The 2017-18 USHL regular season gets underway Friday night with six games on the docket.
The USHL Fall Classic in Cranberry Township, Pa. provided a glimpse into how teams will look this season, but there was a lot of lineup tinkering as organizations were making final decisions on cuts.
What was apparent was there are three to four teams who look poised to make a deep run to the Clark Cup while other teams will be towards the lower end of the league. There was no shortage of talent on display throughout the five days of USHL preseason action at the UPMC Lemieux Complex.
Clark Cup Contenders
The 2017-18 USHL campaign promises to be hotly contested. Reigning Clark Cup Champion Chicago Steel looks to defend its title while Dubuque, Fargo and Muskegon appear to be the top contenders to take the perch.
Chicago has a new head coach, Mark Abalan, after Dan Muse Left to become an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators. As is always the case in junior hockey, the roster will look significantly different, but there are a lot of pieces in place to defend.
The Steel’s strength lies in their defense with captain Derek Daschke (Western Michigan) and Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick Robbie Stucker (Colorado College) leading the way. Both have good size and can be intimidating forces physically. Graham Lillibridge (Yale) is an undersized defender who can push possession and jump in offensively. Xan Gurney (Western Michigan), John Spetz (Merrimack) and Jeremie Bucheler (Northeastern) add solid depth.
Jordan Seyfert (Merrimack), Las Vegas Golden Knights Jack Dugan (Providence) and Tyler Gratton (Pen State) will be the catalysts for the offense. Uncommitted ‘01 Brett Budgell from Newfundland will be a key young player to watch.
The biggest area for concern is in goal with the loss of Alex Stezka. The crease will look to be filled by Oskar Autio (Penn State) and Justin Robbins (Quinnipiac).
Muskegon will be one of Chicago’s biggest challengers in the Eastern Conference. John LaFontaine’s Lumberjacks have one of the league’s best goalies in Adam Brizgala who returns for a second year in North America.
2018 NHL Draft prospects Emilio Pettersen (Denver) and Jachym Kondelik will lead the way up front. Outside of the pair of Europeans, Anthony DelGaizo (UMass) has really elevated his game.
DelGaizo’s brother, Marc (UMass), will be a key to the blue line. The late ‘99 has an outside chance of hearing his name called at the NHL Draft next June. He’s a fleet-footed, offensive-minded defenseman. Colby Bukes (Minnesota State) had an impressive showing at the USHL Fall Classic.
Another challenger in the Eastern Conference will be the Fighting Saints. Dubuque’s defense will be one of the best in the league. Aidan Fulp (Western Michigan) and Jacob Semik (Michigan) are two of the top NHL Draft prospects among defensemen in the USHL. They’re young and will be joined by NTDP alum Josh Maniscalco (Arizona State) and Montreal Canadiens draft pick Casey Staum. Brendan Bushy (St. Cloud) and Jonatan Asplund will round out the defense on most nights.
Santeri Vertanen and Tampa Bay Lightning pick Cole Guttman (St. Cloud) are the offensive catalysts. Watch for Tyce Thompson (Providence) to have a big year after coming over from Salisbury (Conn.) Prep. Jaxson Castor will be one of the best goaltenders in the league.
As promising as Dubuque’s defense looks, Youngstown could generate a ton of offense and be another top team in the Eastern Conference. 2018 NHL Draft prospect Curtis Hall (Yale), Max Ellis (Notre Dame) and late ‘00 John Malone (Cornell) are the big names up front. Keep an eye on Eriks Zohovs, who was a late add due to a problem matriculating to UMass Lowell this season.
In the Western Conference, Fargo looked like the best team during the USHL Fall Classic. Cary Eades has a vastly different roster from 2016-17, but the Force have done an excellent job of reloading. Fargo’s forecheck and pace just seemed to be a cut above the rest during the USHL Fall Classic.
The defense will be guided by Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Clayton Phillips (Minnesota). John Schuldt (Nebraska-Omaha) had a terrific USHL Fall Classic which led to his commitment to the Mavericks. Ryan Savage (Miami), Ben Meyers (Maine), Evan Dougherty (Bowling Green) and William Fallstrom are the big names up front. Logan Jenuwine (Western Michigan) and Garrett VanWhye, an Army de-commit, had big preseasons. Ryan Bischel will man the crease.
Waterloo will be another contender in the Western Conference. Former North Dakota goaltender Matej Tomek, a former third round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, will man the crease. Garrett Wait (Minnesota), Jack Drury (Harvard), and Matt Koopman (Providence) will be three key forwards. Michael Ferrandino is one of the top uncommitted defensemen.
Sioux City will fight to get back to the Clark Cup Finals a year after winning the Western Conference. The Musketeers will be led by three European forwards. Sampo Ranta is the top NHL Draft prospect, excluding NTDP players, in the USHL. Samuel Salonen and Martin Popisil (St. Lawrence) are also highly touted. Former Wisconsin goaltender Matt Jurusik will bring experience to that position. Sioux City has a good mix of size, speed and grit.
Lincoln could be a dark-horse in the Western Conference. The Stars have two good goaltenders in Tomas Vomacka (UConn) and Derek Schaedig (Harvard). Wisconsin recruits Christian and Cole Krygier will patrol the blue line. Paul Cotter (Western Michigan), Gustaf Westlund (Michigan) and Phillipe Lapointe (Michigan) will be the catalysts up front.
Muskegon and Fargo will emerge from the Eastern and Western Conference, respectively. Muskegon will take home the Clark Cup with its high-powered offense, mobile defense and solid goaltending.
USHL Power Rankings (Top 12)
1. Muskegon Lumberjacks
2. Fargo Force
3. Dubuque Fighting Saints
4. Chicago Steel
5. Sioux City Musketeers
6. Waterloo Black Hawks
7. Youngstown Phantoms
8. Lincoln Stars
9. Central Illinois Flying Aces
10. Green Bay Gamblers
11. Sioux Falls Stampede
12. Tri-City Storm
NHL Draft Prospects
The USHL will once again be one of the most heavily scouted junior leagues in the world. 49 players from the league, including NTDP players, were named to NHL Central Scouting’s Preliminary Players to Watch list.
Stay tuned to SB Nation College Hockey for an in-depth look at the 2018 NHL Draft prospects in the USHL.