A few weeks ago FRB covered some of the top local High School players who should expect to hear their name called, and now we'll set our sights on the USHL. For many of the upper-echelon High School players, the USHL is the next step before the higher levels; many kids will spend their draft year in the Tier 1 League playing against older, bigger, stronger, faster, better competition as a function of challenging themselves and improving their game.
For some it works out, and for some it doesn't; some guys wash out, and some are traded to NAHL teams. The NAHL, which will have three teams in Minnesota this season, is step up from the High School level, but a step below the USHL.
I don't plan on getting too in-depth on some of the players (which will have a provincial bent) because some I want to get into in detail later on, but if you want some more info you can let us know in the comments or get at me On Twitter.
The United States National Team Development Program will typically have a handful of Minnesotans on their U18 (and U17 roster usually) every year. This season is no different. Hudson Fasching is the headliner; the former Apple Valley Eagle, however, has been by and large disappointing (I wrote about this on an upcoming Future Considerations feature) and his stock has been sliding all year. His game, for me, is pretty similar to where Charlie Coyle was in 2010, but I don't see the same level of compete and will to win in Fasching. He should be around in the mid-rounds as I don't see him being a Top 60 pick at this point.
Defensemen Gage Ausmus and Clint Lewis are pretty unremarkable; that's not to say they aren't good players, its just that both look to be depth guys at the higher levels. Ausmus had a strong U18 tournament which helped his cause; he had originally been a Denver commit, but changed that to North Dakota (he is from East Grand Forks) after long time DU coach George Gwozdecky was inexplicably fired. He'll be more of a defense-first guy, but I like his mobility and jam. Lewis is heading to Cornell, and while I don't expect him to get drafted, I could see him get some attention as an NCAA free agent.
Waterloo was an offensive juggernaut this season, which will happen when you got a plethora of smallish skilled o-ffensive-minded forwards like Vince Hinostroza, Zach Stepan, Justin Kloos, and Taylor Cammarata. Cammarata lead the league in scoring after having one of the best seasons for a 16 year old in USHL history last year, but the Minnesota commit has question marks to his game, most notably him being 5'6" 150 pounds. I'm not a fan of his, but while I do like his hockey sense he doesn't skate well enough for his size for me to believe he's a legit NHL prospect, and I'm going to need to be convinced that he can succeed at the NCAA level first. Kloos, although a little bigger, is in the same boat.
Gabe Guertler, another Minnesota commit, had a strong season in Fargo. Another smallish forward (which apparently is Don Lucia's modus operandi now) with skill, what puts Guertler apart from some of the other incoming U freshman is his work ethic and relentlessness. Every viewing of him I've had he's worked his ass off all over the ice, even if he couldn't create some offense. I like him to have more of an impact right away than a Kloos or Cammarata because of that work ethic; he can play a checking role more adroitly than those two, and I could see a team potentially taking a late round flier on the Florida native.
Vinni Lettieri had a strong season for the Lincoln Stars after a slow start; he was held goal-less for the first few games before an invite to play for Team USA against Minnesota ignited an offensive breakout. The grandson of the legendary Lou Nanne, the future Gopher is slated to be in Lincoln for this season. He's sub 6', but he's got plenty of attributes to like; good hands, good sturdy skater with the capacity to get faster, and he's got that coachable quality teams like. The running joke on FRB is that Lettieri will likely be a Minnesota Wild Draft pick, like his cousin, but I can see other teams liking what he can bring to the table. Something of concern is his propensity to disappear in big games though.
Green Bay's Jordan Gross saw big minutes alongside fellow Draft Prospect Gustav Olofsson on the Gamblers blueline this season. The Maple Grove native scored seven goals and 31 points; Gross has one of the best shots I've ever seen; his release is elite and he is a threat in the offensive zone but the rest of his game can be rounded out. He, for all of his skating ability, is only an adequate puck mover, and defensively he can be shy taking the body. He heads to Notre Dame in the Fall to join Wild prospect Mario Lucia.
Blaine native Michael Brodzinski had a big time year patrolling the blueline for the Muskegon Lumberjacks. Among the league leaders in defensive scoring, the 5'11" defender can play a gritty style of defense as well. He's an intriguing package of skill and grit; he reminds me alot of Keith Ballard to be honest. Yet another U commit, I like his overall upside even if it takes a bit longer for him to get there; he's dedicated to being a hockey player, even wanting to participate in the Select Festival last Summer shortly after having a medical procedure done.
Sioux City had a number of Minnesotans play for them this season; Blake Heinrich and Jake Guentzel (both formerly of Hill-Murray), and Avery Peterson, Neal Pionk, and Meirs Moore joined those two after their high school seasons ended. I'll be brief on Guentzel because I want to expound on him later, but there is alot to like about Heinrich's game. He's got a short stride and some heavy boots, but for a defense-first player he moves to puck effectively. A fierce competitor, he won't hesitate to get in someone's face or stand up for a teammate, and as we know from his Pioneer days, he won't hesitate to blast someone in the open ice. Guentzel had a massive second half where he dominated play, despite being roughly 5'10" 155 pounds.
Next Up? We'll talk Wisconsin and North Dakota.