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At the first universal NHL draft in 1969, 81 percent of the players were chosen out of the three major Canadian junior leagues. The OHL (OHA at the time) led the way, followed by the WCHL (now WHL) and QJHL (now QMJHL).

There were four American-born players chosen. One (Bobby Sheehan) came from the OHA, and three were college men.

Fast forward to this year’s draft and things have changed over the decades. If you include the U.S. National Development Team as part of the USHL, the number of players being drafted exceeds each of the Canadian junior leagues.

What’s more, the men who have funneled through the USHL aren’t fringe players, checkers and also-rans. Some of the USHL grads are among the elite players in the NHL today, with large amounts of forwards, defensemen and goalies of various quality marbled into NHL rosters and pipelines.

The question: Is the USHL hockey’s best development league? Is it close?

USHL in the NHL

At the beginning of the 2022-23 season, NHL opening night rosters housed 193 names from the USHL, 173 from the OHL and 115 players from the WHL.

The USHL is a massive supplier of talent to the NHL.

Led by Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jack Eichel of the Vegas Golden Knights, Adam Fox of the New York Rangers and Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils, the league has delivered a stunning amount of talent to the world’s best league.

USHL at the draft

The 2023 draft also gives a quick snapshot in regard to the state of development leagues across North America and Europe.

It’s impossible to get a completely accurate view because European prospects are playing in all North American leagues and there are times when a prospect changes leagues entering his draft year and that makes it difficult to properly credit a league. Matthews would be an example of a player making a move prior to his NHL draft year.

Here is a look at the 2023 draft with the total and percentage for each junior league.

League Players Pct of Total

OHL

36

16

WHL

33

15

USHL

26

12

Sweden Jr

22

10

US Nat’l team

13

6

QMHL

12

5

Finland Jr

11

5

Russia Jr

8

4

Germany Jr

2

1

Swiss Jr

2

1

Belarus

1

0.5

The U.S. National Development Team plays in the USHL, so the total for the entire league is 39. The USHL is a monster, and its impact on the NHL is growing every year.

USHL award winners

In the last decade, grads from the USHL have been awarded impressive NHL hardware. Here are the major award winners since 2013-14.

  • Ted Lindsay Award (league MVP voted by players): Auston Matthews (2022)
  • Hart Memorial Trophy (league MVP): Auston Matthews (2022)
  • Norris Trophy (top defenceman): Adam Fox (2021)
  • Maurice Richard Trophy (top player in total goals): Auston Matthews (2021, 2022)

The USHL alum are making inroads in all areas, and the last 10 years saw Matthews win four major awards. Along with names like Eichel and Fox, and Hughes (who is on the verge of superstardom), the league’s best graduates are also among the best in the NHL each season.

The OHL and WHL are more dominant in the major award categories, but the Calder Trophy (for rookie of the year) is a strong indicator of future award winners. In the last decade, two USHL graduates (Matthews in 2017 and Matty Beniers of the Seattle Kraken this year) have won the award.

The awards represent a major plateau for the USHL and suggest the league will produce more in the next decade.

Top 100 players in the NHL

Perhaps the best way to evaluate progress by the USHL compared to other junior leagues is by identifying the 100 best players in the league and measuring the league against other junior leagues across the hockey world.

The Athletic runs a top-100 players annually with a convenient midseason update that gives us the freshest available information.

There are four tiers to the rankings: MVP, Franchise, All-Star and Top Line. Here are the numbers for each of the major junior leagues.

League Tier 1 Tier 2 Tier 3 Tier 4

OHL

1

3

5

14

WHL

1

2

4

1

QMJHL

2

2

2

5

USHL

2

5

8

4

Swe-Jr

2

2

6

7

MHL

1

2

2

Fin-Jr

4

1

Swiss-Jr

1

2

Rus-Jr

1

1

BCHL

1

Germany

2

Czech

2

OJHL

1

US High School

1

Norway

1

USHL Pct

20

25

27

10

By tier, the USHL ranks No. 1 (tie in the first group), No. 1 (second and third group) and No. 4 (final tier) among all junior teams.

Overall, the USHL total (19) is the second highest (OHL No. 1 at 23) among the junior leagues.

The OHL’s players are mostly in the final tier, allowing for a conversation about the quality of each league’s players in The Athletic’s top 100 overall. The USHL and Swedish juniors have a story to tell.

“Saw him good” scouting

Matthews is the best USHL grad in the NHL today. He isn’t the best in the league but is a strong candidate for top five in the NHL.

He’s not alone. Fox is among the top tier in the league, and Hughes will be there any minute. NHL teams took two players from the league in the top eight in the 2023 draft, and this isn’t a strong year for the USHL.

I’ve spoken to NHL scouts about the quality of the USHL compared to the established Canadian junior leagues. The consensus opinion has the USHL trailing the Canadian leagues, although all admit the gap is closing.

Is this reality?

Most scouts have been around the game for a long time. The USHL was an upstart when many current scouts were early in their careers. The older generation of NHL scouts may believe the USHL still trails, but the growing evidence suggests this is no longer the case. This bias would also explain the USHL trailing for NHL awards compared to actual accomplishments.

The games may be more entertaining, or the overall level of competition may be better, but we’re asking for the name of the league that produces the most quality NHL talent.

It’s unlikely the NHL scouts, as a group, will recognize the moment the USHL passes the OHL as a producer of future NHL talent. Scouts believe in the eye test, some give weight to the numbers when evaluating individual players.

It’s possible the league has already emerged as the top producer of NHL talent.

In this quick look at the leagues, USHL players are No. 1 in populating opening night rosters (2022-23), No. 1 in populating the 2023 NHL draft and No. 1 in the top three tiers of The Athletic’s top-100 players.

The NHL industry is telling us the USHL’s time is coming.

The numbers are telling us the USHL’s time is here.

(Photo of Auston Matthews and Adam Fox: Brad Penner / USA Today)

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