The USHL held its first ever Top Prospects Game in conjunction with the National Hockey League Tuesday night in Muskegon, Mich. Team East defeated Team West, 5-3, in the contest, coming back from a two-goal deficit and dominating the latter half of the game.
It was a good showcase for many of the league’s prospects in front of a high volume of scouts. Shortly, we’ll take a look at some of the best individual performances from the game, but first a few thoughts on the event as a whole.
The day got off to a bit of a bad start for the USHL when word got out that Zemgus Girgensons and Michael Matheson, both of the Dubuque Fighting Saints, would miss the game due to injury. The players from the National Team Development Program already were unavailable to attend due to the fact that they were taking their high school finals this week. Girgensons, Matheson and NTDP players Jacob Trouba, Stefan Matteau, Brady Skjei and Nic Kerdiles were all listed in the Top 30 of the NHL Centreal Scouting mid-term rankings for North American skaters. None were in the game, taking a little bit of the shine off a top prospects game.
The game was webcast live and free on FASTHockey.com, which was a great idea from an exposure standpoint. The game was very easily accessible and the production quality was solid (shout out to broadcasters Matt Gajtka, Bart Logan, and Dan Fremuth, as well as Tony Sposit, who has engineered some of the games I’ve called in the past).
Unfortunately, there wasn’t very much interest locally as the picture to the left illustrates.
At this level, it’s tough to generate interest in what amounts to an All-Star game that features players that lack any name recognition outside of their own markets, if they have any there.
It’s not surprising that there wasn’t great attendance outside of scouts and a few dozen die-hards, but the optics aren’t great for a league trying to gain more traction on the national stage. Despite the poor optics, the game still accomplished its primary goal, which was to create an event in which many of the league’s top draft-age players were able to showcase their skills for a lot of NHL scouts.
This is the first year of this event for the USHL and there haven’t been any official plans made to make this an annual affair. With an All-American prospects game scheduled to be held next September, there might be at least a year between this Top Prospects game and the next for the USHL, and that’s probably a good thing. That will give the league much more time to plan out the event and make sure it’s a win for all involved including the fans.
Here are some quick general thoughts on the overall game:
Without some of the widely projected first-rounders in the mix, there wasn’t a lot of top-end skill on display in this game. The USHL has a lot of good players, but there is a shortage of what would be considered elite players. That was plainly evident in this top prospects contest. Granted, there are several already drafted players in the league that were not in the game that would have added to the skill level, but that’s not what this game is about. It’s about getting draft-eligible players in front of scouts and giving them a showcase.
There were several players who definitely made the most of this event and a few who might not have helped themselves out too much, but overall it was a good quality game with a lot of back and forth action.
Here are some of the players that really stood out:
Brian Cooper — D — Fargo Force — In my opinion, Brian Cooper was the game’s standout player, despite not earning the Most Outstanding Player award for Team West. The smallish defenseman was physical, mobile and showed off a solid two-way game. Cooper has really honed his defensive game over his three years in the USHL. For a player of his size, I thought it would be beneficial for him to be more of an offensive defenseman, but he’s proven he can play a balanced game with great results. He had two big hits in the first period in open ice, was strong on the walls and in the defensive zone and showed good enough puck-moving abilities to make an impact. It is still difficult to tell if a defenseman of Cooper’s size, with the way that he plays will make it at the NHL level. However, he’s shown some serious versatility and there may be a place in the league for a player of his skill set down the line.
Robbie Baillargeon — F — Indiana Ice — Baillargeon posted two goals for Team East in the comeback effort and was named that team’s player of the game. He was very deserving of the honor as he was certainly Team East’s most impactful player for much of the contest. Baillargeon proved in this game that he is a legitimate upper-mid-round pick and a player that can finish. He’s been outstanding in his rookie season for Indiana and showed why at the Top Prospects Game. Both of his goals came from grade-A chances and he put the puck away. There’s something to be said for scoring the goals you’re supposed to score. He showed good hands, decent skating and really solid hockey sense. He knew where he had to be to get the goals and always put himself in good position.
Austin Farley — F — Fargo Force — Though just 5-8 and 165 pounds, Farley has all of the tools you need to have as a small guy. He had good puck skills, good vision and overall great speed. A.J. Michaelson was the beneficiary of Farley’s dishing skills with the game’s first goal. Then Farley got Team West’s second tally by going hard to the net and finishing a solid pass from Michaelson. It’s hard to know if Farley’s draft prospects are strong, as his size is certainly a concern, but he has enough tools to remain in the draft conversation.
A.J. Michaelson — F — Waterloo Black Hawks — Michaelson showed gimpses of what made him one of the most talked about prospects from the 1994 birth year in his younger days. He has great size and speed, and both were on display in Muskegon. His two points on his team’s first two goals were no fluke. He showed off good playmaking ability in addition to his raw speed. The offensive tools are there, but they still need some developing. Michaelson might be a little lower on a lot of lists lately, but there’s still something there. He needs more performances like he showed Tuesday night to get back into scouts’ good graces.
Matt DeBlouw — F — Muskegon Lumberjacks — NHL Central Scouting has been very high on DeBlouw all season long and during the top prospects game, it became a little more clear as to why. He’s a little light, but has nice speed and showed some solid puck skills throughout the game. DeBlouw was good on draws and getting pucks to the net with four shots. I didn’t see any high-end finish, which is a concern, but he certainly has some attractive tools.
Vince Hinostroza — F — Waterloo Black Hawks — I’ve liked Hinostroza all season and I still like him after what I saw on the video Tuesday night. Hinostroza has a great motor and is continually showing improvement in all areas of his game. He looked a bit faster and showed improved puck skills. He’ll remain in the lower-middle range of the draft due to size, but his work ethic is going to be awfully attractive to a number of teams.
Jordan Schmaltz — D — Green Bay Gamblers — With Girgensons and Matheson out, many of the scouts’ eyes had to be glued to Schmaltz who was one of the higher-end players on the ice. He looked the part for much of the game, showing his good skating and puck skills, however it is becoming abundantly clear that Schmaltz has a deficiency in the hockey sense department. In each of my viewings of Schmaltz, he’s committed some serious errors via turnovers and occasionally puts his teammates in bad spots with some ill-timed passing. This is an area of his game that has to improve. With many extra eyes on him, I don’t think Schmaltz necessarily hurt himself, but he didn’t help either.
Ian McCoshen — D — Waterloo Black Hawks — It is becoming more clear that McCoshen will be one of the most talked about prospects coming out of the USHL for the 2013 Draft. He has tremendous size and strength and engages physically. McCoshen also has good skating ability and as long as he stays in shape in the off-season is going to continue to get better. He should have a lot of opportunities to showcase his skills in the next year and a half and if he stays in the USHL, he will be the league’s most highly-touted prospect in 2013.
Jon Gillies — G — Indiana Ice — Playing the second half for Team East, Gillies made 19 saves on 20 shots, faring a little better than Team East starter Alex Lyon who finished the day seeing only two shots, both of which were goals. The goal Gillies allowed was off a deflection, but it looked on the video like it was one he should have had. Just a bit of a fluke play. Outside of that, Gillies looked really solid. His huge frame alone makes him a hot commodity. He needs a lot of polish, but that’s true for a lot of goalies his age. He’s going to be a project pick at the draft, but there’s a good chance he’s a project a lot of teams would love to get their hands on.
Best of the Rest:
Jeff Kubiak — F — Chicago Steel — Kubiak was a late add to the game, replacing Girgensons, but this 1994-born is 6-3, 205 and scored a goal in the game. He looked like he has some raw ability. This added exposure could go a long way.
Alex Kile — F — Green Bay Gamblers — Kile scored a real nice goal to seal the game for Team East. He showed good speed and great finish on the goal, wiring a shot short side. It was a nice play, perhaps one of the better ones of the whole game.
Jordan Masters — F — Muskegon Lumberjacks — Masters was a key player for the U.S. Under-18 Select Team at the Ivan Hlinka, and showed some offensive flashes in the Top Prospects Game. His single-handed effort to get to a loose puck and send a perfect pass led to Baillargeon’s second goal. Masters made it a gimme.
Cliff Watson — D — Sioux City Musketeers — Watson didn’t have a really noticeable game, but he’s shown marked improvement from where he was at the beginning of the season. As he continues to adjust to the USHL, he should better position himself for the draft with great size and some budding skills.
Luke Johnson — F — Lincoln Stars — Johnson isn’t draft eligible until 2013, but he had a two-assist night playing with Farley and Michaelson. Johnson is average sized, but he’s looking like he’s growing into his game. He should be an interesting player to watch for next year’s draft.
Tim Lappin — F — Tri-City Storm — I thought Lappin showed some really great speed and puck skills throughout the contest, despite not registering on the scoresheet. He had a few really nice plays in the game and shouldn’t be overlooked come June.
Taylor Cammarata — F — Waterloo Black Hawks — One of the more anticipated underagers invited to the Top Prospects Game, it wasn’t a great showcase for Cammarata, who looked over-matched against the bigger opponents. There were still glimpses of his excellent puck skills and speed. Size is still a concern, but as long as he keeps producing as he has in Waterloo this year, he’ll remain a much-talked about prospect.
At the end of the day, this was a good chance for a lot of these young players to be seen by a lot of scouts. It helps raise the awareness of the USHL and the quality of talent in the league among the scouting community. It may have not been a local hit or the best event it could have been, but for a first go around, it did what it was supposed to.
The future is very bright for the USHL. It may not close the talent gap between it and the Canadian Hockey League, but it will always produce quality players for the NCAA and NHL. This Top Prospects Game showed it’s getting even better at doing just that.