Ryan Larkin (photo courtesy of the USHL)
The USHL campaign kicks off Friday, and while most of the top draft prospects will come from the US National Team Development Program, the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders are looking like the strongest team in the league.
The United States League begins action on Friday and it will be an interesting year for the junior circuit. While the top NHL draft prospects will mostly come from USA Hockey's National Team Development Program (which plays a modified USHL schedule), there are a lot of NHL draft picks that will play for the other teams in the league as they hone their games for the NCAA. This will be a key development year for many of those raw kids taken in the middle of the draft.
Below you will find projected rankings for the teams, based off surveys I conducted scouts and writers who follow the USHL. You will also find a player or two to follow on each squad, with their NCAA commitment and NHL rights status included. Let's get to it.
1. Cedar Rapids RoughRiders – The veteran goaltending tandem of Ben Blacker (Western Michigan) and Ryan Larkin (Miami) will be formidable.
2. Dubuque Fighting Saints – Power forward William Knieren (Miami) is a 2016 draft prospect, as is coveted left winger Michael O'Leary (Cornell).
3. Sioux City Musketeers – Mobile defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf (Minnesota) is a Tampa Bay pick who will also captain the Musketeers this season.
4. Waterloo Black Hawks – Big center David Cotton (Boston College) is a Carolina pick, while 2016 prospects Sam Rossini and Garrett Wait are both Minnesota commits.
5. Chicago Steel – Boston Bruins pick Daniel Vladar is a huge addition in net, while Max Zimmer (Wisconsin) is a potential 2016 selection.
6. Green Bay Gamblers – Speedy Karch Bachman (Miami) is a Florida pick, while D-men Adam Parsells (San Jose) and Matt Berkovitz (Anaheim) are both Wisconsin commits.
7. Omaha Lancers – Nebraska-Omaha commit Kris Oldham (Tampa Bay) returns in net, while Austin Lemieux, Mario's son, may attract some attention…
8. Bloomington Thunder – Center Mitchell Mattson (2016) has a lot of upside thanks to his frame and skating. He's a North Dakota commit.
9. Youngstown Phantoms – The Phantoms lost some huge talent, meaning Detroit pick Chase Pearson (Maine) and Florida goalie prospect Ryan Bednard (Bowling Green) must step into the void.
10. Tri-City Storm – Smooth-skating 6-foot-2 defenseman John Marino (Harvard) is an Edmonton Oilers draft pick.
11. Fargo Force – Ex-Minnesota High School star Riley Tufte has lots of potential at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds. He's a Minnesota-Duluth commit.
12. Sioux Falls Stampede – Big Bruins pick Jack Becker (Wisconsin) joins the forward ranks while Czech goalie Ales Stezka is a Minnesota Wild selection with a great resume.
13. Muskegon Lumberjacks – Big Dallas Stars pick Matej Paulovic is back up front, while Ottawa selection Joey Daccord (Arizona State) sets up shop in net.
14. Lincoln Stars – Feisty forward Dominick Mersch will eventually follow in brother Michael's footsteps to Wisconsin. Dominick's a 2017 draft prospect.
15. Madison Capitols – Goalie Garrett Metcalf (UMass-Lowell) is an Anaheim pick, but the most famous name is 2016 prospect Eetu Selanne – Teemu's kid.
16. Des Moines Buccaneers – Mammoth Russian center Nikita Pavlychev (Penn State) is back, but now he's a drafted Pittsburgh Penguins prospect.
* Team USA – Since USA Hockey's NTDP plays an altered schedule, it's not fair to rank them in the standings. But the leading lights for the under-18 squad include highlight-reel scorer Kieffer Bellows, slick offensive defenseman Chad Krys and wizard center Clayton Keller. All are up for the 2016 draft and amazingly, all are Boston University commits.