There is simply no disputing the fact that, since 2018, the Jersey Hitmen have been the best organization in the National Collegiate Development Conference.
Three straight Founders Cup championships for regular season dominance were finally validated with a Dineen Cup title win last March. The Hitmen also saw one of its players - one of three in the entire NCDC - get drafted by an NHL team, when goaltender Chase Clark was selected by the Washington Capitals. The Hitmen had no less than 24 NCAA-committed players skating for them over the course of the season.
Predicting the Jersey Hitmen to win the NCDC has become as surprising as pumpkin spice lattes being a big hit at Starbucks in the month of October.
“We are very excited for the 2021-2022 season! We have been really impressed in training camp by the fitness and work ethic of our club,” said Head Coach Toby Harris, one of the co-founders of the Hitmen back in 2004. “Guys have come to camp fit, hungry and ready to defend the Founders and Dineen Cups.”
The Hitmen's regular season begins on Saturday, Sept. 24, against the Philadelphia Hockey Club.
The Hitmen will have to do without Hitmen multi-season veterans like Liam McLinskey, Andrew Gilbert, Daniel Ebrahim and Patrick Keegan - culture warriors who lived, breathed and slept Hitmen hockey. No worries - the Hitmen have never had to “rebuild.” A track record of on-ice success and off-ice advancement like theirs advertises itself better than Goodyear tires over the Super Bowl. Players with skill, tenacity and character line up to be Hitmen.
“The main difference between last year's team and this year's team is that veteran presence. We only return five players off our 2020-21 roster that began training camp with us last year, but that does not mean we take a step back,” said Harris. “We have a ton of speed and depth up front. Our defensive core is mobile and will add another level of offense off the rush.
“Although we had a great starter last season in Quinnipiac commit and Washington Capitals draft pick Chase Clark, I believe that our 1-2 punch this season in goal will be collectively as strong if not stronger,” he added.
The veteran leadership is squarely on the shoulders of Dylan Lugris, Brandon Cimino, Sean Melso and Oscar Worob.
“We return four NCDC players and luckily those players were massive in last season's championship run,” added Harris.
Cimino captured NCDC Defenseman Of The Year Honors for 2020-21. The 2001-born New Rochelle, N.Y., native posted 36 points in 44 games, as well as two assists in four playoff games.
“Finishing the 2020-21 season as the No. 6 scorer on the roster, Cimino will be back up top on the power play and on the ice in the waning minutes when we need to secure a victory,” Harris said.
Lugris (‘01) finished fifth in Hitmen scoring last year, scoring 39 points in playing 44 games on the season.
“He will undoubtedly land on the top five NCDC scorers list and be a Division I recruit. His offensive skills and deft hands coupled with a tireless work ethic will land him a scholarship this season,” said Harris.
Left shot defenseman Sean Melso (‘02) will be on the top pair with Cimino. Melso was placed on the NHL Central Scouting Mid-Term Rankings amidst a strong Hub City Tampa performance.
“He’ll be called on in big spots for our club,” Harris added. “He, like Lugris, will have the Division I coaches flocking to Wayne, N.J. as his smooth skating and offensive instincts are second to none.”
Oscar Worob saw 22 games with the Hitmen last year and he returns for his eighth season in a Hitmen jersey and sixth USPHL season, going back to the 15U level in 2016-17.
Obviously, with just three full-season veterans back for the Hitmen, the majority of the team are newcomers. Not to worry in goal, as Harris sees Peyton Grainer (‘02) as the heir apparent to Clark.
“When you lose an NHL draft pick, you need to fill that spot with another high-level talent and I believe we have done that with Peyton,” added Harris. “He is a big goalie with amazing lateral movement, a strong glove and he is extremely confident in goal. He comes to Jersey with a lot of NHL interest and believes that the NCDC will open a lot of doors for him.”
Additionally, Boston College recruit Will Traeger, Arizona State recruit Max Bronstine, Patriks Marcinkevics (Latvian National Team Player), Marcus Kivela-Carlzon (Swedish National Team Player) and ‘02 left winger Lee Chiang are all “guys that will move you to the edge of your seat.”
Along with Worob, another Hitmen homegrown product is Nick Amaya, who split last season between the 18U and Premier Hitmen. He was among the five current NCDC players in last year's training camp.
The Hitmen, who will select team captains at the end of their training camp and ahead of their opener against Philadelphia, know what they’re looking for in a season by now.
“Our expectations every season are always the same: Win the Founders Cup, win the Dineen Cup,” said Harris. “ We expect the South Division to be very strong this season as the coaches in our division are knowledgeable, they work extremely hard and have many strong contacts throughout North America.
“We know that we will have to be at the top of our game every night to win in this division and in this league,” Harris added. “It is our job as a staff to prepare these players for that and after one week of camp, we are excited at what we have seen thus far.”
The winds are picking up and the sky is opening up - it’s time for the storm, as the NCDC’s Northern Cyclones bring waves of skill, determination, grit and everything needed in this beautiful game of hockey every time a team steps on the ice.
The Cyclones have seen their ups and downs in the standings and postseason, like nearly any team will - the ups included a 2019 playoff upset of the top-seeded Jersey Hitmen and a shot at the 2019 Dineen Cup champion Junior Bruins in the semifinals. The 2020-21 season, which saw absolute shutdowns of their rink and team, and having to move for six weeks to Florida just to complete what turned out to be only a 29-game season (out of a usual 48) could certainly be considered a down.
But the Cyclones are always looking at the big picture - you can’t really call anything a “down” when you create a team, set a culture that the players follow, see the players become like brothers and work for each other, regardless of the outcome.
The Cyclones often say they are in the business of creating better young men, better people, moreso than just better hockey players. But with a massive track record of NCAA advancement, they have that base covered as well. Confident in their approach and development mission, the Cyclones certainly have their sights set on hardware as well.
“We expect to win a championship and to place all our guys in the best college hockey programs possible,” said Flanagan, whose team opens on Saturday, Sept. 24, against the rival New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs.
The 2021-22 season provides another opportunity for personal growth and hockey development, with many players from last season returning and several strong newcomers making their first appearance in the Black, Crimson and White.
“Our General Manager Bill Weiand put together a great group of players,” said Head Coach Bill Flanagan. “We have a good combination of younger and older talent within the team.
“Everything is different from this year’s team and last year’s team,” added Flanagan. “Our strengths and weaknesses within the team are still to be determined since we have a lot of new guys on the team this season.”
The team has named returning NCDC players Massimo Pietroniro and Pavel Karasek as Captains for the 2021-22 season. John Goldowski and Brennan Dickey will be Alternate Captains.
Pietroniro is an ‘02 forward, who registered 19 points in 29 contests last year, while Karasek (‘01) is now a fourth-year NCDC Cyclone after earning his promotion from the Premier team in 2018-19.
One year before that, he had played on the Springfield Pics’ 16U and was the USPHL 16U’s leading scorer for 2017-18. Karasek is already third all-time in NCDC games played for the Cyclones and can pass into the No. 1 spot early in the year.
Goldowski and Dickey are second-year NCDC Cyclones - a little trivia: they were actually born three days apart in 2001.
Like Karasek, defenseman Austin Rice (‘02) is a fifth-year USPHL veteran. He is entering his third year with the NCDC Cyclones and will likely be in the top five all-time in NCDC Cyclones games played by the end of this season. Players join the Cyclones and certainly like to stay.
In terms of exciting newcomers to the NCDC Cyclones, watch for Hudson Nadasdi, Eduard Gabdrakhmanov, and Chance Uzzell.
Nadasdi (‘02) is a forward who has had a lot of success first with the TPH Thunder and more recently with the Nashville Jr. Predators AAA program. Uzzell (‘04) has also played for both these organizations and joins from the Seacoast Performance Academy.
Gabdrakhmanov (‘03) is a USPHL veteran, playing mostly at the 16U and 18U levels the past two years, but with some NCDC experience as well.
With these players on board, and so many more with impressive resumes, Flanagan stands firm in his expectation “to win the championship and place all our guys in the best college hockey programs possible.”
“I think that every game will be competitive this year and should all be one goal games,” he added, of the NCDC as a whole. “There is great talent this year and great coaches.”
Growing up in Long Island, N.Y., Pinto played nearly all of his minor hockey for the Tier 2 Brooklyn Aviators -- a modest, early flight plan that ultimately led him to soar among the three finalists for the 2021 Hobey Baker Award as the top college hockey player in the United States.
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The P.A.L. Junior Islanders look like they’ll be sticking around the top echelons of the National Collegiate Development Conference for a while.
In their first two years under Head Coach Mike Marcou, the Jr. Islanders have finished in a three-way tie for fourth and fourth alone, respectively. That was after a 10th-place finish under the previous coach in 2018-19, so the organization has definitely wedged itself into the top pack in swift order.
However, the team is still seeking that elusive deep playoff run to validate these great regular seasons. Granted, they only had one chance, in 2021, after COVID-19 canceled the 2020 playoffs. But after a two-game series win against Philadelphia Hockey Club, they came up just short in a pair of close games with eventual Dineen Cup finalists the Rockets Hockey Club.
Marcou is back for Year 3 and certainly likes the looks of what he expects will be his team roster when the first game day arrives against the Connecticut Jr. Rangers, in terms of being able to remain among the top third of the league in the USPHL’s Tier-II Tuition-Free Junior Hockey League. They can also continue producing NCAA Division I and III talent, as they did with no less than seven players on a younger team last year.
“I am very happy with the new talent we have coming in this year. We have a great core of returners coming back. I am excited to get out and compete,” Marcou said. “We have 12 returning players from last year, which helps with our experience. We brought in some younger players this year with a lot of talent. It will be fun to watch these players develop.”
Among the 12 returning players is returning Captain Spencer Korona, who enters his fourth NCDC season and seventh USPHL season overall. At 133 games, Korona has a very good chance to become the all-time leader in NCDC games played after about half the season and then just build on that record from there. His 51 points through 41 games last year were a career high and represent most of his 87 career points.
Korona is already the Jr. Islanders franchise leader in assists (67) and is second in points, another record he has a very good chance at breaking this season.
“He has been a great leader and has had a lot of success both individually and as a team captain,” said Marcou.
University of Vermont recruit Kyle Mandleur is also going into his fourth NCDC season, having joined the Jr. Islanders towards the end of the 2020-21 season after starting the season with Philadelphia’s inaugural team.
Tyler Crist, who scored 21 points in 38 regular season games in his first NCDC go-round, returns and joins Korona as the only other top 10 scorer back in the lineup.
Also coming back as forwards are ‘03 standout Carter Hanrahan, entering his fifth USPHL and second NCDC season, as well as John Riggins, Will Kormanik and Shane Zarcone.
On the blue line, career Jr. Islander Nick Serio leads a group of four veterans. This will be Serio’s sixth USPHL season and third NCDC campaign, and he is in a position to break current Wesleyan University player (and former career P.A.L. player) Liam Donelan’s team games played record among defensemen, standing at 104.
Mason Vonk enters his second NCDC season and fourth total USPHL campaign, while Reid Shafer and Tyler Rolston are also second-year NCDC players.
Luca Leighton is moving up from the P.A.L. 18U team, Rolston split last season between the USPHL Premier and NCDC Jr. Islanders. Along with Serio’s whole career, these individual progressions illustrate the organization’s commitment to internal promotion and upward mobility in player development.
As for newcomers, Marcou will let that large group of talented players shine as they go, without naming names for now.
“I think that we have good character young men coming in, that have a lot of skill,” Marcou said. “We lost some big pieces from last year’s team. It will be a good opportunity for them to come in and play.”
The Jr. Islanders go up against last year’s top two teams, the Jersey Hitmen and Rockets Hockey Club, 14 times this season, representing almost a third of their schedule. It’s iron against iron so often for the Jr. Islanders, and that remains the case when they face an organization with a strong track record like the Connecticut Jr. Rangers as well, adding another seven games there for almost half their total season, including their opening home-and-home series on Sept. 24 and 25. Philadelphia comes in with a year of NCDC knowledge under its belt, and Utica Jr. Comets have the excitement of a new coach in Louis Educate who is well-versed in the USPHL culture from his time with their Premier squad. No nights off, in other words.
“I am excited to see the league this year,” Marcou said. “The South division is very competitive and every night is a tough match-up.”
The New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs are certainly looking forward to a full and positive season.
Last year began with the most heart-wrenching of all news when former NCDC Jr. Monarchs Head Coach Ryan Frew became ill and passed away within two weeks, shaking the Monarchs family and all of the USPHL to the core.
They forged on, however, and went into a season of ups, downs, stops and starts, due to COVID restrictions. Hub City Tampa helped them get 20 games of a “normal” schedule in Florida, but the Monarchs are now ready for a real normal and full schedule. That schedule begins with a Sept. 24 1 p.m. game against their in-state rivals the Northern Cyclones.
They will go into this 2021-22 season with a new NCDC Head Coach in Clint Edinger, who may be new to this position for the NCDC team, but he’s been involved with the Monarchs for nearly a dozen years as their strength and conditioning coach, back to when he was coaching the former Empire League Monarchs as an assistant and later head coach.
His Edinger’s Edge is the on-site, off-ice training facility at the Monarchs’ home Tri-Town Ice Arena in Hooksett, N.H. Edinger was also previously the Monarchs’ USPHL 18U head coach for eight years. Edinger began the Monarchs’ Midgets program at that time.
“I like the group we have to work with. We have a lot of new faces, some younger guys and also players without NCDC experience,” said Edinger. “So far their compete level has been high and they come to work every day both on and off the ice.”
In their first three years, the Monarchs have never finished worse than eighth - nor better than fifth - so while they have always been a competitive force, they have not yet pulled it together to the point of making a deep playoff run. With the NCDC-tested experience coming to the 2021-22 squad, this is the year that may change.
“The strengths are that we have a handful of returners from the team last year, so they understand our culture at the Monarchs. These players will be relied upon to help groom the newcomers,” added Edinger. “Last year, we had a couple players that could score goals every night. We need to find those guys this year and in time I believe we will.
“It’s an adjustment playing at this level in terms of speed and being able to process the game,” Edinger said. “We definitely have some pieces to the puzzle, we just need to find the right spots for them.”
The experienced players set up as leaders by example include high-scoring forward Aidan Curran, ‘03 two-way forward Ryan O’Halloran and defenseman Ryan Cardow. Curran and Cardow are both in their fifth season with the Monarchs, and both have been with the team since the 16U level.
“These three have been the voice of the players so far,” Edinger said. “All three of these players have been leading by example on the ice and during team workouts.”
Along with Cardow and Ross coming back, Zander Lizotte also brings a full season of NCDC hockey and was honored as the November 2020 Defenseman Of The Month.
Similar to Curran’s and Cardow’s pedigree, four more players have come through the Monarchs system to the NCDC pinnacle. Tanner Hartman and Lane Ruffner are getting promotions from the Premier squad, while former 18U players Charlie Ross, Edijs Grigojevs and goalie Mitchell Day jump directly up from the Midget level. Incoming forwards Ben Muthersbaugh, Bodie Molnar, Seth Bernard, David Bazile and Hunter Dunn have Edinger “very excited” about their scoring potential.
Muthersbaugh is another former Monarchs Midget player, playing USPHL 16U back in 2018-19, where he was a teammate of new defensemen Luke Santilli and Kevin Golden. They’ll be joined on the back end by fellow newcomer Lucas Constantine, a California native and product of the Los Angeles Jr. Kings system.
Vinny Castelletti comes in from the Monarchs’ USPHL Premier Affiliate the Minnesota Blue Ox. “He will be someone to keep an eye on,” Edinger added. “He has been very solid.”
Solid all around is what the Monarchs will need in a North Division that just seems to get tougher every year.
“Our expectations are to be the hardest working team every night for 60 minutes,” Edinger said. “Every game will be a battle in not only the North division but the league in general. The goal is to continue to develop these future college players by providing the tools for them to be successful.It will take a little time to adjust but, with systems in place, everyone’s hard work and having a solid team atmosphere, we will be ready to compete each day.”
The Connecticut Jr. Rangers believe all the work done over the off-season paid off in a fantastic group of young student-athletes that has come together very well early on - and they’re still just under two weeks away from their first puck drop, which takes place Sept. 24 against the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders.
“I’m very excited to work with this group. We are growing each day we are together,” said veteran Head Coach Jim Henkel. “We feel like we have been able to recruit from all areas of the U.S. and internationally to hopefully bring us back to where we were a few years ago.”
The “Where we were” referred to here is the NCDC Championship series of 2019 - then a best-of-three series - when they had a very close series with the eventual champion Boston Junior Bruins. Standings-wise, the Jr. Rangers have been floating through the upper middle, finishing third in 2019-20 and seventh overall in 2020-21. In other words, they remain a perennial threat to do damage in the playoffs as proven.
“We have a lot of depth and competition throughout the lineup. We feel we have added more depth to our group than we have had the last two years,” said Henkel. “We will play again with a lot of speed and puck possession/transition style game. We’re looking forward to getting off to a great start and generating some positive flow going forward.”
You can’t count out a team that returns players with the elevated talent level of Andrei Levushkin, for starters. He led the Jr. Rangers in goal-scoring with 16 goals through 31 contests.
“He plays with a ton of speed and skill. He scored a highlight-reel goal in the All-Star Game last year,” added Henkel.
Additional top Jr. Rangers coming back include the Flansburg twins (Schuyler and Spencer), Mika Petersen, Bobby Barrasso and Derek Manzella.
Manzella (‘02) is a returning goaltender out of Eagan, Minn., who put in 15 games of action for the Jr. Rangers, going 7-7-0-0 with a .901 save percentage.
“Having a solid piece in net will provide a great backbone for us,” Henkel said.
On defense, Petersen was already a rising star as an ‘03 last year, even running the Jr. Rangers power play. “He’s a fantastic skater with a lot of skill and hockey sense.”
Barrasso is an ‘02 who brings size (6-feet-4-inches, 194 pounds) and good knack for scoring, adding five goals throughout the season last year including one in the playoffs.
“He will be in the lineup on a daily basis and will generate a ton of offense and physicality,” added Henkel.
The Flansburg twins, who are 2002-born, are both sixth-year USPHL and third-year CJR veterans, so their experience is a massive boost to the Jr. Rangers crew. Schuyler is a center and Spencer is a right wing, both of whom came up to the Jr. Rangers from the CP Dynamo Midget program.
“Schuyler will provide a big boost down the middle for us,” said Henkel. “It’s great to have Spencer back as one of our top returning PK guys and he will add some scoring on the right side.”
Every team needs to reload when they experience the mark of success that is advancement to NCAA hockey, and the newcomers to the Jr. Rangers fit the mold of the high-character player Henkel is always looking for. A group of 2003’s in particular has the coach excited for what they can do come game time on Sept. 24.
Cade Baker (‘03) isn’t a total newcomer, having played a game with Connecticut last year, but he already has three USPHL seasons in the books, all with the Skipjacks Hockey Club’s 16U and 18U teams ove the years.
“He has a ton of skill and works hard,” said Henkel. “He had some good opportunities last year.” Aidan HAws, an ‘03 center, “is very quick and thinks the game very well. He’s very crafty with the puck and should factor in a good amount on the offense.”
Additionally, Henkel has high expectations for ‘03-born Michiganders Brennan Sass and Billy Shields.
“They [both] have a high motor and generate a ton of offense when they create turnovers,” said Henkel.
The NCDC saw more than 70 of its players advance to or commit to NCAA Division I universities during the 2020-21 season. Henkel said the NCDC has certainly arrived on the scene as a major Tier II player in college advancement, and the league’s profile is only growing.
“I expect that we will have continued growth and a better league than we have had,” said Henkel. “It has been a steady growth each and every year for our league and I expect it to be the same this year.”
The Jr. Rangers regularly do battle in the South Division, home to the 2021 Dineen Cup Champion Jersey Hitmen - and the finalist Rockets Hockey Club.
“I think the South division will be very competitive and deep. I know the coaches have been out recruiting and building their programs accordingly,” added Henkel. “I am not sure there will be any surprises, as all the teams have been out in full on recruiting mode all spring and summer.”