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theScore NHL Draft Series: USHL rising, fortifying bedrock of USA Hockey

Greg M. Cooper / USA TODAY Sports

The USHL boasts notable alumni, but never before have we seen this many top-end talents emerge from the league's club teams. Are we witnessing a shift in how U.S.-born prospects rise to the NHL?

For many, the United States Hockey League exists in relative obscurity.

It's an untraveled, transient frontier. It's where elite U.S.-born prospects - the ones considered too good for the league itself - dip in and out of competition to test talents before returning to iron out imperfections at their swanky training facility in Southeastern Michigan.

From Sioux Falls to Fargo, and Dubuque to Muskegon, the USHL operates in the midwestern periphery, and remains subsidiary in our minds as to where we expect elite prospects to be bred.

But those days appear numbered.

The USHL is snowballing and, in turn, revealing a fortified foundation of hockey in the United States. As it steadily infuses with more talent, the league has become much more than just a lucrative talent pool for college recruiters, but a legitimate prospect stream to the NHL.

"It (reflects) the growth of hockey in the United States. It has grown (by) leaps and bounds," New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero told theScore at the NHL Combine.

"Over the last number of years it's gotten better, there's more opportunity, and good coaching," he added. "You see a guy like Jon Cooper doing so well, coming from there, along with a number of guys having been trained there, it says a lot about the league and the direction they are going."

The USHL is a 17-team, strictly amateur organization that allows players to hone their craft against peers and, unlike Canada's Major Junior system, showcase for collegiate opportunities.

USA Hockey completes one roster, deploying hand-picked talent against USHL competition in waves. For instance, Auston Matthews, the projected No. 1-overall selection for the 2016 NHL Draft, made 24 appearances - and tallied 48 points - playing less than half the regular schedule.

The league has produced 251 NHL alumni - and counting - but that figure is slightly misrepresented, because the vast majority were part-time, U-18, and U-17 players - including 71 percent of the first-round picks produced since USA Hockey joined as a complete entity in 2009-10.

But this year, four of NHL Central Scouting's top five North American prospects whose draft season featured USHL competition - including Youngstown Phantoms forward Kyle Connor - hail from those supposedly less important club teams.

"The league is getting better every year. It's producing more first-rounders, and I think it's only going to keep improving on that," Connor said.

"The USHL does a great job in developing players. With the scheduling, and going to school, you learn good discipline and (it) gives you the opportunity to really work on your strengths.

"Every game is tough. It's a battle."

Connor, who scored 34 goals and 46 assists to capture league MVP honors, could become the first non-National Team member to be chosen in the top 10 of the NHL Draft since the New York Islanders plucked Kyle Okposo seventh-overall in 2006.

The talent is increasing, and more elite prospects are playing through the rigors of a 60-game schedule, and the extensive travel that comes with it, but the NHL still represents a mammoth leap in competition. Prospects making a beeline to the show must still seek out sufficient competition in correspondence with their personal development, whether it's accelerating through high school to play Division 1 or bolting north of the border.

Connor is enrolling at Michigan after his third USHL season, while Brock Boeser - another potential first-round selection - is off to the University of North Dakota after his second year.

"It's a good development path," Boeser said.

"It would still be good competition (if I went back) because there are always good players coming through," he said. "But I think it's my time to move on."

As long as USA Hockey employs a centralized development program, there will be exceptions. The Eichels, Hanifins, and Werenskis will only briefly tour through the Waterloos, Omahas, and Green Bays on their paths to superstardom.

But Connor, Boeser, and the sudden whack of talent primed to springboard from the USHL to an NHL allegiance is no accident. USA Hockey has become too big, too robust, for its own development program.

Elite talent might not be so centralized anymore. And that's a good thing.

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