The selection of right wing Michael McCarron of the United States Under-18 National Team Development Program in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft marked the ninth straight year at least one player from the United States Hockey League was among the top 30 picks.
As it turned out, 32 players competing in the USHL in 2012-13 were chosen last June, the most players selected from the league in one year. There's no question the USHL has been churning out NHL-caliber athletes in recent years; a total of 94 USHL alumni competed in the League in 2012-13. More than 300 players on USHL rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools and more than 200 are currently under NHL contract.
This week, Prospector Files continues its First Team draft-eligible pick six series at each position from the major junior and international ranks. The Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League were highlighted the past two weeks.
The Western Hockey League and international standouts will follow.
Draft dandy of the week: Bleackley
Red Deer Rebels center Conner Bleackley, a 6-foot-0.5, 192-pound right-hander, is hoping to follow the path of former standouts and first-round draft picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Matt Dumba.
Based on the amount of praise he has received over the second half of the season, he's on track to do just that.
"He's a smooth-skating center with deceptive speed and quickness, and he has a very effective two-way game," Director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "He's reliable and responsible enough to be used in all situations."
Nugent-Hopkins, a center, spent two-plus seasons in the Western Hockey League with the Rebels and totaled 57 goals and 177 points in 141 games. He was chosen No. 1 by the Edmonton Oilers at the 2011 NHL Draft. Dumba, a defenseman selected No. 7 by the Minnesota Wild in 2012, spent three-plus seasons in Red Deer before his trade to the Portland Winterhawks in December 2013. He has 53 goals, 139 points and 258 penalty minutes in 214 WHL games.
"I'm a two-way center who creates offense with my speed and strength, with a hard accurate shot," Bleackley said.
Bleackley, who is No. 31 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of the top draft-eligible skaters in North America, has excelled as captain of the Rebels this season with career highs across the board in goals (29), assists (39), points (68), penalty minutes (48) and power-play goals (10) in 71 games. He was selected in the first round (No. 21) of the 2011 WHL bantam draft by the Rebels. Red Deer's season came to end Tuesday after a 5-3 loss against the Prince Albert Raiders in a tiebreaker to determine the eighth and final playoff spot in the WHL's Eastern Conference.
Bleackley has 40 goals and 88 points in 153 career WHL games spanning two-plus seasons.
"He deserves every point he has with his strong work ethic and decent size," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald said. "He hustles almost every shift, and is not afraid to get in on the forecheck and make things happen. He's solid with smart positioning, and he pays attention to detail at both ends of the rink; he's a solid underrated prospect and could move up in rankings."
NHL team: Colorado Avalanche
NHL player: Joe Sakic
Shootout move: Just a usual shot, nothing fancy.
Celebration: Two arms in the air.
Video game: NHL 14 and Call of Duty.
Movie: Dumb and Dumber
Actor: Will Ferrell
Three you would invite to dinner: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Carrie Underwood
Sport (other than hockey): Golf
Breakfast food: Bacon, pancakes and eggs.
-- Mike G. Morreale
Here are the top players at each position from the USHL eligible for the 2014 draft. Those prospects from the U.S. U-18 National Team Development Program are excluded from this exercise as they were prominently featured during the Olympic break last month:
Shane Eiserman, F, Dubuque Fighting Saints
The University of New Hampshire recruit has been on the move since leaving Cushing Academy after his sophomore season two years ago, starring for the USNTDP and now the Fighting Saints.
"He has a good package of size and skating, and he makes the most of what is given to him," director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "He's good at picking up passes on the fly and getting into the offensive zone. He might not be a first-line candidate, but he's got a pretty good accurate shot and has a propensity for playing well at important times of the game."
The 6-foot-1.5, 200-pound versatile forward, No. 39 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of the top draft-eligible skaters in North America, has 14 goals, 35 points and a team-leading plus-18 rating in 45 games.
Nick Schmaltz, F, Green Bay Gamblers
It isn't by accident that Schmaltz has basically followed the same path as his older brother, Jordan Schmaltz. He played for the Under-16 Chicago Mission and is currently starring for the Gamblers. He's also committed to the University of North Dakota, where Jordan is a sophomore defenseman.
The only thing left now is for Nick to hear his name in the early portion of the 2014 draft. Jordan was a 2012 first-round (No. 25) pick of the St. Louis Blues. Nick is No. 19 on Central Scouting's midterm list of the top draft-eligible skaters in North America.
The younger Schmaltz is certainly making the most of his draft year. He is ninth in the league with 53 points (13 goals, 40 assists) and leads his team with 21 points (seven goals) on the power play.
"He's a dynamic offensive player," NHL Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "He's really good at making you think the puck will be taken away from him, but he has such quick hands and can skate with it at full speed and then pull it away from you at full speed."
Matheson Iacopelli, F, Muskegon Lumberjacks
The Western Michigan University recruit has impressed in the second half of the season, according to scouts. Iacopelli, No. 132 on Central Scouting's midterm list, leads the league with 37 goals, is sixth with 55 points and is tied for second with 10 power-play goals in 50 games for the Lumberjacks.
"He's a pure goal scorer and one of the leading goal scorers in the USHL," Central Scouting's Greg Rajanen said. "He can shoot the puck with pace and accuracy."
Joshua Jacobs, D, Indiana Ice
The 6-1.75, 193-pound defenseman, who committed to Michigan State University for 2014-15, is in his second season with the Ice. Born in Coppell, Texas, Jacobs has five goals, 20 points and a plus-31 rating in 48 games.
He won a gold medal representing the United States at the 2013 World Junior A Challenge.
"Josh is a solid two-way defender and is still growing into his body," Rajanen said. "He moves well in all directions and handles the puck well. He can one-time the puck with good pace on his shot and is good at stick defending."
Brandon Montour, D, Waterloo Black Hawks
Committed to the University of Massachusetts, Montour leads all defensemen in the league with 52 points and is third with a plus-30 rating in 53 games for the Black Hawks. The 5-11, 186-pound right-hander is No. 186 on Central Scouting's midterm rankings. He also has five goals and 22 points on the power play.
Rajanen likes what he sees in Montour, whose ambition outside of hockey is to become an architect.
"He is having a great year; very solid puck play," Rajanen said. "He's producing points and has some bite to his game. I believe he's a solid defender and good prospect."
Hayden Lavigne, G, Tri-City Storm
The University of Michigan recruit, No. 15 on Central Scouting's midterm list of the top draft-eligible goalies in North America, is a mid- to late-round possibility at the 2014 draft.
Lavigne (6-2.75, 182), a big fan of Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, has size and is good at positioning himself square to the shooters. Lavigne is 4-10-0 with a 4.35 goals-against average and .879 save percentage in 20 games as a rookie. He spent the 2012-13 campaign with the Wellington Dukes of the Ontario Junior Hockey League and went 9-7-1 with a 2.48 GAA, four shutouts and a .922 save percentage.
"Hayden has above average quickness and is excellent in the butterfly," Central Scouting's Al Jensen said. "He plays mostly in the paint and relies on his size and angles to get his body in front of shots. He has a calm and laid back approach."
FINAL SCOUTING MEETINGS
NHL Central Scouting will conduct its final meetings next week to determine the top 210 skaters and 30 goalies from North America eligible for the 2014 draft at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on June 27-28.
What are the key questions a scout must ask himself when grading a blue chip prospect?
"The NHL projection factor is always the key component, particularly with players ranked in the first round; does he have the skills, assets and intangibles to translate his game, production and style of play to the National Hockey League?" Marr said. "A scout can break down the player's assets into what they feel is most important for that particular player to get to the NHL. That emphasis can include skating, size, skills, hockey sense and competitiveness as it applies to that player's strengths and areas to improve."
The six-day selection process will be held in Toronto beginning Wednesday. From a separate location, NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb will offer his recommendations to Marr on the top 120-plus European skaters and 10 goalies.
Kingston Frontenacs center Samuel Bennett was No. 1 on Central Scouting's midterm list of the top North American skaters in January. Other prospects expected to hear their names called early in the first round of the draft are forward Leon Draisaitl of the Prince Albert Raiders in the Western Hockey League, forward Sam Reinhart of the WHL's Kootenay Ice and defenseman Aaron Ekblad of the OHL's Barrie Colts. Among the top Europeans are Kasperi Kapanen of Kalpa in Finland and William Nylander of Sodertalje in Sweden's second division.
The three-day Beantown Classic, one of the more highly successful showcase tournaments on the East Coast each season, was a huge success last week at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Mass.
Among the top-ranked prospects participating at the Beantown Classic were left wing Beau Starrett of the South Shore Kings in the United States Premier Hockey League and forward-turned-defenseman Miles Gendron of Rivers Academy High School in Massachusetts.
It wasn't too difficult to find the 6-4.75, 197-pound left-handed Starrett on the ice. The Cornell University recruit is No. 83 on Central Scouting's midterm list of the top draft-eligible skaters in North America. He owned the highest rating of any player at the event.
"Teams are enamored by what this kid could be," Gregory said. "In a year where there is some uncertainty after the top 20-to-25 choices, there are some teams that may just say why not take the 6-foot-4 prospect that can move.
"He skates well with the puck, makes good plays and he's not done maturing."
Starrett had 11 goals, 47 points and 94 penalty minutes in 48 games for the Kings in 2013-14. He could join the United States Hockey League next season or begin his college career at Cornell. Gendron is No. 85 on Central Scouting's midterm list. The senior, committed to the University of Connecticut and property of the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, had six goals and 19 points in 22 games for Rivers Academy.
"He's been adjusting to the defensive position over the past year-and-a-half and I've seen him get better as the year has progressed," Gregory said. "He has that stuff that you can't teach. The offensive instincts, moving the puck on the fly, his overall skating with the puck … it's at an elite level. That will make him really attractive prospect."
Gregory said that two players that made an impressive showing that might not have been on the radar at the start were goalies Robert McGovern (6-4, 239) of Thayer Academy and Joel Daccord (6-1, 165) of Cushing Academy.
PROSPECTS ON THE RISE
1. Maxim Letunov, F, Youngstown Phantoms (USHL): The 6-2.25, 155-pound left-hander played the 2012-13 season for the Dallas Stars Elite Under-16 AAA team and finished as the leading scorer with 66 points in 40 games. Born in Moscow, Russia, Letunov is No. 68 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of the top draft eligible skaters in North America. As a rookie with the Phantoms this season, the Boston University recruit has 16 goals and 38 points in 52 games.
"This kid is committed and wants to play in North America," Gregory said. "He has so much upside; he just needs to get stronger."
2. Neal Pionk, D, Sioux City Musketeers (USHL): The 5-11, 170-pound right-handed shot went undrafted last year after earning a No. 141 ranking on Central Scouting's final listing of North American prospects. Gregory feels Pionk would be a great addition to any team seeking a late-round flyer this June. Pionk, born in Omaha, Neb., is labeled a quick puck-mover and plays bigger than his frame.
"I liked what I saw in him last year," Gregory said. "He's not afraid to make plays, and is a leader on the blue line and can play in any situation. I feel he's a solid defensive prospect."
Committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth and No. 91 on Central Scouting's midterm list of North American skaters, Pionk has two goals, 22 points and a plus-20 rating in 47 games for the Musketeers.
3. Eric Schierhorn, G, Muskegon Lumberjacks (USHL): The 5-11.5, 184-pound left-handed catching goalie from Anchorage, Alaska, led the Lumberjacks to a weekend sweep of the Phantoms, stopping 59 of 61 shots. Schierhorn made 40 saves in a 2-1 win Saturday, marking the seventh time this season he had at least 40 saves in a game. He was named the USHL Reebok Goaltender of the Week. Schierhorn, No. 30 on Central Scouting's midterm list of North American goalies, is 7-14-1 with a 3.16 GAA and 908 save percentage in 34 games this season.