USHL 2001-2002 Preview
It is time my friends, to begin another year of fast-paced, action-packed USHL hockey. Changes are aplenty this year with the additions of the Topeka Scarecrows and the Tulsa Crude. Topeka joins the league after being a minor league franchise. The fans have been a little skeptic about the quality of play they are paying for, but will soon find out it is well worth their money. Tulsa joins the league after many years being known as the Dubuque Fighting Saints. A handful of former Saints along with the entire staff made the move with the team in hopes of revamping what once was a proud franchise.
Topeka and Tulsa will move to the Western Division of the league and the Des Moines Buccaneers will then be bumped over to the Eastern Division, which better suits their location. The Cedar Rapids Roughriders look to improve upon their playoff appearance last season as their shelves are stocked this year. A lot of new faces will take the ice this year with many of the most recent stars moving on to the Collegiate or Pro ranks. This opens the door for new stars to be made. All told, it has the makings of another fantastic season of hockey in the Midwest.
1. Des Moines Buccaneers
Des Moines joins the Eastern Division this season as mentioned, and although the East certainly is tough, it clearly has not had the balance of the Western Division that Des Moines has been accustomed to. With that being said, they are my pick to win the East. The Buccaneers return a solid mix of USHL veterans and fresh faces eager to get their feet wet. Mark Langdon will lead a strong bunch of forwards. Andrew Leach and Justin Nikle will also play key roles in teaching the winning ways to the youth. Big Luke Irwin will be the leader on defense. He will be the only returning veteran defensively, which may be their weak point. Chris Gartman will take over in net. Gartman comes to the Buccaneers from Cornell University where he felt he could use another year of seasoning to prepare him for what he is going to face in the collegiate ranks. Prediction: Based on winning tradition alone the Buccaneers should fare well in the softer Eastern Division. If the veterans can teach the newcomers well and Gartman stays solid in net they will continue to succeed.
2. Cedar Rapids RoughRiders
Bobby Bobby Bobby!!!! That’s what you hear when you enter “The Stable” in Cedar Rapids. That trend won’t change this season as long as he stays healthy. Goepfert will headline a team that lost several key stars from last seasons team that finished 2nd in the East. However, many players stuck around. From top to bottom Cedar Rapids was able to retain some quality USHL veterans, Danny O’Brien,Ted O’Leary, Joe Gasparini and Corey Carlson will keep the offense flowing while trying to keep the RoughRiders moving up the ladder in the league. Last season Cedar Rapids played good solid defense and I see no reason why that will change this year. P.J. Atherton and Chris Snavely return along with Matt Olinger. It will be tough to beat them to say the least. Don’t forget the aforementioned Goepfert who is by far the best goaltender in the league this year. He earned that honor last season by being flat out good. Prediction: Cedar Rapids will be tough to beat and if Goepfert has improved at all over last season and the offense can crank it up a notch, they just might be knocking at Des Moines door come the end of the season. But for now I still see a 2nd place finish.
3. Green Bay Gamblers
Usually Green Bay is the hands down pick to win this division. Not this season. Over the last couple of years, Green Bay has lost a lot of top-notch talent and although the coaching staff has tried valiantly to replace them with the same level of talent, it hasn’t always happened. A.J. Degenhardt, Tim Stapleton and Chris Michael will lead the way offensively for a team with several returning players from last year’s squad, but few with a lot of game experience. On defense Nate Guenin returns after a strong campaign last season and Jake Taylor returns as well. The Gamblers rough defense is one of their strong points and I see no reason for that to change. In net though is a different story. Gone is the ever-persistent Jure Penko. Green Bay will have Eric Pfligler in net this season and he did well in spot starts last year which will help him but last season Penko won a handful of games just on his talent alone. They won’t have that luxery this season. Prediction: The Gamblers offense will need to pick up the pace. Their defense should be good, but their goaltending will not be as good as in recent years and they will need offense to pick up that slack. If that doesn’t happen, they could tumble further than just 3rd.
4. Waterloo Black Hawks
In Waterloo the Black Hawks are celebrating 40 years of hockey and have fielded a team that is loaded with young talent but few veterans. Dan Krmpotich, Ryan Langenbrunner and Cole Baron all return and expectations for them are high. With the addition of so many young faces, they will need to be patient and be leaders to mold the team together. The talent is certainly there. Jake Schwann and Joel Hanson look to be big additions as well. Greg Poupard and Eric Weum are the only returning veterans from the league on defense and they will need to step it up big time. Rookie Nathan Fornataro will make the biggest impact on this squad loaded with young talent. The big question mark is in net. Kyle McNulty has the job for now but there is plenty of competition for that spot. McNulty has been good in preseason but preseason is nothing compared to a grueling season of USHL hockey. Prediction: The Jury is still out on Waterloo. They have the talent and potential to be a tough team to beat, but with so much youth, the coaching staff will have to work hard at getting the team to gel together. If it happens, they could be dangerous come playoff time.
5. Chicago Steel
Chicago is another team who lost several key players from last year’s squad that narrowly missed the playoffs. Unfortunately the light at the end of the tunnel may be a year or two down the road yet. Aaron Grynol, Ales Parez and Rene Gauthier will be offensive keys to the Steel. Past them there are slim pickings on offense. Defensively Chicago could be ok; Tom Gilbert and Chad Gromek are imposing figures that can score occasionally. In net John Daigneau has the job. Although past numbers do not reflect it, John played well for Chicago last year after being traded from Rochester and he is eager to get things going this year. Prediction: Like last year, Chicago will be scrappy and tough to beat. Certainly no pushover. They have the potential to beat anyone on any given night but more times than not they may beat themselves instead. Unless the team really improves over the season, they are in for an average finish that will more than likely see them out of the playoffs.
6. Rochester Mustangs
There is nowhere to go but up for Rochester. In the past couple of years the Mustangs have been at the bottom of the barrel in the USHL. There is little apparent to show otherwise this year. For now at least, the Mustangs appear to be the weakest link in the league. On a better note, they do return Shawn Vinz, Adam Cozine and John Bottoms offensively. Each of whom has performed well at times. If they can play well, things could turn for Rochester. Tim Conboy comes back this season. Last year Conboy had the distinction of tallying the most penalty minutes for the year and he will be bigger and stronger this season. Steve Czech will be a big factor on defense as well. Between the pipes is a battle between Yen-I Chen and Jon Fallon. Neither has got a stranglehold on the job and they’ll rotate until someone claims it. Prediction: Unfortunately someone has to finish last and unless some major changes are made, I see Rochester there. They have some good talent but not enough to win every night. Without a doubt they will be competitive and nobody should take them lightly, the rumor mill has it that this could be the last season of USHL hockey in Minnesota. They could go out with a bang or a whimper.
That’s it for the Eastern Division. It will be a fun race to watch for sure. Des Moines will get quite a fight from Cedar Rapids for the top spot; Green Bay could make a move and jump back to the top. Waterloo and Chicago could get hot and jump up the standings. There certainly will be a fight to the finish each time any of these teams take the ice. A preview for the Western Division will be released as soon as possible. The season started Friday September 28th and new names and faces are already making themselves known. It certainly will be exciting.