United States Hockey League (USHL)

College Hockey Recruiting: Top Programs Picking Up Big Commits From USHL

College Hockey Recruiting: Top Programs Picking Up Big Commits From USHL

The USHL has long been fertile recruiting ground for the NCAA's top programs and this year has been no different, with many USHL stars pledging commitments.

Nov 24, 2023 by Ryan Sikes
College Hockey Recruiting: Top Programs Picking Up Big Commits From USHL

The start of the USHL season is always an exciting time. Aside from all 16 teams getting a fresh look at their roster, it is also a period where prospects begin pledging their commitments to NCAA hockey programs.

Commitments have been flying in the USHL this season, with many of the top programs in men’s college hockey snapping up some of the league’s standout performers this season.

Leo Gruba, the Fargo Force defenseman who has been among the league’s top blueliners this season, is one of several players who signed their national letters of intent this fall.

As a senior in high school, the Lake Elmo, Minnesota, native initially pledged his commitment to St. Cloud State on June 1, 2022, after his official visit at the end of May.

Gruba scored eight goals and 23 points in 60 games during the 2022-23 season under the assumption that he would be joining the Huskies program when the time was right.

Returning for his second USHL season, the 19-year-old decided to re-open his recruitment period, de-commiting from St. Cloud State in September. After an official visit to the University of Minnesota, Gruba finalized his commitment to Bob Motzko’s program at the end of October.

“It was a really tough decision for me to move on from St. Cloud,” Gruba told FloHockey. “I think at the end of the day, I wanted a place for college that I was really passionate about, kind of ‘bleed the team.’ You only have one college experience, and it’s a cool thing that you work your butt off to do.”

At 6-foot-2 and almost 210 pounds, Gruba was a hot commodity for prospective NCAA clubs. While Minnesota was home, the young defenseman was open to any and all options. 

He considered schools in the Hockey East conference and other Big Ten schools before coming back to what he called “the right place for me” in the Gophers.

“It felt like I was a concert tour,” he joked of re-opening his recruitment. “After going to Minnesota, it was an easy decision. They have a great atmosphere when you walk into the locker room. Like, the guys there, they want to play pro hockey.”

The Gophers have a strong track record of taking USHL defensemen drafted by NHL clubs and developing them into NHL-ready talent.

Brady Skjei, Erik Johnson, Alex Goligoski, Nick Leddy, Justin Holl, and Brock Faber are several examples of former Gopher blueliners who spent time in the USHL and have gone on to have successful – or have a very bright future – NHL careers.

And this year’s roster houses several NHL-drafted prospects who spent time in the USHL: Sam Rinzel (CHI), Cal Thomas (ARI), Mike Koster (TOR), Luke Middlestadt (MTL), and Ryan Chesley (WSH).

Gruba will look to continue that trend next year, which begins with him being drafted as a re-entry candidate in the 2024 NHL Draft. 

The 19-year-old blueliner is presenting a strong case thus far, leading all USHL defensemen in points (19) and the fourth-highest plus/minus (+14).

Gruba’s commitment to Minnesota was a busy few weeks for the Gophers, who picked up a number of big-name recruits. 

Here’s a rundown of some of the most notable commitments among USHL players since the summer and into this season.


Leo Gruba: Fargo Force

The 19-year-old leads all USHL defensemen in goals (7) and points (19). Gruba possesses a big frame and could potentially hear his name called as a re-entry candidate in the 2024 NHL Draft.

August Falloon: Tri-City Storm

Originally committed to Arizona State, the St. Cloud native will remain in his home state. Falloon is having an excellent start to the year with Tri-City, collecting 10 goals and 15 points through 18 games.

Erik Pahlsson: Dubuque Fighting Saints

The 19-year-old came over to North America this season after captaining the HV71 J20 last year. Pahlsson hit the ground running with the Saints and leads the USHL in points (26).

L.J. Mooney: USNTDP U-17 Team

Mooney was a key contributor for Team USA at the 2023 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, scoring four goals and seven points and helping the Americans earn a silver medal finish.


Matvei Gridin: Muskegon Lumberjacks

The Russian forward is flirting with first-round potential in the 2024 NHL Draft after his strong start to the 2023-24 season. Gridin has recorded the second-most points (21) through 18 games thus far. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, he has a solid frame and an even better shot.

Christian Humphreys: USNTDP U-18 Team

Initially a Michigan State commit, Humphreys flipped his commitment to their in-state rivals. This year, the 17-year-old has been a point-per-game player for the U-18 club, potting seven goals and 18 points in 18 games for the NTDP.

Asher Barnett: USNTDP U-17 Team 

The Wilmette, Illinois, native is primarily known as a setup man from the back end and has six points – all assists – in 19 games for the U-17 team.

Drew Schock: USNTDP U-17 Team 

Schock came into this year with plenty of hype after scoring 44 points in 23 games for Notre Dame Academy last year. Through 19 games with the U-17 club, the 16-year-old has one goal and nine points. He also contributed four assists at the 2023 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.

Cole McKinney: USNTDP U-17 Team

McKinney figures to be one of the top picks in the 2025 NHL Draft. He’s a smooth-skating center and an excellent play-driver. This year, the 16-year-old has six goals and 10 points in 19 NTDP games.

Boston College

Michael Hagens: Chicago Steel

Hagens was originally committed to Harvard before he decided to re-open his recruitment and go in with his brother James. After potting 26 points in 60 games last year, the elder Hagens brother has two goals and nine points in 16 games for Chicago to start the 2023-24 season.

James Hagens: USNTDP U-18 Team

The 17-year-old figures to be a top pick in the 2025 NHL Draft. He possesses excellent vision, puck distribution abilities, and a wicked shot. Hagens received a mid-season call-up to the U-18 club last year and never looked back. With 10 goals and 30 points in 16 games so far this season, he looks to challenge teammate Cole Eiserman as the top point-producer on the U-18 team.

Gavin Cornforth: Dubuque Fighting Saints

Conforth spent the bulk of last season cutting his teeth in the USHL as a 15-year-old. Back for at least one more year, the almost 17-year-old has 10 goals and 17 points through the first 18 games.

Will Skahan: USNTDP U-18 Team

A potential first-round pick in next year’s NHL Draft, Skahan has a huge frame at 6–foot-4 and nearly 215 pounds. He possesses terrific mobility, and the offensive potential is coming along. The 17-year-old has one goal and four points in 18 NTDP games this year. He was a bit of a surprise add for BC as he had been previously committed to Wisconsin.

Boston University

Cole Eiserman: USNTDP U-18 Team

Eiserman was originally a Minnesota commit before reversing course earlier this year and committed to BU shortly after. The 17-year-old is projected to be a top pick in the 2024 NHL Draft and features one of the most NHL-ready shots in his class. Eiserman has 22 goals and 32 points in 17 games for the U-18 club. He needs 36 goals to break Cole Caufield’s record for most goals in NTDP history; it's definitely doable.

Zach Morin: Youngstown Phantoms

One of two tender signings for Youngstown last year, Morin has three goals and seven points in 14 games thus far. Look for the trailblazing forward to catch fire in the second half of the season and put up some big numbers.

Charlie Trethewey: USNTDP U-17 Team

Trethewey had an outstanding performance at the 2023 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. The 16-year-old finished the tournament with the most points by a defenseman (10) and has 19 points in 19 NTDP games overall. Perhaps a mid-season U-18 call-up candidate?

Jack Murtagh: USNTDP U-17 Team

Murtagh was terrific at the 2023 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, recording four goals and seven points in seven games. The East Greenbush, New York, native’s 12 points in 18 games are the fifth-most on the U-17 roster.

North Dakota

Cooper Simpson: Tri-City Storm

Simpson was a key offensive contributor for Team USA at the 2023 Five Nations Tournament, netting four goals and six games. He was Tri-City’s tender signing last year and had just three points in 14 games before returning to Shakopee High School in Minnesota, where he potted 63 points in 27 games last year.

Will Zellers: Shattuck St. Mary's 18U Prep 

Initially committed to Boston University, Zellers flipped his commitment to the Fighting Hawks in mid-September. A draft pick of the Green Bay Gamblers, the 17-year-old is playing for the Shattuck St. Mary’s 18U club to start the 2023-24 season. He already has 43 points in 23 games, and I wonder if he will join the Gamblers to start the second half of the USHL season.

Caleb Heil: Sioux Falls Stampede

Heil excelled on the international stage at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, backstopping Team USA to a bronze-medal finish. The 17-year-old owns a 3.35 goals-against average and a 0.871 save percentage in 10 games with the Herd thus far. He will have the opportunity to showcase himself on the international stage again next month at the World Junior A Challenge.

E.J. Emery: USNTDP U-18 Team

Emery is a potential first-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft and stands at a robust 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds. He has proven an excellent puck distributor, finding his teammates on stretch passes up-ice. Emery has five points – all assists - in 18 games for the U-18 team thus far.


Tory Pitner: Youngstown Phantoms

Pitner’s refined approach this season has him tapping into his offensive potential. Originally committed to UMass, the 17-year-old flipped his commitment to the Pioneers in September. He is tied with Gruba for most goals (7) and has the second-most points (16) by a defenseman.

Sam Spehar: Muskegon Lumberjacks

Spehar began the year with the Jacks, recording four points in 11 games before returning to the Sioux Falls Power at the end of October, where he had 52 points in 28 games last year. The 16-year-old stood out at the 2023 Five Nations tournament, playing a hard-nosed 200-foot game while tallying four goals and seven points in the international showcase.

Will Felicio: Madison Capitols

Felicio’s skating ability was on full display at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, finishing the tournament as the top points-getter among defensemen on the Team USA roster. He has five goals and 10 points in 16 games for Madison this season. 

Paxton Geisel: Muskegon Lumberjacks

A mid-summer trade sent Geisel from Dubuque to Muskegon, where he would have the opportunity to carve out regular playing time. The 19-year-old owns a 6-3-0 record to go along with a 3.86 goals-against average and 0.870 save percentage in 11 games. It is believed he will join Denver as early as next semester.