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Why They Came Back

Matt Christians

Back in September, I was at a game and talking with a fairly connected hockey person(unaffiliated with any of the players involved). Our discussion eventually turned to high school hockey. "You hear anything about the big guys coming back for the high school season?" I asked. He frowned and said "I've heard they might," in the same tone one might say "We're still waiting on the biospy, but the doctors aren't optimistic."

And so it happened. Fargo's Riley Tufte and Michael Graham and Bloomington's Mitchell Mattson chose to leave the USHL and return to Blaine, Eden Prairie, and Grand Rapids High School respectively for the high school hockey season. It's an interesting decision with a lot of different angles to it. And with the general public following the NHL Draft closer than ever these days, it's worth taking a closer look at those decisions.

As a little background, all three are bigger, pro-style forwards. They were all rated as 'B' prospects, suggesting a second-to-fourth round pick, by NHL Central Scouting for this summer's upcoming NHL Draft making them the only players in Minnesota high school hockey this season to be rated that highly. I listed them as the top three candidates for this year's Minnesota Mr. Hockey Award. And at the time of their return, all three had rather middling statistics in the USHL.

From purely a hockey standpoint, there's no question that staying in the USHL would have been the better decision for them. The level of competition is just so much higher in the USHL compared to high school hockey. Two games every weekend against a roster loaded with equally good players. There are no easy shifts in that league. There are no easy goals. Compare that to high school where those three will run up against another USHL-caliber player just a handful of times during the season and they'll play in many running time blowout games against vastly over-matched competition. It's not a big stretch to call it the difference between playing against men and playing against boys.

I discussed this when talking about the NAHL's NHL Draft prospects this season, but the USHL has done an incredible job of consolidating talent from around the US.* It's really become a crucible of sorts for draft-eligible prospects. It gives NHL teams the opportunity to see how young players react in a tougher, more physical environment. It doesn't remove all of the guesswork out of scouting, but look back at some old drafts in recent years--2006 stands out as the quintessential example--and you'll see a lot of players drafted either in the early rounds that would have went much later, or players selected late that would not have been picked if they had played their draft year in the USHL. NHL teams prefer players that have succeeded in junior hockey because it at least removes one layer of guesswork in figuring out if a player is just a product of the soft environment of high school hockey.

(*Incidentally, I've seen some fans on the USHL side complaining about Minnesota players in general, and these players in particular leaving the USHL after starting the season with a team. The reality is that talented players aren't indentured servants and they have options. If USHL teams don't want to lose players, convince them that playing in the USHL or for that particular team is the best option for them. By and large they've done a tremendous of selling their league to players. But when they fail to do that, there is no one to blame but themselves.)

So every NHL team would have preferred they stay in the USHL. All three of their college coaches probably would have preferred it to, though it's unlikely they'd admit so publicly for political reasons. There's no question which is the better, tougher route, and which one is a more accurate judge of their talent.

All that said......I kind of understand why they did it.

Minnesota high school hockey, at least as it once was, is slowly fading away. The idea of homegrown teams representing a city is becoming obsolete as we continue to push for more elite development. But that idea that made Minnesota high school hockey so unique still exists in certain places in the state, and it is still a special thing.

It is worth noting that all three kids will be attending public schools this year. If they were coming back to play at a private school that was essentially a AAA team, the calculus may be a little different. But these kids will all be wearing the same jersey they've been wearing since they first put on skates. This will be their last opportunity to do so, and they've all got some big stakes on the line.

For Mitchell Mattson, Grand Rapids has a legitimate shot at a trip to the state tournament, and maybe even if a state title. That's a very big deal in a relatively small, isolated town like Grand Rapids, which has their hockey pride, paper milling, and not much else. For Graham, that local pride may not be the same playing at a suburban mega-school, but his Eagles will be state title contenders and the opportunity to put his name next fellow Eden Prairie alums to bring home a state title like Rau and Leddy is a real thing. Tufte's Blaine team won't be in contention for a state title barring a miracle run, but it's not difficult to see him being the difference between the Bengals winning their section and returning to St. Paul again, and them losing out to a rival. It's about something bigger than hockey. There's a certain kind of local immortality at stake. It's hard to blame a kid for wanting to come back for that.

But will it hurt them in terms of their development? And will it kill their NHL Draft stock? In terms of development, there are certainly some areas in each player's game that were exposed in their fall stint in the USHL that they won't be working on and improving during the high school season. And there is always the ability for bad habits to develop--all three will likely be pushed to the maximum in terms of ice time, which leads to kids sometimes pacing themselves. But I can't imagine a few months of playing high school causing irreparable, fatal damage.

As for the draft stock, I don't think their performance in high school hockey will make a big difference either way. They'll be judged based on what they did in the USHL during the first part of the season, and what they can do in the USHL after their high school season is over. There's the argument to be made that if they played a full season in the USHL, they would have helped themselves more because they would have had more time to adjust to the league and some strong play in the middle part of the year could have helped raise their draft stock. There is no guarantee that would have happened though.

It's also worth remembering what I said earlier about playing high school hockey making it harder for NHL teams to judge a player, but that doesn't mean it's impossible for a high school player to go on to have success. For as much emphasis as we put on who goes where in the NHL Draft, it's really what a player does after the draft that decides his pro future. Consider Omaha defenseman Luc Snuggerud. Based on the talent he showed in his draft year, he likely should have been a third, maybe even a second round draft pick. But because there was some leeriness about him due to only playing at the high school level, he ended up slipping into the fifth round of the draft. Teams weren't sure if he really was that good, or just a product of weak competition. With a year and change under his belt in Omaha, it's looking safe to say that Snuggerud really was that good. He'll sign an NHL contract long before many of the players drafted ahead of him, and it won't be for any less money than he would have made as a second or third round draft pick. If a player is good enough, they'll find their way to the NHL via almost any route.

The decision to stay in the USHL or return to high school hockey is not an easy one. It's certain that these three players will be watched very closely. People will draw their own conclusions and pass their own judgments on whether they made the right decision or not. But while it may not have been the best hockey decision, there does seem to be something admirable about making a personal sacrifice in the hopes of something bigger.