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A.J. Michaelson

A.J. Michaelson is draft eligible in 2012. (Photo by Britta Lewis.)

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A.J. Michaelson is draft eligible in 2012. (Photo by Britta Lewis.)

If anyone can live up to the phrase “be true to your school,” it’s center A.J. Michaelson. Offered a spot in Team USA’s national team development program while he was a high school sophomore, the Minnesota native turned down the opportunity in order to represent the Apple Valley Eagles to the fullest.

“I turned it down because I wanted to get back to the state tournament and we had a pretty strong team,” he said. “But we ended up losing in the sectionals.”

Instead, it was the Eagan Wildcats who punched their ticket to the big show at the Xcel Energy Center, home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. Apple Valley lost 1-0 to Eagan and Michaelson admits a bout of the flu rendered him fairly ineffective in the showdown.

Now playing in the United States League for the Waterloo Black Hawks, Michaelson is already proving to be sick in a very different way. With five goals and six points in eight pre-season games, the six-foot, 185-pound center is on top of the league leaderboard and big things are expected this season.

“He’s a big body who skates really well,” said Waterloo coach P.K. O’Handley. “He’s not afraid to shoot the puck and as he adjusts to the league, his point totals will climb.”

Michaelson needs to work on his physical game and even snipers can get better at scoring, but his coach isn’t too concerned there.

“He works so hard and God blessed him with ability,” O’Handley said. “He needs to be a finisher consistently, but he’s working his tail off and that’s not going to change any time soon.”

Michaelson got a sneak peek at the USHL last year, getting in six games at the end of the season once Apple Valley got bounced back in Minnesota. The fact he was able to meet some of his future teammates and get a sense for the step up in competition was very comforting for the sniping pivot. And while there is travel on the Minnesota high school circuit, it’s obviously different in the USHL, where teams are spread over a variety of states. Not that Michaelson minds.

“I actually like that,” he said. “The long bus rides give me more time to focus before the game.”

Committed to the University of Minnesota next year, Michaelson knows he’ll need even more focus in the future. The Golden Gophers may be the most harshly scrutinized college team in the nation thanks to a big, rabid fan base and some less than stellar results lately. But it’s hard not to root for the maroon and gold when you grow up in Gopher Country.

“Since the age of five I’ve been a Gopher fan,” Michaelson said. “I just didn’t see myself in any other college sweater.”

Ironically, Michaelson will likely be donning an NHL sweater first – he’s draft eligible this season and while he could have done another tour of duty with Apple Valley, the USHL offered better competition. He’ll even see a former Black Hawk at the draft, as defenseman Nick Ebert is slated to go in the top 10. Ebert played for Waterloo before joining the Ontario League’s Windsor Spitfires last season and is just one example of excellence coming out of the Iowa program, a fact that helps with recruiting.

“We’ll show Joe Pavelski or Craig Smith, who’s having a great camp with Nashville right now,” O’Handley said. “I think every program does that.”

Along with Michaelson, there are several other top prospects playing on the USHL circuit this season, including Dubuque’s Zemgus Girgensons and Jordan Schmaltz of Sioux City. There’s also the NTDP, which is traditionally loaded with draft talent. Michaelson may have turned down the U.S. program, but he’s definitely got the stripes to be a star.

THN.com's Prospect Watch focuses on up-and-comers from the AHL, Europe, major junior, the NCAA and even minor hockey destined to become big names in the NHL.

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