One month from today, the U.S. National Junior Team picture will begin to clear as USA Hockey brings an expanded roster to New York City for the pre-tournament camp.
Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations and U.S. GM, told NHL.com’s Mike Morreale that they expect to bring 27 players to New York which is likely to include 15 forwards, nine defensemen and three goalies. That roster will have to get down to 22, likely with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies, before the squad heads overseas.
There should be some tough decisions to be made between now and then, but with about four weeks left to impress the USA Hockey brass, the competition should only intensify. There are some serious battles at just about every position and only a few clear locks. The next few weekends will prove important for those on the bubble in particular as the door is certainly open to grab a spot for a lot of different players.
Coming up after the jump, a look at some of the players vying for spots at each forward position.
Before getting into each individual position, it’s a good idea to look at the entire forward pool. USA Hockey has to get down to 15 or so before Dec. 16. There’s probably between 17-20 legitimate candidates that could be considered for inclusion on the final roster. That includes guys that were in the summer camp and a select few that were not.
Team USA is going to need some balance up front, with a good combination of speed, skill and toughness. On the big ice sheet, speed should be a huge factor in the decision-making process. That’s a tiny bit of a problem though. Among the forward group, there aren’t a ton of legitimate speedsters like in years past.
With that in mind, puck skills become more important. The more skilled guys will need to capitalize on the extra room created by the big ice sheet to create offense and exploit weaknesses against the opposing D. USA has more of these guys, than they do speed players.
Among the biggest concerns is the lack of depth down the left side. Mario Lucia and Nic Kerdiles both looked good in camp last summer, but both have barely played this season due to injury and suspension, respectively. So that’s an area that’s going to need some attention.
As of right now, I think you could probably lock in five guys for what would be considered “top-six” roles, but the further down the lineup you go, the more question marks that appear. That means a ton of competition down the stretch and maybe even the possibility of USA Hockey inviting an extra guy or two to camp just to be sure.
This is a position where there doesn’t appear to be any major battles. As of now, Team USA looks like it has four quality candidates that were all part of the National Junior Evaluation Camp. With only bringing two extra forwards to the pre-tournament camp in New York, this is probably a position they’ll want to have pretty well set by then. That said, there are a few guys that have played themselves into consideration, which could make things interesting yet.
The locks for this position, one would have to assume, are J.T. Miller and Stefan Noesen. A pair of first-round draft choices that give the U.S. a good mix of strength and offensive touch.
Tyler Biggs is likely on the team as well, providing some muscle and grit and a power-forward type that can take and dish out some punishment. The skating might be a bit of a concern on the big ice, but the physical aspects of his game are tough to ignore.
Then you come down to Ryan Hartman, who had a great summer camp and has looked solid with Plymouth in his first year in the OHL. He’s got good offensive skills, plays with a bit of an edge and is a sound skater. He seems like a natural fit for a third- or fourth-line role. Hartman also has enough versatility to maybe be that 13th forward that Team USA can move around a bit depending on the situation.
However the play of Miami freshman Riley Barber has to open some eyes. The nation’s leading scorer among freshmen, and tied for second in the country overall, with 14 points (5-9) is going to get some extra looks. He’s a true freshman playing on the top line for one of the nation’s best teams. That’s some valuable experience. Even though he wasn’t at the camp in summer, he might be a guy they bring in to compete, but the guys ahead of him are going to be tough to knock off.
USA Hockey also may have to take a longer look at underager Adam Erne of the Quebec Remparts. Although a 1995-born, he is putting up a ton of points and has some scoring pop. That said, it’s so rare to see an underager make this team from outside the National Team Development Program. Not only that, but if you’re bringing Erne, it’s likely to fill a top-six role and that’s a tall order for an underager, even though he’s psychically ahead of his peers. Additionally, the older guys ahead of him might be better equipped to handle such a role, based on experience. There could be a good case made for him to be there, but just as good of one for him to not be. A lot of that will come down to familiarity and trust.
There’s a bit of a log jam at this position in terms of just how many candidates there could be. It’s going to come down to what type of roles guys can fit into, which is not always an easy projection. A guy might be top six on his team, but is the fourth line center for the WJC. USA Hockey needs to find guys that are comfortable in whatever role they’re given, which sometimes means going a little off the beaten path.
The U.S. has a bonafide No. 1 center in Alex Galchenyuk, but after that, there’s a bit of a sizable drop off, which is where there’s so much competition.
Vince Trocheck is an odds-on favorite to win a role with the way he’s played in the OHL. He’s also defensively responsible for being such a productive player. Then there’s North Dakota’s Rocco Grimaldi, who could help amend a depth issue on the left wing if need be, but he’s a natural center. His defensive play has improved and his wheels on the big ice make him an absolute weapon. Those two guys could be interchangeable as a No. 2 or No. 3 center.
There is also Sean Kuraly, who was incredible in the pre-tournament camp, but has struggled to produce in his freshman campaign at Miami. He may end up getting the benefit of the doubt on his slow start a bit due to his size and speed. Kuraly could exploit the larger ice sheet in Ufa with his strong skating. It just comes down to if he’s played poorly enough this season to have played himself out of the picture.
So there are four guys right there, but there’s something missing from the picture. Team USA probably needs a guy that can be a shut-down center, or at least is a proven two-way player. None of the four above would fit that description perfectly and the pool only has a few options to fill that role.
Brady Vail is having another sound season at Windsor. He’s putting up points, but he also has some keen defensive abilities and has been a guy that went up against top lines before. He wasn’t in the summer camp and he’s a 1994-born guy, nor does he have any international experience, so it would be understandable if the USA Hockey brass wasn’t entirely comfortable he could be that guy at the WJC level. Most people don’t realize the gap between junior or college hockey to the World Juniors. When USA goes up against Canada, Russia or Sweden, it’s immense. That’s why USA Hockey has leaned so heavily on players with international experience and why Vail could be on the outside looking in.
There’s a host of other guys that could factor into the discussion one way or another including Cole Bardreau (Cornell), Travis Boyd (Minnesota), Logan Nelson (Victoria) and Steven Fogarty (Notre Dame).
Basically, what I’m saying is, that last center position is a crap shoot. It all comes down to who USA Hockey feels can play whatever role it is they have a need for or someone that brings something a little more unique to the table than anyone else. A lot of these guys are pretty similar players, so it could be tough to separate from each other, but that should all get fleshed out this month.
This could be the real problem position for Team USA. There’s limited depth at a spot where you’d hope to see more skill and/or speed. There just isn’t as much here as in the other spots.
Johnny Gaudreau is the only real rock-solid lock for this position. Then there’s a host of other guys where you could make great arguments for being on or off the roster.
Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey might have the inside track on a second-line wing position with the way he’s started his freshman campaign at Harvard. Through his first five games he’s had five goals and two assists, which is obviously impressive. The skill level and scoring ability is clearly there. It didn’t materialize a ton at the camp last summer, so this quick start has been important.
A lot of the uncertainty in this position is due to Mario Lucia getting injured in the preseason. A broken leg is tough to come back from, but Lucia made his return to the Notre Dame lineup Thursday night. He looked like a guy coming off a broken leg, but he has about seven games left to show what he can do. If he’s not back to 100 percent, I don’t think USA Hockey can take a chance on him.
There’s more uncertainty due to Nic Kerdiles‘s delayed return thanks to his NCAA suspension and subsequent injury while playing with the U.S. National Under-18 Team in an exhibition game against St. Thomas. He doesn’t come back until Nov. 30, so he has to prove that he’s back to game shape as well and that could be easier said than done with only four games before a decision will have to be made.
The U.S. has some other options when it comes to potentially productive wingers.
There’s Stefan Matteau, who has somewhat underwhelmed offensively in his first QMJHL season with Blainville-Boisbriand. He has great physical strength, sound skating and decent offensive tools, so there could be a spot for him maybe in a third-line role.
Reid Boucher is another intriguing option as a goal-scoring winger. The Sarnia Sting forward knows how to put the puck in the net and has 12 goals this year. His skating is probably only average for this level. That could be exploited on the big ice, but without anyone else really distinguishing himself, there could be a spot for a guy with his somewhat one-dimensional tools.
Then you get down to the bottom line and have to make some tough choices. There are a pair of pretty good fourth-line options the U.S. could potentially go to. Blake Pietila of Michigan Tech and Thomas DiPauli of Notre Dame would both be good options. Both are sound in their own end and play a physical brand of hockey. Both also have pretty solid offensive capabilities which could bring some scoring punch to that bottom line. Either could also be a 13th forward as well.
There could be a few more guys that kind of come out of the woodwork, as there always seems to be, but as far as forwards go the guys listed are probably best positioned for consideration.
There’s not much time left for these players to show why they deserve to be on the final roster, so things will only continue to heat up. It’ll be worth following very closely.