NHL Draft Picks Highlight USHL Rosters

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NHL Draft Picks Highlight USHL Rosters September 25, 2012 7:52 AM

Path to NHL continues in USHL for draftees

By James D’Amanda, USHL.com

When you hear, USHL Fall Classic, what image first comes to mind? If you said, “hundreds of NHL and NCAA Division I college scouts lining the seats in Sioux City,” you’re on the right track. For the undrafted, uncommitted player, that’s a lot of pressure packed into one arena. But there are also a handful of players – several handfuls, as it turns out – who will enter the 2012-13 USHL season having already proved they are worthy of an NHL draft pick.

A total of 17 players who have already heard their names called during the NHL Draft, including 13 in the 2012 NHL Draft, have chosen to spend this season in the USHL. Last year in the League, there were 13 players with NHL sweaters stashed away in their closets, with the hope of one day wearing those jerseys for the teams that selected them.

This means that not only are around 70% of NCAA-eligible players who were at the USHL Fall Classic already committed to Division I programs – and that number will climb to nearly 100% by the end of their USHL careers – but many NHL draft picks have chosen the USHL as the next stage in their development path.

The Muskegon Lumberjacks lead the way with a trio of NHL picks on the roster this season while three USHL teams feature at least two NHL draft picks on their rosters – the Chicago Steel, the Lincoln Stars, and the Waterloo Black Hawks. Some are returning veterans. Others just got their first taste of USHL competition this preseason.

First-year USHL forward Mackenzie MacEachern, who was selected in the 3rd round, 67th overall by the St. Louis Blues in 2012, looks to polish his game with the Chicago Steel before moving on to Michigan State University. But first, the former Michigan high school standout must learn to compete at the USHL level.

“It’s a very different game than where I’m coming from,” MacEachern was quick to point out at the 2012 Fall Classic. “The speed’s a lot different, the players are more skilled, so it’s a big jump. But I’ll adapt and it’s been a fun experience so far.”

Unlike MacEachern, Fargo Force rookie forward Dominic Toninato didn’t come in totally unexposed to the USHL this preseason, though he faces similar challenges in his first USHL campaign.

“Last year, I came up [to Fargo] at the end of the season so I could get a feel for things and get a head start this year. The USHL is a great league – there are a lot of great players here, and it’s a lot faster here than back in high school. You have to make plays a lot quicker through the defensive gaps.”

Committed to his hometown team at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Toninato enters the 2012-13 USHL season with the memory of the NHL Draft still fresh in his mind.

“My grandpa, my dad, and I took a risk and went to the draft, because you never know what can happen,” says Toninato, who was taken 126th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. “Hearing your name called was an unbelievable feeling, and I’m very excited and honored to be a part of the Maple Leafs’ organization.”

Although Chicago Steel defenseman Jaccob Slavin falls under the “grizzled USHL vet” category, the Carolina Hurricanes draft pick (4th round, 120th overall) also decided that playing this USHL season would help him reach his ultimate goal.

“Going into this year, it was nice to have the last two years under my belt. I feel confident out there being able to be a leader on the ice on and off the ice. I feel stronger, faster, and the game slows down the longer you play in the League.”

Still, Slavin feels there’s plenty of room for improvement this season before moving on to Colorado College, especially on the offensive side of the ice.

“I have to work on my scoring touch and help the team out with scoring,” Slavin tells USHL.com. “But still work on my defensive game and make sure I don’t get scored on out there,” he adds with a smile.

The fear of getting scored on in front of hundreds of NHL and NCAA scouts at the USHL Fall Classic is probably more prevalent in players entering their draft year or who have yet to commit to a D-1 program, but every player is seeking to showcase their best.

“The competition gets better every year,” says Lincoln Stars forward Paul LaDue. “The skill, the speed – it’s a fun league to play in no matter if its preseason, regular season, or playoffs. The Fall Classic is great for players that are uncommitted or undrafted, and it’s also good for players who are drafted because you still have to prove yourself every shift, every game.”

Clearly, the Los Angeles Kings saw something in LaDue after a solid rookie year in the USHL, where the Grand Forks native collected 34 points (9g, 25a) in 56 games for the Stars, and they will continue to keep an eye on him in his second USHL season.

“It was great getting drafted, but now I have to step my game up even more and really prove that I can help the team [the Kings] out one day.”

Another NHL draft pick who’s looking to make an even bigger impact in his second USHL season: LaDue’s teammate and fellow USHL veteran, Mike McKee. The imposing six-foot-four, 230-pound defenseman returns to the USHL after the Detroit Red Wings snagged him with the 140th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. After watching NHL clubs pass on him in 2011 (his first year of draft eligibility) McKee didn’t pay much attention this time around. That only made the moment more special when the Red Wings called his cell phone on draft day.

“I was at the grocery store with my sister when I got the call, and it was a dream come true,” McKee remembers.

McKee also remembers what it was like play his first few USHL games at the Fall Classic.

“Coming in the first year, it’s tough getting used to the speed, the tougher older players. The new guys are doing a great job so far, getting a few games under their belt before the season starts. They’re probably adjusting a lot better than I did when I first got to the USHL.”

While the Western Michigan commit looks to improve consistency in his second season with the Stars, and “play like a pro – every game, every practice,” he also understands how USHL fans can help him develop off the ice.

“Growing up in Canada I’ve seen a lot of OHL games, and I’d say of all junior leagues in North America, the USHL is the best place to play. They pack the building every game, Lincoln fans love you no matter what you do, and going around town they’re always happy to see you.

“In the USHL you are treated like a pro, and that especially helps you with the media. You are under the microscope here – everything you do you are a role model for the kids, and setting a good example for the fans is a major part of being a pro.”

NHL Draft Picks on USHL Rosters

Cedar Rapids RoughRiders

Judd Peterson – Buffalo Sabres (7th round, 204th overall)

Chicago Steel

Mackenzie MacEachern – St. Louis Blues (3rd round, 67th overall)

Jaccob Slavin – Carolina Hurricanes (4th round, 120th overall)

Dubuque Fighting Saints

Matt Benning – Boston Bruins (6th round, 175th overall)

Fargo Force

Dominic Toninato – Toronto Maple Leafs (5th round, 126th overall)

Green Bay Gamblers

Ben Gallacher – Florida Panthers (4th round, 93rd overall) 2010 NHL Draft

Indiana Ice

Robbie Baillargeon – Ottawa Senators (5th round, 136th overall)

Lincoln Stars

Paul LaDue – Los Angeles Kings (6th round, 181st overall)

Mike McKee – Detroit Red Wings (5th round, 140th overall)

Muskegon Lumberjacks

Rasmus Bengtsson – Florida Panthers (2nd round, 59th overall) 2011 NHL Draft

Adam Gilmour – Minnesota Wild (4th round, 98th overall)

Patrick Koudys – Washington Capitals (5th round, 147th overall) 2011 NHL Draft

Omaha Lancers

Jake Bischoff – New York Islanders (7th round, 185th overall)

Sioux City Musketeers

Cliff Watson – San Jose Sharks (6th round, 168th overall)

Tri-City Storm

Johan Mattsson – Chicago Blackhawks (7th, 211th overall) 2011 NHL Draft

Waterloo Black Hawks

Vince Hinostroza – Chicago Blackhawks (6th round, 169th overall)

Zach Stepan – Nashville Predators (4th round, 112th overall)

Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrated its 10th season as the nation’s only Tier I junior hockey league in 2011-12. With 28 picks during the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and over 280 players already committed to NCAA Division I schools this season, the USHL has emerged as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent. For more information, visit us on the web at www.USHL.com or visit the League’s social media platforms, including Facebook (www.facebook.com/ushlhockey), twitter (www.twitter.com/ushl), and YouTube (www.youtube.com/ushlinteractive). Fans can also watch USHL action all season long, live or on-demand via FASTHockey (ushl.fasthockey.com).

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