2014 NHL Draft Preview: USHL features solid group led by Schmaltz

By Chapin Landvogt

Nick Schmaltz - Green Bay Gamblers

Photo: Green Bay Gamblers forward and 2014 prospect Nick Schmaltz will join his brother Jordan this fall at the University of North Dakota (courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The USHL has been churning out top flight NCAA talent for over a decade now and has become more and more important in the eyes of the NHL scouting community. Known primarily as the top league for the development of future NCAA players, an increasing number of USHL grads have seen their path lead to the NHL.

Recently drafted USHL grads such as John Carlson (WSH), Zemgus Girgensons (BUF), Anders Lee (NYI), John Moore (NYR), Max Pacioretty (MTL), and Jaden Schwartz (STL), to name but a few, have already been making names for themselves in the NHL to various degrees, having taken different paths to the NHL after their USHL playing days.

This year will be following that trend and may even feature another first round pick coming right out of the USHL. Fans can also expect to see a good dozen players get taken at various phases of the draft as USHL players remain a commodity. And as usual, the great majority of the players who’ll be taken out of the USHL are either heading to an NCAA program in the fall or are committed to one for the beginning of the 2015-16 season.

As the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia, PA, quickly approaches, here’s a look at the league’s top 10 draft prospects.

1. Nick Schmaltz – F – Shoots: Right – 6‘0“, 174 lbs.
CSS North American Rank – #19
Feb 23rd, 1996

Not the absolute quickest, but maybe one of the shiftiest players available in this year’s NHL Draft. A bit of a magician with the puck when it comes to stick-handling, deking, and ragging it all around, Schmaltz didn't necessarily have the type of year folks expected of him this past winter. An incomplete player in that he’s not yet going to be your team’s top defensive forward, Schmaltz is as dangerous as they come in the offensive zone and has an uncanny ability to control the flow of play. In addition to a good shot that isn’t used enough, Schmaltz has established himself as a bit of playmaker and he is very good at finding and setting up teammates. His biggest attribute is his ability to keep and move with the puck in tight quarters, rarely losing it before he’s made a pass or play. He does this despite hardly featuring the optimal bodyweight. But he is aware what’s expected of him and has already got a good idea of the business as his brother Jordan was already a first round pick of the St. Louis Blues.

After putting up five goals and eight points in five games for the USA at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament last August, Schmaltz headed off to Green Bay for his second full season of USHL play. There he proceeded to put up 18 goals, 63 points, and a -3 rating in 55 games after having put up 52 points in 64 games the season before. He then added a goal and three points as well as 17 penalty minutes in just four playoff games.

All in all, it wasn’t necessarily the type of season Schmaltz was hoping to have, but the scouting community has little doubts about his actual skillset. He still needs to work on and improve on a number of things in the next few seasons if he plans on having a successful NHL career.

A Wisconsin native, Nick is headed to the University of North Dakota in the fall.

Draft rank position prediction: Between spots 20-30.

2. Joshua Jacobs – D – Shoots: Left – 6‘2“, 193 lbs.
CSS North American Rank – #43
Feb 15th, 1996

With a bit of time with Team USA programs in recent years, this strong skating defenseman with good size was one of the league’s top defensemen this past season. His game consists of doing a little of everything and he’s shown strong flashes as a puckrusher, as well as a heady player who seeks the quick, sometimes deadly first pass. His skating is as good as it gets in this league and his acceleration is a good level above most of the competition. Another strength is his lateral movement in closing off oncoming rushers and taking away passing lanes. Defensively, his game has improved considerably over the winter. Consistency is something he’ll have to really work on in the years to come. He’ll also have to find a way to get his lethal slapshots and wristers off quicker and more often. A hesitation to shoot has been seen at times, but it’s something he should do with every opportunity.

Despite a real skill game, he does like to get involved physically and seems to be a real fan of throwing mid-ice hits when the chance arrives. Still very raw at this stage, Jacobs just put up five goals and 23 points in 56 games. Along the way, he also racked up 46 penalty minutes and an impressive +36 rating. Things continued to go well offensively in the playoffs as Jacobs collected three goals, five points and a +2 rating in 12 contests. It is felt that this all-arounder has some real good offensive upside in the years to come.

A Mississippi native, Jacobs is headed to Michigan State University in the fall of 2015.

Draft rank position prediction: Between spots 45-65.

3. Shane Eiserman – F – Shoots: Left – 6‘2“, 201 lbs.
CSS North American Rank -#45
Oct 10th, 1995

Technically an overager, Eiserman’s rough and tumble two-way play can no longer be ignored. Not originally felt to have a high offensive upside, Eiserman is a strong skater who can handle himself in all situations. He likes to be where the play is hard and dirty and can make life miserable for opponents in the corners. He also keeps things simple with the puck, looking to find and take the most direct path to the goal. His ability to fluently get from point A to point B would lend viewers to believe that there’s more in store from this kid offensively in the years to come.

For now, his tough play was perfect for the Dubuque Fighting Saints, who he joined after leaving the U.S. NTDP. When he doesn’t have the puck, he likes to punish opponents in hunting it down, turning the corners of a rink into his most common workshop.

After 11 goals and 21 points with the U.S. NTDP and an assist at the 2013 U18 WC in Sochi, Russia, Eiserman headed to the USHL with fairly little expectations offensively. However, he proved to be quite productive, putting up 16 goals, 40 points, 71 penalty minutes, and a +18 rating in 53 games. Things didn’t go as well in the playoffs, where he was only able to contribute two assists and a -3 rating in seven games. NHL teams have taken note though and Eiserman is felt to have some solid lower line NHL potential, especially if his growing spurt isn’t yet over.

Hailing from Massachusetts, Eiserman will be attending the University of New Hampshire this fall.

Draft rank position prediction: Between spots 55-90.

4. Maxim Letunov – F – Shoots: Right – 6‘2“, 155 lbs.
CSS North American Rank – #87
Feb 20th, 1996

Tall and very lanky, Letunov has come all the way from Moscow to make his way through the lower levels of US-based ice hockey. This season he joined the Youngstown Phantoms for his first USHL season and made quite a splash. Featuring the type of slick hands you’d want from a Russian import, Letunov has a strong wrist shot that he isn’t afraid to deploy. He has shown himself to be just as adept in a playmaking capacity and finds his teammates with often highlight reel passes. Although not yet a muscle packet, he has shown that he’s become accustomed to the more physical North American game and is even ready to initiate contact himself. His overall game and two-way presence still needs a good bit of work, but much of that will only come once he’s started adding the weight he needs in order to correct his somewhat awkward playing style and even out his skating, which can nonetheless also be quite explosive.

Intelligent, creative, and having shown a knack for being in the right spots even without the puck, it is felt he’ll continue to develop into a scorer, even at the pro level. After collecting 66 points in 40 games for the Dallas Stars U16 Midget club last season, Maxim contributed a healthy 19 goals and 43 points in 60 games. Along the way however, he also had 42 penalty minutes and an alarming -17 rating.

Letunov has decided to go the college route and will be joining Boston University in the fall of 2015.

Draft rank position prediction: Between spots 80-130.

5. Brandon Montour – D – Shoots: Right – 6‘0“, 176 lbs.
CSS North American Rank – #92
Apr 11th, 1994

Clearly still needing to add weight and get bigger in the years to come, Montour is coming off a thoroughly impressive season with the Waterloo Black Hawks. Already 20 years of age, the scouting community can no longer look past him, although it was difficult to find him mired in places like Brantford and Caledonia in recent seasons.

A purely offensive defenseman, Montour has the type of skills and offensive ability, that teams will see him as a high chance, high reward player. He just produces and produces and produces. Extremely athletic, his skating is what sets him apart and allows him to move past opponents at will, something he doesn’t hesitate to do while rushing the puck up ice. Thinking offense first, and being able to skate as he can while also anticipating upcoming offensive chances in a special manner, he simply hasn’t had to put his defensive game on display too much yet. This has people wondering just what he can or can’t do in his own zone and overall in a defensive capacity when that challenge should come along. To date, his skating prowess has allowed him to catch up and make up for defensive lapses.

Montour is nonetheless a very exciting player who will grab the attention of the average viewer. At this level, there really wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. Every time he was on the ice, opponents had to be aware that he’d be creating offense. All in all, he had 14 goals and 62 points in 60 games. This was accompanied by 36 penalty minutes and an outstanding +35 rating, showing that his offense wasn’t solely a product of the power play, which he quarterbacked with aplomb. Things got even more exciting in the playoffs where he chipped in six goals, 16 points, and a +8 rating. Put simply, his season was just outstanding. Now we’ll have to see if his game can translate to the next level and beyond.

A native of Ontario, Canada, Montour will go the college route, scheduled to attend UMass Amherst this fall.

Draft rank position prediction: Between spots 75-140.

6. Kevin Reich – G – Catches: Left – 6‘1“, 198 lbs.
CSS North American Goalie Rank – #5
Oct 26th, 1995

You rarely see a German goalie in the USHL, much less one ranked as highly as Reich currently is by CSS, but the young goalie had quite a topsy turvy year.

After several championships with the Junior Adler program in Mannheim, the sound lefty-catching goaltender signed on to play with the Munich Red Bulls in the DEL, being loaned to their new joint junior program in Salzburg, which plays in the Russian MHL, Russia’s top junior circuit. This came on the heels of having been Germany’s starter at the 2013 U18 WC in Sochi, Russia. In two games with Munich, Reich got somewhat shell-shocked by opponents, putting up a 13.65 goals-against average and .769 save percentage. This was only a sample size. Things went much better in the MHL, where Reich put up a 2.64 goals-against and .913 save percentage.

Having played part of one game at the WJC in Malmo, Sweden, Kevin immediately broke off ties with Europe and headed over to join Dubuque of the USHL. This move proved to be a very good one for the battler, who has a good read of the oncoming attack and understanding of where to position himself. While in Iowa, he saw action in 21 games, putting up a record of 10-7-3. Neither his 3.02 goals-against nor his .897 save percentage were anything to write home about, but the quick transition from Europe to North America played its role. Things stayed about the same in the playoffs, where he was able to put up a 2.88 goals-against average and .892 save percentage.

It’s unknown where exactly Reich will be next season, but all indications are that he’ll try to prolong his North American excursion, something a possibly drafting NHL team will likely help and advise him to do.

Draft rank position prediction: Between spots 150-210.

7. Karson Kuhlman – F – Shoots: Right – 5‘10“, 170 lbs.
CSS North American Rank – #94
Sep 26th, 1995

Kuhlman is a kid who can really move out on the ice. As a trained center, he has shown a great understanding of how to play a responsible, hard, two-way game. His intelligence is evident in the manner in which keeps opposition chances to a minimum, backchecking relentlessly. Once he does win over the puck, he gets the transition moving in the other direction without much ado. His gutsy game doesn’t just take place in the defensive zone either. Once on the attack, he’ll most often find himself grinding in the corners and moving the play to the net. Offensively, he has shown himself to have a solid shot and hands capable of creating nice plays. At this point, there’s little not to like, but he is going to need to get better and find a way to bring his best attributes with him on a nightly basis.

Another highly ranked Dubuque Fighting Saints player, Kuhlman played in 56 games this season compiling 25 goals and 44 points. He also gathered a +16 rating. He added another goal, three points, and +3 rating in seven playoff games. An assistant captain for the team, Kuhlman was clearly one of the team leaders and has shown that he’s a player you can depend on for a good, solid effort. His energy and ability to force opponents into making turnovers is the type of thing that regularly motivates his teammates.

A Minnesota native, Karson will be attending the University of Minnesota-Duluth next fall.

Draft rank position prediction: Between spots 110-160.

8. Matt Iacopelli – F – Shoots: Left – 6‘2“, 192 lbs.
CSS North American Goalie Rank – #98
May 15th, 1994

A big-bodied overager, Iacopelli put things together big-time this past season, his first in the USHL. Despite his size, he has the demeanor and hands of a smaller playmaker, showing great offensive instincts, a deceptively strong shot, and the ability to make use of both with regularity. His size serves him to win pucks in the corners and in front of the net as well as to create space for himself and his teammates. During the season, he was used as a go-to player offensively and not necessarily required or held accountable as much as some others might be with respect to defensive responsibilities. This area as well as his actual agility and foot speed will have to increase in the next few years in order for him to have a real shot at an NHL career.

That said, Iacopelli was an offensive dynamo in the league, scoring 41 goals and 64 points in 58 games, a goal-scoring feat rarely achieved in the USHL. He also had 47 penalty minutes and a +12 rating. Scoring goals seems to be his key capability as he pumped in 26 last winter in 39 games for Belle Tire in the MWEHL.

A Michigan native, Iacopelli is off to Western Michigan University for NCAA play in the fall of 2015.

Draft rank position prediction: Between spots 130-210.

9. Austin Poganski – F – Shoots: Right – 6‘1“, 198 lbs.
CSS North American Rank #100
Feb 16th, 1996

A growing boy with good size, Poganski loves to patrol the wing and play a rough game, creating space for himself and teammates. He’s quite the handful for opponents and keeps them honest, especially in corners and along the boards. Offensively, he plays just as intense with and without the puck, finding the quickest way to the net and running through roadblocks on the way. Featuring a fine snap and wrist shot, he likes to fire the pucks from the slot and close in, rarely hesitating to let go of a shot when he has the chance. In addition, he has shown not only a willingness to work hard all over the ice, but has been quite astute in following defensive instructions from his coaches. This has even allowed him to become quite proficient in shadowing opponents when the coach feels the need has arisen. However, he’s not yet the defensive juggernaut and like many his age, has shown a knack to try and overcompensate for defensive lapses happening elsewhere on the ice.

Offensively, it was felt that Poganski could have produced more to date. He battles hard and has a way of taking control of the puck more often than not, but he must become more consistent and more capable of turning good opportunities into tangible results. Having played for the Team USA program at several events, including the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament last summer, Poganski just completed his first full season with the Tri-City Storm. There he put up 19 goals, 31 points, 57 penalty minutes, and a -27 rating. It should be noted that the club had a real tough season and scoring came at a premium.

A native of St. Cloud, Minnesota, Poganski will be joining the University of North Dakota this fall.

Draft rank position prediction: Between spots 95-150.

10. Anthony Angello – F – Shoots: Right – 6‘4“, 190 lbs.
CSS North American Rank – #114
May 10th, 1996

Angello is a tall and gangly winger who spent this past season with the Omaha Lancers in a lower role capacity, getting his feet wet in his first year of non-high school hockey. It proved to be quite a challenge, but one Angello happily accepted and managed to improve with. An intelligent kid on and off the ice, his size is very intriguing to the scouting community and it’s felt that his frame could stand to add another 25 pounds over time. Everything about his game still needs work, but he was entrusted with a number of different roles by his coach, having played with just about every forward on the team over the course of the season.

After scoring 31 goals for the Syracuse Jr. Stars the season before, Angello collected 11 goals, 21 points, 85 penalty minutes, and a -10 rating for the Lancers this past winter. He then added an assist and four penalty minutes in four playoff games. Expected to return to Omaha next season, he’ll be looked upon to pick up on that output considerably. Good in the face-off circle, Anthony has already shown an ability to play a two-way game and make a strong transition from defense to offence.

The New York native is committed to Cornell University for the fall of 2015.

Draft rank position prediction: Between spots 110-150.

Further names to denote

Off to Bowling Green State University next fall is 5’10”, 185 pound Canadian defenseman Mark Friedman, who collected 10 goals, 40 points, and a +22 for Waterloo this past winter. The 6’2”, 192 pound Finnish winger Waltteri Hopponen put up 17 goals and 31 points in 54 games for the Sioux City Musketeers before representing his country with two assists at the U18 WC. Heading to Boston University in the fall is 5’11”, 175 pound forward J.J. Piccinich who is coming of a season where he posted 27 goals and 58 points for the Youngstown Phantoms. The 5’11”, 170 pound Neal Pionk impressed with his gnarly game this past winter, posting 23 points, a +18 rating, and 93 penalty minutes in 54 games. A hulk of a player is the 6’5”, 225 pound Ryan Mantha. He’s got his deficits in the mobility department, but isn’t without skill. Splitting the season between Sioux City and Indiana, Ryan collected three goals, 15 points, and a +11 rating. Also look out for the names Dakota Joshua (38 points, heading to Ohio State), Seamus Malone (46 points, heading to the University of Wisconsin), Tyler Vesel (overager with 71 points and +40 in 49 games), and Tyler Sheehy (49 points and +25 in 49 games, heading to the University of Minnesota).

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin