American Prospect Update: Who To Watch in the USHL This Year

The American Prospect Update has returned, which can only mean hockey season has arrived. OK, once you finish your celebratory dance party for one, come on back and read the rest of this post…

The USHL Fall Classic kicks off today in Sioux City, Iowa. Dozens of elite prospects for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft will be on display at the Tyson Events Center. The games won’t count towards the standings, but it makes the event no less important.

For the prospects, it’s the first audition for the many NHL scouts and execs that will be in attendance to get a glimpse of the best the USHL has to offer.

This season is one in which the stars may align just perfectly for the USHL. With several highly-touted prospects found within the league, there could be a much larger impact on the NHL Draft this June. A season like this is one could garner a whole bunch of attention for the USHL and help it attract and keep more talent.

Coming up after the jump, a look at some of the 2012 Draft-eligible players to keep an especially close eye on this USHL season…

To get this out of the way quickly, the U.S. National Under-18 Team will be playing in the Fall Classic and has a team that will get a bunch of attention. With highly-rated players like Jacob Trouba, Cam Darcy, Nic Kerdiles and Collin Olson, this team will attract plenty of eyeballs. For more on the U.S. National Under-18 Team, check out my roster analysis here and here.

Now, for the rest of the USHL…

It is likely that the two best prospects, outside of the NTDP, in the USHL are actually non-Americans. Zemgus Girgensons (Latvia) and Michael Matheson (Canada) are both skating for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2011-12. There’s no question they’ll garner the majority of attention in the press and among the scouts, but the league still has a plethora of other attractive players in the pipeline.

Ryan S. Clark of the Fargo Forum has been doing a bang up job with extensive USHL individual team previews as well as some watch lists of his own. So be sure to check them all out at his Slightly Chilled blog.

There’s no more time to waste, so here’s my list of the top American prospects to watch in the USHL this season:

Jordan Schmaltz — Sioux City Musketeers — Gare Joyce listed Schmaltz as his No. 2 prospect for this draft in one of his final posts at ESPN.com. While I agree there’s a ton of upside with Schmaltz, such a lofty ranking was probably unwarranted. With the depth of blue line talent in this draft, Schmaltz still looks like a first rounder, but perhaps in the lower half of that round. Regardless, a first-round talent in the USHL is a big plus.

Schmaltz is offensively gifted and is a solid skater. He’s also a late 1993, so he’ll be one of the older players in the draft this year, which tends to help for a defensive prospect in particular. Schmaltz should be ahead of some of his 1994-born competition developmentally. A big focus for the North Dakota-bound defenseman is to get bigger and get tougher. Rounding out his game and adding a more physical element can only add to his already high stock.

Vincent Hinostroza — Waterloo Black Hawks — Hinostroza will enter his second season in the USHL a tiny bit under the radar. He was left off of the 2012 CSS Watch List, but expect the Illinois native to make the scouts regret that oversight. He was arguably one of Team USA’s very best players at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka and has an unrivaled work ethic on the ice.

Waterloo is stacked this season with a bunch of high-end players, but Hinostroza’s league experience could put him in a better position to showcase himself this season. He’ll have to overcome concerns about his size and strength, but the skill level and skating appear to be right where they need to be as evidenced by this game-winning goal he scored against Russia at the Hlinka.

Brian Cooper — Fargo Force — A diminutive defenseman that will probably have his share of doubters certainly belongs on the NHL radar. He skates like the wind and has tremendous offensive instincts. He was the only draft-eligible player invited to USA Hockey’s Junior Evaluation Camp in August, and though he was an early cut, his invitation is a feather in his cap heading into this season.

On a very talented Fargo team, Cooper will be one of the leaders. It will be his third year in the league, so he knows the drill at this point. Cooper will have to show off the offensive ability that attracted USA scouts to him for the World Junior squad and prove that he can use his little frame to his advantage. He’s an exciting prospect because this season could really go either way for him.

Jordan Masters — Muskegon Lumberjacks — After an impressive showing at the Ivan Hlinka with Team USA, Masters has raised his profile. Left off of Central Scouting’s watch list for 2012, Masters had a decent rookie season in the USHL posting 11 points as a 16-year-old. However, he blew up at the USA Hockey Select 17 Player Development Camp with nine goals and 11 points in seven games. Then he led Team USA with seven points (4-3) at the Hlinka. With one USHL season under his belt, expect Masters to play more of a featured role with Muskegon and slowly climb up the charts throughout the season.

Robbie Baillargeon — Indiana Ice — Jordan Schmaltz won’t be the only A-rated American in the USHL this season. Baillargeon was listed as an A-rated prospect by CSS after his standout season at Cushing Academy. The Ice were able to lure Baillargeon away from his prep school, a very difficult feat for a USHL team, and get this touted forward into the league.  By joining the USHL Baillargeon will be able to quiet any concerns that almost always follow a prep school player by playing in the bigger, stronger, faster USHL.

A.J. Michaelson — Waterloo Black Hawks — Had Michaelson stayed at Apple Valley H.S. in Minnesota, he may have been the state’s top prep player. Instead, Michaelson took a chance with the USHL. He has his share of doubters, despite the fact that he has lightning speed and a knack for the net. Michaelson is another player that has given himself a chance to put the concerns about him to rest as he looks to show off his skills against some very strong competition. Waterloo could be one of the more exciting teams in the league this year, and Michaelson is right at the center of it.

Other notables…

Jon Gillies — Indiana Ice — The gigantic Jon Gillies didn’t do himself any favors at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka. He had some serious struggles overseas and will have to bounce back. CSS listed him as a B-rated prospect, but there are a lot of concerns about the big goaltender’s game. That said, he’s 6-5, 215 and has shown some ability. He is raw, but has tools that are desirable to NHL teams. He might not go as early as some expect, but there’s little doubt a team will take a stab at him. Solid play throughout the season could change that.

Justin Wade — Fargo Force — Wade is another guy that perhaps did more harm than good for his draft standing at the Ivan Hlinka, but again there’s some raw tools that teams will like. He’s big, he’s strong and he’s tough. He has a lot to improve on this year in order to garner some more draft attention, but there’s no doubt he’s capable.

Matt McNeely — Cedar Rapids RoughRiders — Passed over in the 2011 Draft, McNeely will remain eligible this season and could take advantage of what looks to be a weaker crop of goaltenders in the 2012 Draft pool. After two years at the NTDP, there’s a really good foundation to McNeely’s game. He took a backseat to Ducks second rounder John Gibson last year, but with a starting gig in Cedar Rapids, he’ll have plenty of time to show off what he can do. Cedar Rapids has also done a great job with it’s goalies for the last several years. This is one second-year eligible that’s going to have a great chance to earn a selection.

Dakota Mermis — Green Bay Gamblers — Having left the NTDP after only one year, Mermis is looking for a chance to get some more ice time and earn a shot at the draft. It’s a gamble to have left the NTDP for the USHL, but he does go to one of the better organizations in the league. He has some solid offensive skill, but size is a concern. Mermis will have to be extra impressive, but may get some late-round looks.

A look into the future…

Taylor Cammarata — Waterloo Black Hawks — He’s not draft eligible until 2013, but Taylor Cammarata is pretty well known in most scouting and prospect circles. The 5-foot-6 forward left Shattuck-St. Mary’s after a season in which he scored a staggering 126 points (64-62) outscoring his soon-to-be-famous teammate Nathan MacKinnon (see: The Next Sidney Crosby, ya know… because he’s from Cole Harbour, N.S.). Will that point production at Shattuck translate to the USHL? It’s hard to know, but it will be one of the many reasons to watch the Black Hawks closely this season.

In other USHL-related news…

The league just announced that FASTHockey.com will be carrying all USHL games this season. It’s a great move for both entities in that the USHL becomes easier and more affordable to follow, while FASTHockey adds another fantastic client to it’s growing base. The quality of FASTHockey’s broadcasts and tremendous customer service are going to provide a notable upgrade to USHL fans and followers. I might be biased, as a frequent FASTHockey broadcaster, but even before I started with them, I had hoped this would happen. Everyone wins.

The USHL is poised for a “statement” season. With the number of high-end prospects in the league, there’s no doubt it could be a truly remarkable year from both an entertainment and exposure aspect. You can expect extended coverage of the USHL right here at USofH all season long with weekly scouting reports and updates along the way.

Coming Up Next Week on the American Prospect Update… A look at some of the top prospects in the CHL, which opens regular-season play this week, as well as some highlights from the USHL Fall Classic.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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One Response to American Prospect Update: Who To Watch in the USHL This Year

  1. Pingback: Peters names Cooper & Wade players to watch | Force to Reckon With

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