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USHL's new top prospects game expands visibility

by Mike G. Morreale
The United States Hockey League is determined to keep the coals hot when it comes to producing quality athletes with great potential for NHL scouts and general managers.

After having a record 28 players from the USHL selected at the 2011 NHL Draft at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., there's no reason to believe that number couldn't increase this year when the draft is staged at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on June 22-23.

In an attempt to help facilitate that process, the league will host its inaugural USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on Jan. 24 at the newly renovated L.C. Walker Arena in Muskegon, Mich., home to the USHL's Lumberjacks. Game time is 7:15 p.m. ET.

2012 USHL/NHL Top Prospects rosters

Western Conference (white)

Goalies - Jay Williams, Waterloo; Stephon Williams, Sioux Falls

Defense - Brian Cooper, Fargo; Justin Wade, Fargo; Ian McCoshen, Waterloo; Cliff Watson, Sioux City; Mike McKee, Lincoln; Ian Brady, Cedar Rapids

Forwards - Austin Farley, Fargo; Nate Arentz, Fargo; Vince Hinostroza, Waterloo; A.J. Michaelson, Waterloo; Taylor Cammarata, Waterloo; Kevin Roy, Lincoln; Luke Johnson, Lincoln; Zach Aston-Reese, Lincoln; Austyn Young, Sioux Falls; Justin Selman, Sioux Falls; Zach Saar, Des Moines; Tim Lappin, Tri-City

Eastern Conference (black)

Goalies - Jon Gillies, Indiana; Alex Lyon, Omaha

Defense - Jordan Schmaltz, Green Bay; Dakota Mermis, Green Bay; Mike Matheson, Dubuque; Chris Bradley, Youngstown; Jaccob Slavin, Chicago; Mark Yanis, Muskegon

Forwards - Zemgus Girgensons, Dubuque; Cody Bradley, Dubuque; Alex Kile, Green Bay; Nicholas Schilkey, Green Bay; Robbie Baillargeon, Indiana; Robert Polesello, Indiana; Ray Pigozzi, Chicago; Jordan Masters, Muskegon; Matt DeBlouw, Muskegon; Adam Chlapik, Muskegon; Austin Cangelosi, Youngstown; Richard Zehnal, Youngstown

-- Source: USHL
"I think it's fair to say [the USHL] is getting stronger each draft year," USHL president and commissioner Skip Prince told "We're continuing to suggest that the USHL is not only a direct delivery vehicle to the NCAA, but that the USHL and NCAA are direct delivery vehicles to the NHL."

The contest will include 40 of the league's top young players and brightest blue chip standouts, including centers Zemgus Girgensons of the Dubuque Fighting Saints, Matthew DeBlouw of the Muskegon Lumberjacks and Robert Baillargeon of the Indian Ice, goalie Jon Gillies of Indiana and defensemen Jordan Schmaltz of the Green Bay Gamblers, Mike Matheson of Dubuque and Brian Cooper of the Fargo Force.

All seven players are regarded highly by NHL Central Scouting -- Girgensons is rated No. 12 among North American skaters on Central Scouting's midterm list, followed by No. 29 Matheson, No. 35 Schmaltz, No. 37 DeBlouw, No. 43 Baillargeon and No. 51 Cooper. Gillies is rated No. 4 among North American goalies.

"This game is part of our attempt to continue to showcase the league as well as the players as a place where, if you are a top tier North American prospect or top European prospect, the USHL is as fundamentally strong a place for you to be able to realize your NHL potential as anywhere else," Prince said.

NHL Central Scouting's Jack Barzee, who moved the original Fighting Saints franchise from Waterloo to Dubuque in 1980 to bring junior hockey to the city for the first time, feels having a top prospects game is a fantastic idea.

"Any time you can expose the pool of players eligible for the draft like this adds to the attraction for everybody to get to that game and see those players," Barzee told

Dan Marr, the NHL Director of Central Scouting, agrees.

"Anytime you have an opportunity to get prospects of any league playing against their peers, it's a good scouting tool," Marr told "It's a great evaluation playing against those peers similarly skilled while exposing kids with different skill sets."

There will be 14 of the 16 USHL member clubs represented at the Top Prospects Game and 30 of the players selected will be eligible for the 2012 Draft. Seven players are draft-eligible for the second time this year. The selection process for those players participating was completed in cooperation with USHL general managers and NHL scouts.

"The reaction [by NHL scouts and GM's] was immediate and very positive," Prince said. "There was a strong desire to see players at this midseason level when they've already had three or four months of training. For the scouts, this is the first time they've seen these players together since the Fall Classic.

The USHL has named legends Ron Mason and Dave Siciliano as honorary coaches at the event. Mason, who'll work with the Eastern Conference prospects, is the all-time leader in wins in NCAA hockey history with 924 in 36 seasons behind the bench with Lake Superior State, Bowling Green and Michigan State. He's currently a senior advisor to the Lumberjacks. Siciliano, who will be behind the Western Conference bench, coached in the USHL for 15 seasons and ranks second all-time in the league with 522 career victories with the Thunder Bay Flyers and Sioux City Musketeers. Siciliano is now a senior advisor for the USHL.


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Green Bay coach Derek Lalonde will coach the Eastern Conference and Lincoln coach Chad Johnson the Western Conference. At the time of their appointment to the Top Prospects Game, both coaches were leading their respective conferences on Jan. 1.

In addition to those 2012 draft eligible stars, the contest will also include three prospects eligible for the 2013 Draft -- forward Taylor Cammarata and defenseman Ian McCoshen of the Waterloo Black Hawks and forward Luke Johnson of the Lincoln Stars. Dubuque Fighting Saints defenseman Michael Downing, also eligible for the 2013 Draft, was invited to participate but cannot due to a heavy academic and playing schedule upon his return to the team from international competition.

"We asked the scouts if they wanted to limit this only to draft year players or could we invite some of the players who look like they have bright futures as well," Prince said. "The clear preference was they wanted to see some of these youngsters that provide an opportunity to receive an early benchmark. They wanted to see them in the context of these players who are a year older, and find out how well they play against them. It was very clear this was something they wanted and we're very happy to get a chance to have these youngsters on board. They're very excited, as you can imagine."

While no player from the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., will be participating at the event for academic reasons, Prince told that the league will work closely with USA Hockey to make certain those players are a part of future events.

"We'd like to work the schedule to make certain the NTDP is part of the process going forward," Prince said. "We are proud partners of USA Hockey and they are proud members of the USHL. So we'll work toward that schedule component. We think if it's something the NHL sees as important, then it's almost by definition important to us to see that we can find a way to make sure that it works."

Prince said this year's event will also be used a test, so to speak, in gathering information and feedback in an attempt to make future prospect games even more enjoyable.

"We'll look at things like location, timing, and the makeup of players," he continued. "We think that we're at a point where it's important for us to find ways to get something like this done. A lot of credit needs to go to the Muskegon Lumberjacks, who stepped up and put the money, time and effort into this to see if it makes some sense. We're not looking at this as one of those profit-making ventures like a lot of youth showcase events are, but an opportunity for us to showcase the players that are at a very important time in their careers."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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