— Omaha Lancers (@OmahaLancers) January 12, 2016
For the first time in, well maybe ever Omaha, Nebraska will be crawling with NHL scouts and general managers as the fourth annual USHL Top Prospects Game will hit the ice Ralston Arena, home of the Lancers. A little bit under the radar, the game will be especially interesting to teams like the Maple Leafs who have a stockpile of mid to late round draft picks this summer. While the high-end talent may not be the same as its CHL counterpart, last year saw two first round picks (Kyle Connor and Brock Boeser) play in the game along with 14 other players that were drafted into the NHL. Judging from the list of players in attendance tonight that number will likely be a little higher this year.
This year’s game will see three players that currently have a B rating on Central Scouting’s prospects list. Forward Max Zimmer and defenceman Andrew Peeke are each projected to hear their names called sometime in the late second round while right-winger William Knierim who was #25 on last week’s ISS list has an outside chance to be a first-round pick.
There are likely to be only around a dozen draft picks who come out of tonight’s game but for NHL scouts it’s a chance to find that diamond in the rough. Last year both Connor and Boeser went into the USHL top prospects game with a B rating only to improve to and an A prospect by the time final rankings were set. This game is a chance for lesser-known draft prospects to take advantage of their spot on center stage and show that they shouldn’t be undervalued simply because they aren’t playing in the CHL.
A couple more unheralded prospects to keep an eye on if you’re watching tonight are Forwards Grant Jozefek of the Lincoln Stars, Matt Filipe of the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and Cameron Morrison of the Youngstown Phantoms as well as defencemen Luke Mcinnis from Youngstown and Derek Daschke of Cedar Rapids. All of these players are currently ranked as C prospects and are likely to be drafted in the later rounds of the draft this summer.
Two notable players that will not be in attendance tonight are Riley Tufte who wasn’t invited despite having a second round grade because he has only played 12 games in the USHL this season as well as Sam Rossini who has been injured but could be a name to watch come June.
The Leafs currently hold eight picks in rounds three or later for this year’s draft and with seven UFAs that number could be higher by the time the trade deadline passes. The odds of striking rich with a late round pick sometimes feels like trying to win the lottery. Winning the Power Ball becomes more likely only when you have a larger number of tickets in hand and while they have more than the usual late round lottery tickets, properly evaluating prospects like the ones in the game tonight drastically change a team’s odds of hitting pay dirt.
The USHL doesn’t get the attention of the Canadian major junior hockey leagues but teams that scout properly can find players that have just as much impact on the future of the team. Just ask the St. Louis Blues who drafted Jaden Schwartz out of the USHL in 2010. Secondary prospects or not, tonight’s game should be fun (they start off with a skills competition before the game). For a fan base suffering through a rebuild like we are here in Toronto, tonight might be a good chance to get a head start on learning about some players who might end up in the blue and white this June.