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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Central Scouting Preliminary Rankings: The USHL Pt. 2

Good Sunday morning!

B2011DW is back with the second part of the USHL and final part in our Central Scouting preliminary breakdown. I previously brought you the top-five and I'll review the guys from 6-25 plus a few of the goalies. I won't hit all of the players, as several scouts have told me that a good number of these guys don't belong and aren't legitimate pro prospects. Once again, I want to thank my sources for providing so many good insights on players who aren't as easy to see. Red Line Report's Max Giese is one of the best young talent hounds out there with a tremendous work ethic and keen eye for hockey, while my NHL scouts are proven over time. I just wish sometimes that I could name them in these reports because they deserve credit for their many hits over the years. Giese, a former goaltender from Janesville, Wisconsin, is like a lot of goalies out there-- he spent a lot of time watching the game and gaining insights that many skaters don't get because of the fast-paced nature of hockey. And, like all NHL scouts out there, he's logging countless miles on his car traveling to far-flung midwestern hockey outlets.

So, getting going, we'll kick off with a player I'm pretty familiar with in former Choate Rosemary Hall standout Mike Paliotta, who is the one player from New England (Westport, Conn.) who has a legitimate shot at being a first-round draft pick in June. The Wild Boars' loss was the U.S. NTDP's gain when Paliotta went out to Ann Arbor a year ago, and the University of Vermont recruit may not be flashy or spectacular, but he has the size and mobility to get the job done in the NHL. He has solid No. 2/3 upside and is working as the U.S. Under-18 team's triggerman on the power play.

"He's shown a lot of improvement (since September)," Giese said. "He's really committed to his role. He's a big kid (6-3, 196) who moves pretty well on his feet. I'd say he's above average for his size (as a skater) and has taken his physical game up a notch. He's trying to play that same kind of role for the Under-18 team that Jarred Tinordi did last year."

Giese was quick to point out that Paliotta doesn't have Tinordi's intimidating physical presence, but he may have more skill when it comes to skating and moving the puck than the Montreal first-rounder.

"He makes a good first pass," said Giese. "He gets into a little bit of trouble when he gets the puck and stops moving his feet; those passing windows tend to close up. So, Paliotta is going to need to keep moving his feet. Overall, though, these are things he'll improve with good coaching and experience. I'd say that he's rising up (the various) lists."

Paliotta's teammate, Adam Reid, is seventh on the Central list for the USHL and makes his debut on Bruins2011DraftWatch on this post. Here is what was published in Red Line Report's November issue recap of the U.S. NTDP draft eligible players:

Rangy and industrious two-way winger. Stronger on his feet with improved balance and top-end speed, but still has some awkward moments and needs to get quicker out of the gate... Tall and needs to fill out. Not a malicious hitter, though he uses his size well doing the dirty jobs along the boards.

Not a complete report, as the information RLR publishes is proprietary, but you get the picture. Reid has some interesting, if raw potential.

At eight, Central has Michigander Sean Kuraly, who skates for the Indianapolis Ice on the list. Here's where some of the divergence of opinions comes in. Although Kuraly skated for the silver medal U.S. squad at the Ivan Hlinka a few months ago, he's not exactly a favorite among scouts B2011DW has spoken to.

"I don't see much upside with Kuraly," said an NHL scout familiar with him from international competition. 'He skates well enough, but I don't think he's got the hands and puck skills to get the job done at the NHL level."

Giese concurred.

"He's nothing more than a checker in my view and one who's high maintenance," he said. "Not sure how he ends up higher than some of the other players on the list."

Fargo Force winger Colten St. Clair is another low-upside, two-way forward who has been uneven in his performance thus far.

"He can skate and has good defensive awareness," said the NHL scout. "But he kills his teams with undisciplined penalties and has got to figure out how to maintain the compete levels over a full game. I just don't see that from him-- the consistency and intensity given the style of hockey he plays."

St. Clair has a gritty element to his game, but at the same time, it's not to the degree that would see him drafted a lot higher than his skill level would warrant.

"(St. Clair) is good, but he's not Connor Brickley tough," Giese said. Brickley, a former Belmont Hill standout before going to the USHL last year, was a second-round pick by the Florida Panthers.

Rounding out the top-10 is U.S. NTDP defenseman Robbie Russo, who has been the PP quarterback for the Under-18 team this year and is respected for his solid all-around play and character. He's heading to Notre Dame and should be an excellent addition for the Fighting Irish.

"He's playing well and I'd expect him to be an early second-rounder," said Giese of Russo. "He reminds me a lot of Matt Carle-- he's not the biggest (5-11, 190), most explosive defenseman out there, but he's very intelligent and calculated with his puck movement."

Yes, Russo is an adept puck-mover, which should pick up the antennae of Bruins fans who know their team desperately needs players on the back-end who can jumpstart the attack with clean breakout leads. Unfortunately, Russo's lack of size works against him as a Boston option, given the multiple sub-six footers they have in their system right now.

"I like him OK," Giese said. "But he doesn't really light a fire under me. I would imagine that NHL teams like him, but if I were with a team, he wouldn't be my guy. Not taking anything away from him as a player, but he just doesn't have the kind of dynamic game that I would want to spend a second-round pick on."

For the most part, this covers the high-enders coming out of the USHL, although B2011DW fave Joakim Ryan gets a mention here. The son of a Swedish tennis pro mother and sports agent dad who is a dual U.S.-Swedish citizen, Ryan grew up in N.J. and is now scouting for Dubuque.

"He's an interesting kid," said an NHL scout. "He's coming out of New Jersey high school hockey and midget AAA, so he's pretty raw right now. He's lean and lacking in functional strength, but he's a fine skater and sees the ice well. I'm still surprised that he didn't get a better look for Team USA."

The scout is referring to the fact that Ryan was cut from Team USA Ivan Hlinka tryout evaluations and was subsequently added to Team Sweden. He could still technically play for USA because Hlinka isn't a sanctioned IIHF event, but it appears that Ryan found himself a home with the Tri-Kronor and will stick with his mother's country even though he's a Jersey boy. Don't expect a high draft flyer on Ryan, but he's got some interesting potential and is one to keep an eye on.

25th-ranked Cason Hohmann is bound for Boston University next season and was one of the USA's most noticeable forwards at the Hlinka, but he's so small that in the eyes of some, is not a legitimate NHL prospect.

"His playmaking skill is legit, but he's so small and won't go into traffic," Giese said. "I think he'll be a great college player and may even have a nice AHL career, but he's been too soft and is too small for me to be comfortable with his long-term NHL potential."

Limited viewing players who have missed time because of injuries are a pair of U.S. NTDP guys in forward Zac Larraza and defenseman Connor Murphy. Larraza has nice size and skills, but hasn't been able to put it together yet and remains a potential high upside wildcard who has not delivered. Murphy is the son of former Bruins defenseman and current Florida Panthers assistant Gord Murphy (he played for the Panthers as well). Murphy has very good size and two-way potential; he was one of the best defenders at the Hlinka in August, but he can't stay healthy. Last year, he ruptured his spleen and missed most of the season. This year, it's been a wonky back, so teams will be risking a high pick on a fragile player who simply hasn't had a lot of viewings. Watch for him to slip unless he can come back and reassure scouts with strong play.

As far as goalies go, U.S. NTDP star John Gibson is at the top and is undisputed in that regard according to multiple scouts.

At 6-3, 200 pounds, the Pennsylvanian is highly athletic and takes up a lot of the net. He has outstanding technique and is mentally tough, about as good a combination as you can have when it comes to projecting goalies.

"He makes it look so easy," said Giese. "But he's got to do it on the big stage. Yes, he won gold at the Under-17 (tournament), but with Jack Campbell ahead of him, he hasn't been able to do it in the bigger international tourneys. I think that he's proven himself in the USHL, but until scouts see him do it at a higher level, his ranking is going to be down a bit."

Campbell's stranglehold on the playing time for the big international competitions is both a blessing and curse for the other fine young American goalies in the chute, but Gibson should get his chance this season, even if it isn't going to be at the WJC in Buffalo. If he performs to expectations, then watch for him to entrench himself in the top-30. Gibson has a verbal commitment to Ohio State, but watch for him to possibly jump to the OHL like Campbell did depending on the kind of advice he gets.

Virginia native Jay Williams of the Waterloo Black Hawks is No. 2, and the former prep star got a chance to play a bit at the Hlinka before getting supplanted by Loomis-Chaffee's Steve Michalek. Williams isn't huge, but is very quick, positionally-sound player who is a throwback to the days of Mike Vernon and Andy Moog being among the top netminders in the NHL.

"He's an interesting guy, but very, very raw," said an NHL scout who attended the Ivan Hlinka in Slovakia. "He had a chance to take the ball and run with it (in August) and lost the job to Michalek, so I think that set him back a bit."

He's not been great in the early going of the USHL: in six games, he has just a 3.87 GAA, .858 save percentage and 2-3 record for the Black Hawks.

Gibson's backup, Matt McNeely rounds out the goalie top-three and should be ranked ahead of Williams. Like Gibson, McNeely is big (6-3) and fills the net, but his technique is not as strong. The Minnesota-Duluth recruit has a lot of raw potential, but rebound control is weak and he's not going to get the kind of playing time this season to make a big move up the rankings.

Well, that's a wrap on this series. I hope this has served its purpose to bring you up to speed on some of the players you should be tracking as we start to head into the winter stretch. B2011DW will return with the same kind of analysis and updates when Central releases their mid-term and final rankings.

As always, comments are welcome and if there is anyone you'd like to learn more about, shoot me a note and I'll see what I can do.

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