicago) showed impressive poise and mobility on Team East, using an active stick to defend his net, and moving the puck up ice when he had puck possession.
– With the absences of Girgensens and Matheson, the eyes were firmly fixed on Event Headliner Jordan Schmaltz (Green Bay), and while he showed off some of his abilities – the mobility and soft hands that make him an offensive threat from the blueline – he also showed signs of being careless in his own zone and reading the play poorly. There was more than one occasion where he was on the backcheck trailing the play because of a poorly timed pinch, or a rush up ice that never worked out. What can be said about Schmaltz is that he is certainly has intriguing potential.
The consensus among fans, players, coaches, and scouts was that the first Top Prospects Game was a success, despite some ill-timed injuries to notable players and somewhat lukewarm attendance.
The game itself was fantastic, the concept and exposure brilliant and noteworthy, and with more and more incarnations of it, the USHL will ideally get the recipe right, to where this Top Prospects Game is as high profile as its cousin in the Canadian Hockey League. That could involve the inclusion of some of the United States National Team Development Program players at some point.
The goal of the game, to give exposure to the league and more specifically its draft-eligible players, was accomplished. Thirty-three of the players in the Top Prospects Game have NCAA commitments, which is the ultimate goal of the USHL- to send players to college. Now with the successful initial showcase in the books, the league may begin to have more of its players hear their names called during the Entry Draft the following Summer.
While nothing has been set in regards to where the next edition of this event will be played, there is some belief that will be staged in the various cities in the USHL map. One thing is for sure, the hockey community is already waiting for the next USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
Article by Dan Shrader