Stephen Halliday knows all about the Dubuque Fighting Saints’ tradition and can’t wait to be a part of it.
The Saints on Monday selected the 6-foot-3, 225-pound power forward from Toronto with the third overall pick in the USHL’s dispersal draft of the Central Illinois franchise, which has gone dark. Dubuque also landed the rights to forward Caden Villegas and goaltender Mitchell Gibson.
Saints general manager Kalle Larsson and head coach Oliver David said the players selected Monday will be eligible beginning next season. The draft included all players on Central Illinois’ active roster and affiliates list and lasted until every player had been selected.
“I love Dubuque’s track record of developing guys for the next level, both college and the NHL,” Halliday said. “It’s my ultimate goal to play in the NHL. That’s pretty much everybody’s goal, isn’t it? So, I know I’m going to play with some really talented players.
“Coach David wants to play a high-skill game and not so much a dump-the-puck game, and that suits my style. I like how they use the term ‘Play free.’ So, I’m really happy about the opportunity to go to Dubuque.”
Halliday has already committed to the University of North Dakota. And he sees Dubuque as an environment that will prepare him to be an impact player immediately when he lands in Grand Forks.
“I love the fact they have a weight room right there at the rink and they have a really good strength coach,” Halliday said. “And I know they do a lot of skill work on the ice before and after practices. That’s only going to help me take my game to the next level.
“I appreciate everything the coaches in Central Illinois did for me this year. They gave me a chance to succeed, and not a lot of coaches will put trust in young players like they did for me. It was a good year, but I’m looking forward to even bigger things in Dubuque.”
Halliday contributed 10 goals, 34 points and 24 penalty minutes to the Flying Aces in 55 games as a 16-year-old this season after being selected No. 1 overall in the USHL Futures Draft last spring. He turned 17 on Feb. 7.
“We’re ecstatic about getting him,” Larsson said. “It’s pretty impressive to have 34 points in the USHL as a 16-year-old, and he will bring a big presence to our team. If he adds a step (of quickness) in the next couple of years, he could become a good NHL prospect.
“We turned every stone on him and talked to anyone who’s ever had anything to do with him, like coaches and former teammates. And they were as impressed with him away from the ice as they were with him on the ice.”
David expects Halliday to step into a top-six forward position on a Dubuque team that will likely return as many as 10 players next season.
“Stephen’s a shooter who can read the game really well, so this is a really promising pick-up for us,” David said. “He immediately adds size and scoring ability. We’re really excited to get him.”
Villegas, a 5-8, 176-pound forward from Plano, Texas, tallied 10 goals and 20 points in 50 games for the Springfield Jr. Blues of the North American Hockey League and added one assist in six games for Central Illinois. The 18-year-old is committed to Union College.
Gibson, a 6-1, 187-pound goaltender from Phoenixville, Pa., went 13-21-3-1 with a 3.50 goals against average and .890 save percentage this season. The Washington Capitals draft pick is expected to play at Harvard in the fall, so Dubuque will have his rights if he decides to return to the USHL.