Youngstown Phantoms forward Kyle Connor, and Waterloo Black Hawks teammates Brock Boeser and Tom Novak, highlight an impressive list of NHL-Draft eligible players ready to compete in the 2015 United States Hockey League/NHL Top Prospects Game at the Mystique Community Ice Center in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday.
Connor, Boeser and Novak, each regarded as A-rated skaters or potential first-round picks on NHL Central Scouting's players to watch list for the 2015 NHL Draft, were part of a USHL Top Prospects Game introductory press conference Monday in Iowa.
Speakers at the conference included Fighting Saints president Dan Lehv, Ceder Rapids RoughRiders coach Mark Carlson, NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr, and former USHL coach and NHL scout Jack Barzee. Carlson will coach Team East in the Top Prospects Game.
"This game presents a unique opportunity for the players to showcase their talents in the league while not being bound to play in the team system," Marr said. "Not that they're all going to go out there as individuals but they'll have opportunities they might not take in a game situation that could turn out to be pretty exciting when they get to showcase their skill and smarts."
Boeser is tied for sixth in the league with 35 points (19 goals, 16 assists) in 28 games. Connor is eighth with 34 points (12 goals, 22 assists). Novak is third on his team with 27 points (six goals, 21 assists).
Carlson said that his two goaltenders in Cedar Rapids will likely oppose each other to begin the game. Ben Blacker (15-5-0, 2.39 goals-against average, .926 save percentage) will start for Team West and Ryan Larkin (9-3-0, 2.23 GAA, .923 save percentage) for Team East.
2015 USHL/NHL TOP PROSPECTS GAME
GOALTENDERS: Chris Birdsall, Youngstown; Ben Blacker, Cedar Rapids
DEFENSEMAN: Tory Dello, Tri-City; Bryce Hatten, Cedar Rapids; Wyatt Kalynuk, Lincoln; Joseph Masonius, USA U-18; Ethan Spaxman, Waterloo; Ryan Zuhlsdorf, Sioux City
FORWARDS: Brock Boeser, Waterloo; Robert Carpenter, Sioux City; Mikey Eyssimont, Fargo; Michael Floodstrand, USA U-18; Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Omaha; Matthew Freytag, Tri-City; Jake Henderson, Omaha; Cooper Marody, Sioux Falls; Thomas Novak, Waterloo; Nikita Pavlychev, Des Moines; Denis Smirnov, Fargo; Chris Wilkie, Tri-City
GOALTENDERS: Ryan Larkin, Cedar Rapids; Eric Schierhorn, Muskegon
DEFENSEMEN: Joe Cecconi, Muskegon; Dennis Gilbert, Chicago; Blake Hillman, Dubuque; Kris Myllari, Youngstown; Vili Saarijarvi, Green Bay; Christian Wolanin, Muskegon
FORWARDS: Mason Bergh, Chicago; Kyle Connor, Youngstown; Callahan Burke, Cedar Rapids; Jiri Fronk, Cedar Rapids; Dylan Gambrell, Dubuque; Kevin Conley, Youngstown; Adam Gaudette, Cedar Rapids; Tyler Sheehy, Waterloo; Tanner Laczynski, Chicago; Seamus Malone, Dubuque; Sam Miletic, Green Bay; Chase Pearson, Youngstown
"We'll have some fun with it," Carlson said. "It's exciting for all the players but more so than anything else the guys appreciate this opportunity and realize there are an awful lot of other players who could have been here. They just have to go out there and play with no fear; play creative and show your talent."
This year marks the third USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, following a record-setting 2014 NHL Draft that saw 35 players from the 2013-14 season selected. The 2015 NHL Draft will be held at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., June 26-27, 2015.
"The USHL is a very important league on the NHL scouting circuit," Marr said. "Not only is it a competitive and entertaining brand of hockey where we scout players for the draft but it also has the well-deserved reputation as a development league.
"Not all of these players may get invited to our NHL Combine [in June] but I know over the years the players coming through the Combine from the USHL and other parts of the world really represent themselves and their communities in an admirable fashion. There are quality men coming through this league."
Barzee played in the USHL before serving as a coach, general manager and ultimately owner of the USHL's Waterloo Black Hawks in the early 1970s. He's been that league's Executive of the Year (1976-77 with Waterloo), Coach of the Year (1978 with Waterloo; 1981 and '83 with Dubuque) and GM of the Year (1983, Dubuque). He was instrumental in bringing junior hockey to Dubuque for the first time in 1980. Barzee's teams found immediate success, winning the Clark Cup as champions of the league three times in their first five years (1981, 1983, 1985).
He later spent 27 years as a professional scout, including 23 with NHL Central Scouting before retiring in March 2012.
"I had no idea coming to Dubuque that it would be five of the most exciting years of my life," Barzee said. "Whenever we have Dubuque reunions, it's so great to hear the players tell me that their time in Dubuque as 18-year-old players was one of the best years they spent in their hockey career. I look at the league today and with the budgets, NHL involvement and everything the league has to offer, it's really fantastic, and I'm proud to stand here and say that."
The 40 players competing in the game will be split into two 20-man teams for Team East and Team West. The teams mostly represent a split of players currently competing in the USHL's Eastern Conference and Western Conference. Carlson will coach Team East and Sioux City Musketeers coach Jay Varady will handle coaching duties for Team West.