The United States Hockey League has produced its fair share of top draft prospects over the last few years. Louis Leblanc, Jaden Schwartz, John Moore, John Carlson and Kyle Okposo immediately come to mind as guys that used big USHL seasons to propel themselves into first round draft picks. With the addition of the National Team Development Program, the league can expect those numbers to continue to grow.
In fact, over the last five drafts, 12 USHL-based players have been selected in the first round, with four coming in 2010 (Schwartz-Tri City; Jack Campbell, Derek Forbort, Jarred Tinordi – Team USA).
This year, we may see a jump in that number, due, in part, to a highly regarded group of NTDP players, but also thanks to Scott Mayfield of the Youngstown Phantoms and Seth Ambroz of the Omaha Lancers. The pair of USHL veterans have been listed as potential first-round selections by just about every ranking outlet you’ll find at different points this season.
On Wednesday, Rich Michalowski of PremiumScouting.com listed Mayfield as the No. 1 prospect playing in the USHL. Most still seem to think Tyler Biggs is the top dog in the league, but its easy to like Mayfield’s game. Michalowski also mentions the fact that the lack of high-end talent around Mayfield may contribute to his less than attractive stat line (34 GP, 4-4–8, -5).
Still, almost every projection you’ll find has Mayfield in the first round, including the newly released International Scouting Services Top 30 for January, in which he was ranked 23rd. At around 6-foot-4 and close to 200 pounds, Mayfield has loads of upside that makes statistics irrelevant. Also, he’s headed to the University of Denver which has churned out its fair share of NHLers. He’ll be challenged right away in the WCHA, which bodes well for his development. He’s a project yet, but a project most teams would love to get their hands on.
Ambroz did not find himself listed on the ISS list, but most would argue he’s still a first-round talent. He leads the Omaha Lancers with 33 points (17g-16a) in 36 games. His point totals aren’t eye-popping, but his 156 shots taken this year are far and away the highest on his team and rank second overall in the USHL. There is not a single game in which Ambroz has played that he didn’t register at least one shot on goal. The big forward is getting pucks to the net, they just aren’t going in for him as much as I think he’d like. I think the curiosity in Ambroz’s numbers comes from the fact that he is in his third year in the league and was expected to dominate.
It is often forgotten that in Ambroz’s first two seasons with the Lancers, he had some outstanding players that garnered a lot of defensive attention. At different points Ambroz played with the likes of Louis Leblanc, Danny Kristo, Matt White and Erik Haula, all tremendous talents in the USHL. The attention on those older players allowed Ambroz to thrive at a young age. Now, without a ton of star power around him, Ambroz is the focus of every opposing team. Even if those players weren’t on his line, they attracted attention from other teams via match-ups. Nowadays, Ambroz is seeing top shutdown lines every night. It’s that type of adversity that Ambroz has to fight through in order to maintain his elite status. I think he has done well in that regard, so far, and is still worthy of a first-round selection. Of the 36 games Ambroz has played in, there have only been 12 this year in which he did not register a point, so he’s been a factor in most of his games. A strong, consistent finish should lock him into the first round.
The USHL has become a league where elite talent can shine. With 60 games a year in often loud buildings with all the bells and whistles, players get a great playing experience to go along with good coaching and elite-level training. If a player wishes to retain his NCAA eligibility in the year prior to his draft, he’s not going to suffer any by going to the USHL.
Coming up after the jump, a final U18 Five Nations update (J.T. Miller, Tyler Biggs, John Gibson), a look at Green Bay Gamblers forward Austin Czarnik, and one last gander at the most recent rankings from ISS.
After my Five Nations recap, I was able to talk with a member of the Team USA staff to get a handle on who stood out despite not putting up big numbers. I was informed that J.T. Miller and Tyler Biggs were forces to be reckoned with in the Czech Republic.
The pair were too much, physically, for their opponents throughout the tournament causing many a scout to approach the USA brass to rave about their play. Strength has always been an asset for both players and each has found different ways to use it to their benefit.
Miller skated on a line with Rocco Grimaldi and Reid Boucher, who both ended up at the top of the statistical leaderboard. I am told that part of their success was due to Miller drawing contact and keeping defenders honest, which created the space for Grimaldi and Boucher to shine.
Biggs on the other hand played the physical game that has continued to rocket him up the charts. ISS listed him as the No. 6 prospect for the NHL Draft. A few thundering hits helped Biggs intimidate opponents and make sure everyone knew he was on the ice. That’s the type of play scouts apparently love to see out of the big power forward and a big reason that, without great stats, he’s looking like a Top-15 lock at least.
According to my source, John Gibson, was outstanding for the U.S., particularly in the 6-2 win against Sweden. Despite the final scoreline, the big goaltender came up big early to help the U.S. wear down the Swedes throughout the game. There’s still little doubt in my mind that the Pittsburgh-native will be the first goalie selected in June.
Size has been a hot topic in this draft due to some of the highly-talented “little guys” available in 2011. Ryan Kennedy sent out an interesting tweet regarding the size topic Wednesday:
@THNRyanKennedy Just talked to a scout who said that far from being afraid of smaller players, teams may trade up to land (Rocco) Grimaldi or Ryan Murphy this year
So size may not matter? That’s the type of talent Grimaldi and Murphy (of the Kitchener Rangers) possess. Both look like they may be worth the gamble.
That also brings me to another intriguing prospect for this year’s draft that is small in stature. Austin Czarnik, a former NTDP standout now playing with the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL, is on the draft radar. In fact, Michalowski ranked him No. 9 among NHL draft eligibles in the league, while Central Scouting ranked Czarnik 89th among North American skaters. I’ve been wanting to write about Czarnik for a while now.
He’s not going to be a top-two or three round talent, but players like him may have not gotten drafted at all in the past. With the way the NHL is now (faster and more skilled than ever), there may be a place for a guy like Czarnik, who by the way is the cousin of LA Kings prospect and Plymouth Whaler Robbie Czarnik.
At 5-8, 140, he’s, um, compact. No question. However, he is fearless, defensively responsible, thinks the game pretty well and he’s offensively gifted. He’s one of those guys that has always produced points despite the lack of size.
Interesting note: Czarnik at 5-foot-8 played on a line with the 5-foot-6 Grimaldi at the 2010 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. I mean, really, who in their right mind would put two pint-sized forwards on the same line? Czarnik ended up being a big reason Grimaldi led the team with eight assists, while Grimaldi was a big reason Czarnik scored a team-best five goals. They were great together and proved that size only matters in one’s own mind and not necessarily on the score sheet.
When Czarnik plays with high-end offensive players, he has the ability to make them better, but can also play off of their strengths to put himself in a position to succeed. He’s good in tight quarters and is unafraid of contact. He’s going to get out-muscled often, but he’s going to get in there regardless. Czarnik also has great speed, hands and a lightning-quick release. The offensive tools are certainly there.
He has 22 points (12-10) for the best team in the USHL and is beginning to heat up with seven points in his last five games. Additionally, he’s committed to Miami University which has been doing a great job of developing pro prospects lately. He’d be a four-year guy in college with a chance to add strength to his frame. If GM’s are unafraid to take a stab at a small guy, particularly in the later rounds, Czarnik is worth it.
Getting back to ISS, its rankings are kind of interesting. Since they post rankings on a monthly basis (which is kind of nice), seeing changes is pretty common. The biggest risers on its board were Rocco Grimaldi (from 25 to 16) and Tyler Biggs (from 12 to 6). I found this ranking interesting in that J.T. Miller was no where to be found, despite a steady rise up the charts from most everyone else and I already mentioned Seth Ambroz’s absence as curious.
The two Americans on the list that surprised me a bit were Colin Jacobs and Nick Shore, both supremely talented, but marginal first rounders at best. However, the great thing about draft rankings are the varying opinions you get from them. Most people don’t look at the same player and see the same thing. So with that in mind, here are the Americans ranked by ISS listed in order:
No. 6 — Tyler Biggs — U.S. National Under-18 Team
No. 11 — Brandon Saad — Saginaw Spirit
No. 16 — Rocco Grimaldi — U.S. National Under-18 Team
No. 22 — Colin Jacobs — Seattle Thunderbirds
No. 23 — Scott Mayfield — Youngstown Phantoms
No. 25 — Jamie Oleksiak — Northeastern University
No. 29 — Nick Shore — University of Denver
That’s it for your weekly prospect digest. We’ll have Hockey Weekend Across America coverage starting back up this afternoon and going right into Monday. So stick around and don’t be afraid to jump into the various HWAA topics in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter.