We are continuing our rundown of junior leagues across North America with a preview of the USHL. For this preview, Illegal Curve interviewed Ryan Wacheldorf of the Unofficial USHL Hockey Blog.
Here is the interview:
Illegal Curve: The Omaha Lancers were the class of the USHL last season, winning both the Anderson and Clark Cups. How do you think they will do this year under new head coach Bliss Littler?
Ryan: I think everyone will be in for a different season in Omaha. Littler likes to play a defensive game and I’m not sure how it will go with the fans and players. Omaha appears to have some question marks in net, but they boast a couple of the top players in the entire league in Danny Kristo and Louis LeBlanc. They have a lot of offensive firepower, so they should have no problem scoring, but the goalies need to keep the puck out of the net. They should still be near the top of the league, even with the change of playing styles.
Illegal Curve: Lincoln lost its top goaltender in David Reekie and some veteran forwards in Travis Erstad, Jason Gregoire and Jared Festler. Do you think they will be able to compete this year?
Ryan: Lincoln might be the oldest team in the league right now. Coach McGroarty went out and added a lot of kids with juniors experience, and a lot of them have prior USHL experience. They also face some questions in net, but have Alan Armour, who was a top goalie in a Canadian junior league last season. I’m not sure how well the players on this team can score, but if they can, watch out.
Illegal Curve: What are your thoughts on the new team in Fargo , the Force?
Ryan: Fargo has failed more than once in the past, so I hope they can thrive this time around. They are getting a shiny new arena, so that should definitely help. Adding a coach of Dean Blais’ caliber is never a bad thing for the USHL either. Fargo is going to be very young, but they might be a team to watch as the season progresses. Blais plucked a couple of highly touted players out of Minnesota High School in goalie Mike Lee and forward Josh Birkholz. This team has a lot of good players, but they are young and inexperienced right now. I like Fargo joining the league. They have a top notch coach and will be an asset to the league, I have a feeling. North Dakota has a strong following with the Sioux hockey team, so hopefully some of them will want to catch some of their future players in Fargo and make the trip.
Illegal Curve: In addition to Fargo , there are 3 new coaches and 2 former assistants now working as head coaches, how do you think they will fare?
Ryan: It was definitely an interesting off-season. You had the two most winningest coaches retire and move up, respectively. I’ll take a brief look at each new coach:
Des Moines – J.P. Parise: I think this is a great hiring. He knows his hockey, as one of his sons (Zach) is a pretty good NHL player. I think Parise was the head guy for Shattuck, so he has experience with lots of top notch players. In addition, the Buccaneers also added arguably the best assistant coach in the USHL in Scott McConnell.
Fargo – Dean Blais: As I stated before, Blais is a top notch coach and is a great addition to this great league. Fargo should get lots of quality players who want to play for a great coach. Fargo should be a fun team to watch this season and (hopefully) many more to come. Blais has had success from the HS level up to the NCAA level, so you know he knows what it takes to get his team ready and competitive.
Green Bay – Jon Cooper: Possibly one of the best coaches in the US junior circuit right now, but will face the huge task of reviving Green Bay to their glory days. Cooper spent time with the NAHL’s St. Louis Bandits, where he won back-to-back championships. He seems to have a great eye for talent and is good at getting the best out of his players. Green Bay should be a team to watch this season.
Indiana – Jeff Blashill: Jeff is still pretty unknown to me, so I won’t say much. He came down from the college ranks as an assistant and will now guide a very successful Indiana organization. Blashill should help kids understand how to obtain a college scholarship since he has probably dealt with that stuff before. He is also in for a challenging season, as Indiana only returns a handful of veterans.
Omaha – Bliss Littler: Bliss has had much success in the past, but many are quite skeptical of how he will do in Omaha. I have my doubts as well, but Omaha has a lot of talent up front that will be able to keep them in games. Bliss likes to run a defensive system, so he will need his goalies to stay focused and make key saves.
Sioux City – Todd Knott: At first, I was quite skeptical of this choice. After getting to know his style and the players he has brought in, I really feel Knott is going to surprise a lot of people this year.
Tri-City – Tom Rudrud: Rudrud has been Littler’s right hand man for many years, and it is now his turn to take a shot at the head coaching gig in the USHL. Rudrud took over briefly for Bliss in Topeka, so he has a little bit of experience behind the bench for a USHL club. I feel Rudrud is the true wildcard of the new coaches. He will likely have a similar style to Littler, but if he opens it up a little bit, this team could be really fun.
Illegal Curve: The USHL prides itself on sending players to college, who would you identify as early favorites to earn scholarships this year?
Ryan: Good question. Lots of kids seem to be coming to the league already with scholarships anymore, but there are always those diamonds in the rough. Some players that are uncommitted veterans that stick out to me are: Mike Seidel (Cedar Rapids), Chris Knowlton (Des Moines), Chris Forfar (Lincoln), Ben Arnt (Omaha), Mitch Bruijsten (Sioux City), and Eric Hartzell (Sioux Falls). A kid like Seidel really sticks out to me. He will be a 3rd year guy and has had lots of success. I am really surprised he has made it 3 years without committing. Hartzell is the lone goalie on the list, but the rest seem to be gearing up to show everyone what they have. Hartzell is one of the top goalies in the league, so it shouldn’t be long before Eric commits to a college. As for USHL rookies, these players stand out to me: Cody Murphy (Cedar Rapids), Reed Seckel (Green Bay), Dan Cecka (Indiana), Shane Berschbach (Indiana), Brandon Richardson (Indiana), Brett Chartier (Lincoln), Joey Caveney (Sioux City), and Dan Sova (Waterloo). Caveney and Richardson are 88’s, so they have a lot more at stake this season. Richardson had some great years in Pembroke, but hadn’t committed to a school. He had been drafted by USHL teams twice before this season. Chartier is a type that could be like Jason Gregoire. Lincoln seems to find these Canadians from Manitoba that explode on the scene. These lists are not of all the players who could/should get a scholarship soon, because there are many more who are deserving as well.
Illegal Curve: Keeping that mindset, can you think of a few players who might go in next year?s NHL Entry Draft?
Ryan: Louis LeBlanc is expected to be a 1st round selection, so that should help the USHL. Sioux City’s Seth Helgeson has also been talked about being taken in the 1st round, so it could be another solid season for the USHL. Nathan Fournier of the World of Junior Hockey Blog ranked Fargo’s Mike Lee in his top 30, so there is a chance he could hear his name called in Day 1 as well.
Illegal Curve: What about players that may be selected for the US entry at the World Junior?s.
Ryan: I don’t think there are usually many from the USHL that make the US World Junior team, but I really think Omaha’s Danny Kristo has a good shot at making it. Mike Lee is a guy who could sneak in there as well, but I wouldn’t expect many from the USHL to make it at all.
Illegal Curve: Finally, who are your picks for East and West Champion? Anderson Cup? Clark Cup?
Ryan: Wow, I generally try to stay away from predictions so I don’t jinx my team, but I’ll break that tradition this time. I think the West is going to be really strong this year, so it is literally anyone’s division to win. Right now, I’d have to say Lincoln is the early candidate to take the West. Lincoln has one of the older teams in the league, and most of their players have USHL experience, which will definitely help. I also think the East will be congested right up until the end with a lot of quality teams in that division this year. As of now, I think I have to give Waterloo the nod over the rest, mostly because of their veteran goaltender and their coach. As for the Anderson Cup, that is going to be an extremely tight race as well. With the experience Lincoln brings to the table, I am going to give them the slight advantage right now. I’ll give Waterloo the edge for the Clark Cup, not only because they should have a good team, but because it is extremely rare for a team to win both Anderson and Clark Cups.