Here is a look at the 10 top prospects in the USHL from the defensive aspect. These are the crème of the crop, some of the best defenders, passers and hitters that there are in this league. Height, weight and age to each players profile go along with their season stats. Each player’s college destination is in parenthesis. They are in no particular order.
1.Keith Ballard – Omaha Lancers (U. of Minnesota)
Ballard is a defensive player who has it all. His size is not intimidating at 5’11” and 200 lbs, but it is definitely misleading. He accumulated 168 PIM for the Lancers this season while assisting on the offensive end with 22 goals and 29 assists. Ballard has the soft touch pass and can double as a forward if need be. In other words, he is one of the best two-way hockey players in his age group. Ballard played his first season with the US National Under 18 squad before exceeding their age limit and then joining Omaha this year. He may be the top overall defenseman in the league as he can hit, take a hit, pass, score and of course defend better than no other.
2.Jesse Baraniuk – Green Bay Gamblers (Northern Michigan U.)
Baraniuk is one of the tough guys in the league and he does not hold back anything when he steps onto the ice. At 5’11” and 178 lbs, Baraniuk again is not the biggest of defenseman but as they say, size isn’t everything. Baraniuk will be 20 on August 23 and was a defensive stud for Green Bay. Baraniuk tallied 127 PIM on the ice this season and has long been known as one of the league’s most popular antigonizers. That is a reputation he seems to be ok with as he is a rough and tough type of player with no holds barred. Baraniuk’s stick handling and ability to throw a check are a couple of his specialties he displays. He can score too with 11 goals and 16 assists on the year. Definitely not a player who gets beat often or who gets knocked down.
3.Greg Zemple – Tri-City Storm (U. of Vermont)
Zemple is a man among boys on the ice in the USHL. Standing 6’2” and weighing 195 lbs, he is a brute force on defense. Zemple will turn 21 in January 2002 and has a ton of promise that he is taking with him to Vermont to join the College ranks. Zemple can take the puck the length of the ice if need be but his favorite area is along the boards and in front of the net where he can pound on the opponent. He scored 4 goals and 17 assists on the year to go along with 107 PIM. He is without a doubt one of the few players in the league who were pretty much untouched as there weren’t many who were able to stand toe to toe with him.
4.Andrew Alberts – Waterloo BlackHawks (Boston College)
Alberts hits like a freight train and usually there is plenty of wreckage left over. Alberts stands in at a huge 6’4” and 215 lbs and the 20-year-old loves the open ice hits. Alberts scored 4 goals and 10 assists this year to go along with 128 PIM. With his size his potential is only increasing as he learned over two USHL seasons how to use his weight and size to his advantage and by the time his ride was over, he was one of the best hitters in the league. Alberts still has a lot to learn once he hits the college game, but he is certainly a big time hitter and checker.
5.Nick Fouts – Lincoln Stars
Fouts makes this list not only because he is a fantastic defensive hockey player, but also because he is one of the toughest guys in this league hands down. Fouts will turn 21 in December and stands at 5’11”, 185 lbs. He scored only 2 goals and 12 assists on the year but had 196 PIM showing that his specialty was getting down,dirty and defensive. Fouts was the enforcer on this talented team and not many did a better job in the league than he. He has not yet received a college scholarship.
6.Jamie Mattie – Sioux Falls Stampede (Bemidji State)
Mattie is on the opposite spectrum as the previously mentioned Fouts. Mattie is more of a finesse defenseman but can play physical if he has to. The Stampede’s defense, led by Mattie was more of a fundamentally sound machine rather than a mean defensive machine. He is 5’11” and weighs in at 180 lbs and will be 21 in June. Offense is one of his key dimensions as he had 12 goals and 53 assists this season. His shots from the blueline created a lot of scrambles in front of the net. He only had 65 PIM showing he can stay out of the box in most situations. Offense, defense, Mattie can get it done.
7.Tim Conboy – Rochester Mustangs
Conboy is like a bottle rocket waiting to explode when he is on the prowl. He is 6’1”, 205 lbs and uses his size well. On the year he showed little on the offensive side scoring 5 goals and 9 assists but led the league in penalty minutes with 256. He can hit and he can hit hard. That is not his only bright spot, he can play the position but he is young and will continue to get better with age. Conboy will turn 20 next March. His stick handling and overall presence on the ice is felt. Conboy had not yet received a scholarship but again as his age is young, he has another year of eligibility to hone his skills.
8.Luke Irwin – Des Moines Buccaneers
Irwin makes the list due to many things including his unstoppable hustle and determination. He stands in at 6’1” and 190 lbs, he will undoubtedly add some weight in the near future and his physical being will continue to increase. Irwin will be 20 in August. He scored 2 goals and 12 assists this year along with 104 PIM. While on the ice, he never quit and never let up. Blasting slapshots away from the blueline and then getting back on defense was something he does very well. Playing in the trenches is a place that he is fearless. Irwin also has another year of eligibility in the USHL and currently does not have a scholarship.
9.Andy Schneider – Lincoln Stars (North Dakota U.)
Schneider is another bruiser from Lincoln. Standing 6’1” and weighing 205 lbs he was a very physical defenseman. He had 12 goals and 24 assists on the year to compliment his 134 PIM. Schneider will be turning 20 in July and the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota are excited to have him coming. Any style of game you play, Schneider can defend it and defend it well. He is a nightmare for his offensive opponents when he is on the ice.
10.Art Femenella – Sioux City Musketeers
Femenella puts fear into the opponents when he enters the arena. Perhaps the most intimidating young man in the league, he stood an astonishing 6’7” and weighed 237 lbs. Femenella is still considered a youngster as he will turn 19 in June, he has many options ahead of him if he continues to blossom. Femenella was by far the biggest player in the league and one of the most physical as well. He was only outdone by another member of this list, Tim Conboy, in the penalty minute category where he amassed 252. Only scoring 1 goals and 1 assist it is obvious he is not an offensive minded player, he plays defense and that is his main concern. With his size and capability, he will be somebody’s diamond in the rough when the colleges start looking.