Michigan Hockey Advancement’s (MHA) Top 80 Showcase took place over the weekend at Farmington Hills Ice Arena. Two 18U teams and two 16U teams squared off in respective three-game series, vying for spots on the program’s tournament team for the upcoming fall season.
Some stood out from the crowd this weekend, making an immediate impact while others continue to knock off the rust from the summer months, shaping up for the quickly approaching winter season.
A couple players jumped out to me, having great showings at the showcase and making their names known as we inch closer to puck drop in November. We will certainly take a closer look at many of them as the fall progresses but I wanted to share some thoughts on a few guys that stood out to me in particular, following the Top 80.
Starting with the 16s, I really liked Max Marquette (U-D Jesuit, 2021). The junior forward looked like he was in mid-season form and it’s only August. He was the fastest guy on the ice Friday night and at times, he downright dominated play, controlling the flow of the game with every shift. He’s fast, he’s flashy, has great hockey smarts and a really high motor.
Bret Beale (Detroit Catholic Central, 2021) was a nice surprise and another forward that impacted play on several occasions in a short period of time. Whether it was on the fly during an odd-man rush or stationary in-zone, Beale’s ability to distribute the puck and find open teammates was on full display as he facilitated multiple scoring opportunities. At the end of the game on Friday, he buried a long put-back on a rebound to seal the victory for Team White, showing he can finish plays as well as he can set them up.
Too many times, the puck carrier enters the offensive zone, hugs the half-wall and skates themselves below the goal line and into trouble, ultimately turning the puck over and losing possession. But Houck on multiple occasions showed a knack for creating opportunities for himself, cutting across the top of the slot and putting himself in a position to generate a quality shot or scoring opportunity for his team.
Tyler Lawrence (Flint Powers, 2021) is fun to watch. He didn’t overwhelm with his speed and looked a little light for being listed at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, but anything he may lack in size or strength he more than makes up for with an aggressiveness on loose pucks. Constantly in the mix on scrums along the boards, he came away with a ton of 50-50 pucks and absolutely snapped off some high-level passes during 2-on-1 chances for Team Red on multiple occasions.
I’m not a goalie guy, so I can’t get too technical breaking down the position. But when I see a guy deny what I perceived as slam-dunk, no-doubt scoring opportunities three, four and five times in one period, it’s safe to say a guy like Blake Nowak (U-D Jesuit, 2022) is the real deal.
He’s just a sophomore, but the 5-foot-10 netminder played like a seasoned veteran in the 16U series. After stealing not one, but two scoring opportunities away from Team Red, Nowak cemented his performance on Friday with a beautiful right-leg pad save moving from left to right — as the puck moved from below the goal line left of the net across the crease to the right post — eliminating an almost empty-net look from the back door on a would-be goal scorer, and suffocating any chance at a rebound.
If forwards like Marquette, Beale, Houck and Lawrence were the bright spot among the 16s, defensemen were the ones who definitely stole the show in the 18U series.
At 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, it was very easy to notice Jacob Thomas (Detroit Country Day, 2020). Aside from his size, though, he’s got the skills to go along with it and can definitely be one of the top D in the state this season. He’s cool and calm under pressure, quick on retrievals, showed some nice deceptiveness and escapability, and moved pucks effortlessly. For as big as he is, he gets up and down the ice really well and can engage in an offensive rush, turn around and recover in time to defend an oncoming attack.
Dakota Kott (Hartland, 2020) is quite possibly the polar opposite of Thomas, listed at nearly a full foot shorter than his fellow D-man. Kott is 5-foot-5, but has a huge impact on the game despite his smaller stature. He’s got some fantastic footwork and jumps north in the offensive attack quicker than a hiccup. I really appreciate his understanding of shooting lanes, first in the offensive zone as a shooter, putting pucks into the funnel and finding ways to get it to the net. Defensively, he’s just as good obstructing lanes and forcing opponents to alter their shot selections.
A good defenseman is like a quarterback, seeing plays as they develop and thinking it out two or three steps ahead of the action. The way Enzo Tarducci (Detroit Catholic Central, 2020) plays, you can almost see his thought process through his actions on the ice. A left-hand shot from the blue line, Tarducci always anticipates the puck coming his way and knows exactly what he’s going to do with it before it comes to him. He was aggressive holding the blue line, making timely and effective decisions with the puck as soon as he corralled it, distributing to an open man or throwing it to the net for a quick scoring opportunity.
Nick Marone (Brother Rice, 2020) must be a big HGTV fan, because he is a big-time DIYer. There is definitely an art in being able to create scoring opportunities on your own, whether it be beating a defender 1-on-1 or out-muscling opponents to get to the net in-zone. He is a slippery player with some fancy dekes, toe-draggin’ between-the-legs and going top cheddar, and I can definitely appreciate the ability to generate on your own. I do believe he should simplify a bit at times, utilize his linemates some more and create opportunities without the puck — which can be corrected — but his next-level skillset is hard to teach and certainly sets him apart from others.
I’ve got a soft spot for players like Brendan Finn (Lake Orion, 2021). He’s not the prettiest player, no fancy moves or eye-catching size but he’s got an absolute motor that does not stop.
Calling him a bull in a china shop may be an understatement and I mean that as a sincere compliment. From the moment he comes over the boards, his feet don’t stop moving until he returns to the bench. Finn came streaming into the offensive zone as F-1 on a forecheck like a heat-seeking missile. He came down the slot, flushed out the opposing defenseman from behind the net so fast that he overskated the puck carrier, kept going, caught back up to the puck carrier and picked his pocket clean before the tops of the circles, changed direction 180 degrees and came 1-on-1 in tight with the goalie. He may not have capitalized on that particular opportunity but a guy with that much energy can play on my team any day.
These are just a couple players that jumped out to me this weekend. Certainly, other names including Alex Blankenship, Dylan McMullen, Logan Gotinsky and Brady Rappuhn among others, were some of the standouts to watch as well. As the fall season progresses and we see more leading up to the winter, I’ll be sure to point them out as well.
Got any returning players ripe for a breakout season or new names that are sure to have an impact? Gimme a heads up on Twitter and discuss some ones to watch with November right around the corner!
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...
...as 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…
...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|
|High-Performance Hockey League U16 (HPHL)||37|
|Tier-1 Elite Hockey League U16 (T1EHL)||37|
|T1EHL Elite Hockey League U18 (T1EHL)||25|
|Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL)||15|
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.
|Oakland Jr. Grizzlies U18||6|
|Fox Motors U16||5|
|Little Caesars U16||4|
|Oakland Jr. Grizzlies U16||3|
|Victory Honda U16||3|
|Little Caesars U18||2|
|Belle Tire U16||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!
Team Michigan Juniors and Seniors have spent the past two weeks prepping for the CCM NIT in Plymouth, Minnesota, where they will compete against teams comprised of the top high school players across the country including those from Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
A process that began in March with more than 250 of the top juniors and seniors in the state congregating at the Arctic Coliseum in Chelsea following the conclusion of the winter season, now culminates with the Minnesota showcase later this weekend.
For an eighth consecutive year, teams are assembled and put on display not just for the individual exposure of the players in attendance but to also showcase the strides and growth that Michigan high school hockey has made overall on a national stage in front of junior, NCAA and professional scouts.
Overall, Team Michigan has seen more than 70 players go on to compete in high-level junior and college hockey with some reaching the game’s highest level in the NHL. The 2018 Senior Team promoted eight players off last year’s squad to the NAHL and BCHL alone, serving as a premier launching point for those embarking on junior careers after high school.
This year’s senior team returns 12 players from the 20-man roster from a year ago; a then-junior team that went 2-2-0 at the 2018 NIT.
“It helps knowing what you’re getting yourself into, knowing what scouts are out there and how the tournament works,” said goaltender Sam Evola. “Second time coming around, you’re gonna have more experience. You’re gonna be better.”
The 2018 Mr. Hockey recipient, Evola is coming off of back-to-back Division-III state titles with Detroit Country Day and is currently tendered by the NAHL’s Minot Minotauros. Still, he said there’s plenty to prove in front of the scouts that will be in attendance and that this talented group is capable of turning some heads.
“The NA is great but I’d like to get drafted into the USHL and obviously get in front of some schools and get some school exposure and there’s a lot [at the tournament],” he said. “Guys like Joey Larson, Cam Blanton, Luke Evo. They’re solid players. It’s kinda cool to get to play with these guys before they go to their respective junior programs one last time is pretty cool to finish off your high school career.”
Of the 40 players heading to Minnesota, almost all are involved with the Michigan Developmental Hockey League (MDHL), TPH’s Top 80, Copper Country or Elite Brigade off-season programs. While each provide unique opportunities, Team Michigan is a chance for high school hockey to assemble two teams of the best players regardless of region or affiliation. This year, players were plucked from 20 different programs around the state, from across metro Detroit to the west side, mid-Michigan and the U.P., bringing them together for a two-week span presents unique challenges.
“Some of us knew each other just through high school hockey, MDHL, TPH Top 80 but we bonded really fast,” said Team Juniors defenseman Brendan Miles. “We’re just a great group altogether.”
Miles, a standout D-man in the MIHL for Detroit Catholic Central, battled it out against several of his fellow junior teammates during the regular season, including the likes of Seth Lause (Livonia Stevenson), Nick Marone (Brother Rice), Joey Cormier (Trenton) and Cristian Bronzino (Warren De La Salle) among several others. Now teammates, that comes as a bit of a relief that once opponents now come together to compete on the same side.
“Playing against him, it was difficult for me as a forward to go against him on a rush because he’s just a smart defenseman,” said Bronzino. “Playing with him, makes me feel safe on the back end because if I get beat by my guy — which I hope doesn’t happen — then I know that he’s back there to help us out.”
Miles helped anchor a CC defensive corps that went a near-perfect 29-1-1 this season and he’ll be expected to provide similar support on the back end for the juniors.
One advantage the senior group typically has to their advantage over the juniors ahead of the tournament is having players who know what to expect from the speed and competition level that the NIT is known for.
“You have an idea of what the two weeks is gonna be like and what you have to do to get the group together as a team,” said Tim Erkkila. “Having a lot of guys back from last year is big in the sense that we know what we have to do to build that chemistry so we can be as good as possible in Minnesota.”
A four-year letter-winner for Brighton, Erkkila is one of the most decorated defensemen in high school hockey. With back-to-back Division-I state championships in 2017 and 2018 as well as being named to the Michigan High School Hockey Coaches’ Association (MHSCHA) Dream Team his junior and senior years, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound defender has seen plenty of high-level hockey during his high school career.
As one of the 12 seniors returning to the lineup from last year’s squad, Erkkila said the Team Michigan experience is a unique one for him.
“Honestly, I just had a lot of fun,” he said. “At the end of the day, hockey’s all about having fun. It’s an unbelievable tournament, tons of exposure and I don’t think you can get enough of that. It’s always fun to play with guys from CC — we hate ‘em during the season — then guys from the U.P., I’ve got a lot of connections there. My cousin Sam, he’s on the team so that’s a lot of fun as well.”
Tim’s cousin and senior teammate Sam Erkkila finished up his final season, concluding a three-year career with Calumet. The showcase presents a rare opportunity for the Erkkila family to support both boys on the ice at the same time.
“I’m sure they have a lot of fun watching,” Tim said. “Any time you get to play with a family member that lives 500 miles away, that’s pretty cool.”
Coach Ryan Ossenmacher will coach the Seniors for a seventh time, joined by Jeff Fleming and Jay Thompson. A dozen returners provide a wealth of experience and familiarity for the squad with not one, but two Mr. Hockey recipients in Evola and 2019 honoree Joey Larson (Hartland). Newcomers and first-timers like Gabe Anderson (Hartland), Kevin Bostwick (Houghton), Patrick Donnelly (Houghton), Carter Korpi (Detroit Catholic Central), Anthony Mollica (Jenison), Daniel Nelson (Grand Rapids Catholic Central), Gage Thrall (Davison) and Jack VandDenBeurgery (Plymouth) breathe some fresh air and newness into the group as well.
While the seniors will rely on past experience, the juniors will be flying blind in a way, preparing for the idea of an unknown opponent.
“I honestly have no clue what they’re gonna be like,” said Will Jentz. “Our game yesterday, the coaches said it was gonna be two, three times faster than it was out there. That should just be a lot of fun going out [to Minnesota]. We won’t know, we’ll just have to bring whatever we have and just show them what we have to do and not adapt to what they do.”
Coach Dave Mitchell returns behind the bench for the juniors alongside Joe Ford and Kyle Zagata. A diverse and dynamic group that’s represented by 15 different schools, an obvious challenge for the younger of the two teams is preparing for the unknown and bringing a group together in such a short window of time.
The general consensus among juniors was that cohesion happened quickly with the mood in the locker room and team meetings coming naturally.
Lack of familiarity lends itself more to surprises but Bronzino suggested that the unforeseen can be a good thing too.
“Actually, one of the kids on our line, Brady [Rappuhn] from Saginaw Heritage,” he said. “I haven’t seen them play or really seen him play ‘til now. He’s fitting in real well and you know that those guys that come from areas out there want to work real hard and work their butts off for spots on the power play or the penalty kill, whatever it may be and just want to fill their role and be the best at it.”
Rappuhn is one-of-six juniors from outside of metro Detroit, coming off of an ‘18-19 season in which he scored 24 goals and 62 points in 25 games for the Hawks.
With offensive firepower upfront, there has been a clear focus in training camp and attempting to prepare the juniors for an unfamiliar opponent.
“We’re very strong offensively,” said Miles. “We’re trying to be just as strong defensively and I think in practice that’s what we’ve really tried to work on so I think we’re going to be a really hard team to compete against.”
The Junior and Senior teams will head to Minnesota together on Wednesday morning by bus, before games get underway Thursday afternoon. The two teams will compete in opposite pools, playing in three round-robin games. Playoff and consolation games will bring the tournament to a close on Sunday. Follow @TeamMichHockey on Twitter for updates all weekend long and keep tabs on both squads!