November 6, 2013

Juniors Journal: Time to evaluate the USPHL

By Shawn Hutcheon

The calendar and weather are telling us that winter is on its way. What better time to evaluate the United States Premier Hockey League?

The USPHL was formed when the Boston Jr. Bruins, Islanders Hockey Club, South Shore Kings and Jersey Hitmen left the Eastern Junior Hockey League to promote and recruit teams for the USPHL, a league that would be set up to rival the United State Hockey League, which is widely viewed as the best junior circuit in the nation.

Admittedly, the USPHL hit a few bumps in the road, such as USA Hockey refusing to approve the league or insure its teams, but those issues were worked out during the summer and the USPHL was granted Tier III status. That means the players pay to play, unlike the USHL.

After clearing the hurdles, it was all systems go for the new conference which included the aforementioned former EJHL members along with the Bay State Breakers and the Portland Jr. Pirates. Other eastern based teams either left the leagues they were playing in or entered the USPHL as expansion squads; they included the Philadelphia Flyers, Connecticut Yankees and P.A.L. Jr. Islanders.

The puck dropped on the inaugural season of the nine team league on September 7th for a match between Portland and Philadelphia with the Jr. Pirates claiming a 3-1 victory.

The USPHL is, of course, attracting the attention of USHL, college and professional scouts. Each one appears to have an opinion on the fledgling circuit.

“I don’t really see much difference between this league and the old Eastern Junior Hockey League,” said one USHL scout. “The teams that were the top clubs in that league are still the top teams in this league (USPHL). Don’t get me wrong, they’re very good teams, the Jersey Hitmen could play and compete very well in our league but I don’t know if they’ve (the league) achieved their objective of rivaling the USHL.”

A college scout had this to say about the USPHL, “It’s still early but I don’t see much of a difference between the USPHL and the EJHL. Regardless of the league, unless you have a draft like the USHL, the best players will always migrate to the best teams leaving the weaker ones to do the best they can at marketing and recruiting. If this league (USPHL) wants to rival the USHL, they need to institute a draft.”

A by-product of the teams that left the EJHL to form the USPHL was another new league, the Eastern Hockey League sprouted out of the remaining EJHL and Atlantic Junior Hockey League teams.

The Eastern Hockey League has 17 franchises ranging from New Hampshire to New Jersey and is enjoying its new found members and sees itself as a much stronger league than a year ago when it was skating under the AJHL banner.

What do the scouts have to say when comparing the EHL with the USPHL?

“My opinion is the USPHL is the same as EJHL except they cut out some of the lower end teams,” one NHL scout said when the question was posed to him. “However, I think some strong teams/programs were left behind and are now in the EHL. My guess is the top EHL teams can compete against USPHL teams.”

Clearly, the USPHL has some work to do in its quest to elevate itself above the other junior league in the east. It is early in a new season but if the USPHL’s goal is to be as good as or better than the USHL, the member organizations need to find ways to do that quickly or the best of the best will always strive to play out west.  

Game of the Week

The matchup that is the most intriguing this week will see the Islanders Hockey Club traveling south to Chelsea, Connecticut to face off in a two game series versus the Connecticut Yankees.

The Islanders were idle last week but have won once in their last six tilts and have slipped down to seventh place in the United States Premier Hockey League’s standings. The Yankees hold a one point lead over the Islanders in the race for sixth place and with four points up for grabs, both clubs will leave it all on the ice.  

NE Junior Power Rankings

1) New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs (13-2-0-0) - Winners of 13 of their last 14 games, the Jr. Monarchs continue to lead the Eastern Hockey League’s North Division and the overall standings. Shawn Nelson paces the offense with 25 points in 15 contests.

2) Boston Jr. Bruins (14-3-0-1) - The Jr. B’s are keeping pace with the Jr. Monarchs as they have been victors of 12 of their last 14 tilts. They lead the United States Premier Hockey League by five points over second place South Shore. Bryan Lemos is leading BJB with 16 points.

3) South Shore Kings (11-6-1-1) - After dropping a one sided affair to the Jr. Bruins, the Kings swept the Portland Jr. Pirates over the weekend. Forward Nolan Vesey (N. Reading, Mass.) remains the leading point producer in the USPHL with 21 points on nine goals and twelve assists.

4) Northern Cyclones (10-2-0-0) - Thanks to a victory over the Connecticut Oilers, the Cyclones move up from fifth to fourth in our rankings. Coach Bill Flanagan’s squad has won eight of its last nine contests. Forward Kevin Valenti leads the EHL in scoring with 28 points in 12 games.

5) Connecticut Oilers (10-4-1-1) - Coach Eric Lind’s club lost two consecutive games for the first time last week but the Oilers remain in first place in the EHL’s Central Division. Eric Widmar has registered 22 points on the season and is first in scoring on his club and fifth in the league.

6) Connecticut Yankees (7-8-0-0) - After coming out on the losing end of a tilt with the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders, Connecticut split a weekend series with the Jr. Bruins. The Yankees are showing steady improvement and reside in sixth place in the USPHL. The club’s top scorer is Connecticut native Charlie Zuccarini, who has registered 13 points in 12 tilts.

7) Boston Jr. Bandits (7-5-1-1) - The Bandits moved up a spot in our poll this week. They did not have a good week (1-2-0) but the teams below them just could not pull even with the Bandits. The good news is Matt Baldino (Woburn, Mass.) is leading the club in points with 16 in 14 games played.

8) Bay State Breakers (6-6-4-1) - BSB picked up a point with an OT loss to the Jersey Hitmen last week before losing game two of the series. The Breakers are in a fourth place tie with Philadelphia in the USPHL. Their offensive leader is Sotiri Athansopoulos, who has put up 13 points this season.

9) Islanders Hockey Club (6-8-1-0) - Coach Sean Tremblay’s club has had a disappointing start to the season. The Islanders are in seventh place in the circuit and look to reverse a 3-7-0 skid in their last ten games. Daniel Doherty (Danvers, Mass.) is producing at a point per game clip with 15 in 15 games.  

10) Portland Jr. Pirates (5-10-1-1) - Despite being mired in a five game losing, the Jr. Pirates are managing to stay out of the USPHL basement and lead the P.A.L Jr. Islanders by two points in the standings. The Pirates will try to right the ship this weekend with their leading scorer, Jordan Haskell, at the helm versus the Jersey Hitmen.

11) Boston Jr. Rangers (6-7-1-0) - Winning five of their last six contests has propelled the Jr. Rangers out of last place in the EHL’s North Division, where they are two points ahead of the Valley Jr. Warriors. Alternate Captain Greg Stoya has registered ten points in his last five games and hopes to continue his streak this weekend.

12) Walpole Express (4-5-3-1) - After winning three of their last ten tilts, it is safe to say, the Express are struggling this season. They occupy fifth place in the EHL’s Central Division, a place the organization is not accustomed to after recently winning three consecutive Atlantic Junior Hockey League titles. Forward Frankie Cefalu, who has ten points in eleven games played, will need to stay on that pace for his club.

13) Valley Jr. Warriors (5-6-0-1) - One step forward, one step back, is the best way to describe the Warriors season up to this point. They are in last place in the EHL’s North Division but trail the Boston Jr. Rangers by only two points.  Charlie Widmar has 12 points in 12 games for Valley.

14) Hartford Jr. Wolfpack (4-7-1-0) - The last place club in the EHL’s Central Division has shown recent signs of increased compete levels by going 2-2-1 in its last five tilts. Forward Kurt Johnson (Wallingford, CT.) leads his team with four goals while San Jose, California native Dylan Vander Esch leads the ‘Pack with nine points, all of those points are assists.

Twitter: @ShawnHutcheon