When it comes to scouting future NHL superstars, the United States Hockey League traditionally has been an afterthought compared to Canadian major junior hockey.
However, America's premier circuit for players under 21 is quietly closing the gap with its northern counterparts. With perhaps its best crop of prospects eligible for next June's NHL draft, the USHL could have a record number of players chosen in the first round for the second time in three years.
In 2010, four USHL stars were selected in the top 30, including goalie Jack Campbell, taken by Dallas at No. 11, and Derek Forbort, who went 15th overall to Los Angeles. That paled in comparison to the Ontario Hockey League's (OHL) nine, but consider that the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) -- which has produced some of the best players in hockey history such as Sidney Crosby, Patrick Roy and Mario Lemieux -- had just one skater taken in the first round.
"It has gotten better, absolutely," Danny O'Brien, a scout for the Dallas Stars, says of the USHL and its growing influence on draft day.
"The league's got good coaching, good markets, and it's obviously developing good players."
This season, the blue-chippers include Jacob Trouba, a defenseman in the U.S. National Team Development Program, fellow blueliner Mike Matheson of Dubuque, and Matheson's teammate with the Fighting Saints, Latvian-born forward Zemgus Girgensons.
All three are projected to go in the opening round in 2012, and Insider's own Grant Sonier wrote this week that the individual stock of each player is rising.
Other potential Top-30 picks include Green Bay Gamblers D-man Jordan Schmaltz (who made headlines after being involved in a blockbuster trade earlier this month and USNTDP winger Henrik Samuelsson, the son of ex-NHLer Ulf.
With top-end talent like that coming through the ranks, it's not surprising that USHL teams have more than held their own in preseason exhibitions against OHL and QMJHL clubs in recent years.
The competition between the U.S. and Canadian leagues has grown so fierce, in fact, that major junior clubs will rarely poach a player from the USHL anymore unless he's spent time playing college hockey first.
"Once they go to the USHL, they really can't come back to our league in a way," says the chief scout for one prominent OHL club. "It's kind of a touchy thing."
There are exceptions, of course. In 2008, current Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson jumped from the Indiana Ice to the London (Ontario) Knights. But one distinct advantage for the USHL is it allows players to maintain their NCAA eligibility, unlike the major junior leagues. So for most teenage prospects and their parents, it's not hard to see why the USHL is often the better option.
"When you're not a sure thing like a Steven Stamkos or whomever -- especially if you're an American kid -- going to the USHL is a safer bet," O'Brien says.
"Even if you get drafted by an NHL team, you've still got your scholarship. If you go to the OHL, you might make the NHL, but you might not. For a parent, it's an easy choice."
And increasingly, NHL teams are encouraging their U.S.-trained draft picks to stay home, develop against older, stronger players in college, and then move directly to the pros as they near their mid-20s.
If that trend continues, the UHSL won't be an afterthought much longer.