WILLIAMS | Former Phantoms fare well in NHL

According to The Hockey News, four hockey players with ties to the Mahoning Valley have NHL contracts worth a lot more than most of us are earning.

A lot more.

And, you might be surprised to learn who has the most lucrative contracts.

Michael Houser, 21, a goaltender in the Florida Panthers system, grew up in Boardman and attended St. Charles School before his family moved to Wexford, Pa. His father, William, is an allergist in Boardman.

As a junior, Houser played on the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers in the 2008-09 season then played three seasons with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. (One difference between the USHL and Canadian junior leagues is that the players in the latter get paid so they forfeit their college eligibility).

In Houser’s third season in London, he was awarded the Red Tilson Trophy for the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player. But later that month, he was not selected in the NHL Entry Draft.

The Panthers signed him as a free agent and he played last season for their ECHL team, the Cincinnati Cyclones. This season, Houser is playing with the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League (hockey’s version of baseball’s Triple A International League). Should he get called up to the Panthers, his contract’s cap value would be $585,000.

The player you thought would have the biggest contract is Chicago Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad, a Calder Trophy finalist last season for the NHL’s Rookie of the Year. (The Panthers’ Jonathan Huberdeau won the award.)

Saad, from Gibsonia, Pa., is the best player the Mahoning Valley Phantoms ever sent on the ice. When he was 16, Saad, 20, played in the Phantoms’ final season in the North American Hockey League (2008-09).

One season later, the Mahoning Valley Phantoms folded and the Youngstown Phantoms were created for the USHL, the United States’ top junior league. Back then, Phantoms officials hoped that Saad would remain in Youngstown for another season, but he joined the U.S. National Development team for a season then moved north to the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit.

In June 2011, Saad was drafted in the second round by the Blackhawks. After two NHL games that October, he was returned to Saginaw for another OHL season.

Last fall, Saad played for the Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate. When the NHL lockout ended, Saad was promoted to the Blackhawks. He was scratched from their first game of the season, a contest in Los Angeles where teammate Daniel Carcillo was injured.

That opened the door for Saad and he made the most of it, often playing on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa.

In the regular season, Saad scored 27 points and finished +17 in plus/minus. He helped the Blackhawks defeat the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final for Chicago’s second championship in four seasons.

Saad’s contract for this season has a cap value of $894,000 but you better believe he will be receiving a huge pay raise in the not-too-distant future.

Also drafted in June 2011 was East Palestine native J.T. Miller, who was taken by the New York Rangers in the first round with the 15th overall pick.

Miller, 20, played two USHL seasons with the U.S. National Development team before being drafted. For the 2011-12 season, Miller played for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League then turned pro, playing in eight playoff games for the AHL’s Connecticut Whale.

Last season, Miller played 42 games for Connecticut and 26 for the Rangers, scoring four points in the NHL. His salary this season is $925,000 but his cap value is $1.4 million. He played in the Rangers’ opener, then was sent down to Connecticut.

Earlier this week, Miller was called up by the Rangers. His brother, Matt, is a first-year Phantoms defenseman.

Earning approximately the same is Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Andrej Sustr, 22, who scored one goal and made 18 assists in the Phantoms’ first USHL season.

Sustr, who was not drafted by any NHL team, played three seasons with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. In 29 games last season, Sustr scored 25 points then signed a free-agent contract with the Lightning.

He played two regular-season games with Tampa Bay and eight with their AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. Sustr also played in 18 playoff games for the Crunch.

This season, he’s on the Lightning roster, with a cap value of $1.4 million.

Another player knocking on the NHL’s door is defenseman Scott Mayfield who was drafted by the New York Islanders in the second round of the June 2011 draft.

Mayfield, 21, played for the Phantoms in their first two USHL seasons then played two seasons for the University of Denver. He turned pro last spring, playing six games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders’ AHL affiliate. This season, he’s playing for the Tigers.

Tom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.

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