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2020 NHL Draft Profiles: USHL Skaters

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In recent years, the Senators have loved to draft out of the USHL. Here are eight skaters who stand out to us as potential options for Pierre Dorion and co.

HIGH SCHOOL HOCKEY: DEC 26 Edina V Minnetonka
Remember Bobby Brink? One of our favourite USHL players this year reminds us a lot of one of our favourite USHL players last year.
Photo by Josh Holmberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Ottawa Senators haven’t been afraid to draft out of the USHL in recent years. Christian Wolanin (2015), Shane Bowers (2017), Jonathan Gruden (2018), and Shane Pinto (2019) are all players picked out of the league in the last five draft classes, and it’s a good of a bet as any to think that there will be one or two more players selected this year.

There aren’t too many USHLers who interest us in the same way that a player like Bobby Brink did last season, but there are a number of notable names that might be an intriguing pick for the Senators in part because of how many picks they have.

Players in the USHL who have opted for the college hockey route are often undersized or have to work on their strength, and are 3-4 seasons away from impacting your team at the pro level. For a team like Ottawa that will be up against its 50-contract limit soon, going for a home-run with some flawed, but talented players might be a great strategy, as all of these players will have the requisite time needed to try and put their complete game together. Try to keep that in mind as you consider some of the names below.

Daniil Gushchin (RW)

Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Muskegon Lumberjacks USHL 5'8" 161 lbs 35 - 72 #41 (NA)

Right out of the gate, Daniil Gushchin is one of the most fun players eligible for the 2020 draft, hands down. Hockey’s in the industry of entertainment, and if that means anything to the teams at the draft table then Gushchin should be on their radar. While he may pack some chaos, his overall skillset has me convinced that he has an NHL future, despite his 5-foot-8 stature.

Originally from Moscow, Gushchin’s development path has already taken plenty of twists after being one of the more hyped import players joining the USHL in 2018-19. He was a mid-tier forward for a weak Muskegon team last year, and then took over as their leading scorer this season despite the similarly mediocre team record.

Yet after two seasons, Gushchin’s taking a similar route to former teammate Egor Afanaseyev by transferring to the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs for 2020-21, where he has the potential to finally put together the monster scoring season that his pedigree has been commanding. That’s not to discount his 1.12 points-per-game this past season, but compared to the fellow draft-eligible USHL forwards this year, he ranks fifth. A lot of that comes down to his low quality of teammates, especially compared to the trio on Chicago (Colangelo, Brisson, Farrell) and Brett Berard from U.S. National Development Team. Niagara isn’t shaping up to have the best team either next season, but the breakout potential still stands.

Immediately it’s impossible to ignore Gushchin’s skating ability. His motor from end-to-end is maybe his most dominant trait, combined with quick edges that he often uses to cut to the net. It’s what allows him to operate at such a high pace, which seeps its way into every nook of how he plays. From setting up teammates, to breaking past blue line defenders, to even applying pressure defensively, the speed and determination at which he’s always operating is where the ‘fun’ aspect stems from. You can never count him out of a play because the threat is there for him to stir the pot.

What makes me like Gushchin even more is the fact that he was able to display all of this despite being surrounded with often sluggish players in a Muskegon system that didn’t compliment his style all that well. His relative GF% at even strength was at an incredible +18.13 last season... to say he tilted play positively would be an understatement. He often showed the ability to completely take control of the ice, marked by his astounding four-goal performance in January where his team won 4-3 in overtime... he scored all four goals. The ability to drive his own line is already a rare trait that’s especially important at higher levels, and that’s on top of his potential as an all-situations player on both the power play and penalty kill, being deployed for both last season.

That isn’t to say there’s plenty of space for improvement in Gushchin’s game, and a lot of that comes down to his consistency and size. While the overall results of his game came out extremely positive this season, there were still times when his playmaking ability wouldn’t shine through or his shot selection would be sub-optimal. There would also be times where his hands couldn’t catch up to his skates and cause the other team to gain possession, but I’d far from classify these instances as the majority.

As for his size, 5’8” players have an innate disadvantage against bigger and stronger competition. And while Gushchin’s speed, agility and determination are all at the essential level for him to not be completely eaten up, he’ll still need to build on his strength to fend for himself in board battles.

Throughout researching Gushchin, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to one of my favourite players from last year’s draft, Bobby Brink, who we controversially selected for the Sens in last year’s SB Nation mock draft. While Gushchin didn’t hit the scoresheet as much as Brink (who was riding an astronomical shooting percentage), they’re both 5’8” players who pack seemingly no shortage of energy and gifted playmaking abilities, which helped them to drive their own lines in a relatively weak environment.

Brink ended up slipping to the second round to #34 and was a top NCAA freshman last season for the University of Denver, and I could see Gushchin similarly having success next season as a potential second round sleeper. Keep an eye on this player come draft day.

Highlights


Mitchell Miller (RD)

Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Tri-City Storm USHL 5'11" 194 lbs 50 - 97 #49 (NA)

For our money, Mitchell Miller is the top USHL defence prospect not playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program. He’s a modern-age player who has a refined, two-way game at the age of 18, and is heading to a competitive North Dakota team where he’ll fit right in.

Drafted 17th overall by the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the USHL, Miller had an excellent first season in a league that many young defencemen struggle in. Case in point? While every young NTDP defender had an EV GF% rate under 44% in 2018-19 — Jake Sanderson’s was a paltry 15% — Miller was well above water at 57%. His point production ranked first among his 2020 draft eligible peers at even-strength, and was second only to Eamon Powell overall. It’s no wonder that Miller caught the attention of the U.S. Ivan Hlinka team, and he had five points — all assists — in five games in last year’s tournament.

This past season, Miller was named to the USHL’s first all-star team, ranked third in those same point production categories relative to his peers, and did it all for a Tri-City team that was a +7 in goals when Miller was on the ice, but a -23 when he was off the ice. Miller felt like he developed a second-gear offensively at the World Junior A Challenge, where he led all defenders in scoring with six points in six games. With Ottawa using that tournament as ammunition to take a chance on Christian Wolanin back in 2015, it’s safe to say that they took note of Miller’s play.

Here’s what we like about Miller. While we’ve talked about the point production, what Miller has always been known for his is defensive acumen. At 5-foot-10, Miller is in a naturally smaller frame, but unlike other players his age, he’s been surrounded with players from the ECHL’s Tolledo Walleye in the offseason, and has really used that opportunity to train his conditioning and give his body some bulk. While that doesn’t mean he’s going to start laying the body on defenders, he’s apt as using his body positioning to angle rushes to the outside and handle incoming pressure at the blueline, and has really shown growth in using his stick and skating to hold gaps effectively at the USHL level.

Miller converted from being a forward to a defenceman “three to four years ago” and while it took him a while to develop his offensive game, he’s happy where it’s at after this season. He’s got great mobility and the hockey sense to pick his spots well. The reports I’ve read don’t indicate high-end (PP1) offensive ability, with some citing a weak shot, but having a puck moving element to his game is especially important in transition. He’s got a powerful skating stride and is elusive on breakouts, not scared to challenge attackers to one-on-one battles, and has the puck skills to create space for clearer passing lanes.

Next season, Miller joins a stacked recruiting class for North Dakota, with both Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven expected to play minutes for the team on the back-end. Miller’s handedness does him a favour against those two opponents, and I’d bet that Brad Berry’s squad might see Miller as the eventual replacement for Jacob Bernard-Docker with the Sens first-rounder turns pro next season.

(Note: for video of Miller in action, search his name in this post from Future Scope Hockey)


Sam Colangelo (RW)

Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Chicago Steel USHL 6'2" 207 lbs 34 - 75 #31 (NA)

Led by a Hockey Twitter darling general manager in Ryan Hardy, the Chicago Steel were one of the sexier teams to scout this season, with Sam Colangelo being one of a trio of draft-eligible players high on the radar of scouts. While we aren’t quite as high on the other two in Brendan Brisson (covered below in the honourable mentions) and Sean Farrell, Colangelo is a reliable player with a very complete package who could be exactly what a team is looking for even in the late first round.

It’s been a pretty straightforward progression for Colangelo arriving to his time in Chicago. He was a dominant player on the high school circuit en route to being the 31st choice in the 2018 USHL draft, and the rest was history. His 58 points in 44 games is one of the highest rates for draft-eligible players in the last decade, ranking fourth amongst non-USDP players behind Bobby Brink, Taylor Cammarata and Kyle Connor. More impressively, over 80% of those points came at even strength, leading the USHL in estimated primary points per 60 by a wide margin (3.85 to second place 3.40 from Brisson).

The contextual factors don’t end there, however. His 22% shooting percentage is a bit on the high side, although the elephant was that he was surrounded by incredible talent on Chicago, whose 41-7-1 record was one of the best team performances the USHL has ever seen. Of course Colangelo was a big contributor to that success, although unlike many potential top-50 talents he was fortunate to have reliable players to work around.

The appeal of Colangelo’s skillset boils down to three traits: his versatility in the offensive zone, his reliability in play choices, and his athleticism. He’s a dual-threat player in the offensive zone, with both a hard wrist shot and the vision to work the puck with his teammates. He has a nose for the net which is complimented by his size, although he’s a constant battler who shows no lack of comfort navigating the offensive zone.

That leads right into the second point, which is his overall reliability. While he may be versatile, he isn’t much of a risk-taker with his decisions which rarely results in the other team gaining possession. While not the most useful when high pressure starts being applied, it makes him very projectable going forward to play a powerful, cerebral game from the right wing.

The power aspect of his game wouldn’t be possible without his 6’2” size and stocky build, which has helped him build space around the net to bury loose pucks. He’s not the most physical player but isn’t afraid to get into battles, which once again ties into his predictability. Down the road he’ll likely need to iron out his skating stride and get a bit quicker if he wants to hone his game as a true two-way player, although it was clearly at a level this season that allowed him to be effective.

With really strong production plus his relatively complete and safe toolkit, it’s no surprise why NHL clubs looking for a degree of certainty are being attracted to Colangelo. He may not project as a top-six scoring threat with the chance to be a huge steal, but if a team is looking to hit on a potential top-nine forward who can keep up both physically and offensively, Colangelo could be their guy.

Highlights


Colby Ambrosio (C)

Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Tri-City Storm USHL 5'9" 170 lbs 79 - 112 #71 (NA)

When you’re 5-foot-9, you need some high-end tools to convince teams that you’re worth a shot. I believe that Tri-City’s Colby Ambrosio has it, and he put his skills on display for any onlooking scouts all season long.

Playing in the USHL as a 16-year-old last season, Ambrosio had 24 points in 57 games and another three points in five games for Team Canada at the U17 World Hockey Championships. He was eased into an extremely competitive Tri-City club that was sound defensively, and still managed to be a positive contributor on his squad when looking at his relative goals numbers. This past season, Ambrosio was the club’s leader in points (50) and goals (26) — providing a majority of the offence for a Storm team who had their next leading goal scorer finish with just 15.

A natural centre who might end up playing right-wing because of his size and potential defensive challenges, Ambrosio’s strengths are his skating and his shot. I’ve heard people call him a modern skater because of how much of his movement features crossovers rather than straight-line strides. This skill allows him to dart in and out of pressure, to attack the puck on the forecheck, and to excel when turning controlled zone entries into rush chances for his squad. Ambrosio has a little bit of Alex Formenton in him — they both need their hands to catch up to their feet, and they can both often cross the line when trying to play with an edge. That being said, I imagine that many scouts like Ambrosio’s bite because it shows his mentality as a smaller player not afraid to play physical. While Ambrosio’s hands might need work when he’s at full speed, he’s got the ability to manipulate them as needed.

Given these offensive skills, Ambrosio’s someone who you’re going to want to make room for on the powerplay:

I’m a believer that the old “top-six or bust” statement is antiquated and there’s room for talented players up and down the lineup, but Ambrosio certainly plays like a scoring line contributor and needs the puck to flow through him to get good results. He’s dynamic on the left-side on the powerplay, and he has both a wicked wrist shot and a great one-timer — both reasons why he finished tied for fourth among all USHL players in goals this season.

An August 2002 birthdate, Ambrosio has a ton of time to work on his flaws, which are engaging with the same energy defensively, and developing a more consistent passing game to allow him to be a dual-threat. Going to Jerry York’s Boston College Eagles, Ambrosio clearly has pedigree that warrants using a third- or fourth-round pick on.

(Note: For an in-depth look at Ambrosio’s game with video, check out this article from Clare McManus at DobberProspects, this from Smaht Scouting’s Josh Tessler, and the video linked here from Future Scope Hockey)

Highlights


Honourable Mentions

Player Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Player Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Brendan Brisson Chicago Steel USHL 5'11" 179 lbs 20 - 40 #20 (NA)
Alex Laferriere Des Moines Buccaneers USHL 6'0" 179 lbs 79 - 107 #61 (NA)
Stephen Halliday Dubuque Fighting Saints USHL 6'4" 220 lbs 114 - 200 #123 (NA)
Wyatt Schingoethe Waterloo Black Hawks USHL 5'11" 190 lbs 94 - 201 #91 (NA)
  • I’m already prepared to take some heat for slipping Brendan Brisson into the honourable mentions section, as his expected range is actually the highest in the USHL. He’s the son of hockey’s top agent Pat Brisson (representing Christian Wolanin among many others), and played alongside Colangelo for the powerhouse Chicago Steel. He has an incredible one-timer that makes him lethal on the powerplay, although I’d love to see him utilize his shot more at even strength. He also has excellent playmaking instincts which mixes well with his smooth skating, which are both really valuable traits. He’s also committed to the University of Michigan which is looking really strong going forward. But his inconsistent pace of play mixed with his +1.37 relative GF% puts him in a tier just behind Gushchin and Colangelo for me.
  • A sleeper for the later rounds could be Alex Laferriere, not related in anyway to the presumed #1 overall pick, who started the season off really hot for the Des Moines Buccaneers before really cooling down. He reminds me a lot of Colangelo in the sense that he can be a versatile offensive threat with a balanced physical presence, but without as high-end production and a skating stride that needs significantly more improvement. He was still a really productive player though, with a lot of his team’s offence flowing through him as their leading scorer — 1.07 P/GP and a +5.00 relative GF%.
  • In a draft with many smaller players, 6-foot-4 Stephen Halliday stands out as a physical specimen that teams might be intrigued by. Committed to — you guessed it — North Dakota, Halliday was one of the USHL’s top forwards among his age group during his rookie season with the Central Illinois Fighting Aces, and he only grew his game this season with Dubuque. He’s a pass-first player with outstanding hockey sense, and is always looking to create for his linemates. The cons? Sometimes he can get caught processing and stop moving his feet; other times, he’ll pass up good opportunities for himself. I fully believe that skating is something that can be worked on, but pace is something that’s a bit harder to teach. He could definitely turn into a gem, though, and that’s why he’s mentioned here.
  • Wyatt Schingoethe is a complete centre with a high-octane motor that he put on display regularly for Waterloo this season. His smooth skating stride and perception to read the play are the basis of his in-your-face forechecking style, and he’s consistently making good decisions with the puck in all three zones. Another August birthday, Schingoethe is committed to an exciting program at the University of Denver with Carter Savoie and Michael Benning, and the trio should form the basis for a high-flying offensive team for the next three seasons.