Top five drafted defensemen in the USHL

By Chris Paxhia

The USHL has a history of producing and developing high caliber NHL defensemen. This is a list of NHL drafted blueliners currently playing in the USHL, no doubt looking to become the next Brian Rafalski, Phil Housley, or more recently, John Carlson.

Top five at a glance:

1. Nick Mattson – Indiana Ice
2. Benjamin Marshall – Omaha Lancers
3. Alex Velischek – Sioux City Musketeers
4. Peter Stoykewych – Des Moines Buccaneers
5. R.J. Boyd – Chicago Steel

1. Nick Mattson, D, Indiana Ice
October 25th, 1991. 6’1, 185 lbs
Selected by Chicago Blackhawks, 6th round, 180th overall, 2010

Nick Mattson is an offensive defenseman, but according to Ice head coach Charlie Skjodt, also has one of the best defensive sticks in the league. He sees the ice well, maintains good puck possession, and has an incredible hockey sense.

Mattson’s decision making ability is arguably his greatest asset, but an area where he could improve is his shot. Rather than take the big slap shot from the point, he is more prone to take a snap or wrist shot from in close.

Mattson is having a spectacular 2010-11 with the Ice. He’s already registered 22 points (three goals, 19 assists) in 33 games, which is three points more than his 2009-10 season totals of 19. Most impressive is his plus/minus rating of plus-22, which is third best in the USHL.

"Nick has progressed well from the beginning of the year, which has naturally improved his confidence," said coach Skojdt, "There is no question that he has the size, strength, ability, and hockey IQ to succeed at the highest level."

2. Benjamin Marshall, D, Omaha Lancers
August 30th, 1992. 5’9, 170 lbs
Selected by Detroit Red Wings, 7th round, 201st overall, 2010

Ben Marshall is a highly-skilled offensive defenseman, with a small stature and high-end skating speed. He’s also known for his great hands.

His greatest strength may be his ability to get the puck out of defensive zone quickly, either by passing or skating it out on his own.

"He’s the most dynamic defenseman in our league," says Omaha head coach Bliss Littler, "He’s a playmaker, possesses good vision, and has so much skill."

His numbers for the 2010-11 season are certainly in line with his coach’s high praise. Marshall has 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) through 32 games. However, most notable is his plus/minus rating of plus-24, which is the best on the team by a wide margin, and is ranks him second league wide. This is outstanding for a player that many describe as a pure offensive talent.

According to coach Littler, Marshall could benefit from working on his strength. However, he feels that Marshall is a lot further ahead in his overall development as a player than he expected him to be at this point.

"Ben will have the opportunities [to succeed at the next level]. He’s going to be a very special college player at Minnesota, and as far as him succeeding in the NHL, I wouldn’t bet against it," coach Littler said confidently.

3. Alex Velischek, D, Sioux City Musketeers
December 17, 1990. 6’0, 200 lbs
Selected by Pittsburgh Penguins, 5th round, 123rd overall, 2009

Alex Velischek is a mobile defenseman with very good offensive instincts. He is also very responsible defensively, displaying good positioning and anticipation. Velischek brings a high level of competitiveness to the rink every night and possesses an excellent hockey sense.

Velischek joined the Musketeers midway through the 2010-11 season after leaving Providence College nine games into his sophomore season. Since joining Sioux City, Velischek has registered 3 points (one goal, two assists) in 12 games; with a plus/minus rating of minus-7. However, his plus/minus rating needs to be taken with a grain of salt since only four Musketeers have a plus/minus rating of plus-one or better.

According to Sioux City head coach Luke Strand, in order to take his game to the next level, Velischek needs to continue to progress physically. However, Strand believes that Velischek is on pace in his overall development.

When asked whether or not Velischek has what it takes to succeed at the next level, coach Strand responded positively, "Alex is a dedicated player and is going to get opportunities. For him the sky is the limit."

4. Peter Stoykewych, D, Des Moines Buccaneers
July 14th, 1992. 6’3, 197 lbs
Selected by Atlanta Thrashers, 7th round, 199th overall, 2010

When he first entered the USHL for the 2010-11 season, Peter Stoykewych had a reputation as a quick puck moving defenseman who makes others around him better.

For the most part, Stoykewych has lived up to that reputation. He has played in all but one game (32 games), during the 2010-11 season for the Buccaneers, and registered six points (three goals, three assists).

While both Stoykewych and his team got off to a fast start, they hit a month long cold streak between November 19th, 2010, and December 12th, 2010. As a result, the team’s record, as well as his plus/minus rating naturally took a hit. However, since December 17th, 2010, Stoykewych has maintained a respectable plus/minus rating of plus-four, which has brought his season rating back up to a minus-1. Both Stoykewych and Des Moines are back on track now, with the team having gone 7-3-0 in their last ten.

With the experience he’s gaining on a nightly basis, Stoykewych’s defensive game will only continue to get better. Furthermore, if he gets stronger physically and continues to work on his skill set, he should find success at Colorado College.

5. R.J. Boyd, D, Chicago Steel
February 7th, 1991. 6’3, 190 lbs
Selected by Florida Panthers, 7th round, 183rd overall, 2010

R.J. Boyd is a two-way defenseman who joined the USHL’s Chicago Steel midway through the 2010-11 season after leaving Sacred Heart University after 15 games.

Boyd scored a goal in his first game with the Steel on January 1st, 2011, against Green Bay, but since then has been kept off the score sheet. Unfortunately, his teammates haven’t done much better, as the Steel rank last in the USHL in average goals for per game with 1.86.

It is well known that Boyd’s strengths are his skating and puck-handling abilities. However, these same strengths sometimes get Boyd into trouble when it comes to getting back on defense after jumping into the rush.

According to Steel head coach Jon Waibel, Boyd needs to improve in the defensive end. Specifically, using his body the right way and playing with an edge on a nightly basis.

"R.J. is on pace in his development with where he should be. He’s adapted nicely [to the USHL] and just needs to continue spending time on the basics of defending," said Waibel.

When asked whether Boyd has what it takes to succeed at the NHL level, Waibel responded, "It’s tough to say, he has all the tools. As long as he can play within himself, and keeps spending the time, he can succeed."