The United States League season kicks off this week with all teams gathering outside of Pittsburgh for the Fall Classic tournament. It’s a great showcase for a circuit that hosts a lot of great players, almost all of whom are college-bound. New rules surrounding imports and Canadians have opened things up further, so the USHL will continue to vie for top talent in the years to come.
The league also features USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, but for the purposes of my preview, I never include them in the standings. Why? Because both the NTDP under-17s and under-18s play games against USHL competition while also featuring college teams and international tournaments on their schedule. In fact, when the USHL playoffs begin, the best NTDP kids are always at the world under-18s. Last year, the NTDP actually made it to the USHL final, but the squad is more about development and international titles than Clark Cup aspirations.
So who is in the hunt? I surveyed some local experts to put together the following power rankings and added a player or two to watch for on each squad. Since the USHL is so closely affiliated with NCAA hockey, I have also included the schools the kids are committed to. Let’s get to it.
1. Fargo Force: The defending champs are led by heavy-shooting Detroit Red Wings pick Ryan O’Reilly (Denver). Hlinka-Gretzky standout and 2019 draft prospect Aaron Huglen (Minnesota) plans to play for the Force before and after the Minnesota high school season, but return to Roseau in the middle.
2. Dubuque Fighting Saints: Toronto Maple Leafs pick J.D. Greenway returns to junior from NCAA Wisconsin and has the chance to be a force on defense. Meanwhile, Vancouver Canucks selection Matthew Thiessen (Maine) gives the Saints a new netminder to bank on.
3. Waterloo Black Hawks: Game-stealing Jared Moe (Minnesota) returns in net, now as property of the Winnipeg Jets. Russian import Vladislav Firstov is up for the 2019 draft and put up nice points in the pre-season.
4. Tri-City Storm: Offensive defenseman Zac Jones (UMass) is up for the 2019 draft, as is goalie Isaiah Saville (Nebraska-Omaha), who comes in from the NAHL. Both players took part in the All American Prospects Game.
5. Youngstown Phantoms: Big Buffalo Sabres pick Brett Murray returns to Youngstown from Penn State, with the left winger now committed to Miami. His presence will help bolster last year’s Clark Cup finalists.
6. Lincoln Stars: New captain Josiah Slavin (Colorado College) is a Chicago Blackhawks pick (and younger brother of Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin), as is towering goaltender Wouter Peeters, who comes over from Youngstown.
7. Green Bay Gamblers: Nasty and talented right winger Jack Perbix (Minnesota) was taken by the Anaheim Ducks this summer, while defenseman and 2019 prospect Ethan Frisch (North Dakota) played in the All American Prospects Game.
8. Muskegon Lumberjacks: Big forward Egor Afanasyev (Michigan State) is up for the 2019 draft and he can help the young and dynamic Daniil Gushchin (2020) get used to North American life.
9. Sioux Falls Stampede: Undersized D-man Ryan Johnson (Minnesota) brings a lot of potential for the 2019 draft, while right winger Anthony Romano (Clarkson) had a great pre-season and is also up for NHL selection this summer.
10. Chicago Steel: Defenseman and Montreal Canadiens pick Casey Staum (MTL) enters his third USHL season and should be vital. Slick left winger Robert Mastrosimone (Boston U.) is up for the 2019 draft, while big D-man Owen Power (Michigan) is a top prospect for 2021.
11. Sioux City Musketeers: Rough-and-tumble power forward Martin Pospisil (St. Lawrence) was taken by the Calgary Flames this summer, but look for 2019 prospect Bobby Brink (Denver) to make some serious moves for the offense.
12. Omaha Lancers: Though bereft of NHL draft picks, the Lancers do have some players who could get selected the second time around, such as center Jaxon Nelson (Minnesota) and defenseman Travis Mitchell (Cornell).
13. Des Moines Buccaneers: With Carolina pick Jake Kucharski (Providence College) and Anaheim selection Roman Durny, the Bucs have an enviable goalie platoon. On defense, Edmonton Oilers prospect Michael Kesselring (Northeastern) brings size and skating ability.
14. Cedar Rapids RoughRiders: Last year’s leading scorer, Nathan Smith (Minnesota State) returns up front, now as a Winnipeg Jets pick. Speaking of the draft, Grant Silianoff (Notre Dame) has nice potential for the 2019 class.
15. Madison Capitols: T.J. Koufis (Wisconsin) is up for the 2019 draft, but the Capitols may end up struggling in the offensive department.
16. Central Illinois Flying Aces: Getting top 2020 draft prospect Stephen Halliday (North Dakota) away from the OHL was a coup and the big center has loads of potential. Trevor Janicke (Notre Dame) comes over from the NTDP; he’s up for the 2019 draft.
*U.S. NTDP: This may be the greatest NTDP squad we’ve ever seen, based on elite talent and depth. Jack Hughes, Matthew Boldy (Boston College) and Alex Turcotte (Wisconsin) lead the charge up front, Cam York and Alex Vlasic (Boston U.) are defensive standouts and Spencer Knight (Boston College) is a force in net. All of them could be 2019 first-rounders and there’s more talent behind them.