USHL 2012-13 Season Outlook: Western Conference

The United States Hockey League has been growing. Each year it seems the league takes another step forward in the number of players it sends to the NHL Draft, the quality of player it sends to college hockey and the depth of talent overall. Part of that is a credit to the American development system overall, but you can’t deny the opportunity the league is providing those top-tier players to further their development.

After a year in which six players with USHL ties heard their names called on Day 1 of the NHL Entry Draft, expectations remain high for the nation’s only Tier 1 Junior A league. The NHL lockout is a chance to seize more ink nationally and some more exposure overall. Perhaps ticket sales will be on the rise as well.

The USHL is a good, entertaining brand of hockey. After opening the regular-season last weekend to good-sized crowds across the league, there’s reason for optimism for another outstanding year.

Coming up after the jump, an in-depth look at the eight teams that make up the USHL’s Western Conference.

The USHL has been dominated by the Eastern Conference over the last few years and got even stronger when realignment put the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the east. However, there could be a shift in power, at least at the top of the league this season. By all accounts, the Waterloo Black Hawks, last year’s runner-up in the Clark Cup Playoffs is poised to be the league’s most dominant team. The Lincoln Stars also have some of the most notable prospects for the NHL Draft and could push Waterloo this season, while the Omaha Lancers and Fargo Force always tend to be teams that hang around all season. The West is ready to rise.

Each preview includes a list of players already drafted by NHL teams on the rosters, as well as which players are legitimate candidates to be selected in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. United States of Hockey has also formulated a preseason ranking for the USHL, 1-16. Find out which team ranks where in each capsule.

Des Moines Buccaneers
Head Coach: Jon Rogger (1st Year)
2011-12 Finish: 20-33-7 (7th in West, missed playoffs)
NHL Drafted Prospects: N/A
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): F-Bryan Basilico (C); F-Luke Voltin (N/A)
USofH Preseason Rank: 16

The Buccaneers have had a tough go the last couple of years and it appears 2012-13 will be more of the same. New head coach Jon Rogger doesn’t have a lot of high-end pieces on this team as of right now and with the improvement across the board in the West, it’s going to be tough to keep up. A lot will be required out of 6-4, 210-pound forward Zach Saar, who came over in a trade last season. The Penn State recruit battled consistency issues, but has some ability to contribute. Des Moines will also need big contributions from Luke Voltin and top returning scorer Trent Samuels-Thomas. After starting the season 0-2 and struggling through a preseason in which the Bucs won just one game of five, there isn’t a lot of faith in this squad’s ability to compete with the big boys. Still Des Moines draws well in its classic building and provides a great junior hockey atmosphere. Perhaps the most interesting storyline to follow is how Rogger fares in his first season as a head coach in the league. Rogger helped the Green Bay Gamblers to a pair of Clark Cup titles and three Anderson Cups (regular-season championship) as an assistant and will hope to bring stability to a franchise that has gone through four coaching changes in the last five seasons.

Fargo Force
Head Coach: John Marks (2nd Year)
2011-12 Finish: 31-23-6 (4th in West, quarterfinals)
NHL Drafted Prospects: Dominic Toninato (TOR, 5th Rd., 126th, 2012)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): F-Brendan Harms (B); F-Gabe Guertler (N/A), F-Charlie Pelnik (N/A), D-Justin Wade (N/A, 2nd year eligible).
USofH Preseason Ranking: 6

The Force had a dreadful start to the season last year but improved down the stretch. Now without star goalie Zane Gothberg, there could be a bit of a drop off, but there are some really nice pieces on this team. The addition of Dom Toninato, coming from Duluth East H.S. should go a long way to augment offensive losses from last season. The Force is an older, more seasoned team, which could help head coach John Marks navigate the improved West. Gabe Guertler had a luke-warm rookie season after high expectations, so he could be a huge key to the Force’s success if he finds his scoring touch. Also, more will likely be expected of Russian import Stanislav Dzakhov, who collected 14 points last year.  Notre Dame recruit Justin Wade will anchor a strong defense that will also include newcomers 16-year-old Butrus Ghafari and Swedish import Victor Bjorkung. Fargo has been one of the top organizations in the USHL since coming into the league in 2008-09 and always seems to be in the hunt.

Lincoln Stars
Head Coach: Chad Johnson (3rd Year)
2011-12 Finish: 38-18-4 (1st in West, conference finals)
NHL Drafted Prospects: Mike McKee (DET, 5th Rd., 140th, 2012); Paul LaDue (LAK, 6th Rd., 181st, 2012)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): F-Luke Johnson (A); F-Ross Olsson (B); F-Vinni Lettieri (C)
USofH Preseason Rank: 4

On paper Lincoln is a legitimate Clark Cup contender and will be one of the most heavily scouted teams in the USHL this year. It will be tough to replace USHL MVP Kevin Roy, who broke all sorts of records last season. Luke Johnson will be one of the guys to try though. As opposed to teams keying in on Roy, Johnson will draw top defenders and shut down lines from opponents, but he has the skill to continue to produce at a high level. Newcomers Ross Olsson and Vinni Lettieri should help at forward as well. Defensively, Lincoln boasts returnee Paul LaDue, who poasted 34 points and a plus-36 rating. Big Mike McKee will play a large role as protector for guys like Johnson and Lettieri as the 6-4, 245-pound Dman racked up 237 PIM last season and provides a physical presence every shift. Additionally, the Stars have a solid goaltending tandem in Michael Bitzer — the top goalie in Minnesota high school hockey last year — and USHL veteran Jackson Tiechroeb. Those two will be key components to Lincoln’s success. The Stars have a tall order of trying to knock off league favorite Waterloo, but may be the team best built to do it.

Omaha Lancers
Head Coach: Mike Aikens (1st full year)
2011-12 Finish: 38-19-3 (2nd in West, quarterfinals)
NHL Drafted Prospects: Jake Bischoff (NYI, 7th Rd., 185th, 2012)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): F-Drew Melanson (C); F-Tyler Moy (N/A)
USofH Preseason Ranking: 7

The Lancers have an exciting season on their hands. The team is weeks away from opening play in a new building, Mike Aikens is at the helm for a full season for the first time after replacing Bliss Littler last season and the squad returns Alex Lyon, who was one of the best goaltenders in the USHL last season. Lyon will be the catalyst for success if the Lancers hope to have any this season. After starting 48 games last year, while posting a 2.76 goals-against average and .910 save percentage, the Lancers can have loads of confidence in their veteran netminder. Adding puck-moving defenseman and Islanders prospect Jake Bischoff to the lineup this year could also prove helpful for the Lancers to put together another solid season. This team doesn’t have a lot of size, but the addition of 2014 Draft-eligible Connor Chatham could bring some much-needed grit to the lineup. Drew Melanson, the only Lancer to receive NHL Central Scouting praise, is also a newcomer who could also make an immediate impact after standing out at New Jersey high school powerhouse Delbarton. How the Lancers navigate eight straight road games  to start the season could set the tone for the whole campaign.

Sioux City Musketeers
Head Coach: Brett Larson (2nd Year)
2011-12 Finish: 29-30-1 (5th in West, qualifying round)
NHL Drafted Prospects: Cliff Watson (SJS, 6th Rd., 168th, 2012)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): D-Blake Heinrich (B); F-Jacob Montgomery (C, 2nd-year eligible); F-Connor McGlynn (C)
USofH Preseason Ranking: 14

At the beginning of last season, Sioux City looked like a team going nowhere, but first-year head coach Brett Larson rallied the troops after trading star defenseman Jordan Schmaltz and put together a playoff season. The big difference between this season and last will be goaltending. After relying heavily on Matt Skoff between the pipes last year, Sioux City has a pair of rookies in net for 2012-13. Sioux City returns David Goodwin, a 20-year-old forward that helped key last year’s comeback season after coming over from Green Bay in that trade. Additionally, the Musketeers have newcomer Blake Heinrich, an offensive defenseman from the Minnesota High School ranks who scored 11 goals last year for state runner-up Hill-Murray. The Musketeers also have San Jose prospect Cliff Watson on the back end, who was awfully raw as a rookie last year, but has some nice tools to be successful as a second-year guy. Additionally, Sioux City was able to lure big 6-4, 208-pound defenseman Anthony Mantha, who is considered one of the better 16-year-olds in the U.S. This is a fairly young team and the question marks in goal make the Musketeers tough to project for this season. It might be a year of growth, if not competitiveness, for Sioux City. The future is undoubtedly bright for this club.

Sioux Falls Stampede
Head Coach: Cary Eades (1st year)
2011-12 Finish: 17-36-7 (8th in West, missed playoffs)
NHL Drafted Prospects: N/A
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): F-Jake Ahlgren (C)
USofH Preseason Ranking: 15

Grabbing former North Dakota assistant Cary Eades, a gifted recruiter and coach, in the off-season was a boon for a team that finished with the worst record in the USHL last year. It might take some time to get back to competitiveness for the Stampede though. If Sioux Falls is going to stand a chance in the USHL this season, it will have to rely heavily on veteran netminder Charlie Lindgren. Despite an unsightly record of 9-19-3, Lindgren still amassed a save percentage of .907. There aren’t a lot of big prospects and there isn’t a lot of size throughout this lineup, but Sioux Falls should be able to put together a serviceable season. Jake Ahlgren will garner some looks from scouts after he as a two-points-per-game player in Minnesota for Fergus Falls High School last year. Beyond that, the Stampede doesn’t really stack up with the top tier of their conference and could struggle.

Tri-City Storm
Head Coach: Josh Hauge (1st full Year)
2011-12 Finish: 26-33-1 (6th in West, Qualifying Round)
NHL Drafted Prospects: Johan Mattsson (CHI, 7th Rd., 211th, 2011)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): F-Jason Cotton (C); F-Joel Lesperance (C); F-Trevor Moore (C); F-Garret Gamez (N/A)
USofH Preseason Ranking: 12

Tri-City is one of the more intriguing teams in the USHL this season with quite a few solid NHL Draft prospects and some quality pieces to be a competitive team in the conference. The most interesting newcomer to the Storm is former Sudbury Wolves goalie and Blackhawks prospect Johan Mattson. The big netminder was the backup for Team Sweden at the World Junior Championship last year and could provide a seasoned presence between the pipes. The Storm also boast Finland 2013 World Junior candidate Heikki Liedes, who enters his second year in the league. Trevor Moore and Garret Gamez could be big time scorers for this team, despite their relative youth for the league and both should receive NHL Draft consideration. There’s also newcomer Jason Cotton, a big forward from Texas who made the U.S. Ivan Hlinka team last August. The biggest question marks for Tri-City will be on defense, led by second-year USHLer Josh McArdle. It also remains to be seen what Josh Hauge can do with a full season at the helm of the Storm. They might be the middle-of-the-pack in the Western Conference, but Tri-City should be a fun team to watch in 2012-13.

Waterloo Black Hawks
Head Coach: P.K. O’Handley (11th Year)
2011-12 Finish: 35-19-6 (3rd in West, Clark Cup Runner-Up)
NHL Drafted Prospects: Zach Stepan (NSH, 4th Rd., 112th, 2012); Vince Hinostroza (CHI, 6th Rd., 169th, 2012); Valeri Vasiliev (PHI, 7th Rd., 201st, 2012)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): D-Ian McCoshen (A); G-Eamon McAdam (B); G-Cal Petersen (C); F-Taylor Cammarata (C); F-Justin Kloos (N/A, 2nd-year eligible); D-Kevin Duane (N/A, 2nd-year eligible)
USofH Preseason Ranking: 1

Fresh off a stunning playoff run in 2011-12, including taking eventual champion Green Bay the distance in a best-of-five Clark Cup Final, the Black Hawks found a way to get even better in the off-season. Minnesota Mr. Hockey Justin Kloos and Nashville fourth-rounder Zach Stepan were big gets for the club, not to mention adding size with Connecticut prep-schooler and BU recruit Kevin Duane. The Black Hawks also recently grabbed Russian import and Flyers prospect Valeri Vasiliev, who left the Spartak U20 team, part of the KHL’s junior circuit, after seven games this year to come to the USHL. That adds to an already solid core that includes likely first-round defenseman Ian McCoshen, the USHL’s rookie of the year Taylor Cammarata, Blackhawks prospect Vince Hinostroza and the best goaltending tandem in the league with Cal Petersen and Eamon McAdam, both strong draft candidates. The Black Hawks also had a great showing at the World Junior Club Cup this summer, eventually falling in the final to the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves. As long as that event — which lengthened Waterloo’s season by quite a bit, not to mention the travel to Russia — doesn’t end up tiring out the Hawks later in the year, there doesn’t appear to be a team that looks as good on paper. This will be one of the most-scouted and most-watched teams across the USHL this season.

Coming Soon: USHL 2012-13 Outlook: Eastern Conference

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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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