Since becoming a Tier I Junior A Hockey league in August 2002, the USHL has established itself as a legitimate source of NHL draft picks, be it directly out of the league or USHL alumni skating in the NCAA. Seventeen players who skated in the USHL in 2004-05 were selected in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, with four more USHL-bound selected.
The USHL is every bit as strong for the 2006 draft, if not stronger. Showcasing their talents night in and night out in the USHL, the following ten USHL prospects warrant strong consideration in the draft.
1. Kyle Okposo, RW
Ht: 6’0 Wt: 195 Shoots: Right
Born: April 16, 1988, St. Paul. Minn.
Des Moines Buccaneers
Kyle Okposo was the first pick in the 2005 USHL Draft, and he’s showing why. The Shattuck St. Mary’s product is producing at a level that no other ’88 in the league has. He’s also doing it as a first-year player in the league, another accomplishment.
After 19 games, Okposo has 12 goals and 12 assists, second on the Buccaneers in scoring. His 24 points place him sixth in the league in scoring. A major point producer at Shattuck with 47 goals and 45 assists in 65 games last season, Okposo’s offensive production comes primarily from his ability to emerge with the puck from 1-on-1 and 1-on-2 battles from the corners and along the boards. Okposo does not bull his way through, but he intelligently uses his size to shield the puck and his stellar stickhandling does the rest. On many plays, he will strong arm his way to the net a la Jaromir Jagr and create offensive chances. When Okposo gets a shot off, odds are it is a hard one, and it’s accurate.
However, Okposo is not a one-dimensional player. He is used regularly by Des Moines on the penalty kill and also does have a little bit of a physical edge to him. Okposo is not an aggressive player, but he does not fear contact and does make a big hit from time to time. Another testament to Okposo’s strong two-way play is his USHL-leading +20 rating.
Okposo was also recently selected as one of 22 players to play for Team USA at the Viking Cup in Camrose, Alberta. The tournament features two brackets, an 18-and-under international bracket and a college hockey bracket. This will not mark the first time Okposo will don the USA jersey, as he played for Team USA at the U18 Junior World Cup in August, where he scored 5 goals and 3 assists in five games.
Okposo has been committed to play for the University of Minnesota since January, but before he plays a minute for the Golden Gophers in 2006-07, he’ll be property of an NHL club.
2. Andreas Nodl, RW
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 196 Shoots: Left
Born: February 28, 1987, Vienna, Austria
Sioux Falls Stampede
Andreas Nodl is a prime example of a player who did not make a major impact in his rookie season in the USHL as a 17-year-old, but who made the jump in his second season to become an impact player. Nodl was eligible for the NHL Draft last year, but was not selected as his production was limited to 7 goals and 9 assists in 44 games. This season Nodl is one of the most dangerous offensive players in the USHL.
Nodl is currently fourth in USHL scoring with 25 points on the strength of a league-leading 16 goals in 19 games. The 18-year-old Austrian has good size, which he uses to shield the puck offensively. Like many highly skilled offensive players, Nodl often slows the game down and uses his high skill level to go around opponents or make smart passes to teammates like Casey Parenteau or Mark Magnowski. Nodl has a fairly powerful skating stride and has a few gears to work with. Unlike some players who go as fast as they can almost all of the time, Nodl will go as fast as the situation calls for. He has a good high-end speed and decent separation, but he rarely rushes himself into a bad offensive decision. All of his shots, but especially his wrist and snap shot, are hard and accurate.
If the story of an Austrian tearing up the USHL for Sioux Falls sounds familiar, it should. Buffalo Sabres rookie Thomas Vanek played for the team for three seasons, including the 2001-02 season when he scored 46 goals and 45 assists in 54 games. Nodl is not the caliber of talent that Vanek was and is, but the younger Austrian is one of the best players Austria has produced in recent years. He has represented Team Austria at 2004 and 2005 World Junior Championships and the 2003, 2004, and 2005 U18 World Championships. Nodl scored 2 goals and 2 assists in four games for Team Austria in the 2005 Division I Group A, and now he is 13 pounds heavier and a much improved and more confident player. Team Austria will most certainly call upon Nodl for the 2006 and 2007 World Junior Championships, and he will be vital in any success Austria has.
St. Cloud State University is also in Nodl’s future. Nodl made his decision to attend St. Cloud State after talking with Vanek about Huskies head coach Bob Motzko, who Vanek knows from the coach’s days as an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota. The Austrian gives St. Cloud a high-profile prospect, and any NHL team that wants a skilled player who has already shown he’s committed to playing in North America will consider selecting Nodl.
3. John Vadnais, D
Ht: 6’0 Wt: 200 Shoots: Right
Born: April 7, 1986, Stillwater, Minn.
Des Moines Buccaneers
A third-year USHLer who was traded to Des Moines from Waterloo last season, John Vadnais has come into his own in 2005-06 and is now one of the most skilled defensemen in the USHL. Missing five games due to injury in mid-November, Vadnais is still one of the top scoring defensemen in the USHL with 5 goals and 8 assists in 14 games.
The 19-year-old is a very complete player. He is an exceptional skater with good speed who stickhandles well. He puts the two together to make great moves to get the puck out of the defensive zone, through the neutral zone, or keeping it in the attack zone. The Bucs captain is dangerous on the power play with his offensive vision, hard shot, and pinpoint passing. Vadnais rarely makes a poor decision offensively and does a good job recovering for teammates.
Vadnais’ skating and speed makes him very effective defensively, and the college game and the new NHL puts a premium on defensemen who can accelerate backwards quickly, and have good agility. Vadnais has both. He also has a physical edge, although he is not a punishing hitter. However, Vadnais is fairly well built at 6’0 200 pounds. This is not big by NHL standards, but it is big enough, and a player with Vadnais’ skating, speed, skill, and two-way awareness has the potential to play in the NHL.
Vadnais committed to Bemidji State of the College Hockey America conference in mid-November. The CHA is not traditionally known for grooming NHL prospects, but the Beavers nearly upset the University of Denver in the NCAA Tournament last season and are off to a strong start this season, having swept both Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State in October. The Stillwater, Minn., native should log major minutes for the Beavers as a freshman.
4. Phil Axtell, F
Ht: 6’6 Wt: 250 Shoots: Left
Born: April 13, 1986, New Windsor, Maryland
Cedar Rapids Roughriders
One who has not seen Phil Axtell play so far in the early 2005-06 season might be inclined to pass the Washington D.C. area native off as a sideshow, a huge player on the Roughriders roster there to simply punish other players. Axtell may have been passed over in the 2005 NHL Draft, but he will not be in the 2006 NHL Draft.
Axtell is a much better player this season. Once nearly 280 pounds, Axtell’s conditioning is much improved, and the results are easy to see. In 19 games Axtell has 13 goals and 8 assists, with a league-leading nine power play goals. Every shot in Axtell’s arsenal is incredibly powerful. Many big players are uncoordinated skating, but not Axtell. While he may never have quick feet, and could stand to do more stops and starts and fewer circles, he has a powerful stride, decent and deceptive speed, and good edge control. With his huge size and his decent speed, Axtell’s inertia makes him difficult to stop when he charges the net, and he has the hands to capitalize on loose pucks in front.
As is often expected in big players, Axtell plays a physical game and can level opponents. In fact, it appears at times that he holds back a bit so as to not get penalties for simply being so big and being able to hit so hard. Axtell can fight with the best of them as well. If he so chooses, he could become a prototype fighter in the new NHL. While his game should never be allowed to focus entirely on fighting, Axtell has the size and strength to be a dangerous fighter, but the skill to contribute offensively as well.
After the 2005-06 season Axtell will make the move to Michigan Tech of the WCHA. Like nearly all USHL prospects, any NHL team that picks Axtell can let him develop in college for up to four years. Now that he’s healthy, and has shown what he can do with talented players such as Ted Purcell and Chad Costello around him, he shouldn’t find himself passed by in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
5. Dan Lawson, D
Ht: 6’3 Wt: 225 Shoots: Left
Born: June 28, 1988, Oak Forest, Ill.
The Chicago Steel’s Dan Lawson tops the list of USHL defensemen in their first year of NHL Draft eligibility, and for good reason. A product of the Chicago Chill Midget AAA team, few 17-year-old blueliners fresh out of midgets have such a combination of size and skill.
Lawson shows remarkable poise. He is a fairly good skater with decent speed, especially considering his size. Lawson also has decent agility, even while carrying the puck. Although his stickhandling is not perfect, he occasionally loses the puck, it is fairly smooth and further development should make him a decent puckmoving defenseman. Lawson also has a pretty good shot from the point, which should eventually make him a solid addition on the power play at the NCAA level.
Although he is big, Lawson is not yet a punishing hitter. Further maturity in his game should help with this process, and more thrust from the legs would help as well. He does occasionally show the willingness to make big hits, but they often end with him pushing over his opponent rather than leveling him with a solid shoulder check. However, Lawson is a prospect for whom potential is the major draw.
Although Lawson was passed by in selection for the Viking Cup, he did play for Team USA at the U18 Junior World Cup in the Czech Republic and Slovakia in August. Lawson is still a bit of a project, evidenced by the fact he has no points for Chicago in 21 games, but he does have talent, perhaps enough to warrant selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
6. Jarod Palmer, F
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 200 Shoots: Right
Born: February 10, 1986, Fridley, Minn.
Although his statistics one-third through the USHL season may not indicate it, Jarod Palmer may be the most skilled power forward in the USHL. He’s also one of the toughest players in the USHL.
Although he has only 4 goals in 12 games, the 19-year-old has a dangerous shot. All of Palmer’s shots have power and he has the stickhandling to get shots off at all sorts of angles and in all sorts of situations. He also has the power to drive the net. While Palmer may not be lighting the lamp often, his efforts do create chances, as his 12 assists show. The Storm have been an offensively challenged team this season and have lost three of their four shootouts. Head coach Bliss Littler has selected Palmer as one of his shooters each time, and he’s scored two of the four times. Although Palmer’s numbers are somewhat disappointing a third of the way through the USHL season, there is much more to his game than his skill.
Should Palmer play in the NHL one day, it will likely be as a fourth line player who can chip in offensively, physically, and fight when necessary. Palmer has no problem sticking up for himself or teammates. The 6’1 200-pound left winger hits hard and hits often, but not in a reckless manner to the detriment of his team or his own skill game.
Palmer has already committed to playing for Miami-Ohio of the CCHA in 2005-06, a program that is on the rise and currently polling in the top 10. Most of Miami’s impact forwards are juniors and sophomores, so Palmer will likely start next season on the Redhawks’ fourth line. Despite this fact, and the fact he’ll be 20 when the 2006 NHL Draft his held, Palmer has a chance of being drafted in the later rounds of the draft.
7. Brian Keane, F
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 165 Shoots: Left
Born: May 17, 1988, Shortsville, NY
Lawson isn’t the only highly talented prospect on the Steel, forward Brian Keane is one of the most offensively talented 88’s in the USHL, thanks in part to a season of junior A development in the Eastern Junior Hockey League with the Rochester Junior Americans.
This EJHL experience in 2004-05 shows in the USHL in 2005-06. Keane has good offensive vision and will look for plays that many others do not see, at least not in the middle of the action. The 17-year-old has good speed and slick stickhandling and should challenge Okposo as the top-scoring ‘88 in the league. After 15 games Keane has 4 goals and 11 assists, one of the Steel’s top offensive players. Keane has a decent shot, but his true offensive talent may lie in playmaking, thanks to his speed, stickhandling, crisp passing, and vision.
Keane is not big at 5’11 165 pounds, but he does not shy away from the physical game and occasionally makes a nice hit. In 2006-07 Keane will move on from the USHL to the college ranks with the University of Massachusetts. An exciting offensive player who should continue to fill out and hone his game, there is a chance Keane’s name will be called at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
8. Chase Ryan, D
Ht: 6’2 Wt: 205 Shoots: Right
Born: November 9, 1986, Algonquin, Ill.
Des Moines Buccaneers
Des Moines probably has the most skilled blueliner corps in the USHL this season, and Chase Ryan is a big reason why. Ryan often pairs with John Vadnais, giving Des Moines perhaps the best and most balanced defense pair in the entire USHL. In his third season in the USHL, and with his third team after playing for the defunct St. Louis Heartland Eagles in 2003-04 and the Clark Cup champion Cedar Rapids Roughriders in 2004-05, Ryan’s development in the USHL over this time is now very evident.
A smooth skater with good speed, Ryan is one of the best defensive defensemen in the USHL. Not overly flashy, he often makes the simple, smart play. Ryan makes good outlet passes to start the Bucs transition, a trait most college and pro coaches love their defensemen to have. Defined more as a defensive defenseman, he is not without offensive tools. Although he has no goals after 19 games, Ryan has contributed with 10 assists, a testament to his fairly crisp passing, decent stickhandling, and intelligent decision making. He may not be lighting the lamp, but he does have a good point shot.
Ryan does see some power play time, but he is a staple on the Bucs penalty kill and isalways called upon late in games to protect leads, which Des Moines has had plenty of this season. Probably one of the most underrated players in the USHL, Ryan’s blend of subtle skill, skating, and hockey sense is attractive. His game already has the poise of a steady ECHL defenseman, and he’s only 19.
9. Trevor Lewis, C
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 195 Shoots: Right
Born: January 9, 1987, Murray, Utah
Des Moines Buccaneers
Des Moines has yet another player in the top 10 in center Trevor Lewis. Similar to Nodl in that he had an underwhelming rookie season in the USHL, at least statistically, Lewis has made a major impact in 2005-06 as one of the leading goal scorers in the USHL. After 19 games Lewis has 12 goals 13 assists, tied for fifth in the USHL with Nodl. Lewis has good hands and a hard shot, but a lot of his goals come down to hard work and a willingness to venture into the crease and take a beating from opposing defenseman. This is even true on the penalty kill, where Lewis as a USHL-leading four shorthanded goals.
Lewis is not just a goal scorer though. He’s a crisp passer with good vision and can use his speed to create space. At 6’1 195 pounds, Lewis has decent size, which he uses both offensively and defensively. Like Okposo, Lewis is a staple on the Des Moines penalty kill, a testament to his commitment to a solid two-way game. Lewis also has a physical edge, be it the occasional open-ice hits, finishing his checks along the boards, or even dropping the gloves. Leading by example, Lewis is one of Des Moines’ alternate captain.
Lewis will be joining Okposo and Buccaneer goaltender Brian Foster on Team USA for the Viking Cup. An older ‘87, Lewis was barely eligible for the team, and he may still be a longshot to be drafted in the new seven-round draft. However, an NHL team looking for a player with a good combination of speed, skill, awareness and effort, who has a few years of college hockey to develop, may look to Utah’s best prospect yet.
10. Gary Steffes, RW
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 190 Shoots: Right
Born: May 20, 1987, Grand Blanc, Mich.
Cedar Rapids Roughriders
Cedar Rapids Roughriders right wing Gary Steffes may not have big offensive numbers, but this does not mean he’s not worthy of NHL consideration. Steffes’ 2 goals and 1 assist in 18 games is modest, but his overall game is very strong. The Roughrider assistant captain has a strong, professional skating stride that he uses to forecheck and backcheck hard and finish his checks. Responsible defensively, Steffes is a staple on the Roughriders penalty kill.
Steffes is not without offensive skills. He makes crisp, smart, accurate passes and has decent hands for stickhandling and getting shots off. In fact, Steffes was called upon by head coach Mark Carlson to be Cedar Rapids’ fifth shooter in a Nov. 19 shootout against Des Moines. Steffes scored and earned the Roughriders the 4-3 victory.
Team USA has taken note of Steffes’ two-way play and named him to the Viking Cup team. Although Steffes will likely play on the third or fourth line, he will be vital in helping Team USA shutting down opponents.
Already committed to the University of Miami-Ohio, Steffes will likely continue in his role as a solid two-way forward used in important defensive situations and to instill energy into the game, perhaps alongside Palmer in 2006-07. At 6’1 190 pounds, Steffes has the size to insert some physicality to the game as well, which he does often. Performing this role remarkably well at the USHL level at only 18 years of age, Steffes should be able to carry this into professional hockey as well, perhaps even the NHL.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.