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The United States Hockey League is growing by leaps and bounds; so many players have been drafted out of it in recent years that it has become a hatchery of sorts for prospects. What I mean by that is, it has become a place where some of the best NCAA teams from around the nation come to watch and recruit players who have gone on to become future Hobey Baker Award nominees, finalists, and even winners like the first overall selection from this year’s NHL Draft Macklin Celebrini, who before joining Boston University was a standout star for the Chicago Steel back in the 22-23 season. This trend will continue this year with the likes of John Mustard, who was the recipient of the USHL’s Rookie of the Year Award last season, who played for the Waterloo Black Hawks and was just drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks a week ago. He is slated to be heading to Providence College next season, where he is sure to impress.

But, with the new season approaching, the question now becomes who will be the next up-and-coming players that will prove to take the league by storm?

Blake Zielinski

One player who could do just that is 16-year-old New Jersey native Blake Zielinski, who was taken 3rd overall in Phase One of the USHL Draft back in May by the Des Moines Buccaneers.

Blake, a forward who grew up locally playing for the Philadelphia Flyers Elite AAA Teams, took a chance this season by deciding to play for the much more competitive North Jersey Avalanche of the AYHL, where he scored 26 goals, and 26 assists for 52 points in only 22 games played this past year! That decision proved to be a wise one because the 1.18 goals per game and 2.36 points-per-game he average made USHL executives sit up and take notice.

Zielinski, whose breakaway speed, elite stick handling, and extreme patience with the puck on his stick when bearing down on the goalie, will pair nicely with the likes of the Buccaneers’ breakout star from last season, Ben Kevan, who, at just 16 years old was able to compile a near point-per-game average in just his first year playing in the USHL.

This is why, with these two swashbuckling prospects at the helm next season, I look for the Bucs to plunder their way through a couple more wins and thus place Des Moines in the talks for league supremacy.

Adam Valentini

The other name that will have fans sitting up and taking notice next season is Adam Valentini, who the Chicago Steel signed to a USHL tender agreement for the 2024-2025 season.

This 16-year-old, who hails from Toronto, Ontario, was the highest-scoring player in Canadian AAA hockey last year, where he netted 52 goals and 82 assists for 132 points in only 57 games played! Folks, that was good enough for him to average 2.31 points per game last season.

A feat that not only earned him the honor of playing for the Steel, who have produced prospects like Owen Power, who went 1st overall in 2021, Adam Fantilli, who went 3rd overall in 2023, Macklin Celebrini (who we already spoke about) who went 1st overall this year, and Michael Hage who went 21st overall. But also the honor of receiving an offer to play for the University of Michigan in the future, which he has since graciously accepted.

Adam will bring with him to Chicago next season a shot that already rivals most players in the NHL primarily because it is both powerful and accurate. As far as his play style goes he wastes no time holding onto the puck; he simply sets out to seek and destroy any goaltender who is brave enough to stand in front of his shot. To go along with that, he is dominant in the face circle, which gives his team plenty of offensive chances, as well as needed defensive zone wins, which allows his team to gain more puck possessions to create breakout chances.

Now, I know it may seem early to make this assumption but trust me when I say this: if you live close to a USHL team’s rink, you may want to go ahead and reserve your seats when these two players come to town with their respected clubs because they are sure to put on a show.