The United States Hockey League has grown in leaps and bounds in the past decade and now the Midwestern circuit is changing its rules in order to stay competitive with the CHL, and maintain its reputation as a solid developmental league for American prospects.
After meetings with the Board of Governors and USA Hockey, the USHL has decided to institute a number of changes for the next two seasons.
The first significant change regards Canadian import players. Currently, any non-American player is considered an import and teams are allowed four per season. Starting in 2017-18, franchises can count two Canadians as non-imports, hypothetically bringing the total number of non-Americans on the squad to six. On top of attracting more players such as Shane Bowers (2017 draft) and alumni Cam Morrison (COL) and Brett Murray (BUF), the move also allows the USHL to stay competitive with the CHL and particularly the OHL, where a number of high-profile Americans play.
“We’re bullish on American talent,” said USHL commissioner Bob Fallen. “The world juniors and World Jr. A Challenge said a lot for the state of hockey here, but we want to level the playing field. They have an outstanding league, but we think we can compete at that level.”
The biggest difference between Canadian major junior and the USHL is that the USHL is NCAA compliant, meaning players do not receive any money for playing there. Talent-wise, the average major junior team would beat a USHL team, but in terms of high-end players, the USHL is producing many NHL first-rounders now, from Brock Boeser to Clayton Keller.
Two of the biggest names in the USHL this year are import forwards – Finland's Eeli Tolvanen, a 2017 draft prospect for Sioux City, and Russia's Andrei Svechnikov, a 2018 prospect with Muskegon.
The USHL has also become a big incubator for European goalies lately, thanks to the CHL’s ban on import netminders. And while USA Hockey floated the idea of a similar stance, the USHL instead compromised and will limit teams to one non-American goalie, starting in 2018-19. That import goaltender will also count as two import spots, so teams must be sure. Right now, four of the top five goals-against averages in the USHL belong to Europeans and the Green Bay Gamblers have an all-Euro platoon of Maksim Zhukov and David Hrenak.
Fallen said the USHL didn’t want an outright ban because having competition from top European and Canadian kids would push American goalies to be better. For the league’s GMs, finding those import gems is going to be even more important now.
“Certainly you’ll have to be more mindful of who you bring in,” said Lincoln Stars coach and GM Jon Hull. “You want your imports to be impactful.”
Hull, who has a pretty good young American netminder in Cayden Primeau with the Stars, mused that the rules might even bring younger goalies more opportunity in a league dominated by older teens. He thinks the same of the Canadian import rule, because now a team might be more inclined to bring in a younger Canadian skater who would need more time to make an impact, but may have a high ceiling.
For goalies who need an extra year of development before college, the USHL will allow teams to carry an overage netminder without him counting toward the team limit of four overagers (which, this season, refers to 1996-born players).
Another major shift for 2017-18 will be the schedule. Teams will still play 60 games, but the season will begin two weeks later and last 26 weeks instead of 28.
“There was genuine agreement that our season was too long,” Fallen said. “We were saying, ‘Guys, this is junior hockey and we’re here for almost nine months?’ ”
The shift back will also help teams that live in college football-crazy markets such as Madison and Lincoln.
“We’re living in a city where the Nebraska Cornhuskers are No. 1 on every level,” Hull said. “As soon as the football season is over, it becomes a hockey town. So the less games we play in September and October, the better it is for us financially.”
Along with the schedule moving back, the playoffs will be extended from eight teams to 12, with the top two seeds in each conference getting a first-round bye.
It’s a lot to digest, but it will be interesting to watch. The USHL has opened eyes in recent years and trying to keep up with the titans of major junior clearly doesn’t intimidate them.