And the Winner Is …

Good evening, and welcome to Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. What was the home of the 2005 NHL All-Star Game now has the honor of hosting the ESPA’s, the first-ever Early Signing Period Awards Show. Tonight’s awards are brought to you by the USA Hockey National Team Development program — “providing stud players to United States colleges for two year stints before turning pro since1997.” And by Ralph Englestad Arena — “Yeah, it’s unfair. Deal with it!”

As a reminder to award winners, please keep acceptance speeches to a 30-second minimum, or the time it takes for Ohio State to take another penalty. Also, should members of the audience need to use the restroom, please notify the NHLPA table in the rear of the auditorium where a union member will be glad to fill your seats. Do not leave personal valuables on or around your chair.

These awards are designated solely for those who have signed national letters of intent during the recent signing period. So, will security kindly remove Phil Kessel? Since you’re making us wait until February to share your juicy secret Phil, you’ll have to let the other guys enjoy the spotlight (although it’s highly possible you’ll be worked into this award show somehow).

Without further adieu, please welcome your presenter for the evening, former Wisconsin Badger and “Bachelor” contestant, Rick Enrico, who will be presenting tonight’s first award for…

Best Recruit in a Supporting Role
The Nominees Are: Jack Skille (Wisconsin), Brock Bradford (Boston College), Tyler Eckford (Alaska Fairbanks)

And the ESPA goes to: Jack Skille

Skille is currently establishing himself as the premier playmaker on the United States Under-18 Development team, despite the absence of Phil Kessel. Should Kessel eventually commit to playing on the Isthmus, Badgers’ head coach Mike Eaves may need a drool tray when filling out his lineup card with the option of placing Skille and Kessel on the same line with Robbie Earl. First things first, Kessel would have to choose his hometown team over Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan, Boston University and Boston College.

In any case, Skille will be a force in his freshman season at Wisconsin. The Badgers will return plenty of scoring from Earl, Joe Pavelski and Jake Dowell. Not a bad situation for a playmaking winger like Skille, who has racked up eight goals and 10 assists in 16 games this season.

Best Blueliner
The nominees are: Tyler Eckford (Alaska Fairbanks), Taylor Chorney (North Dakota), Jack Johnson (Michigan)

And the ESPA goes to: Jack Johnson

UAF may have discovered a hidden gem in Eckford, currently the top scoring defenseman in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League. Chorney is another Shattuck St. Mary’s star that North Dakota recruiters are always so fond of (Zach Parise, Matt Smaby, Drew Stafford).

The ESPA goes to Johnson who solidified his grasp of this award with his recent showing at the Four Nations Cup tournament. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder was a force for the USNTP, finishing the tournament tied for second overall with six points. Johnson is a big, physical defender with outstanding instincts for jumping into the offensive fray and using his surprising speed to carry the puck up ice.

Best Player Who’ll Attend a High School Prom This Spring
The nominees are: R.J. Anderson (Minnesota), Matt Niskanen (Minnesota Duluth), Anthony Aiello (Boston College)

And the ESPA goes to: Matt Niskanen

In this battle of three smooth skating defensemen, Niskanen gets the nod in the surprise of the night. Thayer Academy’s Aiello is hailed as the top high school player available for next year’s NHL draft (if there is a draft). Anderson wowed the scouts with his poise during last year’s Minnesota State High School tournament as he led Centennial high school to three consecutive shutouts in the showcase that ended in the school’s first-ever championship.

Niskanen takes home the hardware because, by all accounts, he’s the real deal despite playing for tiny Virginia high school in Minnesota. The 6-foot-1, 185 pounder is as offensive as they come and he’ll make an immediate impact on a Duluth club that is desperate for a scorer on the blueline since last year’s departure of All-American Beau Geisler.

Best Goaltender to be Immediately Criticized by Fans Upon Surrendering a Goal
The nominees are: Jeff Frazee (Minnesota), Jordan Pearce (Notre Dame), Jeff Lerg (Michigan State)

And the ESPA goes to: Jeff Lerg

Predicting the success of a college goaltender is as easy as predicting the next three words out of Anna Nicole Smith’s mouth. However, all three of these goalies should shine in their future situations. The only question is when? Frazee is stepping into a situation where Kellen Briggs has proven to be a top-notch starter in his sophomore year. Pierce may see his fair share of playing time with this year’s graduation of Morgan Cey, but he’ll need some help in front of him to earn the accolades.

Lerg takes home the ESPA simply because of his eye popping statistics with Omaha in the USHL – 13-2-0 with a 1.91 goals against average and a .924 save percentage. The Spartans have a history of showcasing top flite netminders and with a strong defensive corps in front of him, Lerg appears ready to make his mark. The only question…can he ignore his first “Ugly Goalie” chant at Yost Arena?

Most Obvious Signing
The nominees are: Garrett Suter (Wisconsin), Zach Jones (North Dakota), Ryan Turek (Michigan State)

And the ESPA goes to: Garrett Suter

Was this even a question? Granted, Turek is a Michigan-native who made up his mind before finishing the tenth grade. Jones was surely influenced by his brother Matt’s stellar career in Grand Forks.

None of that compares to Suter, who essentially signed his letter of intent shortly after emerging from the womb. Garrett will continue the family tradition of patrolling the blue line for the red and white, following his father Bob, uncles Gary and John, and older brother Ryan. The 6-foot, 195-pound defenseman will bring a physical presence and a fierce attitude to the Kohl Center. Sound familiar?

Most Likely to be Cut Before the Season Begins Because the Coach Can’t Pronounce His Name
The nominees are: Brandon Kushniruk (Princeton), Andreas Vlassopoulos (Michigan Tech), Eli Vlaisavljevich (Michigan Tech)

And the ESPA goes to: Eli Vlaisavljevich

Kushniruk sounds like a villain in a Harrison Ford flick. And Vlassaoupous … wasn’t he Big Bird’s elephant friend? But the nod here goes to Vlaisavljevich, a steady defenseman who hails from Shoreview, Minnesota and currently skates for the Lincoln Stars. We send our early sympathies to Michigan Tech team manager Roy Britz who will be sidled with the job of stitching that name onto the back of a Huskies sweater.

The Dean Blais Award (Lifetime Recruiting Achievement)

And the ESPA goes to: Minnesota coach Don Lucia and his staff

It was remarkable that Blais’ staff could get supreme talent to flock to Grand Forks, North Dakota before the palace on the prairie. Lucia’s crew is equally remarkable for annually retooling without breaking a sweat. Do these guys even have to make phone calls? Last year, they lost Keith Ballard, Troy Riddle, Grant Potulny and Thomas Vanek –four players that would start for a college hockey All-Star team. They simply reloaded with the best high school player in Minnesota (Alex Goligoski), the top scoring defenseman on the USNTP team (Nate Hagemo), and the 2004 USHL player of the year (Mike Howe).

Next year, to compensate for the loss of Barry Tallackson and…well…Barry Tallackson, they’ll simply insert the one of the best high school players in Minnesota (R.J. Anderson), the second-leading scorer the USNTP team behind Phil Kessel (Peter Mueller, but not until 2006) and the possible 2005 USHL player of the year (Blake Wheeler). They may be college hockey’s version of the Yankees, and like George Steinbrenner, Lucia won’t be apologizing. He’ll still be a lot more likeable, however.

Best Recruit in a Leading Role (Phil Kessel Award)*
The Nominees Are: Brock Bradford (Boston College), Blake Wheeler (Minnesota), Jack Johnson (Michigan)

And the ESPA goes to: Blake Wheeler

Johnson is projected as a top five pick in next year’s NHL draft and Bradford had his pick of any school in the country before deciding on the Eagles. But, when Wayne Gretzky uses the fifth overall pick in the draft on a dominant junior from Breck high school in Minneapolis, that results in an ESPA. Assuming Wheeler decides to develop his game in the college ranks, his size, skill and speed will make him the closest thing to an unstoppable force since Mr. Incredible. But even Pixar couldn’t create a better prototype for a forward than this kid.

* Admittedly it is a bit peculiar to name an award after a player who hasn’t even signed a letter of intent. However, with the talk of college hockey recruiting centering around Mr. Kessel, we feel it’s fitting to name the night’s most prestigious individual award after the hottest prospect since Zach Parise.

Best Early Signing Period Class Picture
The Nominees are: North Dakota, Boston College, Minnesota

And the ESPA goes to: Boston College

First off, it will be interesting to see when Bemidji State or Merrimack is up for this award, but for now it’s between the old standbys. Secondly, Wisconsin, Michigan and Boston University are still bitter over their nomination snubs. As difficult as it is to top the Fighting Sioux, the Eagles and the Gophers on the ice, it’s even tougher to beat them off the ice.

The Eagles are flying highest after the latest signing period. The recent addition of Brock Bradford was huge. He, along with Kyle Kucharski of Philips Andover and Nathan Gerbe of the U.S. Development team, will provide a boatload of goals. Brett Motherwell of Omaha and Anthony Aiello are two supremely talented defensemen. With 10 seniors in line to graduate this season, this class is going to be heavily counted on, and it’s primed to deliver the goods.

Thank you for attending tonight’s ESPAs. You are all invited to the post-party, which won’t be held until February and the location is dependent on wherever Kessel commits to.