Over ten days in Lake Placid, N.Y., many of the top American players under the age of 20 competed as part of the National Junior Evaluation Camp. Starting with 45 players at the beginning, the camp was whittled down to 34. If the competition in camp was a sign of things to come in December, USA Hockey can be quite pleased with what they saw.
The roster for the U.S. National Junior Team is going to be a tough one to crack. With competition for many of the spots looking wide open, the camp at least helped some players establish themselves as top candidates, while others will need to pick it up in the regular season.
Over the course of the first half of the year, players from across college and junior hockey will be continued to be monitored, but the camp served as that important first step in the decision-making process.
Based on the competitiveness in camp and the way players improved over the course of the 10-day event in Lake Placid, this group is deeper than expected and USA Hockey is going to have some serious trouble whittling down this group to the final 22 they’ll take to Ufa, Russia in December. I think they’re OK with that problem.
Coming up after the jump, a look at the statistical leaders from camp, some notes on the participants, positional battles to watch throughout the first half, and finally a way-too-early-that-is-bound-to-be-wrong projected roster based solely on the players in camp.
Most players played between five and six games, three with the split-squad teams before cuts and up to three after cuts.
Here’s your Top 5 scorers:
Sean Kuraly — 5 GP, 6-3–9
Tyler Biggs — 6 GP, 4-3–7
Colin Blackwell — 5 GP, 2-4–6
Nic Kerdiles — 2-3–5
Stefan Noesen — 1-4–5
John Gibson — 183 MP, 3-1-0, 2.29 GAA, .927 SV%
Anthony Stolarz — 118 MP, 0-0-0, 2.54 GAA, .918 SV%
Sean Kuraly — The big centerman had a breakout camp with a stunning nine points in five games. Kuraly was the picture of consistency, looking like a threat in every game he played. At 6-2, 200, he doesn’t get pushed around and possesses top-end speed, which has become a hallmark of USA Hockey teams at all levels. It is because of that combined size and speed that Kuraly may be able to avoid the NJEC curse that has befallen some of the guys who were dynamic in camp, but failed to make the final roster. The one point of concern, is that some players are going to be more ready than others to compete at a high level in August. It’s not easy to play at this high a level in the pre-season, but Kuraly did it better than most. That said, Kuraly’s tools are going to keep him in the conversation the whole way. He’ll have to adjust quickly to college hockey at Miami, but he should be able to make an impact almost immediately. The statistics certainly were indicative of the performance, which isn’t always the case.
Tyler Biggs — It took Biggs a couple of games to get into the swing of things, but once the games against Finland and Sweden hit, he was among Team USA’s best in camp. Six of his seven points came in three games against the European squads. That’s what is really encouraging about Biggs’ camp. The big forward was able to produce while not sacrificing his hard-nosed game. If nothing else, most of his points came thanks, in part, to that hard-nosed style Biggs is a powerful skater, which, in addition to his physical strength, is really important for the big ice. He showed a little more touch during camp than he’s displayed in the past, but still won’t wow anyone with his skill. The most important thing is that he’s learning how to use what he does have more effectively, and it happened to translate into points in camp. I don’t know if he’d be a major point-producer at the WJC, but he’d certainly be an important asset.
Shayne Gostisbehere — Consistently the most noticeable defenseman in the games he played, Gostisbehere opened a lot of eyes to what he’s really capable of. Certainly more of an asset due to his offensive ability, Gostisbehere showed that he is no slouch in the defensive end. As one of the lighter defensemen in camp, he held his own against some of the big, strong forwards he went up against. A good defensive stick and zone awareness certainly make him effective. Gostisbehere’s skating is really a standout tool. He has good vision and puck skills and showed off a pretty accurate shot. This guy came out of nowhere to have a strong rookie campaign at Union and get drafted by Philadelphia. The camp proved that he’s no fluke. He’s only a year removed from prep school and is displaying a mature two-way game, with high-end offensive abilities. Assuming this play carries through to his sophomore year, Gostisbehere made a statement that he belongs with the elite American prospects and is a strong candidate for the final roster.
Mike Reilly — Like Gostisbehere, Reilly made a statement in camp, one that I am sure resonated with Phil Housley. The slick-skating defenseman showed off his immense skill set in camp. He loves to rush the puck, but seems to know when to say when and dish it or dump it if he’s in trouble. He’s not going to try and take on the entire team a la Bobby Orr, but he will take a few chances in the name of offense and that’s OK. There’s room for a guy like that on any team. One of the reasons Reilly can rush or jump into plays with regularity is that he has terrific speed, particularly in recovery. He makes some of those classic Minnesota pond hockey plays with his creativity and ability to exploit the bigger ice sheet. I can’t recall an American defenseman at the WJC that plays the way he plays within the last three or four years at least. Particularly on a European ice sheet, he can be a weapon. I think he’s a sure bet to be a top-four defenseman on the Junior team in Ufa.
Stefan Noesen — After missing the cut last season, Noesen had a pretty impactful camp in Lake Placid. With five points, he showed his ability to produce and may have found a terrific match in Sean Kuraly as a linemate. Those two both used speed and power effectively and Noesen had a knack for finding Kuraly in space. I wonder if the camp would have been different for Noesen had he not gotten hooked up with Kuraly and Mario Lucia. For whatever reason that line worked. Noesen certainly has that style of game that you need to be successful at the WJC. Last year’s squad lacked the combination of grit and skill, but Noesen has both. The U.S. has an immensely challenging pool in Ufa with Canada and Russia. They need a guy like Noesen, who doesn’t get pushed around and produces.
John Gibson — The odds on favorite to start for Team USA in Ufa only solidified his iron grip on being the go-to guy in camp. Gibson was solid, particularly in the games against the European competition. He made 35 saves in the game against Sweden and never once looked uncomfortable. There may not be a goalie I’ve seen that is as mentally tough as Gibson. He’s always on the same level emotionally it seems. Even if his pulse ever rises, you’d never know. On top of that, he’s 6-3, 212 and combines immense athleticism with technique. This tournament might be John Gibson’s opportunity to step out from the shadow left by his predecessor, Jack Campbell, and show the world he’s on the same level.
J.T. Miller – The lone forward in camp with World Junior experience looked every bit the veteran in camp. Miller showed flashes of his play-making ability that helped make him the 15th overall selection by the Rangers in 2011. He has terrific speed, immense physical strength and displayed a maturity in his game that I had not seen in the past. Miller can score, but he showed terrific vision and patience. One thing I really like about Miller is that he can play at a high level at varying paces, but seemed to excel in slowing things down in the offensive zone in order to make the right play and allow things to set up a bit. As long as he’s healthy, he’s top-six on this club.
Nic Kerdiles — There really isn’t anything flashy about Kerdiles outside of his goal celebrations. He is effective, but in unassuming ways. He has a good frame, which allows him to get in to the tough spaces and put himself into position to score. He has good two-way capabilities and his versatility is why he’s going to have a good shot at making this team as an 18-year-old. He wasn’t always noticeable, but that might be to his advantage. Kerdiles is a strong skater and definitely knows how to finish from in tight. He’s always buzzing around the net and getting to the net was a huge problem for last year’s team. His big frame and speed will probably come in handy.
Jacob Trouba — He played in just four games in camp. As a returning defenseman, he didn’t really need to get seen a whole lot. When he was out there, he was his normal nasty self. He hits everything he can, rarely putting himself in a bad spot in doing so. He has a bomb of a shot and underrated puck-moving abilities. The one piece of his game that I don’t know gets enough credit is his skating. It really is an asset he knows how to use. Trouba does a lot well. There’s more maturity in his game than there was at the last WJC when he was a standout. He’s going to be a top-two-pairing guy for this team, you’d expect.
Alex Galchenyuk — It wasn’t an overwhelmingly great camp for Galchenyuk. That said, considering the situation, he performed well. With only eight games played last season, a long rehab of a serious injury and no game action between April and August, there’s a lot to be said for how he played. Galchenyuk undoubtedly is a key for this team to have success. Once he gets back into the routine of practicing and playing regularly, he’s going to get back to the level everyone knows he can be at. You could see the flashes of skill and creativity that made him the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. The best thing is that Galchenyuk got better as the camp went on, with his last game being his best, so that’s a really positive sign. Once he gets back to game speed, and keeps getting stronger, he’s going to be a tough guy to play against.
John Gaudreau — The diminutive, but dynamic forward took a little while to get warmed up, but once he did, he looked more like the guy we’ve come to know from his play at Boston College. There aren’t a lot of American-born players that have the puck skills Gaudreau possesses. He also has keen vision and a nose for the net. You can put him in a position to score, you can put him in a position to set the table, or you can just let him go and be himself. That last option seems like something he would be more than capable of doing at the World Junior level. Give him the puck and let him go. It’s pretty fun to watch.
Seth Jones — Steady. That’s all you can say about the 2013 Draft eligible. Everything he does is steady. He’s the type of guy you’re extremely comfortable having in every situation. He showed more willingness to jump into plays offensively in camp. He has really good puck skills and footwork for a guy his size. He’s able to find the open man in stride and has a pretty heavy shot when he lets it fly. He’s likely going to see a lot of minutes against opponents’ top lines, probably get some power-play time and do a little bit of everything. He’s the first guy whose shoulder you are tapping in the key moments of any game if you’re Phil Housley.
Matt Grzelcyk — In the games I saw him play in, I kept writing down Grzelcyk’s name, which is difficult to spell, you guys. I have a feeling he’s going to be the odd man out because 1993-born Reilly and Gostisbehere are a little more advanced and bigger, but Grzelcyk’s offensive game was lights out in this camp. He had as many points as both those guys (four, all assists) and showed his high-end to elite skating ability. Grzelcyk is such a heads up player, I wouldn’t be surprised if he kept himself in the conversation for much of the first half. This might not be his time to make the team, but he’s going to be there in 2014 without a doubt. Some thought the Bruins reached to grab Grzelcyk 85th overall. Nope.
Blake Pietila — It would be unfair to point out all of the guys who put up a bunch of points in camp and not talk about the much needed defensive play. As far as forwards go, I thought Pietila was a standout in the defensive department. The Junior team probably needs a guy like him in Ufa. He has enough speed to match up with top offensive units, and the grit to make life tough on them. He’s a pretty strong individual and relentless in puck pursuit. Kind of makes sense why the Devils drafted him then.
Cole Bardreau — This was a pretty revelatory camp for the undrafted Bardreau. He is a tenaciously defensive center and showed glimpses of improved skill from his NTDP days. Bardreau flies out there every shift, which is what makes him really tough to play against. Because he is a bit undersized, he has to play with speed and grit to have any chance against top lines, but he has shown he can do that. I think that his size may be a concern when USA is trying to figure out who should be their fourth line center. He’s going to remain in the mix and could sneak into a spot on the team.
I probably could go on and on and on about a lot of the other players, but hopefully this gives you a snapshot of what it was like in camp. The competitiveness and tempo of the camp is really encouraging, especially with the months of preparation remaining for these players. If they’re this good in the pre-season, what will mid-season form look like?
For notes on other players, you can check out the game recaps here:
Also, I chatted with Guy Flaming of The Pipeline Show about camp. You can listen to the podcast here.
THE WAY-TOO-SOON PROJECTED ROSTER (THAT IS SURE TO BE WRONG)
This roster consists of only players that were in camp. Every year at least one or two players that weren’t at the NJEC find a way to make the team, so this is bound to change. Since the camp is still fresh, I decided to take a stab at a projected roster based on what I know about the players from before camp and their performances in it.
Gaudreau – Galchenyuk – Miller
Lucia – Kuraly – Noesen
Kerdiles – Trocheck – Biggs
Pietila – Fogarty – Hartman
On the bubble: Bardreau, Boyd
Reilly – Jones
Gostisbehere – Trouba
Skjei – Murphy
On the Bubble: Grzelcyk, Haar, Sieloff
On the Bubble: Stolarz
Here are the positional battles to keep an eye on…
Third/Fourth Line Center — No one really distinguished himself as the top choice for these position in camp. I think Vince Trocheck best positioned himself for a chance at the No. 3 center position in camp. Steven Fogarty got the nod for No. 4 for now due to his size and the flashes he showed in camp. He wasn’t always consistent, but you could see glimpses of a strong two-way game. Biggest question is can he do it at the college level? That’s what we don’t know yet.
Bardreau is likely to get a long look due to his performance in camp and the fact that he’s likely to play a similar role at Cornell as a sophomore. He’s shown he can play this role in the past at the U18s and at Cornell. Travis Boyd got better as camp went on and could be in the mix. Also keep an eye out for Joseph Labate, who wasn’t in camp, but could push for a spot with a great first half at Wisconsin. He’s a 6-4, 195-pound center. Additionally, there’s Rocco Grimaldi, who was unavailable for camp. He should be in the discussion for a shot at No. 2 or No. 3 center. Lastly, if there’s an underager that makes this team, I think it will be 1995-born J.T. Compher. He’s really good in tough minutes and has some scoring pop, too. He played a major role on the U18 world championship team this year at center and could fight the first half to make this team.
Top-six LW – Mario Lucia is slotted in based largely on his performance in one game in camp. He also has to make the adjustment to college hockey this year from the BCHL. He was a little too inconsistent in camp for my taste, but there weren’t a lot of other guys that established themselves.
Reid Boucher could be in the mix at that position despite a bit of a lackluster camp. His natural goal-scoring ability wasn’t really showcased in Lake Placid, but he has a track record of coming up huge in big games. He should remain in the mix for a spot. There’s also the chance Team USA looks to get Rocco Grimaldi slotted at wing to free him up a bit offensively. He could potentially fill a gap here.
No. 7 Defenseman — It is likely this team is going to go with 13 forwards and seven defenseman, though they could go 12 and 8, too. Still think they’ll opt for the former. They can do any number of things, but I gave Jake McCabe the nod for his toughness and ability to play a defense-first role. He also has some versatility, which is always a good thing. He does a lot of the little things well, so he can be slotted in with just about anyone and be effective. I think Garrett Haar quietly had a really nice camp and could slide in with a strong first-half at Western Michigan. Matt Grzelcyk is also firmly in the mix, but will have to overcome the fact that there are two similar guys to him likely already locked in. If USA is thinking it needs D to contribute offensively, Grzelcyk could be in there. Patrick Sieloff, with his hard-nosed, in-your-face style could also be an option.
No. 2 Goalie — This one is as wide open as it was when camp started, though I think Garret Sparks might have gotten out ahead of the pack a little bit. Stolarz had good stats, but still looks pretty raw and might need some extra seasoning. Jon Gillies had a rough go in camp, suffering both from bad luck and some shakiness. Collin Olson and Connor Hellebuyck are a pair of guys from outside of camp I could see earning consideration.
13th Forward — This is the position you have the most freedom with if you’re Team USA. You can find out where you’re deficient in your top four line and see if there’s a guy you can get that won’t play as much, but gives you that added versatility. Sometimes this goes to a guy with that extra bit of toughness the team lacks. Sometimes it’s to a power-play or PK specialist. It really can go any way they want. I put Stefan Matteau in there because I think he did enough in camp to show he belongs on the team, but maybe not enough to earn a regular role. Nic Kerdiles could end up in this spot due to his versatility. You might be able to slot a kid like Compher in here too due to his ability to play a really gritty, tough game and provide a little offense in the process.
USA Hockey has a lot of tough decisions ahead, but the beauty is they have a half season of evaluation left. Guys will move up and down throughout the season, so these things will work themselves out. As long as everyone they want is available, Team USA should have a very competitive team and could push for gold in Ufa.
Expect comprehensive coverage of the World Junior Championship throughout the build up to the tournament and when it finally arrives come Christmastime. In the meantime, you can share your thoughts in the comments. What does your too-early U.S. WJC team look like?