The 2012 World Junior A Challenge will kick off tonight in Yarmouth, N.S. The U.S. Junior Select Team, comprised primarily of players from the United States Hockey League, will look to redeem itself after a disappointing third-place finish at last year’s event.
For those of you who are new to this tournament, the Junior A Challenge is a six-team event, which annually includes two Canadian regional teams: East and West, the United States and three European squads — this year it’s the Czech Republic, Russia and Switzerland. The rosters are made up primarily of 17- and 18-year-olds, with some 19-year-olds sprinkled in as well.
Team USA had won this event three straight years before 2011′s third-place finish. FASTHockey.com will provide free live streaming of the tournament, which runs Nov. 5-11. For instructions on how to access the live feed, click here.
It should also be noted that the World Junior A Challenge is just one of a series of international tournaments taking place this week in what is considered the International Ice Hockey Federation’s international break. There is also a Men’s Under-18 Four Nations Tournament, which begins Tuesday in Ann Arbor, a Women’s Four Nations Cup, and a Men’s Under-17 Four Nations Tournament. So this is a busy week for USA Hockey.
Coming up after the jump a complete preview of the U.S. Junior Select Team in preparation for tonight’s tournament opener.
The U.S. roster for this tournament is solid. It may not be as good as last year’s team on paper, but that shouldn’t deter Team USA’s hopes to finish as World Junior A Challenge champs.
This is an important event for the USHL. All but one of the players on the U.S. Junior Select roster is from the country’s top tier junior league. Playing against many of the best players from Canada’s Junior A leagues like the BCHL and OJHL, leagues that sometimes compete for the same players, provides a good measuring stick. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for the USHL to showcase its best against other junior-aged players, so a tournament like this allows the league to make a statement, somewhat.
For the players, it’s a chance to put on the U.S. jersey in international competition. This experience may come in handy somewhere down the road for World Junior participation for a select few. It’s also an event that has brought in more and more scouts over the years, so this is a good opportunity for the draft-eligible players to gain some ground as well.
The margin for error in the Junior A Challenge is surprisingly slim, as last year’s club found out the hard way. Each team plays two preliminary-round games. Whoever finishes atop the bracket after those two games gets a bye to the semis. Any lower and its to the quarterfinals, which every team makes. The shorter the route to the championship game, the better.
Now that you’ve got the basics for the tournament, here are the details on Team USA.
The U.S. roster includes four NHL Draft picks and seven first-year draft eligibles that are likely to be selected in June. Before even leaving for Yarmouth, the U.S. suffered a big loss when it was announced that projected first-rounder Ian McCoshen would be out for the tournament with mono. Losing McCoshen, who has WJAC experience and some immense skills is a tough blow, but there’s still some solid guys on the back end to fill in.
Team USA should be fairly strong in net with Waterloo’s Eamon McAdam and Lincoln’s Michael Bitzer. Expect McAdam to carry a heavier load in this tournament, though both will probably see some action.
There is decent size on the back end with Dubuque’s Mike Downing highlighting the blue line. Carolina draft pick Jaccob Slavin should provide a steady puck-moving presence on the back end as well.
The forward group, as a whole, is small. There isn’t one player over 6-feet tall and six of the 13 are 5-9 or shorter. That said, there is a ton of skill led by USHL rookie of the year Taylor Cammarata and Ryan Fitzgerald, the only non-USHL player on the roster. Additionally NHL draftees Zach Stepan, Vince Hinostroza and Robbie Baillargeon will be looked to for some veteran steadiness.
Here are a few more in-depth reports on some of Team USA’s draft-eligible skaters…
Ryan Fitzgerald — F — The only player to make the squad from outside the USHL was a savvy addition. Playing out of the Eastern Junior Hockey League with the Valley Jr. Warriors, Fitzgerald has been over a point-per-game player. After being named the MVP at the All-American Prospects Game, Fitzgerald has gained more of a following among scouts. Some services believe he could be a Top 60 pick in June and with his high-end vision and hockey sense, it’s highly possible. He could log a lot of minutes at center for this team and should be relied on to take the big draws. The USHL coaches might not be as familiar with him, but he has the potential to be a big time player for the U.S. Junior Selects.
Taylor Cammarata — F — The diminutive forward has been outstanding once again this USHL season with 17 points in nine games. He just makes things happen with his creative puck skills and strong vision. It is imperative the U.S. has guys like him going strong to have success.
Justin Kloos — F — The second-year draft eligible Kloos is setting the USHL on fire in his rookie campaign. He also has 17 points for the Waterloo Black Hawks and is showing what made him Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey last season. This is a big opportunity for Kloos to show what he can do on the international stage. After getting passed over last year, every game is another audition for NHL scouts and this could be a good one.
Austin Cangelosi — F — I’m still scratching my head over Cangelosi not getting picked up last June. He has good speed, puck skills and a real knack for scoring goals. He has 13 points on the young season and could be a top-six threat for Team USA in this tournament. He scored a goal in a Saturday-night exhibition game, which the Americans will hope is a sign of things to come.
Mike Downing — D — With McCoshen out of the picture, this very much needs to be Downing’s show. He’s got first-round buzz surrounding him and has a sizable tool box to pull from. There are good enough puck skills and skating for him to be able to dictate things in the U.S. zone. Scouts like his defensive upside, but most agree he’s still learning those aspects of the game. He’ll be put to the test in this tournament, which will certainly be looked at closely.
Eamon McAdam — G — McAdam could be the X factor for Team USA, as goalies often are. Having played so well so far this season and putting up a good showing at Waterloo’s Russian excursion over the summer to the World Junior Club Cup, expectations should be high. He’s arguably the best American goaltender available for the NHL Draft this season and he has a perfect opportunity to show why.
Luke Johnson — F — This year has been a bit of a struggle for Johnson, who has been a moderate contributor to one of the USHL’s best teams in the Lincoln Stars. After garnering high praise from Central Scouting last season, Johnson has contributed just three points for the 10-1-0 stars. After putting up 55 points last season, he’ll need to do better. This event might give Johnson a good chance to showcase himself and get back on track.
Blake Heinrich — D — The first-year eligible Heinrich made the tough decision to leave Minnesota high school hockey behind for a chance in the USHL. So far, the gifted puck-mover already has four assists in eight games as he continues to make the adjustment to junior. This tournament could be a real opportunity for Heinrich to showcase himself. He very easily could be a mid-round pick in the draft.
Team USA is led by Sioux City head coach Brett Larson with R.J. Enga and Derek Lalonde serving as assistants.
There’s no question this is going to be a tough task for Team USA. Both Canadian squads should pose a big threat to Team USA’s title contention, while Russia looks to have a very competitive roster. The Czech Republic has a lot of players with international experience which could prove helpful in this event, but I don’t know if they have the skill to match up with the North American squads. The same can be said for Switzerland, which has a number of players that will likely be part of its World Junior Championship entry in December.
Thomas Ebbing — F — Ebbing has been a big part of the Chicago Steel’s resurgent season and looks to only get better as the season progresses. Many eyes will be on Ebbing, who has made a seamless jump from Michigan high school to the USHL. Stepping outside the league and making something happen on this stage will go a long way for the forward who went unrecognized by Central Scouting in its preseason list.
Team USA will meet Canada East in the tournament opener tonight 6:30 p.m. ET. You can check it out live on FASTHockey.com for free. Click here for the complete schedule.
Coming soon, a preview of the Under-18 Four Nations Cup in Ann Arbor.