United States Hockey League (USHL)

USHL Fall Classic: 15 NHL Prospects To Watch As Season Opens

USHL Fall Classic: 15 NHL Prospects To Watch As Season Opens

As the USHL season gets set to open in Pittsburgh, prospect analyst Chris Peters details the players you should know about.

Sep 21, 2022 by Chris Peters
USHL Fall Classic: 15 NHL Prospects To Watch As Season Opens

Starting Thursday, USHL players will be taking their first skate strides of the 2022-23 season at the DICK’S Sporting Goods USHL Fall Classic. For some, this will be their first chance in a live game to show what they can do for the NHL draft, for others it might be their first foray into junior hockey, but for all it’s another important year of development as each looks to make progress to ascend the hockey ladder to the next levels.

Hundreds of NHL scouts, college recruiters and evaluators will be on hand in Cranberry Twp., Pa., to watch all 16 teams gather at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex for four days of games. So here’s a little insight on some of the players they’re going to want to pay special attention to, broken into three categories – prospects already drafted into the NHL, prospects eligible to be drafted into the NHL this season and lastly, the young stars making their debuts with especially high expectations.

NHL Drafted Prospects

Sam Rinzel, D, Waterloo Black Hawks (Chicago): The highest-drafted player returning to the USHL this season, Rinzel spent a portion of last season with Waterloo while also playing for his high school team in Chaska, Minn. Rinzel will be part of Waterloo full-time this year and there’s a lot of excitement about what he can bring back to the league. Selected 25th overall by Chicago in July, Rinzel has a lot of raw tools including high-end skating ability and some solid offensive skill to go along with a 6-foot-4 frame. Rinzel has some rounding out to do and strength to build, which is why a return trip through the USHL this season will do him a lot of good before moving on to the University of Minnesota next season.

Nick Moldenhauer, C/W, Chicago Steel (Toronto): Returning to the Steel this season after averaging over a point-per-game, Moldenhauer should be viewed as one of the league’s best returnees this season. He represented Canada at last spring’s IIHF World Under-18 Championship and was a top-100 pick (95th overall) in the 2022 NHL Draft. Moldenhauer has some good skill and quickness, which feeds right into how the Chicago Steel always try to play. Moldenhauer should be one of the offensive leaders for his team this season.

Michael Fisher, D, Youngstown Phantoms (San Jose): Viewed as one of the prospects in the last draft with some of the greatest potential among those selected in the middle rounds, Fisher checks a ton of boxes. He’s a big, slick-skating right-shot defenseman who put up a lot of points in the prep ranks last season with 50 in 28 games for St. Mark’s. He was picked 76th overall by San Jose and the Sharks will certainly be tracking their young prospect with great interest. Committed to Northeastern for the 2023-24 season, Fisher should play a central role for Youngstown in what will be his first USHL campaign.

Quinn Finley, LW, Madison Capitols (New York Islanders): Finley was a big reason Madison went on a surprising run to the finals last year. With 10 points in 14 playoff games, he was among the team’s offensive drivers and likely put himself in a better position to be drafted, as he was by the Islanders 78th overall. The biggest thing for Finley at this point is to continue physically maturing and getting stronger. His skill is unquestioned as there’s creativity and precision in how he handles the puck. If he can stay healthy this season, he’ll make a lot of noise.

George Fegaras, D, Muskegon Lumberjacks (Dallas): The Jacks have to be thrilled that Fegaras decided to come to the USHL after a truly remarkable season in Canada’s OJHL in 2021-22 with the North York Rangers. Fegaras is a 6-foot-2, right-shot defenseman who averaged nearly a point per game for North York last season. It earned him OJHL Rookie of the Year honors, the league’s Top Prospect Award, a spot on the league’s first all-star team and getting snapped up 83rd overall by the Dallas Stars. Transitioning to a new league always takes some adjustment, but Fegaras, who is committed to Cornell University, looks poised to make an impact in his first foray in the USHL.

Daimon Gardner, C, Tri-City Storm (Vancouver): One of the more intriguing draft prospects out of the Minnesota high school ranks last season, Gardner has size and some skill to go along with it. He had 83 points in 30 games for Warroad high school including 45 goals. Gardner did play in 14 USHL games last season, which included seven-game stints with both Omaha and Tri-City. Set for his first full USHL campaign after being drafted 112th overall by Vancouver, there’s quite a bit expected of the big centerman.

2023 NHL Draft Eligible

Maxim Strbak, D, Sioux Falls Stampede: One of the top imports in the USHL this season, Slovak-born Strbak comes to the league with some pedigree. He has represented Slovakia on the international stage at the U18 level and was part of the roster for the World Junior Championship, both the originally-scheduled tournament in December and the rescheduled event in August. Strbak has size, hockey sense and a real two-way value. At 6-foot-2, 183 pounds, the right-shot blueliner appears to have a lot of potential and would join a long line of recent Stampede defensemen to earn NHL draft selections. Some scouts believe Strbak could be a threat to go in the first round, potentially even in the mid-range if he has a big season.

Oliver Moore, LW, U.S. National U18 Team: We could list a lot of NTDP players for this section, but we’ll pick Moore as one of the representatives. The future Minnesota Golden Gopher plays the game at a high pace and often finds himself blowing by defenders on the way to a big play. He had 26 points in 32 USHL games last season and is already producing at a pretty good clip through the U18 Team’s first two games of the season. Though average sized, you probably won’t miss him when he’s on the ice due to his pace.

Ryan Leonard, C, U.S. National U18 Team: A projected first-round pick for 2023, Leonard scored four goals in the U18s' first game of the season. That’s starting it off with a bang. While his offensive game is solid, Leonard does a lot more than score. He has more of a rugged game and is able to play on the interior quite well. That’s why there’s a lot of first-round buzz for him. However, if his offense picks up as it appears to have at the end of last season and the beginning of this one, he could be moving himself up draft boards.

Jayden Perron, LW, Chicago Steel: Chicago has been a haven for some of the higher-end skill players that may not be as blessed in the size department. After signing a tender with the Steel last season, Perron put up 45 points in 60 games as a 16-year-old rookie. It was an excellent first showing in the league for the Winnipeg native who is committed to the University of North Dakota. This season, Perron should be playing an advanced role on the team, which you’d expect leads to big numbers and getting him more firmly on NHL radars.

Andrew Strathmann, D, Youngstown Phantoms: A USHL All-Rookie selection on the blue line last year, Strathmann had 23 points in 61 games for the Tri-City Storm. He also had a strong showing at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in August, posting four points in five games for Team USA. Strathmann was moved to the Phantoms in an offseason trade and will have the chance to showcase himself on a team that is expected to be quite a bit more competitive this season. Despite a 5-11, 174-pound frame, Strathmann has some bite to his game, which certainly must please his future school, the University of North Dakota.

Tanner Adams, RW, Tri-City Storm: An all-around forward who can make some plays and gets his nose dirty in the harder areas f the ice, Adams was more than capable as a rookie last season. He had 32 points in 62 games for Tri-City and played a big role for Team USA at this summer’s Hlinka-Gretzky Cup. The future Providence Friar is poised to play a big role for Tri-City as they re-set following an Anderson Cup-winning season as regular-season champions.

Michael Hrabal, G, Omaha Lancers: A towering 6-foot-6 goaltender with international experience for Czechia's national team, Hrabal has had a lot of success at a young age. He was a solid performer in Czechia's U20 ranks last season, posting a .936 save percentage while going 18-3-0 for Sparta Prague. Hrabal also was Czechia's starter at the recent Hlinka-Gretzky Cup where he posted a .917 save percentage, which included a 35-save performance in a win over the U.S. About to enter his first season in North America, Omaha acquired Hrabal in a trade this offseason. The big netminder also recently committed to UMass. 

Rookies To Watch

Macklin Celebrini, C/W, Chicago Steel: Considered by some to be the best 2006-born player, perhaps anywhere in the world, the super talented 16-year-old is ready for his USHL debut. After starring at the vaunted Shattuck-St. Mary’s program, putting up numbers that hadn’t been seen by a 15-year-old since Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews were walking around the Faribault, Minn., campus. Celebrini could be the next in a growing line of elite-level future NHL talents to choose to play for the Chicago Steel and make a big impact at every level he touches next. Not draft eligible until 2024, Celebrini is easily one of the most exciting prospects to enter the league this season, regardless of age.

Sacha Boisvert, C, Muskegon Lumberjacks: A big 16-year-old with a growing buzz around him, the Quebec-born Boisvert spent his last two seasons in the U.S. playing for Rhode Island-based Mount St. Charles. Last season, he had 94 points in just 56 games at the 15U level. The jump from playing against your 15-year-old peers to the USHL is a significant one, but there’s been plenty of talk about Boisvert being a prospect to watch for the 2024 NHL Draft.