Last week I discovered I could watch some of the top games on the Minnesota high school circuit online for free.
And when I say “discovered,” I mean I followed a link from blogger Chris Dilks’ twitter feed @ChrisDilks to the site.
But that’s neither here nor there. The fact is, I was excited in the manner only a hockey geek could be about such a windfall of prospect viewing. Why would I care about Minnesota high school players? If you’re unfamiliar, junior hockey in one of America’s biggest hockey hotbeds tends to be dominated by the high school ranks; top Minnesota kids don’t usually go to the Western League or United States League until after they’ve put in time with their local side.
Which is why every year since 2003 at least one Minnesota high-schooler has been taken in the first round of the NHL draft. Last year, both Nick Bjugstad and Brock Nelson pulled the trick and both ended up on Team USA’s world junior entry in Buffalo. Mario Lucia is the front-runner this season, while Nick Leddy, Blake Wheeler, Ryan McDonagh and Matt Niskanen are other recent examples. But where else should prospect hawks be looking for talent? Other than the obvious factories of major junior, NCAA and Europe, here’s a quick guide.
UNITED STATES LEAGUE
For American prospects who want to preserve NCAA eligibility, the USHL has become the destination. Even non-Yankees such as Louis Leblanc and Erik Haula honed their skills in the Midwest league.
Along with players such as Youngstown’s Scott Mayfield and Omaha’s Seth Ambroz, 2011 prospects aplenty can be found in the USHL thanks to Team USA’s national team development program, which plays games in the league as well as international tournaments and a couple matches against NCAA teams. This year’s top NTDPers include power forward Tyler Biggs, goalie John Gibson and 5-foot-6 scoring sensation Rocco Grimaldi. In fact, one trend to watch this year is how high the talented small players are drafted. Between the USHL and Minnesota high school, sub-5-foot-9 dynamos such as Sam Warning, Cason Hohmann, Kyle Rau and Tanner Sorenson are all available.
CANADIAN JR. A
For Canadian kids who want to play NCAA, Jr. A is still a viable option as Kyle Turris, Joe Colborne and Zac Dalpe have all recently proven. The strongest leagues are the British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario circuits. This season isn’t particularly strong for Jr. A in terms of draft buzz, but Brennan Serville, Sam Mellor and Destry Straight are a few names to keep an eye on. The RBC Cup, which teams from across the nation compete for, is a good year-end tourney to check in on for Jr. A prospects.
EAST COAST PREP SCHOOLS
The top prep school in the U.S. is still Minnesota’s Shattuck-St. Mary’s (where Sorenson plays), but this year is flush with talent playing for private schools in Connecticut and New Jersey. Quebec-born power forward Philippe Hudon leads the way, with Harvard-bound Czech import Petr Placek and blueliners Matt Killian and Mike McKee not far behind. Another interesting prospect is goaltender Stephen Michalek, who is facing – and turning away – a lot of rubber on a weak Loomis-Chaffie team this year.
EASTERN JR. LEAGUE
This East Coast-based junior circuit has been producing draft picks all the way back to Chris Clark and Douglas Murray, but seems to have undergone a renaissance in the past couple seasons. Charlie Coyle was a first-rounder in 2010, while U.S. world junior teammate Brian Dumoulin went in the second round a year prior. For 2011, look for big two-way center Charles Orzetti, who was passed over last season, but has been excellent for the New Jersey Hitmen.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays, The Hot List appears Tuesdays and Rookie Report appears every other Wednesday.