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THN at the NHL Draft: USHL important for the college bound

John Carlson was selected in the first round by the Capitals and will move to the OHL from the USHL. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)

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John Carlson was selected in the first round by the Capitals and will move to the OHL from the USHL. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)

Without a transfer agreement between the NHL and the European nations, all the rules of drafting are starting to change and as a result, some of the United States junior leagues are standing to benefit.

“A little nuance that the casual fan might not know about is that under the old CBA, when you got to the late rounds you’d often take a European and watch him develop without having to commit money, because you could put that player on a defective players list and have him forever,” said E.J. Maguire, head of Central Scouting Service.

“But that’s no longer true. If you pick a European you’re under the same time clock as a major junior player. So in the salary cap era it’s an advantage to the team to draft a player who has potential – skill trumps all, but if he’s got a good upside and is heading to an NCAA school and you have that player’s rights without committing a cent to him, you’ve got him for all four years.”

In the 2000 NHL Entry Draft a total of 4.8 percent of the players selected were from the United States League and 2.4 percent were coming from high school, compared to the 42 percent arriving from overseas.

But since then, fewer players in the later rounds were getting pulled from Europe and are instead homegrown. In 2007 the USHL and high school programs combined for 16.6 percent of players drafted, and Europeans accounted for 17 percent.

“(The USHL) is a progressive step depending on your high school. There’s a lack of consistency in high school competition, so you might have some easy games,” Maguire said. “As a scout you watch a guy in a big school population-wise in Minneapolis play against the outer regions and in the first period he’s outstanding, and then whether it’s the coach telling him to take his foot off the pedal, you wonder ‘is this kid lazy?’ Well, no, maybe the coach in the dressing room says ‘boys, we’re up 5-0, we don’t need to rub it in.’ ”

The USHL is the step some players feel they need to take in between high school and college, whether they need to face better competition or develop certain other key aspects of their game that are integral for fulfilling NHL dreams.

Toronto’s second round pick, Jimmy Hayes, decided to play with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL because he, and his advisor, felt his development would be enhanced. Ottawa’s second round pick, Patrick Wiercioch shared that sentiment, saying the USHL wasn’t his first choice, but he felt he needed the experience going forward and moved over from the Jr. A British Columbia League.

Detroit Red Wings amateur scout David Kolb suggested you want to see a high schooler who needs that extra competition to go to the USHL, because it shows “they want a challenge.”

Maguire explained what a player going to the USHL is aiming to improve on.

“Maturity and a little bit of mental toughness. But there’s also the focus on schooling. These kids are in high school with NCAA aspirations. And right down to Commissioner (John) Gasparini they’re all about education. Not only to go, but excel.”

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So as teams in the later rounds start to pick more from this side of the ocean, the USHL is starting to gain importance as a development league.

“USA Hockey has a number of leagues and you see some of the top players from these other leagues coming to the USHL. It’s where the colleges are looking,” Kolb said. “If a guy is ready for the NCAA you want him there, but if he needs to improve his strength, you want him in the USHL.”

The USHL offers a step up in competition and an increase in the number of games, while still letting players keep their NCAA eligibility. A big advantage it has over the Canadian Hockey League in a scout’s eyes is the fact youngsters can compete against older players, much like they will once they reach the college ranks and beyond.

“In the NCAA and USHL you have 18-year-olds playing against 22-year-olds and as much as the Canadian junior leagues brag about their competition, which is significant, there are only two 20-year-olds per team,” Maguire noted. “Guys like Colin Wilson, who is an exception playing in the U.S. development program, will play against men in college.”

This season, the USHL and high school programs accounted for 12.3 percent of players drafted, while European leagues accounted for 17.5 percent. The USHL had 10 players selected, the most of any league outside the CHL.

Not that the CHL is going to be nudged off its perch. After all, John Carlson, Washington’s first round pick who was committed to the University of Massachusetts, switched gears and will graduate from the USHL to the Ontario League, where he’ll suit up for the London Knights.

And that’s a large reason why the Caps took the hulking defender.

"What appealed to us is he's going to play for Dale Hunter," said Caps GM George McPhee. "We talked to Dale about that. Dale will whip him into shape and teach him to play. We liked him and we like his base attributes, but knowing he was going to Dale to refine everything and be taught how to play - that sealed it."

The Hockey News will cover the NHL Entry Draft from all angles with live coverage and up-to-the-minute pick-by-pick updates on both June 20 and 21 in our Draft Central.

Rory Boylen is THN.com's web content specialist. His blog appears Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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