USHL Top 30 prospects for the 2006 Entry Draft

By Kevin Wey

Never has the USHL looked so good heading into an NHL Draft.

First, Des Moines Buccaneer right winger Kyle Okposo is projected to be a top 15 pick after dazzling the league with his power and skill and by earning a spot on the All-USHL First Team, the USHL All-Rookie Team, and by receiving USHL Rookie of the Year honors and Clark Cup MVP honors. Second, there is tremendous depth among the USHL prospects eligible for the 2006 Draft. Central Scouting invited Okposo, Trevor Lewis, Andreas Nodl, Jeff Petry, Eric Gryba and Ryan Turek to the Draft Combine May 30 through June 3 in Toronto, as well as Carl Sneep, who played for the Lincoln Stars down the stretch and in the playoffs after playing for Brainerd High School in Minnesota and who is not included in this list. Third, the new collective bargaining agreement gives USHL prospects an edge. Under the new CBA, NHL teams must now sign players drafted out of Europe within two years, just like players selected out of major juniors. Also, the Player Transfer Agreement signed between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation has higher transfer fees than ever. An NHL team could potentially allow a player drafted out of the USHL to play two more seasons in the USHL and then four seasons of college hockey, giving project prospects up to six years to develop before their NHL club must make a decision on whether or not to sign him.

With Okposo legitimizing the USHL as a source for first-round talent, others adding considerable depth, and the restrictions of the CBA and the PTA, more players could be drafted directly out of the USHL than ever before.

1. Kyle Okposo, RW
Ht: 6’0 Wt: 205 Shot: R
DOB: 4/16/88 St. Paul, Minn.
Team: Des Moines Buccaneers

Kyle Okposo is hands down the top prospect from the USHL heading into the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

Okposo was the first overall pick in the 2005 USHL Entry Draft after scoring 47 goals and 45 assists in 65 games for Shattuck St. Mary’s prep team in 2004-05 and quickly established himself as the top offensive talent in the USHL. The St. Paul, Minn., native played for Team USA at the U18 World Cup in Slovakia and scored four goals and three assists in five games before playing his first game in the USHL. By late November, Okposo had been selected to play for Team USA at the Viking Cup in Camrose, Alberta, and the USHL Offensive Player of the Week Nov. 28 after scoring four goals and two assists in three games the previous week. Okposo not only played at the Viking Cup, he was named the Tournament MVP after scoring three goals and seven assists in six games, helping Team USA earn the bronze medal.

The hardware kept coming, too. The week after he returned from Camrose he scored four goals and four assists in three games and was named the USHL Offensive Player of the Week Jan. 9. In February, Okposo played in the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game and was named Team East’s MVP. Okposo missed a few games toward the end of the season with a shoulder injury, but he still finished sixth in USHL scoring with 27 goals and 31 assists in 50 games. Despite being known as an offensive talent, Okposo did well enough defensively to earn a +28 rating, second in the USHL. His eight game-winning goals were also second best in the USHL, behind veteran Omaha Lancer Matt Schepke. The USHL recognized Okposo by naming him to the All-USHL First Team, the USHL Rookie of the Year and obviously to the USHL All-Rookie Team.

The playoffs saw more of the same, as Okposo tied teammate Trevor Lewis for the lead in Clark Cup scoring on the strength of five goals and 11 assists in 11 games. Des Moines won the Clark Cup and Okposo was named its MVP. Team USA has extended an invitation to the World Junior Evaluation Camp Aug. 5 through 14.

No other ’88-born dominated the USHL like Okposo. The 6’0, 205-pound Okposo combines his power, size, hockey sense, and stickhandling to emerge from almost any one-on-one battle with the puck, be it along the boards, in the corners, or in open ice. He never backs down from a one-on-one battle and never relies on others to get him the puck. Even double-teaming Okposo rarely worked, as he emerged with the puck with uncanny regularity. Not only is Okposo dangerous coming off the boards, he has the hands to make moves in close, deke goaltenders, and roof shots with little time or space. Every shot in Okposo’s arsenal is dangerous, especially if he is allowed anywhere close to the net, even behind it. Although he is a scorer first and foremost, he does have the offensive awareness to make plays, as long as his teammates are talented enough. Defensively, Okposo uses his size and strength to lay out big hits from time to time and he has the defensive awareness to play regularly on the penalty kill at the USHL level, where he still managed to score four short-handed goals in the regular season.

Okposo is a power forward who is a pure finisher and can create chances for teammates who can think the game at his level and keep up. He has an impressive build, and should transition smoothly from the USHL to the University of Minnesota, to which he committed while still play at Shattuck in January 2005. Okposo should easily become the first player drafted directly out of the USHL with a top 15 pick. Long term, Okposo should be a top-six offensive forward in the NHL who scores and scores often. He’s the definition of a clutch goal scorer.

2. Trevor Lewis, C
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 200 Shot: R
DOB: 1/8/87 Murray, Utah
Team: Des Moines Buccaneers

The Buccaneer center that helped Okposo achieve what he did was Trevor Lewis.

Not as highly-touted, Lewis has emerged as one of the top young American-born prospects. Two years ago, Lewis was actually cut by the Cedar Rapids Roughriders in tryouts and landed with Des Moines, where he scored 10 goals and 12 assists in 52 games. Lewis committed himself to improving his strength last summer and the benefits were immediate. The 6’1, 200-pounder became one of the fastest players in the entire USHL and had the speed and two-way awareness to team with Okposo all season. Like Okposo, Lewis played for Team USA at the Viking Cup, where he had three goals and five assists in six games, and played in the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game. In the Skills Competition, Lewis finished with a second-best 14.84 seconds lap time. A couple weeks later, Lewis was named the USHL Offensive Player of the Week on Feb. 20 after scoring two goals and four assists in three games.

By the end of the season, Lewis was second in USHL scoring with 35 goals and 40 assists, third in power-play goals with 13, and third in game-winning goals with seven. One of the top penalty killers in the USHL, Lewis was second in the league in shorthanded goals with six, behind Des Moines teammate Colin Vock. When it came time to dole out USHL regular season awards, Lewis came away with the USHL Player of the Year award, the USHL Forward of the Year award, and a spot on the All-USHL First Team. Lewis also received the Curt Hammer Award, given to the player who best combines character on and off the ice with skill and performance. The performance continued in the USHL playoffs, as Lewis scored three goals and 13 assists to captain the Buccaneers to the Clark Cup in the absence of injured captain John Vadnais. Recently, Lewis was invited to the World Junior Evaluation Camp by USA Hockey, one of two USHL players so named. After camp with Team USA, Lewis will begin playing for the University of Michigan, under the highly-respected Red Berenson.

No one’s stock rose in 2005-06 in the USHL more than Lewis. He started to come on at the end of 2004-05, but he took his game to the next level in 2005-06. Lewis’ primary strength is his speed, which he used regularly to beat opponents wide last season. He also has the acceleration to separate from opponents quickly, aided by the fact he has the hockey sense to use his speed and skating skills intelligently. His speed and 6’1, 200-pound frame also comes in handy on defense. He is on opponents quickly and finishes his checks, often forcing opponents into errors or giveaways. On the penalty kill, Lewis’ combination of speed and hustle makes him extremely effective, and he wants to improve his defensive awareness even more. The only potential weakness to Lewis’ game is his faceoff ability, but he has a strong work ethic and a willingness to learn and a refusal to fail.

Lewis may not be as highly-touted as Okposo, but he is a solid pick and a safe pick. The Murray, Utah, native could potentially become a second line NHL center one day, but more likely he’ll be a high-end third line forward. His solid all-around game should allow him to be able to contribute to an NHL team in some capacity, even if it’s on the fourth line. It would take a dramatic shift in Okposo’s game to play anywhere other than one of the top two lines, but Lewis can contribute in nearly any role given to him.

3. Andreas Nodl, RW
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 196 Shot: L
DOB: 2/28/87 Vienna, Austria
Team: Sioux Falls Stampede

Nobody may have surpassed Lewis is raising their stock, but Andreas Nodl probably equaled him.

Nodl had established himself as one of the top young Austrian forwards before coming to North America, but his rookie USHL season shattered his confidence. A big scorer for Austria at the international level and in Austria at the junior and semi-professional level, Nodl only scored seven goals and nine assists in 44 games for the Sioux Falls Stampede in 2004-05 and was a shell of his old self at the Division I Group A U18 Championships. However, the arrival of Kevin Hartzell and his focus on fun was exactly what Nodl needed.

Nodl was the first USHL Offensive Player of the Week in 2005-06 after scoring a natural hat trick and adding an assist in his first game of the new season. Off to a flying start, Nodl committed to St. Cloud State University on the advice of Thomas Vanek, who played for coach Bob Motzko when the Huskies head coach was an assistant at the University of Minnesota. Named to play for Team West at the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game, Nodl dazzled in the Fastest Skater Competition with a lap of 14.68 seconds, good for the top spot. He was also named the MVP of the All-Star Game by scoring a goal and an assist in Team West’s 5-3 victory. By the end of the season, Nodl was fifth in USHL scoring with 29 goals and 30 assists and had helped Sioux Falls win the Anderson Cup, awarded to the team with the top record in the regular season. Joining Okposo and Lewis, Nodl was named as the third forward on the All-USHL First Team.

The offense did not stop in the playoffs. Nodl scored six goals and nine assists in 14 games to help lead Sioux Falls to the Clark Cup Finals, where they fell to Des Moines in Game 5 of the five-game series. Third in USHL playing scoring behind Okposo and Lewis, Nodl joined the two Buccaneers at the NHL Combine.

Having come a long way in 2005-06, Nodl can still do more. He still does not seem to entirely grasp how talented he is. Nodl has a powerful stride and the acceleration to separate from opponents. While Nodl has high-end speed, he also has the presence of mind to slow the game down when needed and can make pinpoint passes to teammates charging the net. However, it is more likely that Nodl is the most dangerous scorer on his line. His wrist shot and snap shot were Joe Sakic-like at the USHL level and his slap shot and backhand also give him a full assortment of weapons. The Austrian has worked on finishing his checks more often, and his 6’1, 196-pound frame combined with his speed can make him a heavy hitter. Nodl’s defensive awareness is satisfactory and an area he continues to work on. But more than anything, Nodl just needs the confidence in knowing he has the skill, speed, and size to succeed in any situation. Motzko helped mold Vanek when he played in Sioux Falls and then later at Minnesota, he may have another one in Andreas Nodl.

4. Jeff Petry, D
Ht: 6’2 Wt: 205 Shot: R
DOB: 12/9/87 Farmington Hills, Mich.
Team: Des Moines Buccaneers

Jeff Petry wasn’t even on the radar entering the 2005-06 season, but after moving from Midget AAA to the USHL mid-season, the son of former Major League Baseball pitcher Dan Petry has established himself as the top defense prospect in the USHL.

Petry started 2005-06 with the Little Caesar’s of the Midwest Elite Hockey League, a top Midget AAA league, but made the move to Des Moines in early November and spent the rest of the season with the Buccaneers. The suburban Detroit native quickly established himself and was named to Team East for the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game. After John Vadnais went down with a separated shoulder in early January, the rest of the Des Moines defense had to step up their game, and Petry did. He finished the season with the season with one goal and 14 assists in 48 games, but the measure of his improvement was truly marked by the playoffs. The 18-year-old rookie scored two goals and five assists in 11 games and was a +8 in Des Moines’ drive for the Clark Cup.

While Petry tied Lincoln’s Eli Vlaisavljevich in Clark Cup defensive scoring with seven points, Petry’s future is likely as a two-way defenseman. He has excellent mobility and deceptive speed with the puck. At the point, Petry has the shot power to be dangerous, but he more often chooses to take less time and fire a wrist shot instead, which can often be redirected for a goal. Petry’s presence of mind at the point and in breaking the puck out makes him effective offensively, but he’s more effective defensively. The 6’2, 205-pound Petry has good size and plays an aggressive game along the boards and in front of the net. Petry has not yet committed to a college, and thus figures to be one of the top defensemen in the USHL in 2006-07, but it’s safe to say that every DI Michigan school is looking at the Farmington Hills native.

Petry is only starting to achieve his true potential after only having played Michigan high school hockey, but he could become a two-way fourth or fifth defenseman at the NHL level with another year of USHL hockey and some further development at the college level. He has the skating ability to succeed in the new NHL.

5. Alex Kangas, G
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 175 Catch: L
DOB: 5/28/87 Rochester, Minn.
Team Sioux Falls Stampede

The top goaltender prospect out of the USHL is Sioux Falls Stampede netminder Alex Kangas.

Kangas was drafted with the third overall pick in the 2005 USHL Entry Draft after leading Rochester Century to the Minnesota State Tournament and setting a tournament record 50 saves in one game. The Rochester native did not win the State Tournament, in fact he was on the losing end in his record-setting performance, but he did lead Team Minnesota to the championship at the Chicago Showcase. Widely considered the top high school goalie in Minnesota during his senior season, Kangas won his first eight starts with Sioux Falls and was the USHL Defensive Player of the Week Nov. 7 and Dec. 19 and the USHL Goaltender of the Month for December after going 5-0 and making 161 saves on the 166 shots he faced in the final month of 2005. In February, Kangas played for Team West in the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game and further established himself as a top USHL prospect.

Splitting time with veteran John Murray throughout 2005-06, Kangas finished the season with a USHL second-best save percentage of .930 and a third-best goals-against average of 2.15. His 20-6-3 record, with three shutouts along the way, along with his save percentage and goals-against average helped earn Kangas a position on the USHL All-Rookie Team and the Stampede the Anderson Cup.

Murray and Kangas platooned in the playoffs, but Kangas took over the No. 1 spot in the Clark Cup Finals against Des Moines and made 42 saves in a 3-1 victory in Game 4 to force a Game 5. Although Sioux Falls lost the series to Des Moines, Kangas finished the playoffs with a respectable .909 save percentage and a 4-2-0 record.

The source of Kangas’ success is his technicality. Kangas was probably the most technical goaltender in the USHL in 2005-06. He reads the play well and stays square to the puck and has almost no wasted motions. A hybrid standup/butterfly goaltender, Kangas takes up a fair amount of the net at 6’1, 175 pounds and his positioning leaves opponents with almost nothing to shoot at. Because Kangas is not a scrambler, he has excellent rebound control and often uses his pads to direct them into the corners. In addition to his positioning, Kangas also boasts a quick glove hand.

One more positive about Kangas is that there’s still room for improvement. His lateral and vertical crease movement was not among the very best in the USHL in 2005-06 and additional leg strength could give Kangas the mobility he needs to become an elite goaltending prospect. If he then also improves his puckhandling abilities, although he makes smart plays, Kangas could follow in the footsteps of former USHLers such as Ty Conklin and Scott Clemmensen and then surpass them. Kangas will return to the Stampede in 2006-07 and will be Sioux Falls’ undisputed No. 1 goalie with John Murray now property of the Tri-City Storm. The Minnesota native has also committed to the University of Minnesota for 2007-08 and beyond, so he’ll develop at one of the top hockey programs in the nation and will likely become the Golden Gophers top netminder once Jeff Frazee (NJ) graduates.

Long term, Kangas could become a starter in the NHL. All Kangas needs is additional leg strength and more experience at challenging levels, things he can easily get in the USHL and at the University of Minnesota.

6. Eric Gryba, D
Ht: 6’4 Wt: 215 Shot: R
DOB: 4/14/88 Saskatoon, Sask.
Team: Green Bay Gamblers

No one can question the commitment of defenseman Eric Gryba. A native of Saskatoon, Gryba tore up the Saskatchewan Midget AAA ranks and helped lead the Contacts to the TELUS Cup after winning the Canadian National Midget Championship. Gryba was also named the National Defensive Player of the Year, over current University of Maine defenseman Simon Denis-Papin. The 17-year-old Gryba had hoped to play in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League in 2005-06 and even changed his residency and enrolled at Malaspina University in an attempt to circumvent and Inter-branch Transfer Rule of Hockey Canada. Unable to play for the Nanaimo Clippers, Gryba signed with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL and embarked upon his goal of earning a college scholarship to a top U.S. program.

It worked. Gryba committed to Boston University for the 2006-07 season and played for Team East at the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game. He finished the season with three goals and 12 assists in 56 games and +13 rating, as well as a league-leading 205 penalty minutes. Green Bay was eliminated in three games by Des Moines in Eastern Division Semifinals, but Gryba ended up leading the team in playoff scoring with a goal and an assist. He also racked up 27 penalty minutes.

Although Gryba led the USHL in penalty minutes, he is not an overly aggressive player. The 6’4, 215-pound Canadian was a target for many players in 2005-06 because of his status as one of the top prospects in the USHL, and Gryba is not one to back down to a challenge. Gryba is a decent fighter, and he can lay out some extremely heavy hits if he gets his momentum going, but he chose the collegiate track over the major junior route specifically because he wanted to develop his skill. Drafted by the Portland Winter Hawks in the second round of the 2003 WHL Bantam Draft, Gryba knew early on into his first WHL training camp that he would need to go the college route to become the skilled all-around defenseman he wants to become.

Gryba faced a significant adjustment from playing over half the game in Midget AAA to only a regular shift in the USHL. Because he was used to playing major minutes at a pace, Gryba needs to improve his quickness and his acceleration, especially his backwards acceleration. Improvements in his skating should also allow Gryba to become an even better puckmoving defenseman and allow him to use his considerable point shot even more often.

Thankfully for Gryba, Boston University has strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle to help the 18-year-old further develop his leg strength to give him the quickness, agility, and power he needs to become the physical, defensive defenseman at the NHL level that he could become.

7. Dan Lawson, D
Ht: 6’3 Wt: 225 Shot: L
DOB: 6/28/88 Oak Forest, Ill.
Team: Chicago Steel

The most talented prospect defenseman in the USHL in 2005-06 was Dan Lawson, but he has a way to go before the sum equals its parts.

Lawson played Midget AAA hockey for the Chicago Chill in 2004-05 and played for Team USA at the U18 Junior World Cup in Slovakia prior to the beginning of the 2005-06 USHL season. The Chicago Steel blueliner was selected to skate at the USA Hockey Junior Select Camp to determine the roster for the Viking Cup, but he was not selected. At mid-season Lawson suffered a concussion and then cracked two ribs, an injury through which he played for the remainder of the season. With his effectiveness compromised, Lawson was not selected to play in the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game and only finished the season with one goal and four assists in 53 games.

But that does not diminish his considerable talent. Lawson has excellent mobility and he has the speed to skate the puck out of the zone if necessary and to keep pace with attackers. Lawson has a hard point shot and above average stickhandling, which he sometimes does too much of as he crosses the blue line into the offensive zone. If Lawson learns to utilize his teammates better, he could challenge Petry as the best defenseman in the USHL in 2006-07.

Given Lawson’s 6’3, 225-pound frame and his skating ability, the potential is there to be a physically dominant defenseman. Too often, Lawson’s hits are more of a push with his upper body than a thrust with his legs. If Lawson becomes more aggressive and start thrusting into his hits, he could become a major physical force. The main thing holding Lawson back is hockey sense. He will have to start thinking the game better and rely less on his pure talent to become a top collegiate defenseman and later a professional defenseman, but he has considerable raw talent and could be a project pick that pays dividends down the road. Petry does not have his size, and Gryba does not have his skating ability.

8. Phil Axtell, LW
Ht: 6’6 Wt: 240 Shot: L
DOB: 8/13/86 New Windsor, Md.
Team: Cedar Rapids Roughriders

Behold, the NHL fighter of the future.

When Phil Axtell arrived at Roughriders tryouts in 2004, he was 274 pounds and in no shape to withstand the rigors of the USHL. He didn’t. Knee injuries limited him to 26 games in 2004-05, and he was not selected in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

In the process Cedar Rapids head coach Mark Carlson put Axtell on a strict diet and conditioning regimen and both the player and the Roughriders reaped the benefits in 2005-06. Axtell scored 22 goals and 15 assists in 47 games and was particularly effective on the power play, where he scored a USHL second-best 14 goals. Along the way, Axtell played for Team East’s roster at the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game and had the top shot in the Hardest Shot Competition with two blasts over 98 miles per hour. Fourth in Cedar Rapids scoring during the regular season, Axtell was third in Roughrider playoff scoring with four goals and three assists in eight games. Once a sideshow, Axtell is now a full-fledged NHL prospect.

Axtell has always been a feared fighter and an aggressive player, he missed most of his games in 2005-06 due to suspensions, but he has now become an impressive player based on his skill. Every shot in Axtell’s arsenal is extremely hard, making him a dangerous shooter. However, unlike many fighters, Axtell has the hands to make plays around the net and capitalize on his scoring chances. He’s especially effective hanging around the crease and screening the goaltender, because he’s nearly impossible for most defensemen to move.

He also has the conditioning now to play at a high level of hockey. Now down to 240 pounds, Axtell’s feet are much quicker than when he arrived in Cedar Rapids and he has much more energy to compete throughout the entirety of a shift. His newfound skating skills and wind allowed him to skate on Cedar Rapids’ first line and on the first power play unit, something he could never have done before.

NHL teams still need players who can police the ice, but they also must be skilled enough to receive a regular shift. Axtell is that player. His size and aggressiveness makes him a dangerous fighter, but there’s little reason to believe Axtell won’t have a chance to become a fourth line NHL player after he plays for Michigan Tech University, where he will start playing in 2006-07. Axtell has the gigantic size NHL teams looked for in fighters in the early 90s, but he also has the skill teams look for in players today. Plus, he’ll only be able to work on his skills at the collegiate level, otherwise he’ll be sitting out a lot of games.

9. Gary Steffes, RW
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 192 Shot: R
DOB: 5/20/87 Grand Blanc, Mich.
Team: Cedar Rapids Roughriders

Stats gurus might have dismissed him before the 2006 Clark Cup Playoffs, but now it’s clear for all to see that Gary Steffes is a legitimate prospect.

Steffes only scored one goal and nine assists in 52 games for the Roughriders in 2004-05, but he did establish himself as a forward who forechecked hard and laid out heavy hits. He didn’t start 2005-06 off with a particularly high offensive output either, but Team USA called up Steffes for the Viking Cup and the tournament proved to be a turning point. In six games in Camrose, Steffes scored two goals and three assists but still played his physical game and racked up 20 minutes in penalties. After the Viking Cup, Steffes began scoring more and he finished the season with 11 goals and 11 assists in 56 games.

In the 2006 Clark Cup Playoffs, Steffes’ numbers finally reflected the skill he had always had. Steffes led Cedar Rapids in playoff goal scoring with six goals in eight games and his seven points placed him second in Roughriders playoff scoring behind Ted Purcell.

Steffes may have had modest numbers for most of his USHL career, but his game is very strong. He has a strong, professional skating stride which he can combine with his 6’1, 190-pound frame to make hard hits along the boards or in skating the puck. The 19-year-old right winger makes crisp, accurate passes and can mix his stickhandling ability to make plays or create scoring chances for himself, and he’s not shy about shooting the puck.

Steffes’ strong all-around game should help him step right into the University of Miami-Ohio line-up next, if only as a checking line player. But that’s Steffes’ future. His game is tailor-made to become an energy line forward in the NHL who has enough stick skills and offensive awareness to succeed in today’s game. The new NHL is about speed, skating, and puck pursuit more now than ever, and Steffes can provide this and still add a valuable body checking dimension. Teams win Stanley Cups with players like Gary Steffes.

10. Shane Sims, D
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 190 Shot: R
DOB: 4/30/88 East Amherst, N.Y.
Team: Des Moines Buccaneers

Somehow lost in the pre-draft hype is Des Moines Buccaneers defenseman Shane Sims.

Sims came to Des Moines after being named the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League’s West Division Defenseman of the Year after playing for the Buffalo Jr. Lightning, now renamed after the Sabres. One of the top scoring defensemen in the OPJHL in 2004-05 as a 16-year-old, Sims tied Cedar Rapids Roughriders defenseman Kevin Wehrs as the highest scoring ’88-born defenseman in the USHL, on the strength of 10 goals and 12 assists in 59 games. In recognition of his contributions to the Buccaneers all season, Sims was named to the USHL All-Rookie Team.

Sims only had two goals in 11 playoff games, but that belies how impressive he was down the stretch and in the postseason. As Sims gained confidence during the season, he became perhaps the top young puckmoving defenseman in the USHL. When John Vadnais went down to injury, Des Moines lost their best defenseman, but Sims started assuming some of the puckmoving that Vadnais had provided. In the playoffs, Sims was skating the puck at a level he had not done all season. He was always a dangerous weapon on the power play with his slap shot and his one-timer and he was second among all USHL defenseman in shots during the regular season with 146. Ahead of him was Indiana Ice defenseman Eddie Del Grosso.

The 18-year-old Sims has the talent to equal Del Grosso in ability to skate the puck, but the young Buccaneer defenseman as a 6’1, 190-pound frame and more commitment to his own zone. Sims led all Des Moines defenseman in plus/minus in the playoffs at +9, and he plays a fairly physical game along the boards. The East Amherst, New York, native has committed to The Ohio State University for the 2007-08 season, but he looks to return to Des Moines for the 2006-07 season and should be one of the top puckmoving defensemen in the USHL and give Des Moines an excellent one-two punch with Petry.

Long term, Sims could develop into an offensive defenseman at the NHL level who’s fairly reliable in his own zone. If that doesn’t work out, he could certainly challenge to become a power play specialist at the NHL level. Sims was one of the top ’88s in the USHL in 2005-06 and he’s committed to college, there’s no reason he should not be considered an NHL prospect with his skill.

11. Brian Keane, LW
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 165 Shot: L
DOB: 5/17/88 Shortsville, N.Y.
Team: Chicago Steel

Like Sims, Brian Keane has seemingly flown under the radar, but he was one of the most talented ’88-born forwards in the USHL in 2005-06.

The Chicago Steel left winger started the season by scoring four goals and 11 assists after 15 games, but injuries suffered mid-season limited him to just six goals and 23 assists in 48 games. Keane was among the league leaders in scoring a quarter of the way through the 2005-06 season, and for good reason. He was one of the fastest players in the USHL and had the quickness, agility, and acceleration to make him a very dynamic skater. His skating skills, along with his stickhandling and passing areas, earned him a spot at the USA Hockey Junior Evaluation Camp for the Viking Cup. He wasn’t selected to play at the Viking Cup, but he did skate for Team USA at the U18 Junior World Cup in August.

Despite suffering an upper body injury, Keane still skated directly at opponents late in the season and used his speed and nifty stickhandling to burn many a USHL defenseman. The main areas Keane needs to improve on are taking more shots, improving his shot, and adding more muscle to his 5’11, 165-pound frame. He’ll have the opportunity to do this for the University of Massachusetts, where he will start playing this fall.

Had Keane stayed healthy, he might have been able to keep up with Kyle Okposo and Indiana’s Garrett Roe in scoring among ’88-born forwards. It’ll never be known, but it is known that Keane is an excellent skater with dynamic stickhandling who does not avoid traffic, all positive traits in the new NHL.

12. Chad Morin, D
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 205 Shot: L
DOB: 4/15/88 Auburn, N.Y.
Team: Sioux City Musketeers

Any team interested in a smooth-skating defenseman who moves the puck well and has an unquestionable commitment to fitness need look no further than Sioux City Musketeer defenseman Chad Morin.

Morin came to the Musketeers after two seasons with the U.S. National Development Team, essentially giving Morin two seasons of junior hockey experience before lacing up for Sioux City. The Auburn, N.Y., York, native played for Team USA at the Viking Cup and was also played for Team West at the USHL Prospect/All-Stars Game. More of a prospect than a USHL All-Star, Morin put up four goals and 11 assists in 54 games.

Despite only putting up modest offensive numbers, Morin is a talented puckmoving defenseman. He has good speed and a powerful skating stride, which he developed working out at the National Developmental Program’s facilities. Morin can use his speed to skate the puck and he has the stickhandling to make moves, but he’s even more proficient in passing the puck. His passes are normally right on the tape and he can thread it through traffic, and not just from a standstill.

Morin may not be tall, but he is strong. He became fully committed toward physical fitness while with the National Developmental Team and is now a solid 5’11, 205 pounds, which helps him generate his power stride but also allows him to compete physically against taller players. Morin is a self-motivated player who can provide leadership in the weight room and on the ice.

He’s also an intelligent player, as demonstrated by the fact he will be playing for Harvard this fall. Morin will have to continue to refine his defensive game and improve his release and shot accuracy under head coach Ted Donato, but the skating ability and strength he already possesses bodes well for a professional future. Morin should be one of the ECACHL’s top defensemen by his senior year. Long term, he will likely become a solid two-way defenseman, possibly at the NHL level.

13. Jordan Willert, RW
Ht: 6’3 Wt: 215 Shot: R
DOB: 11/6/87 Minot, N.D.
Team: Tri-City Storm

Any team that drafts Jordan Willert is doing so on projection, but he’s an enticing package.

Willert came into the USHL out of North Dakota high school hockey, quite a step down from the USHL. However, Willert did not look out of place and he scored six goals and 17 assists in 59 games in a season of considerable personal transition. Because Central Scouting has a say in who plays in the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game, Willert played for Team West in Sioux City Feb. 7. He only tallied an assist in five playoff games, and the Minot, North Dakota, native did not earn any major awards in 2005-06, but Willert has a lot of potential.

At 6’3, 215 pounds, Willert has impressive size. He does have some natural scoring ability, but to unleash it at the USHL level, and higher, he will have to improve on his quickness. He has decent power in his stride and good edge control, but he must improve his footspeed for agility and acceleration purposes. Willert’s future hinges on whether he can improve his footspeed, especially this summer. If he makes the adjustments, he could be one of the prototypical USHL players who has an adjustment year and then destroys the USHL, such as was the case for Lewis and Nodl this season. To become a truly intimidating power forward, Willert will also need to get more of an edge to his game. He can already lay out some big hits, but he’ll be given more room to operate if he first establishes even more of a physical presence.

The 18-year-old North Dakotan made a major transition in 2005-06. Whereas Michael Forney decided not to play in the USHL and instead stay in high school at Thief River Falls, Willert did the opposite and truly challenged himself and set himself up for a breakout USHL season in 2006-07.

Willert can lay out some big hits, but he could afford to be a little more aggressive to become an intimidating power forward. He certainly has the size.

14. Zach Cohen, LW
Ht: 6’3 Wt: 195 Shot: L
DOB: 2/6/87 Schaumburg, Ill.
Team: Tri-City Storm

Like Willert, Zach Cohen has a lot of potential, but he needs more fire. Cohen finished second in Tri-City goal scoring with 18 goals, behind Jaroslav Markovic’s 30 goals and he led the Storm in playoff scoring with three goals in five games, and it’s no surprise with his hands. The 19-year-old left winger has the hands to score in close and the shot power to tally from the perimeter. The 6’3, 195-pound Cohen also skates well, especially for a player his size, and has good speed, but he doesn’t always use his combination of size and skill to its utmost potential. Unlike teammate Jarod Palmer, Cohen is not always willing to venture into the high traffic areas and sacrifice to score the goals.

The Schaumburg, Ill., native played for Team West at the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game due to his potential and interest from Central Scouting, but he will need to become more assertive in his play in order to achieve his full potential as a power forward. Cohen does finish his checks regularly, and can lay out some big hits, but he must also be willing to be checked when driving to the net. He’ll have up to four years to work on it at Boston University, where he will begin playing in 2006-07. Cohen has a strong skill set as a base, he just has to want to be a great player.

15. Mike Testwuide, RW
Ht: 6’3 Wt: 216 Shot: R
DOB: 2/5/87 Vail, Colo.
Team: Waterloo Black Hawks

Mike Testwuide already has the body of a professional hockey player, he just needs to realize it. Testwuide played for Waterloo in 2004-05 and only put up two goals and eight assists in 46 games, but he had a bit of a breakthrough in his second USHL season. The 19-year-old right winger played for Team East at the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game and had 18 goals and 12 assists in 54 games in 2005-06. He also led the Black Hawks in plus/minus at +4, one of three who played at least a quarter of the season to finish with a plus rating.

Despite being 6’3, 216 pounds, Testwuide does not seem to realize exactly how powerful he is, even though he regularly overpowers opponents. He drives the net hard and his 18 goals prove he can capitalize on some of his chances. Testwuide doesn’t have elite skill or speed, but he’s a hardworking player who is difficult to play against and can lay out heavy hits along the boards. The Vail, Col., native will be able to develop the next four years at Colorado College, where he will begin playing this fall. Long term, he probably only has the upside to become a fourth liner in the NHL. A strong body along the walls and in front of the net still has a place in the NHL, and Testwuide may tempt some NHL teams in the late rounds. He’s only starting to reach his true potential.

16. Brandon Bollig, LW
Ht: 6’3 Wt: 215 Shot: L
DOB: 1/31/87 St. Charles, Mo.
Team: Lincoln Stars

Phil Axtell may be the prototypical fighter of the future, but Brandon Bollig’s combination of skill and toughness could be his ticket, too.

After seasons as a scorer with the Affton Americans Midget Major program and Junior B hockey with the St. Louis Jr. Blues, Bollig faced an adjustment in the USHL and early in the season he looked like a rough project fighter. However, by the end of the season, despite scoring just eight goals and eight assists in 58 games, Bollig looked like a legitimate top six forward in the USHL. The St. Charles, Mo., native’s one goal and two assists in nine playoff games also belied the improvements Bollig made in 2005-06.

Once Bollig adapted to the speed of the USHL, his skating abilities and stick skills became evident. Bollig has decent speed and agility, which he can use either with the puck or on the forecheck. When Bollig forechecks with intensity, his combination of size, speed, and skating make him difficult to shake. He hits hard and can immobilize opponents along the boards. The Lincoln Stars left winger also has fairly soft hands, especially for fighter, and can make plays and can get off a fairly hard shot. His 175 penalty minutes are also evidence of his willingness to drop the gloves. At 6’3, 215 pounds, Bollig has the size and the reach to be a fierce fighter, and he fought many of the top USHL fighters in 2005-06.

The primary thing Bollig must improve is making decisions faster. Although he must improve his acceleration and quickness some, there are times when he doesn’t get after loose pucks as quickly as he could considering his skating ability and how much of an advantage his size gives him in one-on-one battles. If he can become even quicker in his feet, and then especially quicker in the thinking the game, Bollig could become a future fourth line NHL forward who brings a physical game and a fighting element, but also a little skill.

17. Kyle Follmer, D/LW
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 190 Shot: L
DOB: 9/9/1987 St. Paul, Minn.
Team: Sioux City Musketeers

Kyle Follmer may be one of the best kept secrets in the USHL. He came to Sioux City as a largely unheralded defenseman, because the Como Park High School graduate was originally a forward. The Musketeers converted him to defense, and it took Follmer time to adjust to the skating nuances defensemen deal with. However, the potential of using his size, strength, and composure with the puck proved to be too much of an enticement not to put him at defense. The 6’1, 190-pound Follmer has a powerful stride and could become an offensive defenseman with a physical edge.

When Follmer played as a forward, he was one of Sioux City’s top players. His size, strength, skating, physicality and hard shot made him an excellent power forward. He even scored a hat trick and an assist against the Cedar Rapids Roughriders in a 6-2 victory Feb. 4, earning Follmer USHL Defensive Player of the Week honors Feb. 6. In 54 games, mostly as a defenseman, Follmer scored 14 goals and 18 assists in 32 games and also racked up 132 minutes in penalties. His +9 rating was tops among all Musketeer players.

Follmer was traded to the Waterloo Black Hawks for defenseman Joe Sova during the USHL Entry Draft, but that doesn’t diminish his talent. Teams will have to decide whether he’s going to become a forward or a defenseman, but he has considerable talent.

18. Ryan Thang, C/RW
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 190 Shot: R
DOB: 5/11/87 Edina, Minn.
Team: Omaha Lancers

Ryan Thang was already a good two-way player with the Sioux Falls Stampede, but he really turned it up with the Omaha Lancers.

Thang played for Sioux Falls in 2004-05 and returned to the team for 2005-06 and scored eight goals and 14 assists in 32 games and had an impressive +17 rating, but the Stampede traded him Jan. 13 to the Lancers for forward Chris Meyers. Receiving second line ice time on Sioux Falls, Thang quickly became one of the Lancers’ top players. In 25 games with Omaha, Thang scored 15 goals and 15 assists, paces that would have placed him among the league scoring leaders had he maintained that pace all season. The USHL named Thang the Offensive Player of the Week for the final week of the regular season after scoring five goals and one assist in three games the previous week, including a hat trick against Green Bay in a 7-2 victory. In the playoffs, Thang finished second in Lancers scoring with two goals and one assist in the Lancers five-game loss to Lincoln in the Western Conference Semifinals.

Teammate Ryan Turek has received more attention from Central Scouting, but maybe Ryan Thang should have been getting the attention. Thang is a powerful skater with a strong shot, which he used often by firing 74 shots in his 25 games with Omaha, and he likes having the puck on his stick. He also likes dishing out hits. Thang may only be listed at 5’11, 184 pounds, but he plays bigger than he is. The 19-year-old forward plays a tenacious forechecking game and finishes his checks with authority. In essence, Thang is a “hockey player.” The main thing that separates Gary Steffes from Thang is that Steffes has more size, otherwise they are very similar players.

The Edina, Minn., native will continue his development at the University of Notre Dame. There’s no reason to believe Thang can’t become an AHL-caliber player, and he could someday become an energy line player in the NHL.

19. Ryan Turek, C
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 180 Shot: R
DOB: 9/22/87 Northville, Mich.
Team: Omaha Lancers

Ryan Turek would probably throw on the pads and play goaltender if his team needed it.

Turek played for the Lancers as a defenseman in 2004-05, but he was a center, a right winger, and on the point on the power play in 2005-06. His versatility and up-tempo game earned him a spot on Team USA for the Viking Cup, where he scored one goal and three assists in six games. He played for Team West at the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game and scored two goals in the affair. For the Lancers, Turek was sixth in team scoring with 17 goals and 11 assists in 52 games and then scored a goal and an assist in the Clark Cup Playoffs.

Offense isn’t the name of Turek’s game, though it’s relentless puck pursuit and physicality. Turek is not a giant at 5’11, 180 pounds, but he can be a wrecking ball all the same. The future Michigan State Spartan leads by example and does whatever it takes and whatever the team needs. He’s still making the transition from the blue line to forward, so it’s difficult to know exactly how good Turek will become offensively. Regardless, he could become a future energy line player in the NHL.

20. Ryan Scott, D
Ht: 6’6 Wt: 229 Shot: L
DOB: 5/9/87 Whitefish, Mont.
Team: Indiana Ice

No USHL player made a bigger impact in his USHL debut than Indiana Ice defenseman Ryan Scott

First, Scott was the biggest player in the USHL in 2005-06 at 6’6, 229 pounds. Second, in his first USHL game, an Oct. 22 matchup against the Lincoln, Scott got into a fight with Stars left winger Brandon Bollig and knocked him out with a punch so hard it broke the towering Ice defenseman’s thumb. Scott’s big, and his fists made a big impact on Bollig’s head.

Scott is not just a fighter though. Indiana head coach Jack Bowkus occasionally used Scott in front of the net on the power play and it resulted in a two-goal game in Indiana’s 8-2 victory over Green Bay Jan. 21. The broken hand and an occasional scratch limited Scott to three goals and one assist in 34 games, but he still has an intriguing upside. Scott has fairly soft hands for use around the net on the power play, but he also has a strong point shot. The biggest area Scott improved on in 2005-06 was his skating. By mid-January, Scott was demonstrating good mobility for a player his size.

The Whitefish, Mont., native has come out of nowhere to become an intriguing USHL prospect. He played midget hockey in Arvada, Col., in 2004-05, but was discovered by former Indiana Ice head coach Dean Grillo at Minnesota Hockey Camps, a camp which his father, Chuck Grillo, owns and for which Dean now runs. Scott is due to be an instructor at MHC this summer and should continue to develop there. Scott would be a project for any NHL team, but he has some raw tools to work with and size that cannot be taught.

21. Mike Kramer,
Ht: 5’10 Wt: 196 Shot: R
DOB: 8/28/87 St. Paul, Minn.
Team: Lincoln Stars

Mike Kramer was probably the Lincoln Stars best player down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Kramer scored a respectable 15 goals and 23 assists in 57 regular season games, many of those points scored down the stretch, but he led Lincoln in playoff scoring with five goals and four assists in nine games. Despite losing in the West Division Finals to Sioux Falls, Kramer still finished with a +4 rating, first among all Lincoln players. Committed to Princeton University for the 2007-08 season, Kramer is due to return to the USHL in 2006-07 and should be one of the top scorers in his third year in the league.

The most noticeable thing about Kramer is his shooting. Kramer has one of the best wrist shots and snap shots in the entire USHL, thanks in part to his exceptionally quick release. If anybody challenges Nodl for release and snapping the puck, it’s Kramer. He also has stock build at 5’10, 196 pounds, and good speed, but he doesn’t always move his feet as much as he should. When Kramer is forechecking hard, he creates a lot of chances for his teammates, because he has the speed, skill, and weight to do it.

He won’t be big by NHL standards, but Kramer could develop into a puck pursuit forward with a dangerous shot. Kramer is a long shot, but a lot of the tools are there.

22. John Vadnais, D
Ht: 6’0 Wt: 205 Shot: R
DOB: 4/7/1986 Stillwater, Minn.
Team: Des Moines Buccaneers

John Vadnais probably would have been the USHL Defenseman of the Year had he not suffered a separated shoulder in early January.

A third-year USHLer, Vadnais was one of the top scoring defensemen in the USHL to begin the season and had seven goals and 16 points in his first 27 games, but then he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in early January. Suddenly, Des Moines was without their best defenseman and their captain. Had Vadnais played the entire season, he might have challenged Eddie Del Grosso as the top scoring defenseman in the USHL.

Even if he hadn’t, Vadnais had the most complete game of any USHL defenseman in 2005-06. Vadnais’ primary strength is his skating and speed. He has excellent agility, which mixed with his stickhandling and passing abilities, makes him a very good puckmoving defenseman. Vadnais also has superior hockey sense and rarely makes a poor decision with the puck. Throw in a strong point shot, and you have a superior offensive defenseman. However, Vadnais is equally as good defensively. His skating abilities allow him to stay with opponents and his 6’0, 205-pound frame allows him to finish them. Add in the fact he was Des Moines’ captain, Vadnais has it all.

The Stillwater, Minn., native will begin playing for Bemidji State University in 2006-07 and should be an impact player for the Beavers from the drop of the puck. Vadnais may be an ’86, and he may not be going to an elite DI program, but he’s a late bloomer and the total package at defense.

23. Jarod Palmer, RW
Ht: 6’0 Wt: 200 Shot: R
DOB: 2/10/86 Fridley, Minn.
Team: Tri-City Storm

Jarod Palmer may be an ’86, but his mix of skill and power makes him an intriguing prospect.

Palmer was Tri-City’s top forward in 2005-06 by scoring 15 goals and 37 assists in 58 games and by leading the team with a +15 rating on a team laden with minuses. Although he only had one goal and one assist in five playoff games, it does not diminish Palmer’s talent. The 20-year-old Palmer has a powerful stride, the stickhandling to make some impressive moves with the puck, the patience to make nice plays, and the hard shot to finish his chances. Not only does Palmer bring offensive skill, he brings a physical power game. The 6’0, 200-pound Palmer is an aggressive hitter and is one of the toughest players in the USHL. He never backs down from physical battles and is also a feared fighter.

Palmer’s mix of power and skill has earned him a scholarship from Miami-Ohio, but it will also be his ticket to pro hockey. He has the requisite skating and puck skills to eventually be an AHL-caliber player, but physical game could push him into the NHL as a fourth line winger. If an NHL team drafts Palmer, they’ll be getting a player whose game is already highly developed and who will get four more years to develop with one of the top programs in the CCHA.

24. Nick Schaus, D
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 190 Shot: R
DOB: 7/3/86 Orchard Park, N.Y.
Team: Omaha Lancers

Omaha Lancer defenseman Nick Schaus is no longer flying under the radar after an impressive 2005-06.

In his fourth season with the Lancers, Schaus had his breakout season and scored nine goals and 44 assists in 60 games, second in USHL defenseman scoring behind Del Grosso. Schaus also finished second among USHL defensemen in plus/minus at +23. Combining both offensive and defensive excellence, Schaus not only played for Team West in the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game, he was named the USHL Defenseman of the Year. The playoffs weren’t as kind to Schaus, as Omaha was eliminated in the first round, but he still managed two assists in five games

Schaus spent the whole season playing against the top forwards of the USHL yet still managed to finish with an impressive plus/minus and prime points production. Offensively, Schaus is an excellent puck distributing defenseman with strong point shot, if underutilized. Defensively, Schaus uses his skating and defensive awareness to angle opponents toward the boards and finish them. His agility and speed allows him to stick with opponents, and his acceleration backwards allowed him to handle even the fastest USHL forwards. Although Des Moines had Omaha’s number in 2005-06, few defensemen were as effective as Schaus against Okposo. In one game at mid-season, he sent Okposo into a flip with a well-timed hip check.

At 5’11, 190 pounds, Schaus is not a big defenseman, but he is incredible solid and generally plays around 3.5 percent body fat. Schaus’ conditioning enabled him to skate four seasons for the Omaha and miss only three of 240 regular season games. The durable defenseman will begin playing for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell this fall and should be able to further develop his game for the next four seasons.

However, after four seasons of USHL hockey, Schaus’ game is already well-developed, and he’s following a Lancer tradition. Hobey Baker winner Matt Carle (SJ) was the 2003 USHL Defenseman of the Year and Brett Motherwill won it last season before impressing as a freshman with Boston College this season. If Schaus can follow in their footsteps, he’s certainly worth drafting. Schaus may not be over 6’0, but his skating skills, hockey sense, conditioning, and physical game compensate.

25. Drew Dobson, D
Ht: 6’0 Wt: 185 Shot: R
DOB: 8/16/87 Palatine, Ill.
Team: Waterloo Black Hawks

Drew Dobson has all of the tools, he just needs to bring them all together.

Dobson scored five goals and 17 assists in 2004-05, his rookie USHL season, but he only scored two goals and 15 assists in 52 games in 2005-06. However, his skill was evident at the Viking Cup, where he was second in Team USA scoring with two goals and seven assists. These are the sort of numbers you’d expect to see from Dobson when watching him. The Palatine, Ill., native is a strong skater who can create speed through his skates or speed through the puck with his passing abilities. Dobson’s mere two goals in 2005-06 belies his hard point shot and how well he can man the point on the power play. The 6’0, 185-pound blueliner can also make big hits along the wall or in the open ice.

The fact Dobson played on a Black Hawks team that wasn’t as talented as the top teams played a part in his production dip, but Dobson also failed to take charge and lead his team to the USHL Playoffs. Dobson excelled with smart, talented players at the Viking Cup, but he couldn’t make the Black Hawks around him better. Considering how the NHL is moving to more wide-open game, Dobson’s mix of skating and skill could flourish, but he’ll have to take charge of his career while at Michigan Tech. He’s a long shot, but there’s a lot of potential in Drew Dobson.

26. Mario Lamoureux, C
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 182 Shot: L
DOB: 6/18/88 Grand Forks, N.D.
Team: Tri-City Storm

Had Mario Lamoureux put up more points in 2005-06, he might have been the Curt Hammer Award winner.

Lamoureux only scored 13 goals and 19 assists in 57 games, but he did play the entire season with a shoulder injury. Despite playing injured the entire year, Lamoureux still played an intense forechecking game the entire season, evidenced by the 131 penalty minutes he racked up in 2005-06. Also, despite being injured, Lamoureux earned a spot on Team USA for the Viking Cup, providing his speed, scrappy play, and faceoff abilities.

He didn’t score in the playoffs, but he was still one of Tri-City’s most important players. Lamoureux’s work ethic and team commitment are unquestioned. He leads by example and will fight anybody, even if he’s not 100 percent physically. Not only is Lamoureux conscientious defensively, he’s also talented offensively. His speed, agility and stickhandling allow him to make tight turns with the puck and his offensive awareness and passing skills make him a decent playmaker, too. When healthy, he has a decent shot.

In fact, Lamoureux has the talent to draw attention from major juniors. Mario’s older brother played defense for the Red Deer and the Rebels also own the major junior rights to Mario. The younger Lamoureux could potentially join his brother in major juniors in 2006-07, but he might also maintain his collegiate career path. Either way, Lamoureux could become a scrappy fourth line NHL center someday.

27. Kevin Wehrs, D
Ht: 5’10 Wt: 170 Shot: L
DOB: 4/7/88 Plymouth, Minn.
Team: Cedar Rapids Roughriders

If Kevin Wehrs were bigger, he’d probably be in the top 10 on this list.

Wehrs got a head start on 2005-06 by playing a few games for Cedar Rapids at the end of last season and played for Team USA at the U18 Junior World Cup in Slovakia last August. The experience helped him score five goals and 17 assists for 22 points in 50 games for the Roughriders in 2005-06, tying him with Des Moines’ Shane Sims in defenseman scoring among ’88-born blueliners and placing him second on the Roughriders in defenseman scoring. After missing much of the stretch drive with a separated shoulder, Wehrs finished second in Cedar Rapids defense scoring in the playoffs with three assists in eight games. Although he was not named to the USHL All-Rookie Team, Wehrs was every bit as good as Sims in 2005-06.

The speedy Wehrs is a good playmaking defenseman who has a hard point shot and is a future power play quarterback. His skating and quickness give him excellent backwards acceleration to keep up with opponents and face the play and also to stand up players along the boards. The only problem with Wehrs’ game is his size. At 5’10, 170 pounds, Wehrs is a long shot to play in the NHL. However, given the direction the NHL has taken, and the fact that Wehrs is slated to play for the University of Minnesota, he might garner some interest on draft day. A team might just have the next Kimmo Timonen on their hands.

28. Cameron Cooper, D
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 175 Shot: L
DOB: 5/19/88 Lakeville, Minn.
Team: Tri-City Storm

Cameron Cooper played a limited number of games for Tri-City in 2005-06, but is poised for a breakout year in 2006-07.

Cooper started 2005-06 by playing for Team USA at the U18 Junior World Cup in Slovakia. He then played a few games for Tri-City and then went back to Holy Angels Academy when the Minnesota high school season started. The senior defenseman averaged over a point per game with Holy Angels and returned to Tri-City to end the season. Cooper played forward upon his return because of Tri-City’s veteran depth at defense, but he did not look out of place. He only scored two goals in 15 regular season games and two assists in five playoff games, but he’s still looks to be one of the best defenseman in the USHL in 2006-07.

Cooper is an excellent skater with good speed and who has the puck skills and overall hockey sense to play forward or defense and not look out of place as a 17-year-old in the USHL. As a forward, he plays an up-tempo forechecking game and creates offensive chances. As a defenseman, he’s able to use his skating to stand up opponents at the blue line and do a good job skating or passing the puck. Cooper is still growing, and could top out at 6’0 or higher. An NHL team that scouts the Midwest heavily might just take the slick skating Lakeville, Minn., native who also has a sound overall game without much USHL experience.

29. Corey Toy, D
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 190 Shot: R
DOB: 8/9/88 Round Hill, Va.
Team: Omaha Lancers

One of the players benefiting the most from his time in the USHL is Corey Toy.

A native of Round Hill, Va., he played for the Omaha Lancers as a green 16-year-old in 2004-05, but he was a physical force as a 17-year-old in 2005-06. He started the season by playing for Team USA at the U-17 Five Nations Tournament in Germany in August. Six weeks into the USHL season, Toy participated in the USA Hockey Junior Evaluation Camp for the Viking Cup. He didn’t make the team, but he still gave the Lancers a mobile, physical presence on the blue line.

Toy plays an aggressive, physical game and enjoys making big hits. At 6’1, 190 pounds, Toy has the size, but his lateral mobility gives him the skating ability to stand up opponents. He’s also known for making big open-ice hits. Toy’s offensive game is starting to develop as well. He only had one goal and four assists in 49 games in 2004-05, but four goals and 11 assists in 2005-06. If Toy can continue to develop his offensive game and his defensive awareness through experience, he could develop into legitimate NHL prospect defenseman. He’s not from a traditional hockey area, but Corey Toy is developing quickly and his mix of mobility and physicality could earn him a selection on draft day.

30. Chris Clackson, LW/C
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 195 Shot: L
DOB: 1/27/87 Pittsburgh, Pa.
Team: Chicago Steel

No USHLer mixed points and penalty minutes as well as Chris Clackson in 2005-06. The son of former NHL and WHA fighting defenseman Kim Clackson, and the brother of Philadelphia Flyers 2005 seventh round pick Matt Clackson, Chris is following in the family footsteps in playing an aggressive physical game and backing down to no challenge, as his 176 penalty minutes attest. However, Chris can also score. The younger brother scored 23 goals and 26 assists in 58 games for Chicago Steel in 2005-06, second in team scoring behind New Jersey Devils prospect Nate Perkovich. Clackson also played in the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game and was the USHL Offensive Player of the Week Jan. 2 after scoring two goals and five assists in three games.

Clackson has great hands for dual purposes. He has soft enough hands to put up points when he crashes the net, but he can also one-punch opponents in fights. The 5’11, 195-pound Clackson lays out heavy hits and forechecks with intensity. However, in order to become a future fourth line NHLer, Clackson must improve his skating, especially his quickness and acceleration. Clackson has the hands and the physical edge, he’ll just need to work on his skating the next four seasons at Western Michigan University. His brother was drafted and put up far fewer points, so Chris has a shot.

Honorable Mention

Sioux City center Philip DeSimone took his career into his hands last summer, improved his physical fitness, and scored 15 goals and 38 assists in 60 games to lead the Musketeers in team scoring. DeSimone is an excellent skater, a good playmaker, and a strong shooter. With more strength, the 6’0, 185-pound pivot also ventured into traffic more in his second USHL season. Due to begin playing for the University of New Hampshire in 2007-08, DeSimone is on a distinct upward trend.

Des Moines Buccaneers defenseman Chase Ryan may be an ’86, but was also probably the top defensive defenseman in the USHL in 2005-06. His plus/minus took a bit of a hit after John Vadnais went down with a shoulder injury, but Ryan still finished +19 in the regular season and +4 in the playoffs. Ryan drew assignments against every team’s top forwards, and the 6’2, 205-pound blueliner already plays professional caliber defensive game. The University of Minnesota-Duluth recruit has excellent mobility, good size, plays a physical game along the boards and in front of the net, and also makes the simple play offensively. He could play in the ECHL as a defensive defenseman next season if he wanted.

A number of forwards would be in the Top 30 if only they were above 5’9. Green Bay Gamblers left winger Kevin Deeth was named to the USHL All-Rookie Team after scoring 20 goals and 34 assists in 59 games, but the former Shattuck St. Mary’s is only 5’7, 158 pounds. Deeth has excellent speed, agility, slick stickhandling and even plays a fearless game with a scrappy edge, but his size is a concern even in the new NHL. Indiana Ice center Garrett Roe, an ’88, scored 21 goals and 32 assists in 49 games based on his speed, agility, and fearless style, but he’s only 5’8, 162 pounds. Waterloo Black Hawks right winger James Marcou really came on at the end of the season and managed to score 18 goals and 14 assists in 51 games thanks to his speed and scrappy play, but he’s among the smallest USHLers at 5’7, 150 pounds. All three of these forwards will be solid college players and have the speed, skating, and spirit that NHL teams want, but their small stature could preclude them from consideration.

Diminutive defenseman Jeremy Dehner falls into a similar category. The Green Bay Gambler defenseman has excellent two-way awareness, good speed, strong skating skills, and an offensive upside, demonstrated by his 8 goals and 31 assists in 54 games. He even competes physically without taking too many penalties. The only problem is Dehner is only 5’9, 180 pounds. The University of Massachusetts-Lowell recruit has all of the tools except size.

Lastly, there were other talented draft-eligible goaltenders besides Kangas in 2005-06. Sioux City goaltender John Murray was named to the All-USHL Second Team with a .930 save percentage and a 2.14 save percentage and played in the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game, but he is now property of the Tri-City Storm for a third USHL season, creating concerns as to why he is not instead going to college. Tri-City’s starting goaltender in 2005-06, Aaron Rock, posted seven shutouts for the Storm and is probably the second-most talented USHL draft eligible netminder behind Kangas, but he’s already played major junior hockey and looks to return to the OHL in 2006-07, meaning he certainly will not play NCAA college hockey. Omaha Lancers goaltender Michael Spillane will be going to college, the University of Vermont, and could garner interest due to his .918 save percentage and his solid all-around game in net. All three put up save percentages above .910 in the Clark Cup Playoffs.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.