Over the last decade or so, the United States Hockey League has begun to claim its place among the best junior leagues in the world.
With programs like Chicago Steel becoming NHL pipelines and the U.S. national team development program becoming one of the most unique and successful programs in the world, the USHL is tensing its development muscles.
The Chicago Steel and Adam Fantilli
The USHL’s response to the CHL’s London Knights, Chicago Steel has become a program that consistently pushes players to be their best. They’ve been able to produce NHL talent almost every year recently, and that doesn’t stop for the time being.
Last year, Chicago produced two first-round picks in Matthew Coronato (12th overall for Calgary) and Mackie Samoskevich (24th overall for Florida) and six overall draft picks. This season, they may not have the top talent eligible for this year’s draft, but they will have more names called again. The talented team is again at the top of the league with an eight-point distance between them and their nearest challenger in the conference. The team has been dominant all season with three of the top five scorers in the league.
The big draw this year is 2023 NHL draft prospect Adam Fantilli. Not only is Fantilli a candidate to go into the top-five in a loaded draft class, but he is among the league leaders in points. His 30 points in 21 games are in third place after Stephen Halliday and Jackson Blake, and Fantilli is still younger than most of the league.
Fantilli has just turned 17 in October and has really taken a step this season, showing the promise that so many saw out of him when he chose to go to the USHL instead of the CHL. He is an athletic freak with a great shot and an offensive elite mind. His two-way game is still under development and he has all the physical tools to be a very advanced center on the next level.
Tri-City Storm-ing through the USHL
The only team in the league that has any reasonable ability to challenge Steel for the best team in the league is Tri-City Storm. They have played four fewer games and are only three points behind, and they have surpassed Steel’s 0.762 point percent as the Storm clicks on at a 0.853 rate. While Chicago is the offensive juggernaut, Tri-City is a defensive skill. With just 29 goals this season, Storm is the most stingy team in the league with Omaha (40), Cedar Rapids (48) and Lincoln (48) being the only other teams in the entire league with under 50 goals against.
Listed in the net by Arsenii Sergeyev, who leads the way between the pipes. The Calgary Flames’ seventh-round pick in the 2021 NHL draft has been an absolute wall this season. His supernatural .949 save percentage leads the league, as do his 11 wins in just 12 starts. Sergeyev comes from the NAHL last season and has been a stud in Tri-City’s pitch. Sergeyev has an above-average athleticism and an advanced ability to read the opponent to go with good size, and has a solid foundation to build on.
When the Storm does not have their Russian imports in the net, they only take a small step back when Chase Clark steps into the blue paint. When he sits in sixth place in the USHL with a save percentage of 0.916, Clark could probably start on most teams. 6-foot-6 mesh memorabilia covers a large part of the mesh and moves quite well in the paint. It’s the ultimate luxury to let Clark support Sergeyev.
Offensively, the team is led by the exhausted strikers Cole O’Hara and Jeremy Wilmer. With 24 and 22 points respectively, they are both in the top-10 in scoring the entire league. Both strikers will look to show NHL teams that they deserve attention on draft day with the knowledge that both will go to college after this season, giving them plenty of development time.
Oh no in Omaha
Omaha Lancer’s situation has been really wild. A third-party investigation has been underway as the Omaha Lancers appear to have worked in bad faith. From asking a ticket parent to act as a team equipment manager to asking players to buy their own sticks, problems in Omaha began to bubble to the surface last month.
The situation in Omaha worsened to the point where drastic measures were considered, which included the players threatening to boycott matches, and its remaining coaching staff withdrew as a whole. The USHL announced that team president Dave DeLuca has been put on administrative leave, which was when they also announced that a third-party investigation is underway.
The league has appointed Josh Mervis to oversee the operation of the Omaha club while the investigation is ongoing. The league has described Mervis as an “inactive minority partner of the Lancers and chairman of the USHL’s competition committee”. There has been some concern about whether Mervis is an acceptable replacement, but with everything else going on, it has flown a bit under the radar.
The whole series of events started in early November and exploded when head coach Chadd Cassidy was told by DeLuca not to return to the team’s facilities around 10 November. When DeLuca did not secure a replacement for Cassidy, which ended, meaning Omaha would not meet the league’s requirement to have two coaches on the bench, DeLuca asked Cassidy to return and speak again later. Cassidy apparently reluctantly returned and coached the team to a couple of wins against the Sioux Falls Stampede. Cassidy and DeLuca then had a meeting in the middle of the week and did not find common ground, and Cassidy was out.
Gary Graham was hired as the new head coach. He had ties to Mervis and was a former ECHL coach. The team met the requirements to have the two coaches on the bench, but the situation had by this time escalated to an extreme point.
Budgetary concerns have proven to be at the heart of all this. The unfortunate thing about all this is that the people who are most affected by this are the players who do everything in their power to play the game. Many are working to go to the next level, others are evolving to get ready for the NCAA. The worries of this whole situation have resonated around the hockey world with everyone from NCAA coaches to parents to players who have all become concerned about the incredible situation in Omaha.
Hopefully things can turn around and the league can step in so the Lancers’ team can get back on track from the ice and the players can continue their careers and development on the ice. At present, no conclusion has been published on the study, but it should be soon. Players with several rumors have already been traded to ask out. The next thing that happens is in the air, but DeLuca is not expected to return and the team is likely to face some changes in the future.