Why? Read On.
No question, the USHL is the top junior league south of the border. It sends more players to the NCAA than anyone else and many of the collegians who go on to the NHL got their start in the USHL. Stanley Cup finalists Matt Greene, Trevor Lewis and Alec Martinez are three examples just from the L.A. Kings.
No one really debates the quality of the league as the best of its kind in the United States and, in my opinion, only the BCHL and maybe the AJHL could compare from within the Canadian tier 1 system.
But the USHL doesn't really want to be compared to Canadian Jr. A even though the mandate for tier 1 on both sides of the border is the same - help players earn NCAA scholarships.
The USHL believes it can be more than just a feeder for college programs and that, like the major junior system in Canada, they can produce players that can step right into pro hockey. That's why the news that Tarasov has signed on with Worcester is a big deal.
Tarasov was Indiana's top scorer this past season and finished second the year prior behind the guy who led the entire league in scoring. The Moscow product isn't small, 6'1 and 192 lbs, but as a '91 born player he came to North America well after his draft year.
I believe he attended camp with the Pittsburgh Penguins last fall but was not signed by the team. After a 47-goal, 88-point season, a deal did come his way.
You might be saying "Big deal, one guy signed a minor league deal" and to some degree, that's fair. But considering how rare this is for the USHL, it is newsworthy.
I asked league PR man Brian Werger how often this has happened in the past because I honestly couldn't think of another instance. He confirmed my suspicion.
Does the fact that both Fedotenko and Tarasov are imports mean anything?
There were a couple other examples but they were players who barely made a dent in the AHL and spent most of their time in the ECHL. By comparison, I can't think of any players stepping right from the BCHL or the AJHL into the AHL or NHL either - which doesn't mean that it has never happened, just that a name doesn't come to mind. Feel free to tweet an example at me if you have one.
For a league that hopes to get to the point where players graduate from the Chicago Steel to the Chicago Wolves (AHL) or the Chicago Blackhawks (NHL), the Tarasov deal is a big one. Much of that will depend on developing quality 20-year olds. Like the CHL, the USHL limits teams to three 20-year-old players, 4 in some rare cases (it's 6 now in both the BCHL and AJHL). Normally the 20-year-old players are off to college so seeing a guy like Tarasov so pro is new.
I don't know what Tarasov's education situation is - maybe he wanted to go to college but couldn't get in or perhaps he simply came to the USHL looking to earn a pro contract. It is a little reminiscent of Stanislav Galiev (WSH) although he decided to go to the QMJHL after one year, coincidentally, with the Indiana Ice.
Yes, there is still a long way to go before the USHL is producing dozens of drafted or undrafted, non-collegiate, pro players like the CHL does but credit should be given. Good on the Indiana Ice, the coaching staff and good on the USHL too.
The league has come a long way over the last 10 years and this is another milestone for them.