Gopher recruit Wheeler ranked high by NHL scouts

Gophers coach Don Lucia has had success recruiting players from the United States Hockey League. The NHL Central Scouting Bureau recently released its final report before the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, and ranked USHL players outnumbered ranked Quebec Major Junior League players. Included in that group was Gopher recruit Blake Wheeler. Read more to find out where he stacks up in the eyes of NHL experts.

The United States Hockey League (USHL) once again led all American and several Canadian hockey development programs as 30 current players were ranked by NHL Central Scouting in its final report before the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

The USHL has been a major pipeline for Gophers coach Don Lucia to find talent. Over 20 players on the 2003-04 roster competed in the USHL in previous years, and the majority of the recruits signed this year will or have played in the USHL.

"Our goal has always been to create the best place for players to further their careers, and then make the best better," said USHL President Gino Gasparini. "We're obviously pleased with the number of players ranked from the USHL -- but the real mission is to keep evolving and keep improving."

High-scoring Blake Wheeler of Breck High School in Minneapolis, who has committed to play for the Gophers, was ranked No. 17 overall by NHL Central Scouting.

Wheeler led Breck to the Class A state championship in March, scoring six goals and five assists in three state tournament games. Wheeler scored 100 points during the season, including 45 goals and 55 assists. He scored four goals in a game twice, three goals in a game three times, and two goals seven times. Wheeler scored a goal in 26 of 30 games this season and had nine games with three assists or more, including one game with five assists, and one game with four assists.

The USHL's total also exceeded that of the BCHL, the AJHL and the SJHL combined. Even more significant, the USHL's total of 30 current players ranked exceeded that of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. One USHL team, the Anderson Cup-winning Tri-City Storm, had more players ranked than any other team in North America.

In all, 33 players with USHL experience were ranked, led by Notre Dame defenseman Wes O'Neill (Green Bay), who was installed at No. 23 overall. The highest ranked USHL player currently in the league was Tri-City defenseman Chris Zarb at No. 37. Four current USHL goaltenders were ranked, the highest of which was Sioux City's Jimmy Spratt at No. 12 overall.

Several players whose rights are held by USHL teams were also included on the list including the top overall draft pick in Wednesday's 2004 USHL Entry Draft, Centennial (Minn.) High School forward Tom Gorowsky (Sioux Falls), who was named Mr. Minnesota hockey for the 2003-04 season.

Gopher Illustrated Top Stories