Top 10 Insights Digging Into the Numbers of USHL Tenders

May 28, 2024

Topher Scott

USHL tenders - is hockey development a marathon or a sprint?

With my time at the Hockey Think Tank, I am fortunate to speak with a lot of coaches and parents. And one thing I hear about a lot is the race to get to the next level as fast as possible.

For a whole lot of reasons, families think that the faster their kid gets to the next level, the higher the chance they will have to play elite level hockey (specifically college or pro).

But if you talk to high level hockey people, most will tell you that faster isn’t necessarily better.

One word I hear with a lot of scouts today is “marinate”.  Let a kid marinate at a specific level, develop the skills necessary and dominate before moving up to another level.

High-level hockey people will also tell you that most mistakes made on the hockey journey are the ones where kids try to move up to the next level too fast, not the ones taking it “slow”. Or in better terms, normal.

If you think about it, it makes sense. 

Nothing kills a kid’s confidence more than not being ready for the next level and sitting on the bench, or worse, in the stands when you get there.  I’ve seen it happen too many times at too many levels of hockey, but particularly in junior hockey.

And yes – kids can get better by challenging themselves at the next level and playing against better competition.  But if they’re not mentally or emotionally ready, it can be a multiple year long process of grinding to get their confidence and swagger back.

I know…because I’ve lived it.

I was fifteen years old when I played in my first USHL game.  I had just come off a season captaining a national championship team where I was the leading scorer and was one of the better players in the country at my age group.  I had over 160 points that prior year and made the USHL after a great tryout surprising everyone that was there. Everyone but myself, as I had the confidence to think I could do it.

Well, the next year in junior, I went from 160 points to 12.  I went from sky-high confidence in my abilities to losing my passion for the game.  It took me the better parts of two years after that to find my mojo again, and even then I would argue I wasn’t quite the same.

So from my own experiences, along with what I see right now in the youth hockey world, I wanted to find some data around younger kids leveling up to see what unfolded.

And USHL tenders seemed like a good starting point.

For those that don’t know, USHL tenders are players that get offered a spot to play on a USHL roster at 16 years old.  The league started these back in 2012 and it allows teams to secure up to two players to play for the team before the league’s Phase 1 draft.

There have been 97 tenders since the league started this process in 2012.  I went in and looked at the career data from all 97 tenders to see, basically, what the data showed.

Here are the Top 10 most interesting data points I found:

  • Of the 97 tenders, there were 63 forwards, 33 defensemen, and 1 goalie.  Goalie is a REALLY tough position being that young.
  • Of the 97 tenders, 20 went on to play major junior and another 1 went straight to pro in Russia. Of these 21 players, 7 played a full USHL season, 5 played two full USHL seasons, and 7 never played a game for the team that tendered them. 2 also played in the USHL but not for a full season.

For the sake of this little experiment, we won’t use these players as they didn’t play their last junior year in the USHL. I am also taking out the last two years of tenders for the relevant findings as they are still very young on their journeys and their journey data isn’t applicable. That leaves us with 61 players…97 minus the 21 Major Junior/Straight to pro minus the 15 players tendered just in the last two years.

  • Of the remaining 61 players tendered, only 28 of them played with the team they were tendered by for their entire USHL career. 33 played for multiple teams in the USHL, most by trade.
  • Of the remaining 61 players tendered, 41 of them played 3+ years in the league, while only 20 played 2 (or less) years.
  • When it comes to pro hockey, only 7 of the 61 players have played in an NHL game. Here is the breakdown of the players who have played pro and where they’ve played professional games (keep in mind there will be more that play pro and in the NHL, this is just at the current moment):

Highest professional league played in: NHL – 7 | AHL – 15 | ECHL – 7

League where most professional games were played in: NHL – 5 | AHL – 12 | ECHL – 12

  • 22 of the 61 players were drafted in the NHL…2 in the first round (Kyle Connor & Adam Fantilli), 2 in the second round (Robert Mastrosimone & Gavin Brindley), and the rest were 3rd round or later.
  • 10 of the 61 players ended up in lower junior leagues, I’m assuming by trade or they were released by their USHL club.
  • Here are the points per game by year in the league (I did use the last two years of tenders in these):

Season 1 Total PPG – 0.37 | Forwards – 0.44 | Defensemen – 0.21

Season 2 Total PPG – 0.62 | Forwards – 0.73 | Defensemen – 0.40

Season 3 Total PPG – 0.68 | Forwards – 0.78 | Defensemen – 0.46

  • The 2022 tender class has some legit firepower with four players slated to go in the first round of the NHL draft (Macklin Celebrini, Trevor Connelly, Michael Hage, Sacha Boisvert).
  • Most of the players that were tendered went on to have or are currently having good D1 college careers (based on amount of games played).  If you’ve played in the majority of your team’s games as a D1 player, I consider that a strong collegiate career.  And while not many are “studs” racking up point per game(ish) numbers in college, most became or are currently good college players.

OK, thoughts on this all:

Vechs and I say it all the time on the podcast, the hardest jump for players to make is from midget hockey to junior hockey.  Not junior to college or college to pro…midget to junior.

You are going against older players rather than players your age.  It’s a completely new and different lifestyle.  It’s a completely different brand of hockey.  Everything is just harder and a huge adjustment for everything on and off the ice.

And I think these numbers bear that out.

If you take a look at the points per game by season…0.37 points per game in Year One for tenders.  These are some of the top players in North America putting up insane numbers in midget hockey, and their average point per game in Year One is less than a half a point per game.

Each year that I played in the USHL, I felt more comfortable.  You know the pace, you know the away barns you play in, you know the bus life and the grind a little bit better.  Seeing that jump from Year One to Year Two…and then another jump from Year Two to Year Three didn’t surprise me.  You just figure it out with trial by fire.

One finding that really stuck out to me was that over half the kids tendered ended up getting traded or released by the team that tendered them.  I don’t know whether it was because the teams were cutting their losses and thought they made a mistake, maybe they gave up on the kid, or a few probably were traded to better teams for playoff runs – but that’s an astounding stat to me.  For what I would assume are some of the top players in the age group, it’s absolutely wild that half of them were traded.

Another stat I thought was wild was that two-thirds of the players spent 3+ years in the league.  I said it earlier, but that first year is ROUGH and it takes a long time for most kids (including myself) to get their groove back.  My first year legit almost broke me.  And the fact that so many of these studs of players had to spend more than two years in the league I think says a lot about the journey for players entering the league that young.

Another stat that I thought stood out was that only 22 of the 61 players eligible for the NHL draft ended up getting drafted.  For a league that is known for having a lot of draft picks, only having about one-third of the tenders (the theoretically top players of their age at 16) getting drafted 2-3 years later says a lot about the difficulties, trials, and tribulations of young players in the league.

Only 7 players as of today have played an NHL game.  For some of the top kids at their age group. More will be coming, but I still feel like that’s pretty low.

Every year is different, highlighted by the fact that next year you’ll probably hear four USHL tenders drafted in the first round of the NHL draft. Every team is different in their draft and develop philosophy, every player is different in their physical and mental makeup, and it adds to the variability and nuance of making decisions to play junior hockey at such a young age. Is the team looking to win and play their older players? Is the team going to be fine with young rookie mistakes? These are all things to take into consideration.

My final thoughts:

We are all a product of our experiences.  I lived this as a player and my journey is kind of similar to a lot of the kids on here. 

Really good heading into the league.  Got the shit kicked out of us for a year.  Slowly started to figure it out. Went on to have a good college career and play a little bit of pro hockey.

But I wonder (not really for me as it was years ago) but for a lot of the other kids on here…what if they would’ve stayed back and played a year or two at U18? What if rather than getting the snot kicked out of them at 16 they matured as one of the top players on their team and then went to junior? Could their careers have been better?

Who knows the answer to that question, but I would venture a guess to say more often than not they probably would.  I think the biggest travesty in youth hockey today is the way people view U18 hockey.  Like if you’re not playing juniors at that point you’re not going to make it.  I would argue the opposite.  Using that U18 year I think will give you a better chance of making it as you’re honing your skills and continuing to gain that confidence while being a year older and more mature to make the jump that next year.

I think the stats of these USHL tenders are pretty telling.  A lot of high-end players that end up being good players after a year or two of getting beaten up pretty good and probably losing a lot of the swagger that made them “tenderable” players in the first place.  I tell people that the USHL made a man out of me and I’m forever grateful for the hockey and life lessons I learned during my time in the league.  I’m just not sure it was beneficial for me as a hockey player to have played that young.  And yes, the NTDP does it, but that’s a whole different animal.

Also, college hockey is getting older, and you already have a bigger runway with having the ability to enter your freshman year as a 20-21 year old. This, along with the transfer portal, has made junior hockey even older and harder with less volume of recruiting coming from junior. More and more college teams are even having kids recruited from the NTDP play a third year of junior in the USHL to recapture some of the offensive mojo they may have lost being a young kid in a bottom line role.

This I’m sure will fire some people up reading this.  Maybe it will give some perspective. At the end of the day, everyone has to run their own race.  Nobody knows if a decision is the right one until after its all played out and years have passed.  This isn’t a post with an agenda.  But I do think there is a bit of a story to be told and hopefully I was able to do that as objectively as possible even though I threw the similarities of my story in here. 

And I do believe that when development is looked upon as a marathon, and not a sprint, more times than not you’re putting yourself in a better situation to succeed.

If you want more info or have any comments, feel free to shoot me an email at topher@thehockeythinktank.com

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for this! Our 16 yr old is heading to the QMJHL draft in a couple of weeks so it’s enlightening to see a perspective that encourages taking time to develop and prepare for the next level. 16 is still so young!

  2. This is so thoughtful. Every youth sport (not just hockey) has an undercurrent that a kid will never succeed unless he or she is “the first to be the best.” And it’s just not true, particularly for those kids in hockey that are still growing physically in their midget years.

  3. This is such a great article on so many levels. This should be mandatory reading for kids who wants to play high level hockey. Everyone’s journey is different. Don’t get distracted by other player’s success – in the long run it may not be what it seems. The analysis of the data really hammers this home. Thank you for sharing your research.

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