All the preseason games and training camps have been wrapped up. Now it’s time for the real deal, as the regular season begins for all draft-eligible Junior players. The Canadian Hockey League kicked off last weekend, while the United States Hockey League gets going Friday night.
Normally, you will find the American Prospect Update on Wednesdays throughout the hockey season, however a conflict forced me to push this one back (Sorry). Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the top Americans in the OHL, a quick review of the NTDP’s top prospects through four games and a look at a pair of USHL prospects to keep an especially close eye on in the early goings of this season…
OHL Regular Season Begins Without Galchenyuk; Ebert Ready to Step Up; Blujus One to Watch
There’s no question that Alex Galchenyuk of the Sarnia Sting will be one of the most talked about Americans this year. The Sting are loaded with offensive talent up front and could be one of the most exciting teams in all of Junior hockey with Galchenyuk, possible No. 1 pick Nail Yakupov, former NTDPer Reid Boucher, Dallas second rounder Brett Ritchie, Blackhawks second rounder Ludvig Rensfeldt and more.
However, when the Sting took the ice for its season opener Friday, the team did so without Galchenyuk. The top prospect is out with a sore MCL. His status for this weekend has not been announced.
Injuries during the draft season are always tricky. Any missed time is time away from the eyes of scouts. The added stress of the Draft makes any time out difficult for a prospect, but it is important to fully heal from injuries so the player can come back at full strength for both his team and himself. Galchenyuk’s injury does not appear serious enough for him to miss a lot of time, but it’s certainly not how you want to start a Draft season.
Nick Ebert of the Windsor Spitfires is going to be getting a lot of attention as well. The solid offensive defenseman already has two points (both assists) in Windsor’s first three games. He’ll be taking on a much more important role with the Windsor Spitfires in his second OHL season.
Ebert told the Windsor Star’s Bob Duff that he’s ready for a leadership role. On a young team like Windsor, Ebert is going to be relied on heavily. It will be interesting to see how his numbers hold up with such a young team, as there could be some growing pains for the Spits this season.
Nonetheless, Ebert is gifted offensively and possesses a solid frame that would translate well to the NHL. As a veteran player, he’ll know what to expect this season. The only differences from last year will be how he handles his leadership role and the pressure of the Draft. If he handles those, the rest should take care of itself.
The same somewhat holds true for a pair of Ebert’s draft-eligible American teammates, defenseman Grant Webermin and forward Brady Vail.
Both are in their second year in the OHL and will be relied on more heavily. Webermin isn’t going to put up a lot of points, but playing a steady game on the back end could go a long way for his draft stock.
Vail will be looked to for more production. After posting just 10 points in 61 games for the Spitfires last season, Vail already has two assists through the first three games. He has good size and a solid, if unspectacular, skill set. Like Ebert, this is Vail’s third year of Junior hockey, as he spent his 15-year-old season with the Waterloo Black Hawks. That type of experience should come in handy as Vail will look for a breakout season.
Dylan Blujus, of the Brampton Batallion, is also looking to build off of a solid rookie campaign in the OHL. The 6-foot-3 defenseman had 26 points last year and opened up his sophomore season with a pair of assists. Central Scouting listed Blujus as a B-rated prospect for this season and he is certainly one to watch.
Blujus is yet another solid defensive prospect to come out of Western New York. It seems like that area has had a recent boom in draftable players, like Adam Clendening, an early second-round pick of Chicago in 2011.
NTDP Off To Good Start
With a 3-1 record to start the season, the U.S. National Under-18 Team as a group has done extremely well, however several draft-eligible individuals are already standing out on a team full of top-quality prospects.
Riley Barber has made an immediate impact with his new team. The only player that wasn’t part of the squad last season notched four goals at the USHL Fall Classic last week. Barber, formerly of the Dubuque Fighting Saints, could be that consistent go-to weapon the team lacked last season. That said, there appears to be a plethora of other players stepping up to potentially fill that role.
The most pleasant surprise of the NTDP’s first four games has been Stefan Matteau. Matteau leads Team USA with five points (1g-4a). I spoke to an NTDP source that said he looks vastly improved from his first year in Ann Arbor and could be poised for a big year. Matteau has always had the look of a top-flight player. A very strong, solid frame and good puck skills. However, it seemed as though he had a hard time putting everything together at the same time. If the first four games are any indication, he’s figured it out.
Frankie Vatrano looks like he may have a similar draft-year experience to Reid Boucher’s, in that he may be underrated for most of the year. However, like Boucher, Vatrano posseses an elite-level tool that every team wants, a goal-scorer’s shot. Other parts of his game need polish, but his release and accuracy are probably going to help him put up some big numbers. He’s already posted three goals this season. With teammates like Matteau, Nic Kerdiles, Cam Darcy and Barber, Vatrano might get overshadowed, but he shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Jacob Trouba already has four assists on the young season. The recent University of Michigan commit is going to do very well against USHL competition thanks to his tremendous strength and toughness. The big test will come against the college teams where there’s going to be less time and space, forcing Trouba to make quicker decisions. The first major test for Trouba and his teammates comes right away as the U18s will take on Trouba’s future school Monday at Yost. The fellas from The Pipeline Show caught up with Trouba about his recent college commitment and the way he plays.
Another note on Trouba: TPS brought up that some have compared Trouba to former NTDP defenseman and current Anaheim Duck Cam Fowler. If you know me, you know I hate comparison scouting reports. While it may give people a basic picture of what a player might play like, they are often taken as gospel by those that read it and that’s pretty unfair to the prospect.
Trouba and Fowler are similar in these ways: They are American, played at the NTDP, are good offensive defensemen. That’s it. Trouba plays with an edge and brings an important physical element to his game. He has good offensive instincts and a powerful shot. Fowler is a heady defenseman that makes plays with his skills, defends with good positioning and is a pure puck mover. I’ve seen both play multiple times and I just don’t get the comparison. Jacob Trouba plays like Jacob Trouba. /dismount soap box.
USHL’s Early Standouts
One of the USHL players that I’ll be watching most closely all season long is Waterloo forward A.J. Michaelson. I’ve been a fan of his game for a long time, but he does have some perceived flaws. I spoke to a scout that said he questioned Michaelson’s commitment to the game and his development. However, this was before Michaelson moved to Waterloo as opposed to staying comfortable in high school hockey. An uncommitted player doesn’t make that move. Making the jump to the USHL will go a long way in the eyes of scouts.
Waterloo played a rather full preseason, with eight games. During those eight games, Michaelson put up five goals and an assist. The former Apple Valley High School standout is proving that his high-production offensive game may have come with him to Junior. Granted, that was only preseason. What happens when the real games start? We’ll find out when Waterloo opens its season at Omaha Friday.
Riley Bourbonnais went undrafted in his first year of eligibility while skating for the Berkshire School in Massachusetts. Now, he’s hooked up with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. In a league where he’ll undoubtedly get more exposure, Bourbonnais may get a second chance.
As one of the fastest teams in the USHL this season, Cedar Rapids should do well offensively and Bourbonnais could be a big part of that. He scored five goals in six preseason games, including three in two games against Dubuque, one of the stronger opponents the Riders faced. As a second-year eligible, he will fly under the radar, but don’t sleep on him.
The USHL regular season kicks off Friday in Ann Arbor, Mich., at 7 p.m. EDT as the U.S. National Under-17 Team and Younstown Phantoms are first to drop the puck. Other Friday night tilts in the USHL include Waterloo at Omaha, Sioux City (featuring top prospect Jordan Schmaltz) at Tri-City, and Sioux Falls at Lincoln.
Boy, does this feel good to say: LET’S PLAY HOCKEY.