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Breaking Down The USHL

By Craig Peterson, 05/23/19, 8:00AM EDT


Taking A Closer Look At The Top Junior League In The Country

The United States Hockey League (USHL) is the top junior league in the country and the primary launching point for players embarking on Division-I college careers. It is a complex league that has seen tremendous strides in player development over the last 10 or so years and tons of youth hockey players strive to one day compete in the USHL. However, getting there is an enormous mountain to climb, one that very few end up achieving.

I wanted to take a closer look at the USHL for a couple of reasons. First, in hopes of better understanding the league as a whole, the makeup of its players, where they come from and where they’re heading. Second, a byproduct of the first, educating those who may not know much more than the face value of the league. Finally, pairing the two together should help us all comprehend just what it takes to get there.

I examined each of the 17 teams’ rosters — including the U.S. National Development Team (USNTDP)  — on Elite Prospects and found that 628 players suited up at some point during the ‘18-19 season. I’ve learned that numbers can be called into question, so for sake of transparency, I’ve provided the Google Doc HERE so that you too can explore the numbers for yourself. To properly examine your typical USHL player, though, we’ve got to eliminate some outliers first.

Right off the top, I think it’s important to set a “minimum games played” restriction to consider a player as a member of the USHL. For sake of the article, I’m setting that requirement at five games played for the ‘18-19 season. There’s nearly 100 skaters who played less than five games this season and I want to separate them from the overall pool because a prospect who played one game during a weekend stand as a call-up should not carry the same weight as a full-time player who appeared in all 62 regular-season games. I’m setting the cap at five games  — but think this number is also open for interpretation — because I feel like that should be considered significant time in the league, as that would be roughly three weeks with a team and a compelling contribution.

Also, I think separating the USNTDP players from the overall pool is important as well. While they do compete in the USHL, these players are much more of an exception to the rule and not necessarily a ‘typical’ player in the league.

Of the 45 players to dress for the NTDP, 40 had Division-I commitments. While that is remarkable, it is a significantly higher percentage than the rest of the league in which 3-out-of-4 players have similar commitments. Couple that with the fact that every NTDPer is either an ‘01 or ‘02-birth year while the vast majority of the USHL  —  74 percent, to be exact — are ‘98, ‘99 or ‘00-birth years. When you consider those two main factors, hopefully you can see how those numbers would skew what we’re about to examine. I will, however, include a section just on the NTDP as far as player makeup.

So we’ve got our USHL sample size; 475 players, to be exact. But who are they? Let’s start with birth year...

1998 73
1999 134
2000 142
2001 88
2002 38 more than half the league (58.1 percent) consists of 18- and 19-year-olds. Worth noting, especially given the fact that the league selects many of these players at 16-years-old in the Phase-I Draft. However, the gap between draft age and playing age is more than likely explained by a large population of Minnesota high school players who finish their prep careers before pursuing life in the U-Show, but we’ll get into the State of Hockey a little bit later.

For 334 of them, the ‘18-19 campaign was their first season in the USHL. No that’s not a typo, that’s a 70 percent turnover in players from one year to another.

Another noteworthy bit is that for 334 of them, the ‘18-19 campaign was their first season in the USHL. No that’s not a typo, that’s a 70 percent turnover in players from one year to another. That does seem significant to me. Why the high ratio? Probably due to the fact that 246 of the league’s 353 college commitments are spoken for the ‘19-20 freshman class. So a large majority comes into the league for their first year and displace a large chunk that heads to the NCAA the following year.

Their destination is no surprise, but at the rate in which they’re heading to the NCAA is quite amazing to me anyways, but maybe I’m naive. Seems like quite the undertaking as a coach to refill 3-out-of-4 roster spots on your team every year. Whoa.

They’re generally 18- or 19-years-old and it’s their first year in the league (for the most part)… so where are they all coming from? Very interesting question, and the number one answer should come as no surprise with the state of Minnesota leading the way. But it does get pretty interesting after that…

Minnesota 76
Michigan 61
Illinois 30
Wisconsin 28
Ontario 23
New York 23
Massachusetts 20
New Jersey 18
Pennsylvania 17
Russia 13
Sweden 13

...Michigan being the second-most represented state in the USHL shouldn’t surprise me, but it is comforting to see the Mitten State so high on the list. Hockey folks around the country salivate over what Minnesota high school hockey is, and for good reason. It is an absolute spectacle and tremendous model that has produced 1,000s of college players, 100s of professional players and the hockey hotbed of the country for scouts looking to fill rosters. I’ve always contended that if not for AAA hockey in this state, Michigan’s high school product could rival Minny’s and be just as fruitful. These numbers I think validate those claims but with an oversaturated AAA presence, it’d be a challenge to put the genie back in the bottle in order to ever accomplish what Minnesota has done.

Interesting to point out that the top four states are in the center of the league’s map. Minnesota’s borders may not contain a USHL team but the neighboring states house nine teams and Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin each have two programs in their respective states.

It’s not just about geography when examining where a player comes from. It’s also worth noting what league propelled them into the USHL in the first place.

North American Hockey League (NAHL) 97
USHS-Minnesota 54
USHS-Prep 51
High-Performance Hockey League U16 (HPHL) 37
Tier-1 Elite Hockey League U16 (T1EHL) 37
T1EHL Elite Hockey League U18 (T1EHL) 25
Midget 17
Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL) 15
Sweden 13
USHS-Wisconsin 11

These top ten leagues pushed players from the above locations directly into the USHL. Other leagues worth noting are the BCHL (nine), NCDC (seven) HPHL U18 (six), NAPHL 16U (five), NAPHL 18U (five), AJHL (three) and CCHL (three).

Michigan high school hockey had three former players in the USHL this year, which is low, as I’ve seen this number be around seven or eight in recent years. Only one (Jake Crespi, Brighton) made the jump from USHS-MI to the league while the two others — Jack Clement from Brother Rice and Alec Calvaruso from Detroit Catholic Central — made stops in the NAHL before debuting in the USHL.

I think that paints a really good overall view of the league as a whole but wanted to also break it down so that we can zero in on Michigan-born players specifically. Let’s focus on what really pertains to us here at home.

There are eight AAA organizations in addition to the 140 MI-HS teams around the state combining to promote 61 players to the USHL this season. In the spirit of full transparency, I wanted to know where these Michiganders played their final years of youth hockey before embarking on junior careers.

Honeybaked U16 9
Compuware U16 8
Oakland Jr. Grizzlies U18 6
Fox Motors U16 5
Honeybaked U18 5
Little Caesars U16 4
Oakland Jr. Grizzlies U16 3
Victory Honda U16 3
Little Caesars U18 2
Belle Tire U16 1
Compuware U18 1
Fox Motors U18 1
Meijer AAA Hockey U18 1
Meijer AAA Hockey U16 0
Belle Tire U18 0
Victory Honda U18 0


There were also six players who pursued opportunities outside the state at prep schools or other AAA entities after Michigan amateur hockey but before their junior careers.

So we’re looking at 52 MI-AAA players in the USHL during the ‘18-19 season, which, if we divide by their birth years, comes out to six ‘98s, seventeen ‘99s, seventeen ‘00s, ten ‘01s and two ‘02s. That seems to be right in line with a previous article suggesting that the eight AAA programs combine to produce about 16 USHL players each year.

Detractors will point out that AAA entities are broken up by organization as well as age group while MI-HS schools all getting lumped in together as one is “misleading.” Well, let’s chalk it up as a difference of opinion.

The way I see it, one AAA team competes against an opposing AAA team, recruiting and lobbying a certain player to skate for one organization over another. Whereas in high school, players are bound by geography, not sales pitches, and with the Michigan Developmental Hockey League (MDHL), TPH’s Top 80, Team Michigan, the Michigan High School Hockey Coaches’ Association (MHSHCA), among others, working to promote all of its players regardless of team affiliation, the high school model varies greatly from that of the AAA world.

Point being that, if I play for Honeybaked, I’m depending on that particular organization to develop, promote and advance my playing career. On the flip side, if I play for Big Rapids High School, I compete for my program in-season but I am not bound solely to that school alone for my development, promotion or advancement opportunities. I can represent all of high school hockey as part of Team Michigan and the MDHL, for instance, which develops, promotes and advances MI-HS players from across the state.

If you want to couple the U16 and U18 teams together under one program as opposed to splitting them as I have done above, I think that’s an option. However, I split them up because I think there’s value in knowing the drop-off from U16 to U18 teams.

It’d be hard to argue against playing U16 AAA. In most instances, I think the majority of hockey people would lean toward that route as opposed to being an underclassman on a high school team. The exposure and opportunities are there and a player should seize those options while they’re available to them. It’s obvious that it is a viable route to the next level given the numbers above. However, when your junior league draft year passes (the OHL’s entry draft also takes place at 16-years-old, similar to the USHL), and you’re not one of the lucky ones selected, it can be a tough pill to swallow. Eight AAA teams in the state and only 16 of those players move on to the USHL each year, what other options are out there for the 140ish teens that go undrafted? It could be highly beneficial for you to explore other avenues in order to avoid spinning your tires.

For that, I think it’s totally fair to compare MI-HS player advancement to that of U18 AAA teams in the state, as the vast majority of participants in both instances are in that 16, 17 and 18-year-old window. In that case, the three players that MI-HS has promoted to the highest junior league in the country this year is right on par with the Honeybaked (five) and Little Caesars (two) of the world. Some prospects even have the option to play out their high school careers and still play another year of U18 after graduation. Nick Blankenburg, for example, played three years for Romeo, scoring 86 goals and 161 points in 88 games, winning the Division-II state title as a senior and playing another season for Victory Honda after graduating. From there, Blankenburg spent one season in the AJHL before committing to the University of Michigan. If that’s not having your cake and eating it too, I’m not sure what is.

Now for the NTDP, I didn’t want to pour a ton of time into this because it’s just not a viable option for MI-HS players. The only kid that I've been made aware of to go directly from MI-HS to the Development Program is Cadillac's Dawson Cook in 2011, so it’s just not very practical in the circles we operate in and I don’t want to get too lost in numbers that don’t necessarily pertain to us.

However, of the 45 to appear in more than five games for Team USA, just three hailed from Michigan, with two stemming from Little Caesars and one from Honeybaked. That tied with three other states for fifth-most represented, behind New York (nine), Massachusetts (six), Illinois (five) and Minnesota (four). Prep schools were the primary feeder into Development Program, with HPHL U16 and T1EHL U16 following close behind.

Hopefully, there’s value in this and better understanding where these players come from, where they’re heading and understanding the process of getting to the USHL.

I would love to do similar breakdowns of other junior leagues like the NAHL, BCHL, AJHL, NCDC, OJHL and others. I think these leagues are much more attainable and applicable to the MI-HS player pool and such information would be better served. Starting with the USHL is important though, as it’s obviously the most recognizable junior league in the country and familiar at least in name to all youth hockey players. It is reserved for only the best of the best and to compete in such a league is extremely rare and difficult to attain. Making the jump from youth hockey to the USHL is drastic, that’s why 35 percent of the league needed to develop and play in a lower-level junior league before finally competing at the Tier-I level.

My biggest takeaway from all of this is the player turnover year-to-year. Obviously, it’s a one-year sample size but I do think it’s pretty telling and eye-opening, as I just didn’t expect that high of a number in new players from one USHL season to another. I would love to know what you get out of this data dump or what jumps out at you when breaking down the Google Doc. I’m always open to discuss things further on social media, so feel free to connect with me on Twitter!