Throughout the week, United States of Hockey will profile invitees for the U.S. pre-tournament camp which begins Sunday, Dec. 16, with each profile followed by additional camp content.
Mario Lucia — Left Wing
Hometown: Plymouth, Minn. Birthdate: August 25, 1993
Current Team: University of Notre Dame
NHL Rights: Minnesota Wild (2nd Rd., 60th overall, 2011)
National Team Experience: U.S. National Under-18 Team (2010, U18 Four Nations Cup), U.S. Junior Select Team (World Junior A Challenge, third place)
In late August, just weeks after Mario Lucia impressed at the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, it looked like his World Junior Championship hopes were dead. During an offseason practice, a teammate fell and landed on Lucia’s leg, breaking his left fibula and causing ligament damage in his left ankle. Three months was the projected recovery time including seven weeks in a cast.
He would be able to return to Notre Dame before the World Junior Championship decisions were made, but it would be anyone’s guess as to how much time he’d have and if he’d be in good enough condition to be a factor. The road to recovery would be long, but it appeared the road to effectiveness would be longer. Or maybe not.
Lucia defied projections, returning 10 weeks after sustaining his severe injury. That first game back, a Thursday night road game at Michigan, Lucia looked like a player that hadn’t played in months. The rust showed and there was a tentativeness. It was Lucia’s first career college game, so it wasn’t exactly going to be easy.
The next night, however, Lucia scored a goal. Every game thereafter the 6-2, 195-pound winger looked stronger and more confident.
He scored four goals over his first six games back, navigating an injury rehab and the big adjustment from the British Columbia Hockey League to NCAA Division I. It wasn’t much of a surprise to see his name on the preliminary roster USA Hockey release last Tuesday.
Lucia brings good size and decent speed. His biggest asset is his finish, which has improved greatly since his high school days at Wayzata in Minnesota. After a 42-goal season with the Penticton Vees last year, it maybe shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s scoring regularly at the college level.
The winger posted three points last weekend against Michigan State to improve his point total to eight in eight games, which includes five goals. Since he came back from injury, Notre Dame has won seven of those eight contests. The impact has been noticeable.
Now playing regularly with former U.S. National Junior Teamer T.J. Tynan, Lucia has helped the previously slumping junior pick up his scoring pace. Tynan is on a five-game point streak since getting paired with the freshman, which includes three two-point games. Now it’s not fair to Tynan to give Lucia all the credit, as the Notre Dame junior is one of the finest players in the college game, but there’s certainly appears to be some correlation.
That’s what USA Hockey will hope Lucia can bring at the World Junior level, likely putting him in a top-six, scoring role. He does possess an ability to make teammates better and if he’s paired with a good play-making center, he could produce at a fairly high clip.
Lucia’s size, speed and ability to produce all got him into camp, but his spot on the team is not secure just yet.
For Lucia, the camp is going to be a proving ground on a variety of levels. More than anything else, Lucia will have to show he’s in good enough condition to handle the grind of the tournament.
Team USA has a bye on the first day of the tournament, which means it will have to play six or seven games in 10 days. The freshman winger has shown he can play in back-to-back games just fine, but the intensity of the World Junior Championship is a bit different than the regular weekend college series. With five to six days between series in college, Lucia gets some good recovery time that won’t be afforded him in Ufa.
That’s a big reason the camp is so important. It will prepare the players for that grind, but it can also weed them out. It isn’t going to be a boot camp, but the competition for spots is real this year, which won’t let players get comfortable as every practice and scrimmage counts. With the amount of time Lucia has missed, even as good as he’s looked over the last month, it’s important to ensure his readiness.
If he’s close to 100 percent, Lucia could be a guy that the U.S. leans on heavily.
He already showed over the summer that he can play big against international opponents, as he competed well in Lake Placid against Finland and Sweden. He found chemistry with Sean Kuraly and Stefan Noesen at the NJEC and both of those two made the prelim roster.
If put together again, perhaps Lucia can have a similar impact on struggling freshman Kuraly as he’s had on Tynan. That line with Noesen was near dominant for most of that camp and if they find themselves together, they might have to prove they’re too valuable as a trio to let any one of them go.
Unquestionably, Lucia gives the U.S. a proven scorer at a position that lacks scoring depth. If he shows he’s ready for the grind and is able to put pucks in the net in camp, he’s going to have a spot. Considering how far he’s come since August, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to count him out.
Lucia had a goal and two assists over the weekend, but here’s a look at a few other players that stood out since being named to the preliminary roster.
Alex Galchenyuk — C — Sarnia Sting — The third overall pick from last June’s Draft continued his dominance of the Ontario Hockey League. With two goals and an assist in the three games since being named to the U.S. prelim roster, Galchenyuk is now up to 52 points in 31 games, which ranks third in the league. He also has 22 goals, which is tied for fourth in the OHL. Sunday, the crafty forward undressed Alex Gudbranson for a goal as Sarnia went on to defeat the Soo Greyhounds 4-1. (h/t Robert Rice)
Rocco Grimaldi — C/W — North Dakota — The diminutive speedster had a monster weekend against Denver. Despite not registering a point in Friday’s 2-2 tie, Grimaldi had five shots on goal and a host of scoring chances. He was rewarded the next night with a goal and three assists as UND downed the Pioneers 6-3. He was quite literally everywhere. Watch the Saturday highlights here. Grimaldi now has 15 points in 16 games this year as a red-shirt freshman.
Seth Jones – D — Portland Winterhawks — The big defenseman posted a goal and an assist Sunday to extend his point streak to nine games. Jones now has 28 points in 30 games and is third in scoring among all defensemen in the WHL. Jones already has nine points in the month of December including eight assists. The offense is merely icing on the cake when you take into account his immense defensive skills. As deep as the U.S. defense will be, Jones will still probably log major minutes at the WJC.
Nic Kerdiles — LW — Wisconsin — Kerdiles added another assist over the weekend and now has three in the four games since he returned from his NCAA suspension. USA Hockey has said the freshman forward is still in the mix to be named to camp, but he still doesn’t quite look like his old self. The good news is that Kerdiles did a lot of the little things well against Michigan Tech last weekend. He played fast and physical and could have given himself a chance to be considered for a lower-line, 13th forward role. His status remains up in the air.
Johnny Gaudreau — LW — Boston College — Gaudreau had a goal and an assist against Providence College in a 3-3 tie. The two points gives Gaudreau 23 on the season. He is second in the country with 1.64 points per game and is tied for second with 11 goals. The sophomore has recorded at least one point in 16 of 17 games this year.
Riley Barber — RW — Miami — Barber scored a goal Friday to raise his point total to 19. He’s tied for the team lead at Miami as a true freshman and leads all first-year players nationally by three points. Five of his seven goals have been scored at even strength and the skilled winger has only been held off the score sheet in four games.
Travis Boyd — C — Minnesota — According to a report by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Michael Russo, Boyd is one of the other forwards USA Hockey is considering adding to the camp. The gifted penalty killer and two-way center posted two assists in the Gophers’ 4-4 tie at Colorado College. Boyd now has 11 points (3g-8a) in 17 games, already surpassing his point total from his freshman campaign.
J.T. Miller — RW/C — Connecticut Whale — The day after Miller was named to the preliminary roster, he scored two goals. He posted an assist Saturday to run his season point total to 11 (4g-7a) in 23 games. Here’s a look at Miller’s goals from Wednesday via the SNYRangers Blog. (Miller highlights start at 2:20).
Coming up tomorrow, a spotlight on Sean Kuraly and thoughts on which players have the most to prove when camp starts next week.