USHL 2012-13 Season Outlook: Eastern Conference

Tuesday, we took a look at the United States Hockey League’s Western Conference, so naturally, today provides a look at the East. On paper, the 2012-13 season looks a little more balanced between the two conferences in terms of overall talent.

The Eastern Conference boasts each of the last four Clark Cup champions, while the Anderson Cup, the league’s regular-season title, has resided in the east since 2008-09. All six of the players with USHL ties that went in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft last year also came from Eastern Conference teams. So, yeah, the East has been pretty dominant.

Things could be a little different this year with Waterloo as the consensus favorite to take the league. Regular powerhouse and defending champ Green Bay has a decidedly younger, less experienced lineup than in years past. Dubuque is looking to replace two first-round NHL Draft picks including Zemgus Girgensons who immediately signed with the Buffalo Sabres and Indiana will be without offensive dynamos Daniil Tarasov and Sean Kuraly. The door is open for other teams to compete for an Eastern Conference title.

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

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.

Cedar Rapids RoughRiders
Head Coach: Mark Carlson (14th Year)
2011-12 Finish: 27-21-12 (5th in East, Qualifying Round)
NHL Drafted Prospects: Judd Peterson (BUF, 7th Rd., 204th, 2012)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): D-Ian Brady (N/A, 2nd-year eligible)
USofH Preseason Rank: 13

Cedar Rapids was mired in a bout of inconsistency during the 2011-12 season, but did well enough to earn a spot in the postseason. Under the new playoff rules put in place for this year, the RoughRiders would have been on the outside looking in. Looking at last year’s roster compared to this year, it appears Cedar Rapids hasn’t gotten appreciably better, but certainly got younger. Young rosters aren’t a bad thing in the USHL, it just becomes a little more difficult to compete that season. The trade off is a more seasoned team next year, and it appears that could be what Cedar Rapids is going for. That said, the RoughRiders return RPI recruit Riley Bourbonnais, who posted 39 points in 2011-12, good for second on the team last year. Additionally, puck-moving Dman and future UNO Maverick Ian Brady returns. The big addition for Cedar Rapids is Judd Peterson, a Sabres draft pick who posted a stunning 83 points for Duluth Marshall High School last year. The RoughRiders also have what many other teams have not had in the USHL in recent years and that’s continuity. Mark Carlson has been guiding the team since 1999 and is a well-respected coach within the league. Having some decent returnees and solid youngsters to develop could help keep Cedar Rapids hanging around, but it could be more of a rebuilding situation in 2012-13.

Chicago Steel
Head Coach: Scott McConnell (2nd Year)
2011-12 Finish: 25-31-4 (7th in East, missed playoffs)
NHL Drafted Players: MacKenzie MacEachern (STL, 3rd Rd., 67th, 2012); Jaccob Slavin (CAR, 4th Rd., 120th, 2012)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): F-Joseph Widmar (C); F-Alex Roos (N/A); F-Thomas Ebbing (N/A)
USofH Preseason Rank: 10

The Steel has been mired in the USHL basement for the last several years, not making the playoffs since 2007-08. Coaches have come and gone with regularity as a result. Scott McConnell returns and he comes back with a better roster than he had in his first full season. MacKenzie MacEachern is the marquee addition to the lineup, coming out of the Michigan high school ranks from which he earned a third-round selection by St. Louis. He should be an impact player in his rookie campaign in the USHL. Puck-moving defenseman Jaccob Slavin returns for his second USHL campaign after parlaying a 30-point campaign into a fourth-round pick from Carolina. Alex Roos will also be a returnee to watch. After joining the Steel midway through the season last year, Roos produced at nearly a point-per-game clip. If that production is sustainable over a full season, Roos could be in for a breakout year to Chicago’s benefit. With a high volume of players with USHL experience and some quality additions, the Steel look to have the best team its had in years on paper. They should push for one of the four available playoff spots.

Dubuque Fighting Saints
Head Coach: Jim Montgomery (3rd Year)
2011-12 Finish: 36-20-4 (3rd in East, Quarterfinals)
NHL Drafted Prospects: Matt Benning (BOS, 6th Rd., 175th, 2012)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): D-Michael Downing (A); F-Peter Quenneville (C, 2nd-year eligible); F-John Stevens (C, 2nd-year eligible)
USofH Preseason Rank: 5

Only two years removed from a Clark Cup title, the Fighting Saints remain one of the better squads in the USHL. Though lacking the star power of Zemgus Girgensons and Michael Matheson, who earned first-round selections last year, Dubuque has some quality skill players and will once again garner eyeballs from scouts. Mike Downing is one of the best prospects in the USHL this season and will have to be a veteran presence on the back end to keep Dubuque in the playoff hunt. Newcomer Matt Benning should help solidify the defense corps as well. One of the most exciting talents on the Dubuque roster is 16-year-old Seamus Malone who starred at the USHL Fall Classic, collecting four goals and an assist to open some eyes. Peter Quenneville and John Stevens are welcome newcomers. Quenneville will need to help supplement the loss of Girgensons and has the ability if his 81-point campaign in the Alberta Junior Hockey League last season is any indication. Jim Montgomery has yet to disappoint in his first two seasons at the helm of the Fighting Saints, so expect him to get the most out of this group. While my preseason ranking might be a little optimistic for this team, they should be a playoff contender.

Green Bay Gamblers
Head Coach: Derek Lalonde (2nd Year)
2011-12 Finish: 47-9-4 (1st in East, Clark Cup Champion)
NHL Drafted Players: Ben Gallacher (FLA, 4th Rd., 93rd, 2010)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): D-Gustov Olofsson (B); D-Jordan Gross (C); F-Matthew Weis (N/A); F-Alex Kile (N/A)
USofH Preseason Rank: 2

The defending champs lost a ton of fire power from last year’s squad, but has replaced it with high-end youngsters and a few guys returning to junior after a year in college. Arguably the best organization in the USHL consistently for at least the last five years, the Gamblers always seem to find a way and that’s a big reason I still think they’re a top contender to win the East. The Gamblers also have some solid returnees including Kyle Novak, who was a 51-point man a season ago. Alex Kile and Nick Schilkey each should provide some offense as returnees as well having scored a combined 33 goals last year. The D is an area in which Green Bay lacks experience, but newcomers Barrett Kaib, who played at Providence College last season, and Ben Gallacher, coming off a strong freshman year at Ohio State, should help shore that up. Additionally, USHL rookie Jordan Gross is a highly-anticipated addition after he posted 47 points in 30 games last season for Maple Grove High School from the blue line. The Gamblers also boast a pair of North Dakota recruits and top 16-year-olds in Nick Schmaltz (brother of Jordan and a top player to watch for the 2014 Draft) and Brendan Lemieux (son of Claude). Green Bay will have a tough time replacing USHL Co-Goalie of the Year Ryan McKay, but Mike Rotolo, the backup last year, looks poised to fill those skates well. Additionally, the Gamblers have small, but athletic netminder Richard Sabol from Slovakia to step in. There will be an adjustment for Green Bay, but there are enough pieces to consider this team among the tops in the league still.

Indiana Ice
Head Coach: Ron Gay (1st Year)
2011-12 Finish: 36-15-9 (2nd in East, Conference Final)
NHL Drafted Prospects: Robbie Baillargeon (OTT, 5th Rd., 136th, 2012)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): D-Alexander Smith (C)
USofH Preseason Rank: 3

The Ice lost two of the more electrifying USHL talents of 2011-12 when Daniil Tarasov aged out and Sean Kuraly headed to Miami University. Replacing their production will be near impossible, but the Ice retained Robbie Baillargeon who made a seamless transition to the USHL last year, posting 48 points including 36 assists as a rookie. The Ice also acquired Austin Ortega in a trade with Cedar Rapids, providing a veteran presence at forward. Indiana also picked up Joshua Jacobs who was a standout for the U.S. Youth Olympic Team last winter. On defense, the Ice will rely heavily on veterans Joe Fiala, Matthew Krug and Peter Hand. That good experience on the back end could make a huge difference. The Ice also have an intriguing duo in net to replace Jon Gillies. Dalton Izyk saw limited action last year, but is a solidly-skilled goalie, while Mattias Soderqvist, a veteran of the SuperElit U20 league in Sweden could see a lot of time between the pipes. With a new head coach and so much offense to replace, it could be a tough go in the early stages of the season for Indiana. That said, they put together another strong lineup and should be in the postseason hunt.

Muskegon Lumberjacks
Head Coach: Jim McKenzie (1st Full Year)
2011-12 Finish: 17-35-8 (8th in East, missed playoffs)
NHL Drafted Prospects: Rasmus Bengtsson (FLA, 2nd Rd., 59th, 2011); Adam Gilmour (MIN, 4th Rd., 98th, 2012); Patrick Koudys (WSH, 5th, 147th, 2011)
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Ratings): D-Mike Brodzinski (C); F-Frederik Tiffels (C); D-Ben Storm (N/A, 2nd-year eligible)
USofH Preseason Rating: 9

Is this the year the Jacks turn the corner? It appears it could be. Having spent its first two seasons last season (EDIT: made playoffs in 2010-11 despite sub-.500 record) in the USHL basement, Muskegon has its best roster to date with a good mix of experience and exciting rookies. Though the Lumberjacks will temporarily be without Rasmus Bengtsson while he attends AHL training camp, the big defenseman will lead an improved and sizable defensive corps in 2012-13. Offensive-minded defenseman Mike Brodzinski will add a little pop to the D corps while newcomer Ben Storm provides enormity (6-6, 2013). Patrick Koudys left RPI after two seasons and will be an elder statesman on the blue line, providing solid defensive-minded play. Muskegon also got real good real fast at forward with the additions of prep school standout Adam Gilmour and German import Frederik Tiffels. The Jacks also return 21-goal man Tyler Heinonen. Just a year removed from finishing last in the East, this could be one of the great turnarounds in junior hockey if Muskegon can live up to expectations.

Team USA (National Team Development Program)
Head Coach U18s: Don Granato (2nd Year)
Head Coach U17s: Danton Cole (3rd Year)
2011-12 Finish: 26-29-5 (6th in East, Qualifying Round)
NHL Drafted Prospects: N/A
2013 NHL Draft Prospects (NHL CSS Rating): F-J.T. Compher (A); F-Hudson Fasching (A); D-Will Butcher (B); D-Steven Santini (B); F-Mike McCarron (B); F-Tyler Motte (B);  D-Keaton Thompson (B); F-Evan Allen (C); F-Dawson Cook (C); D-Trevor Hamilton (C); D-Scott Savage (N/A); F-Sean Malone (N/A); D-Gage Ausmus (N/A)
USofH Preseason Rank: 11

The NTDP splits the season between its two squads which always makes for interesting results in the standings. Both squads should be competitive in the USHL, with high hopes surrounding this year’s National U17 Team. The U-18 Team was previewed in-depth here. With that covered, the U17 team has some really intriguing prospects, most notably Jack Eichel who turned down an opportunity to play in the QMJHL with the Halifax Mooseheads this year. Not draft-eligible until 2015, one junior scout told me he has first-overall potential. Ryan MacInnis, son of Hall of Famer Al, is also a highly-touted prospects and should do well this season. Meanwhile, Dylan Larkin has made an immediate impact scoring three goals in the U17 team’s first two USHL games. Additionally, the U.S. National Under-18 Team welcomed newcomer Shane Eiserman, a 2014-eligible who has already made an impact for his new squad. There are so many solid youngsters throughout both lineups, they should be as exciting as ever to watch. It may be tough for the NTDP to make the playoffs given the depth of talent within the East, but should be able to find some success throughout the year. The expectations will certainly be higher in 2012-13.

Youngstown Phantoms
Head Coach: Anthony Noreen (2nd Year)
2011-12 Finish: 32-21-7 (4th in East, Quarterfinals)
NHL Drafted Players: N/A
2013 NHL Draft Prospects: G-Sean Romeo (G); F-Austin Cangelosi (N/A, 2nd-year eligible)
USofH Preseason Rank: 8

The surprise team of 2011-12 should continue impressing in 2012-13. Without much turnover at forward, the Phantoms should be strong offensively with good experience and skill up front. Austin Cangelosi collected 59 points last season and will be back for one more year before heading to Boston College. J.T. Stengelin posted 31 goals a season ago and is also back. So is Sam Anas who had 34 points as a rookie. So scoring shouldn’t be a problem. Youngstown can also count on returnees Dan Renouf, Ryan Lowney and Eric Sweetman on defense as well. That continuity from last season should be beneficial in Youngstown’s push for back-to-back playoff berths. A lot of the success for Youngstown with rest in the capable hands of netminder Sean Romeo. Though he has limited experience, he has good size and athleticism to get the job done. Head coach Anthony Noreen is also a rising star in the business and received loads of accolades for his turnaround job last season. Expect the Phantoms to bring the offensive fireworks and be a really thrilling team to watch.

Complete USofH 2012-13 Preseason Rankings:

1. Waterloo Black Hawks
2. Green Bay Gamblers
3. Indiana Ice
4. Lincoln Stars
5. Dubuque Fighting Saints
6. Fargo Force
7. Omaha Lancers
8. Youngstown Phantoms
9. Muskegon Lumberjacks
10. Chicago Steel
11. Team USA
12. Tri-City Storm
13. Cedar Rapids RoughRiders
14. Sioux City Musketeers
15. Sioux Falls Stampede
16. Des Moines Buccaneers

Preseason Predictions:
Anderson Cup Champion: Waterloo Black Hawks
Western Conference Champion: Waterloo Black Hawks
Eastern Conference Champion: Youngstown Phantoms
Clark Cup Champion: Waterloo Black Hawks

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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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