After a successful season that saw the league get the most out of a pandemic-influenced schedule, the USHL has moved on to the future with its Phase 1 and 2 drafts. The nation’s top junior league does two drafts because there is so much roster churn, what with players constantly heading off to college and other destinations each year.
Phase 1 is a traditional entry draft with this year’s selections coming from the 2005 birth year. The Youngstown Phantoms held the first pick and took Shattuck-St. Mary’s left winger William Whitelaw, a feisty and skilled player who put up nearly a point per game for the Sabres’ prep team, despite being at least two years younger than the rest of his teammates. At 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, Whitelaw naturally has some growing to do but he’s also just 16 years old so we can cut him some slack there.
With the second pick, the Sioux Falls Stampede ventured to New England, taking right winger Will McDonough from the Boston Advantage. McDonough is already 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds so his frame is well on its way, plus he has proven himself to be quite the sniper early on in his career.
The Phase 2 draft is very interesting. The pool of candidates is basically anyone who doesn’t have their rights assigned to a team already, so the birth years range from 2001-2004 this year. Players from the U.S., Canada and Europe all get taken and at the high end, there is usually a run on players from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP), specifically the kids who need another year of junior before heading off to the NCAA.
True to form, the top pick this year was NTDP left winger Justin Janicke, a Notre Dame commit with a big-time motor and great skating ability. The Dubuque Fighting Saints traded up with Youngstown to get that first pick and overall, it was a very intriguing draft for the Saints. GM Kalle Larsson, who is originally from Sweden, stocked up on kids from his home country, taking seven Swedes in a row after the Janicke pick. Larsson’s international knowledge has paid off for the Saints in the past, with Erik Portillo (BUF) and Simon Kjellberg (NYR) among the team’s recent alums.
Dubuque has been a magnet for talent in recent years, with high-end 2022 NHL draft prospect Matt Savoie joining the team this past season from WHL Winnipeg.
Overall, goalies were popular with a couple 2021 NHL draft hopefuls in the mix. Tri-City took Arseni Sergeyev from the NAHL’s Shreveport Mudbugs with the fourth pick overall, while Waterloo grabbed Czech national Patrik Hamrla in the sixth round. Hamrla played against men back home this season and made the world under-18 team but inexplicably did not see any ice time.
Both NTDP goaltenders were also selected, with Kaidan Mbereko going to Lincoln with the sixth pick overall and Gibson Homer taken by Chicago in the sixth round. Mbereko looked pretty good at the world under-18s before an injury knocked him out of the tournament, while Homer struggled – but he has a much more projectable NHL frame (Homer is also a late birthday, so he isn’t NHL draft eligible until 2022).
In the second round, a couple other 2021 NHL draft hopefuls got claimed as Green Bay tabbed Tim Delay, a Boston College commit, and Omaha snapped up linebacker-sized Cade Ahrenholz, a Colorado College commit who helped Lakeville South get to the final of the Minnesota State High School tournament.
Tri-City even got a current NHL pick, taking Anaheim prospect Ethan Bowen in the eighth round. Bowen is a University of North Dakota commit.
And finally, in what can only be called an aspirational pick, Chicago selected OHL Kingston star Shane Wright in the 11th round. Wright of course, is fresh off of captaining Canada to gold at the world under-18s, where he tallied nine goals and 14 points in just five games. He will be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft and the chances of prying him away from Kingston are slim – but considering that we did not have an OHL season this year, I suppose there’s no harm in trying.