Over the last decade or so, the United States Hockey League has begun to assert its place among the best junior leagues in the world.
With programs such as the Chicago Steel becoming powerhouse NHL pipelines and the U.S. National Team Development Program becoming one of the most unique and successful programs in the world, the USHL is flexing its developmental muscles.
The Chicago Steel and Adam Fantilli
The USHL’s answer to the CHL’s London Knights, the Chicago Steel has become a program that consistently pushes players to be their best. They have been able to produce NHL talent nearly every year recently and that isn’t stopping anytime soon.
Last year, Chicago produced two first-round picks in Matthew Coronato (12th overall to Calgary) and Mackie Samoskevich (24th overall to Florida) and six total draft picks. This season they may not have the top-end talent eligible for this year’s draft but they will have multiple names called yet again. The talent-laden team is yet again at the top of the league standings with an eight-point gap between them and their nearest challenger in the conference. The team has been dominant all season with three of the top five scorers in the league.
The big draw this year is 2023 NHL draft prospect Adam Fantilli. Not only is Fantilli a candidate to go in the top-five in a loaded draft class, but he's among the league leader in points. His 30 points in 21 games sits third behind Stephen Halliday and Jackson Blake, and Fantilli is still younger than most of the league.
Just turning 17 in October, Fantilli has truly taken a step this season and is showing the promise that so many saw out of him when he made the choice to head to the USHL rather than the CHL. He is an athletic freak with a great shot and an elite offensive mind. His two-way game is still developing and he has all of the physical tools to be a very high-end center at the next level.
Tri-City Storm-ing through the USHL
The only team in the league that has any reasonable ability to challenge the Steel for the best team in the league is the Tri-City Storm. They have played four fewer games and only trail by three points, besting the Steel’s .762 points percentage as the Storm are clicking along at a .853 rate. While Chicago is the offensive juggernaut, Tri-City is a defensive stalwart. Allowing just 29 goals this season, the Storm is the stingiest team in the league with Omaha (40), Cedar Rapids (48), and Lincoln (48) as the only other teams league-wide with under 50 goals against.
Led in net by Arsenii Sergeyev leading the way between the pipes. The Calgary Flames seventh-round pick in the 2021 NHL draft has been an absolute brick wall this season. His otherworldly .949 save percentage leads the league, as does his 11 wins in just 12 starts. Coming from the NAHL last season, Sergeyev has been a stud in Tri-City’s crease. Boasting above-average athleticism and an advanced ability to read the opponent to go with good size, Sergeyev has a solid foundation to build on.
When the Storm doesn't have their Russian import in the net, they are only taking a slight step back when Chase Clark steps into the blue paint. Sitting sixth in the USHL with a .916 save percentage, Clark could likely start on most teams. The 6-foot-6 netminder covers a huge portion of the net and moves fairly well in the paint. Having Clark backing up Sergeyev is the ultimate luxury.
Offensively the team is led by the undrafted forwards Cole O’Hara and Jeremy Wilmer. With 24 and 22 points respectively, they both sit in the top-10 in scoring league-wide. Both forwards will be looking to show NHL teams that they deserve some attention come draft day with the knowledge that both will be heading to college after this season, giving them plenty of development time.
Oh No in Omaha
The Omaha Lancers situation has been really wild. A third-party investigation has been underway as the Omaha Lancers seem to have been operating in poor faith. From asking a billet parent to serve as the team equipment manager to asking players to buy their own sticks, the problems in Omaha began to bubble to the surface last month.
The situation in Omaha worsened to the point where drastic measures were being considered that included the players threatening to boycott games and its remaining coaching staff resigning as a whole. The USHL announced that team president Dave DeLuca has been put on administrative leave which was when they also announced that a third-party investigation is underway.
The league has appointed Josh Mervis to oversee operations of the Omaha club while the investigation is underway. The league has described Mervis as a “non-active minority partner of the Lancers and chair of the USHL’s competition committee”. There has been some concern over whether Mervis is an acceptable replacement but with everything else going on, it has flown a bit under the radar.
The entire series of events started at the beginning of November and exploded when head coach Chadd Cassidy was told by DeLuca not to return to team facilities around November 10th. When DeLuca did not secure a replacement for Cassidy which wound up meaning that Omaha would not meet league requirements to have two coaches on the bench, DeLuca asked Cassidy to return and speak again later. Cassidy seemingly reluctantly returned and coached the team to a couple of wins against the Sioux Falls Stampede. Cassidy and DeLuca then had a meeting mid-week and failed to find common ground and Cassidy was out.
Gary Graham was hired as the new head coach. He had ties to Mervis and was previously an ECHL coach. The team met the requirements of having the two coaches on the bench but the situation had escalated to an extreme point by this time.
Budgetary concerns have seemed to be at the heart of all of this. The unfortunate thing about all of this is that the people being affected most by this are the players who are doing everything in their power to play the game. Many are working towards going to the next level, others are developing so that they will be ready for the NCAA. The concerns of this entire situation have reverberated around the hockey world with everyone from NCAA coaches to parents of players all becoming concerned about the unbelievable situation in Omaha.
Hopefully, things can turn around and the league can step in so that the Lancers’ team can get back on track off the ice and the players can continue their careers and development on the ice. As of now, no conclusion to the investigation has been announced but it should be soon. There have already been players traded with more rumored to be asking out. What happens next is up in the air but DeLuca is not expected to return and the team will likely be facing some changes going forward.