The United States Hockey League is rich in tradition and history. Although the Eastern Division is tough, the Western Division is usually tougher. Last season saw all six Western Division teams make the eight-team field in the playoffs with the Omaha Lancers and Lincoln Stars playing for the Clark Cup title. Things are changing a bit though as the Des Moines Buccaneers have taken their legacy back to the East while the West welcomes two new editions to the league. The Tulsa Crude and Topeka Scarecrows make their USHL debuts this season. Tulsa, who previously played in Dubuque, Iowa as the Fighting Saints, will struggle the most out of the two. Lincoln and Omaha do not appear as invincible as in recent years, although that always changes when it comes gut check time. Tri-City in the second year may not fare as well as hoped by the faithful in Kearney, Nebraska. All in all, the Western Division usually is a fight to the finish and this season will be no different.
1.Sioux Falls Stampede
Stampede is an appropriate name for this team. Since they entered the league in the 1999-2000 season, Sioux Falls never dealt with the usual problems of an expansion team. If you thought they were not able to reload then you were wrong. The Stampede is my pick to win the Western Division and my preseason pick to win the league this year. A lot can change, but this team is stocked. Thomas Vanek is the key superstar to the team this year. His cast is full of many though and although he may win the league scoring title, he won’t be at the top of the list alone. Quinn Fylling and Eric Przepiorka will fare well in USHL rinks this season as well. The Stampede offense once again will lead the league in scoring unless devastated by injuries. The defense should be good again as well.
Sioux Falls always is very good on both ends of the ice. Josh Grahn is the only returning Stampede on the blue line, joined by Jesse Stokke who also has USHL experience with Rochester last season. Cody Blanshan looks to be a good newcomer. In net Kellen Briggs returns and although his numbers weren’t at the top last season, the experience from last season will help his numbers and confidence this season. A good USHL goaltender is usually an experienced USHL goaltender. Prediction: Sioux Falls wins it all, their offense is unstoppable, their defense is solid and they are blessed with good goaltending. Barring a major fallout, the Stampede may taste their first title in their short existence.
The Lincoln Stars are like the New York Yankees of the league. No matter what happens during the regular season, they are in it until the end. This team will be no different this year as they have a fair amount of last seasons team returning. Billy Hengen, Chad Hontvet and Trevor Frischman will be key on offense, but John Snowden will be the leader. Snowden finished with impressive stats last year and should do the same this season. On defense Lincoln should be as tough as ever. Lee Marvin and Ryan Swanson, who came from the Chicago Steel, will bring their USHL experience to the front and should be two of the better defenders in the entire league. Beau Fritz returns after being the go-to guy last season until Justin Johnson emerged. Fritz and Philippe Lamoureux may swap nights in net until one stands out above the other. Prediction: Lincoln is tough and always has been since their inaugural season when they won the Clark Cup title. They do not have the marquee players they’ve had the last couple of years but these guys know how to win and they’ll give it on heckuva a run to the finish line.
3.Sioux City Musketeers
Every season somebody steps up and has a breakout season. I see Sioux City being that team this year. They have veteran players, a strong mentality and have been on the brink of making that leap the last few seasons. Brad Zancanaro, the Muskies biggest pest to opponents will lead a team who actually has a little bit of offense on it this year. Brandon Schwartz and Matt Ciancio will also show their presence on offense for Sioux City. On defense Ryan Geris returns and so does Art Femenella. Femenella, the 6’8” mammoth is the most intimidating person in the league this year. And he uses every ounce of that to his advantage. Kris Mayotte should be the starter in between the pipes this season with Andy Franck waiting if he can’t get it done. Prediction: Sioux City is always a tough team but their usual downfall is a lack of offense. They may be able to get it done this year. If they do, they’ll be in the playoffs and be a major force.
Don’t let the fourth place pick for Omaha fool you. They are very talented again, just not talented enough to defend their Clark and Gold Cup Championships from last season. Aaron Slattengren and Marty Guerin will lead an offense that has a lot of new faces this year. Coach Mike Hastings always has been able to mold them into a good hockey club, but there may not be enough in the cupboard this year. Keith McWilliams and Chris Harrington return from last season and defense and will join foreigner Davor Durakovic will be a man among boys on the ice. In net Omaha looks solid again. The Lancers always have been blessed in net and they have Marty Magers returning, who was the top rated goaltender in the league last year during the regular season. Magers started the season off less than 100% so Dominic Vicari will make his statement for the top spot. Prediction: Omaha will be a tough foe this year but they don’t have enough in the offensive gas tank to make a run at the top. Defense and goaltending will be good but that won’t win enough games to win the league. I see Omaha dropping from the elite ranks unless some major changes are done.
Topeka may be an expansion team, but they aren’t going to be helpless. Topeka will have some returning USHL help in that of Jon Booras, who played for Sioux Falls last season. Philip Larson and Jordan Black come by way of the Rochester Mustangs. Their experience will be very important as to how well this team plays. Vince Belissimo and Eric Vesley are big newcomers to the team and league as well. On defense, Jesse Minneman left the Tri-City Storm to join the ‘Crows and his USHL experience on defense will be invaluable. The rest of the blueliners come highly touted but lacking the experience that a full season of USHL hockey could pound out of them.
In net Eric Aarnio and Matt Kelly will fight for the top spot. Kelly played the last two seasons with Cedar Rapids and decided to go elsewhere for playing time. Aarnio may be an upcoming star net minder and may win the job outright. Prediction: For an expansion team, they may not be too bad. If the vets hold their own and the youngsters are able to adapt quickly and mold a team then the Scarecrows could even jump up the ladder a bit. In net they should be ok, should be. Even if all goes well, a playoff birth may not be in the making for this team, but a lot can change and they certainly have the potential to do it. Head coach Bliss Littler is building a strong foundation and this could be another Lincoln Stars franchise. Only time will tell.
In last season’s inaugural year, the Storm made it to the playoffs. They even won a playoff series over Green Bay. You would have thought this team would have been loaded this season but that is not the case. Although young talent can always turn the tides, this doesn’t look very good for the Storm right now. Konrad Reeder and Billy Luger will be strong on offense but not many big threats past them. Defensively the Storm returns only one veteran. Bryan Schmidt is going to have to play big in order for the Storm to be really competitive. In net Erik Young and Jacob Schuman will rotate. Prediction: Last season the Storm didn’t start out like gangbusters either but they made the right moves to bring in the right players and finished out very well. That could happen again this year but they are very much lacking the talent at this point to be a playoff team.
When the Dubuque Fighting Saints moved to Tulsa, the hopes were that many improvements would be made. One of which was the team’s performance. They return a handful of veterans but those veterans played on a very poor team last season. Jaymie Harrington and Jordan Pennington will be pretty good on offense. Jim Tudor joins the Crude after playing for Des Moines last season. Those three will be good and they can make the rest of the offense better as long as they play over their heads. On defense Tony Tomaino and Brandon Cunico return from the USHL where last season Tomaino played for the Chicago Steel and Cunico was with Dubuque. This defense could be stingy if they are anything like the former Fighting Saints team. In net Noah Ruden and Ross Cherry will battle for the top spot. Ruden may have the advantage as the season starts. Prediction: The Crude will be able to compete like any of the teams in the league but this team doesn’t have enough offensive talent. Their defense will be solid and their goaltending could surprise but this team will finish last in the rough and tumble Western Division.
All of these teams are good hockey teams. Just some are better than others. Lincoln is not the juggernaut of years past but they will end up where they need to be when it is all said and done. As it was last year, the Western Division will be the better half of the league and the race for the Anderson Cup will come through this Division. Sioux Falls has my vote but Lincoln, Omaha or even Sioux City and Topeka could take a stab at it. A lot of superstars have left and a lot more have appeared. As said before, this certainly has the makings of an exciting season of hockey in this Division and the league. The United States Hockey League is the best Junior Hockey League in the United States and with the talent on these teams, it shows.