The United States Hockey League's annual Fall Classic has traditionally offered NCAA Division I and III coaches, along with NHL representatives, a tremendous opportunity to catch a glimpse of many of the top players in the country. Several of those standouts also happen to be eligible for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
The four-day event, which includes each of the USHL's 16 teams and encompasses 24 games, also attracts many of the country's top scouts. NHL Central Scouting's Jack Barzee, who specializes in scouting the mid-West and those players in the USHL, is a loyal follower of the Fall Classic.
Prior to the tournament, Barzee took some time to talk to NHL.com about those players he will be paying particular attention to at this year's tournament. Following the tournament, which concludes Sept. 24, we'll reach out to Barzee to receive his post-tournament evaluations.
The player who might be getting the most attention this week at the Fall Classic is 6-foot-1, 182-pound forward Zemgus Girgensons of the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
"He's the most experienced player … already having a year in the league and is the most physically developed," Barzee said.
NHL Network analyst Craig Button likes the fact Girgensons gets another year under his belt with Dubuque head coach Jim Montgomery, who not only starred alongside Paul Kariya at the University of Maine but spent parts of six seasons in the NHL. He captained the 1992-93 Maine team to the school's first NCAA championship.
"It's early to say who will emerge out of the group of centermen eligible for the draft but Girgensons has Jim Montgomery as his coach and that is going to help him," Button told NHL.com. "Girgensons is too good to play in the junior leagues but he's not good enough to play in the KHL, so he has to find a place where he can develop his skills."
Committed to the University of Vermont in the fall of 2012, the Latvian center finished third on the team with 49 points (21 goals) in 51 games in 2010-11 and was selected to the mid-season Western Conference All-Star Team.
Girgensons received an automatic one-game suspension in a 3-1 victory over the Tri-City Storm on Thursday and will sit out Friday's contest against Muskegon. He received his suspension with 25 seconds remaining in the third period after being issused a game misconduct for checking from behind.
Another player starring in Dubuque is left-handed defenseman Michael Matheson (6-foot, 170 pounds), who recently won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2011 Under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial.
Defenseman Jordan Schmaltz (6-2, 175) of Sioux City is committed to the University of North Dakota. He finished his rookie season in the USHL as the league's highest-scoring defenseman with 44 points (13 goals) in 53 games. Schmaltz was named to the USHL's 2011 All-Rookie Team.
Barzee's USHL dark horse candidate for the 2012 draft is Sioux City defenseman Cliff Watson (6-2, 195), who is committed to Ohio State next September.
"He played with Appleton United last year and I like everything about him," Barzee said. "He's a bull. Secondly, he's a bull who can skate, can shoot the puck, moves the puck, knows the game and can put you in the nickel seats. That's a pretty good combination for me. Watson will be the second guy on the power-play to get a lot of assists, but he's also a dynamite defensive player."
The Fargo Force has two players in the fold, including 5-foot-10 defenseman Brian Cooper and 6-2 blueliner Justin Wade.
"Cooper is going to be one of those real controversial-type guys heading into the draft because he's another Gary Suter or Matt Carle type; he's not yet 6-foot, but is one of those offensive-type defensemen in the mold of Ryan Murphy (Carolina Hurricanes)."
Wade, who recently committed to the University of Notre Dame, played 35 games with the Force as a 16-year-old in 2010-11. He was also a member of the U.S. Under-18 Select Team in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament this past summer.
There are also several players starring for the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 Team, including forwards Cameron Darcy, Nicolas Kerdiles (Wisconsin), Brendan Silk (Boston College) and Stefan Matteau (North Dakota), defenseman Jacob Trouba and goalie Collin Olson (Ohio State).
Among that group of formidable players, Trouba, who hasn't committed to college but whose rights belong to the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers, would appear to be a first-round talent next June.
Trouba had 7 points in 21 games for the U-18 team last year and 6 goals, 19 points in 37 contests for the U-17 Team. The native of Rochester, Mich., scored the first goal in a 4-3 overtime gold-medal game triumph over Sweden in the 2011 U18 World Championship in Germany last April.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale