Max Pacioretty wasn’t selected until the 20th round of the Phase 2 draft in 2005. Stanley Cup winning defenseman Alec Martinez was taken in the 6th round in 2004. Boston Bruins D-man Torey Krug was undrafted in the USHL. Kyle Okposo was a No. 1 Phase 2 pick and is now starring in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The USHL Draft doesn’t make or break your career. No matter where you were drafted, or even if you weren’t drafted at all, you can still make it to the USHL. Needless to say, it’s hard to project talent at age 16, 17 and 18, but that’s the task USHL, college and NHL evaluators have to tackle – and tackle well.
We caught up with Youngstown Phantoms general manager Jason Koehler, the man who tendered Michigan phenom and newly signed Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Connor, to talk about the evaluation, draft and development process.
USHL: Can you give us some general insight into your scouting process leading up to the USHL Draft?
Jason Koehler: A large number of games are watched live and sometimes via video by our staff to filter through the top leagues, teams and players. We then attempt to do background checks with various coaches and hockey connections etcetera and gain more background on the players that we feel are draft candidates for our program. We will attempt to speak live or via phone with players to express interest and answer questions and to get a feel for if the player is interested in playing in the USHL the following season.
USHL: What are USHL GMs really looking for when selecting their draft picks?
Koehler: USHL GMs and head coaches want players and prospects that can either play right now or in one to two seasons. With our league affiliate list (rights retention) it provides a chance to acquire talent for the short and long term of your team. We believe there is an emphasis on selecting players that will not only be good junior players, but also quality Division I players and pro prospects. We want quality people as well as strong student-athletes in our programs in the league. Hockey IQ, skating ability, size, skill, grit and other attributes will all be factored in by teams during the evaluation process amongst other things.
USHL: How difficult or unpredictable is the USHL Draft and how players project to the USHL and college and the NHL? We see a lot of late-round picks developing into really good NHLers.
Koehler: Very unpredictable. We're dealing with an age group where there are so many outside factors that can affect a player's development and success. Off-ice matters and on-ice matters factor in. There are good players all over and some players just need an extra year or a different challenge or environment to blossom. There are some players in our league that are good, but because of their bodies etcetera have a chance to really make strides while in college to really take it to another level – after they've been with us in the USHL. Our teams generally have players for one or two seasons before they move on – there's a lot of improvement that can happen during the college years, which can take players much further in their careers.
USHL: Would you say that no matter where a kid gets drafted – or if they don't even get drafted at all – they can still find their way to the USHL and beyond?
Koehler: Absolutely. There are always examples of later picks or even undrafted USHL players or free agents that make our clubs at camp that go on to have successful careers at all levels. A great example from our club is 1992-born goaltender Matt O'Connor. Matt was an undrafted free agent goaltender that made our team, spent two seasons with us, moved on to Boston University, and then last summer signed with the Ottawa Senators.
USHL: What about the tender process? You obviously hit a home run with Kyle Connor. Did you ever think he'd turn out to be this good?
Koehler: We've been fortunate with some good tender signings and feel it is a great opportunity to lock up quality players for our club. If we can find the right player, family and fit, we absolutely endorse the tender process. Kyle Connor turned out to be very special. We knew he was very good when we signed him, but after a few months in his first season with us, we realized we had someone capable of an entirely higher level then we thought. Kyle was on our top line that year by Thanksgiving and never looked back over the three seasons he was with us. Kyle was an extremely gifted young man and also had an outstanding worth ethic and attitude which certainly helped him achieve his success thus far.
USHL: Are there players you saw a month ago or a year ago or two years ago that you weren't interested in, but now have interest? In other words, kids shouldn't be too discouraged if they aren't selected. Keep working hard and forge your own path?
Koehler: 100 percent. Simply put, players improve and develop all the time. We can't afford to just write a player off after one viewing or one season. Teams keep track of players every season and players have the chance to attract interest every time they step on the ice with evaluators in our league. We know that we must keep the doors open at all times for "late bloomers" or someone that we may have missed the first time around.
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.
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