It certainly was a banner season for the United States Hockey League in 2009-10, as evidenced by the number of players selected during the 2010 Entry Draft.
Four first-round picks were among the 20 players drafted from the league. Additionally, there were 10 players drafted in the opening three rounds who, at one time, played for the U.S. National Team Developmental Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., which is part of the USHL.
It's certainly a sign of the times. Unofficially, a record 11 U.S.-trained players were selected among the top 30 choices -- besting the former mark of 10 Americans drafted in 2006 and '07. Officially, there were 10 U.S.-born players drafted. The lone exception was defenseman Cam Fowler (Anaheim Ducks, No. 12), who moved to Michigan from Windsor, Ont., at the age of 2. But keep in mind, Fowler holds dual citizenship and played two seasons with the NTDP.
"I guess it proves we're doing a better job of developing and training our players and I think the NTDP has certainly enhanced their readiness to be playing high-level hockey," Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of USA Hockey, told NHL.com. "We've seen that with the success of the Under-18's and World Juniors, and now you're seeing it from guys like Patrick Kane and Erik Johnson and the success they've had at a very young age in the NHL."
The USHL again will be scouted heavily over the course of the season as there are several draft-eligible prospects waiting in the wings prior to the start of the first round at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on June 24.
Ron Rolston, coach of the USNTDP's Under-18 team, likes the fact his squad is matched against tough competition every night in the USHL.
"The USHL has a big turnover every year just because of the kids that move on to college," Rolston said. "It's heavily scouted and great for our kids because they're playing 19- and 20-year-olds with good skill. The tempo of the league is outstanding and the coaches are outstanding, so it challenges everyone on your team. We know we're in for a supreme fight every game we play in the USHL."
At last count, 189 players competing in the USHL have made college commitments, including 31 from the USNTDP. Here's a look at a few of the top draft-eligible prospects performing in the league this season:
Seth Ambroz, Omaha -- The 17-year-old power-forward from New Prague, Minn., is in his third season in the league. He's produced 36 goals and 80 points over his first two seasons and is projected to go among the top 10 picks in the 2011 Draft.
At 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, Ambroz, who is committed to the University of Minnesota next fall, has been labeled a player possessing a tremendous shot with a propensity for sticking up for teammates.
"I know I have to bring a big, physical presence ... play big around the net, work the corners and be able to muck it up a little bit," Ambroz said. "I'm comfortable with (dropping the gloves). I'm not going out there looking to fight all the time, but I know that's the game and sometimes you can't avoid it."
NHL Central Scouting's Al Jensen was impressed with Ambroz's play during the USHL Fall Classic in Sioux City, Iowa, in September. Ambroz connected for 5 goals (4 on the power play), 6 points, a plus-1 and 17 shots on goal in five games.
"He's a John Tonelli-type player, very strong," said Jensen, comparing Ambroz to the former Islander and four-time Stanley Cup champion. "I've seen him run over players along the boards to get by them. He competes very hard and has good hands and puck skills. He has a strong skating stride -- not lightning speed, but very effective and strong. He has a good, hard wrist shot and is responsible in his own end."
Scott Mayfield, Youngstown -- Mayfield, a 6-3 1/2, 197-pound defenseman, and Ambroz were roommates during the 2010 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp Fueled By G Series in August. Born in St. Louis, Mayfield has attracted plenty of attention. Committed to the University of Denver starting next season, he's rangy and fluid, and plays with an edge.
Central Scouting's Gary Eggleston was witness to that feisty demeanor during the USHL Fall Classic.
"He plays the body well and is physical but not in an overly rambunctious way," Eggleston told NHL.com. "He can close off the forechecker up high and is controlled, poised and calm in his play. He plays like a seasoned veteran. Scott has a smooth, strong and effortless stride, his passes are crisp and he sees the ice well. He has a very good wrist shot and controls the play from the point on the power play."
Mayfield was selected the USHL's top defenseman for the opening week of this season. Jensen said he can sense a confident Mayfield with the way he carries himself on the ice.
"He carries the puck with confidence and authority, and is a strong skater," Jensen said. "He also plays physical and will deliver the big hit now and then -- I'm even seeing a little Larry Robinson in him."
Read Scott Mayfield's blog on NHL.com.
Colten St. Clair, Fargo -- It'll be interesting to see what Fargo coach and former NHL first-round draft pick Jason Herter (No. 8 to the Vancouver Canucks, 1989) can help incorporate into St. Clair's already impressive game. St. Clair, who is committed to North Dakota next fall, scored 15 goals and 33 points (10 points on the power play) in 54 games last season with the Force. The only reason he didn't make the jump to the collegiate ranks this season is because he wouldn't receive the ice time needed to improve his game with the Fighting Sioux.
In six games this season, St. Clair (5-foot-10 1/4, 190 pounds) has 1 goal and 3 points. He has 33 goals and 62 points in 115 USHL games over the last three seasons.
Adam Wilcox, Green Bay -- Wilcox might be the best draft-eligible goalie from the state of Minnesota. After a trying 2009-10 season with South St. Paul High School, the future Minnesota Golden Gopher is making a name for himself in his first season with the Gamblers. In his first game, Oct. 8, he stopped 33 of 34 shots in a 4-1 victory at Tri-City. He's currently 1-1-0 with a 2.00 GAA and .926 save percentage in two games.
"Adam has decent size and net coverage, has quick feet and pads," Jensen told NHL.com. "He's smart. His movements are well-balanced and controlled and he has a great work ethic."
Jarrod Rabey, Indiana -- At 5-foot-11 3/4 and 238 pounds, Rabey certainly isn't going to be overlooked on the ice. The hulking defenseman from Rockford, Ill., has 2 power-play goals in five games this season, his first full season in the league after playing five games last season. Next season, he'll play at St. Cloud State University.
Rabey, 18, was captain and one of the top defensemen for the Milwaukee Jr. Admirals AAA midget team in 2009-10. In 63 games, he had 10 goals, was third on the team with 53 points (10 multi-point games), and also had 42 penalty minutes. He was selected by the Indiana Ice in the 15th round (No. 193) of the 2009 USHL draft.
Indiana coach Charlie Skjodt likes what he's seen from Rabey so far.
"Jarrod made great strides from camp to the start of the season," Skjodt told NHL.com. "For a big guy, he can absolutely fly. He has a very heavy shot and quick reflexes with the puck. He sees the ice quite well and has become one of our go-to guys on the power play. He wants to learn, and I believe, has a great future in the game."
Sam Warning, Cedar Rapids -- The 5-8 1/2, 179-pound left wing is in his second USHL season after being selected by the RoughRiders in the 14th round of the 2009 USHL Entry Draft. Warning scored a goal on his first shot in the league during the season opener for Cedar Rapids in 2009-10. He finished his initial stint in the league with 9 goals, 19 points, 41 penalty minutes and a plus-6 rating in 53 games. In four games this season, the 18-year-old has 2 goals, 3 points and a plus-4 rating.
Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Slovakia.
Alexx Privitera, Muskegon -- Committed to Boston University, the 5-9, 186-pound defenseman from Old Tappan, N.J., is a skilled, offensive-minded defenseman perfectly suited for turning the transition.
Privitera skated with the USNTDP U-17 team in Ann Arbor last season, where he totaled 4 goals and 14 points in 52 games. He can work the power play from the point and has been commended for his exceptional vision and skill set. Through five games with Muskegon this season, Privitera has 6 points, 17 penalty minutes and a plus-3 rating.
Brendan Woods, Muskegon -- The 6-2 1/2, 190-pound left wing was ranked No. 83 among North American skaters for the 2010 Entry Draft in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings, but went undrafted after never fully recovering from a broken left femur suffered in a preseason game last year with the USHL's Chicago Steel.
"I'm sure me breaking my leg kind of scared them away a little bit," Woods told Tim Leone of The Patriot-News. "They want to see me play a full year healthy. I'll show them I'm capable of doing what I'm known to do."
Woods, the son of Washington Capitals assistant coach Bob Woods, had 6 goals, 4 assists and 32 penalty minutes in 34 games for Chicago last season. He'll likely play for the Wisconsin Badgers in 2011-12. In four games with Muskegon this season, Woods has 3 goals, 4 points, 16 penalty minutes and a plus-2 rating.
Sean Kuraly, Indiana -- The 6-1 1/2, 192-pound center started his season with a goal and two penalty minutes for the U.S. at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
Kuraly, who is committed to attend Miami University next fall, has 1 assist in his first three games. He had 3 points in five games with Indiana last season, a promotion to the league earned after a strong season with the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets last season -- 29 goals and 44 assists in 45 games.
"He's going to be a strong hockey player at both ends of the rink," Barzee said.
Andy Welinski, Green Bay -- Last season's top defenseman at Minnesota Duluth East High School will forego his senior year to play this season with the Gamblers. It's a path defenseman Derek Forbort took when he left the Greyhounds for the USNTDP last season, and he went on to be taken by the Los Angeles Kings with the 15th pick of the 2010 Entry Draft.
Welinski, committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth next fall, probably will play in at least 40 more games than his high school team this season. The fact he'll receive more ice time against better competition only will enhance his draft status come June. His only goal in six games was a game-winner Oct. 15.
"USHL hockey is better than high school hockey," Green Bay assistant coach Jon Rogger said. "It's going to prepare you more for college and you're playing against older and stronger kids like they will be in college. At the end of the day, it's in the kid’s best interest. If they are good enough to leave high school early, then they should do it."
Austin Czarnik, Green Bay -- Czarnik, who is committed to Miami University, played in 26 games for the USNTDP U-18 team last season, and finished tied for third on the team in scoring with 54 points and fifth with 22 goals.
The native of Washington, Mich. also posted an 11-game point streak in which he tallied 9 goals, 13 assists and a plus-15 rating. In four games with Green Bay this season, the 5-8, 140-pound center has 2 goals, 3 points and a plus-1 rating.
Max McCormick, Sioux City -- As a senior forward at Notre Dame Academy in Wisconsin last season, McCormick won the state's Mr. Hockey Award after totaling 34 goals and 37 assists for the Titans.
Committed to Ohio State next fall, McCormick is considered a leader with a tremendous work ethic. In five games in his first USHL season, he has 1 goal, 5 points and 11 penalty minutes.
Logan Nelson, Des Moines -- The 6-1 1/4, 174-pound center exhibited strong offensive skills for Kansas-based Russell Stover's midget-minor squad last season, posting 18 goals and 17 assists in 38 games. He connected for 4 power-play goals and 3 shorthanded, proving his value on special teams. While he has yet to make a college commitment, that should change with an impressive debut in the USHL in 2010-11. He has 1 goal in three games, and it was a game-winning score, Oct. 9 against Green Bay.
Jay Williams, Waterloo -- Selected by Waterloo with the third pick of the 2009 draft, the McLean, Va., native starred for TPH Thunder AAA Hockey Club and Hotchkiss Prep in Connecticut before joining the Black Hawks this season. Some consider Williams, a huge admirer of Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, to be one of the top draft-eligible North American goalies. The 6-foot, 170-pound Williams also spent time with the USNTDP and will attend Miami University in the fall of 2012.
Last season, he helped the U.S. U-17 Select Team finish third at the Five Nations Tournament in Germany, making 23 saves in a 4-3 victory against Switzerland and 32 stops in a 9-6 win against Germany. He also served as the backup goalie at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
"He's very athletic and quick ... quick in all areas since that's his game," Jensen said. "He's got great drive and determination. He's smart at reading plays and makes the huge saves."
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