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Dominating the USHL leads to a lot of success in the NHL

Though some folks are still catching on, the top American junior league has been producing some excellent NHL talent and you need only to look at the circuit's leaderboard to figure out the future stars.

Brock Boeser had another big night for the Vancouver Canucks – ho hum, what else is new? The talented sniper is now up to a point per game this season, one which would have seen him feature more prominently in the scoring race had he not been beset by a groin injury earlier on. It’s almost remarkable to think there was a time that Vancouver fans – influenced by pundits – worried that the Canucks should have taken someone else in the 2015 draft.

I got this question semi-frequently that summer, since Boeser had been playing in the USHL, a circuit that many fans didn’t have much knowledge of at the time, and perhaps still do not.

But make no mistake: the USHL is a great development league and NHL teams know what they can get from its teams.

The weird thing about the Boeser question is that he dominated in his draft year. As a member of the Waterloo Black Hawks, Boeser was the top scorer on his team (one which also featured future Anaheim Ducks defenseman Brandon Montour) and one of the top scorers in the league.

Another player who fit that description? Winnipeg Jets speedster Kyle Connor, who played for the Youngstown Phantoms. Because of his late birthday, Connor actually dominated the USHL for two seasons before spending one year at the University of Michigan, then jumping to the pro ranks with Winnipeg. Boeser spent two very successful seasons at North Dakota before signing with the Canucks.

It’s not only first-rounders who have hit in the NHL, however. If anything, it’s interesting to look back and see the players who dominated in the USHL but didn’t get draft love before turning into big-time NHLers.

The most obvious example is Johnny Gaudreau, one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league and the primetime attraction on the Calgary Flames. Gaudreau’s impish frame was always seen as a detriment during his draft year, though I do remember talking to scouts who pointed out that 36 goals in the USHL can’t be ignored, no matter how small a player is. Sure enough, after his season in Dubuque, Gaudreau was snagged by the Flames with the ludicrously low price of a fourth-round pick in the 2011 draft.

Another scorer who had a successful USHL draft campaign was Jake Guentzel, already a Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the thin Guentzel was tearing it up in the 2017 playoffs (ranking fourth in the team in scoring with 21 points, behind only Crosby, Malkin and Kessel), there were certainly a lot of “he came out of nowhere” narratives, which is actually inaccurate if you go back and look at his path.

Again, Guentzel was one of the top scorers in the USHL in 2012-13, putting up 73 points in 60 games for the Sioux City Musketeers. Traditionally, the USHL has been a tough league to score in, so you don’t really get gaudy totals among the leaders and maybe that’s why folks tend to sleep on these players, but with that knowledge in hand, it makes sense that Guentzel went on to a solid stint with the University of Nebraska-Omaha before succeeding with the Penguins. Oh, and Pittsburgh got him with a third-round pick.

Come draft day, a lot of the USHL-centered attention goes to the U.S. National Team Development Program, since the NTDP teams play a mixed schedule that includes a lot of USHL games. But it’s well past time to recognize just how efficient the league’s full-time franchises have been doing in producing top-end players.

This past weekend, Sioux City’s Bobby Brink was named MVP of the World Jr. A Challenge in Bonnyville, Alberta. Team USA has now won that tournament five of the past seven years, using teams made up of USHL talent, but not NTDP players. Domestically, Brink has been one of the USHL’s top scorers this season, playing on a dynamite line with Calgary Flames pick Martin Pospisil and fellow 2019 draft prospect Marcus Kallionkieli.

Could Brink be the next Brock Boeser, in terms of NHL impact in a couple years? It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on, since that track record is getting pretty good in the USHL.

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