It might only be the middle of December, but many of this weekend’s NAHL games hold extra significance with Top Prospects Tournament rosters spots on the line.
The tournament, which will be held January 18-20, 2009 at the Ice Cube in Ann Arbor, Mich., will feature all-star teams from the NAHL's Central, North, South and West Divisions competing in a three-game, round-robin tournament.
The number of players each team is allowed to send to the highly scouted event is based on each team’s winning percentages come Monday, with higher percentages translating into more representation.
With the South and West Division standings already locked down, there’s still plenty at stake in the Central and North Divisions.
For the Alexandria Blizzard, Bismarck Bobcats and North Iowa Outlaws, this weekend’s games still have Top Prospects implications.
The Bobcats, who sit in second place entering the weekend, face off against first-place Alexandria on Saturday with third-place North Iowa playing a home-and-home with Albert Lea on Friday and Saturday.
“This game (against the Blizzard) has a little more added importance than your normal regular-season game,” said Bobcats head coach Byron Pool. “For our players, the difference between sending six players to Top Prospects as opposed to three is pretty significant.”
“This weekend’s games are huge for us,” said Blizzard head coach Brad Willner, whose team helped its cause on Thursday with a 6-1 win over Albert Lea. “It’s an issue the players are focused on. They know they control the situation."
The Owatonna Express locked down the fourth seed in the Central after its 5-0 loss to the St. Louis Bandits on Thursday.
The North Division is also in play, where the first-place Traverse City North Stars and the second-place Mahoning Valley Phantoms are still fighting for the No. 1 spot come Monday.
“Being able to play at Top Prospects is all about these players and there futures, so that’ll definitely be a motivating factor for them this weekend,” said Phantoms head coach Bob Mainhardt, whose team hosts Marquette for two games on Friday and Saturday. “Having more guys on that roster is certainly to the players’ advantage.”
Meanwhile, the North Stars only game of the weekend will be played on Sunday against the Motor City Machine.
In the South Division, the Topeka Roadrunners will send six players to the Top Prospects Tournament; the St. Louis Bandits five; and the Wichita Falls Wildcats and the Springfield Jr. Blues four each.
In the West, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs will send six players; the Wenatchee Wild five; and the Alaska Avalanche and the Kenai River Brown Bears will each send four.
Coaches will also select one wildcard player from each of the two divisions.
“Every coach wants to be a position to send as many players as he can to the Top Prospects Tournament,” said RoadRunners head coach Scott Langer, who will serve as head coach of the South Division’s Top Prospects team. “This division has historically been very tough and very competitive. The players earned this honor, and I'm looking forward to a successful event.”
Fairbanks head coach Josh Hauge will be the head coach of the West Division’s Top Prospects team, with Wenatchee head coach Paul Baxter assisting. St. Louis head coach Jeff Brown will assist Langer in the South.
Last year, over 20 players who competed in the Top Prospects Tournament went on to earn Division I scholarships.
“The league is very intelligent in how they designed this tournament,” said Mainhardt. “They take the best players from our league and put them into highly competitive games.
“These games aren’t like a typical all-star game; it’s an intense, playoff-like atmosphere which creates a great brand of hockey for the fans and for the scouts. It’s real hockey.”
The rosters will be announced on Monday, December 29.