U.S. World Junior Watch: Spotlight on Sean Kuraly; Players With Most to Prove in Camp

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.

Sean Kuraly (Miami Athletics)

Sean Kuraly — Center
Hometown: Dublin, Ohio Birthdate: January 20, 1993
Current Team: Miami University
NHL Rights: San Jose Sharks (5th Rd., 133rd overall, 2011)
National Team ExperienceU.S. Junior Select Team (World Junior A Challenge, third place)

“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.”

That was the first two sentences I wrote about Sean Kuraly back in August in wrapping up the summer National Junior Evaluation Camp. I can still say without reservation that Kuraly was the best forward in Lake Placid.

In the months since, it’s been a different story as Kuraly has perhaps found the jump to college hockey more difficult than his time at the U.S. camp. In his first 16 games at Miami, Kuraly has struggled to produce at the clip it appeared he’d be able to establish after his breakout performance in Lake Placid. With just three goals and an assist as a 19-year-old freshman, there was reason to wonder if he’d even make the camp, despite what he did in Lake Placid.

Though his production was intriguing in the summer camp, it was his skills that made him stand out. At 6-2, 200, Kuraly has a sturdy frame with the strength to match it. He has high-end speed, particularly for a player his size, and showed strong puck skills and good finish in Lake Placid. That skill set hasn’t gone away and make him an attractive option for Team USA despite his slow start.

Coming off a season in which he posted 70 points including 32 goals in the USHL, it seemed as though Kuraly would have no trouble being a productive player at the college level. However, it’s important to remember Kuraly’s first USHL season.

Similar to this year, he had a slow start in making the adjustment to a new level. He finished his first full season with the Indiana Ice with just eight goals and 29 points in 51 games. Though the World Juniors is a different level, perhaps returning to the junior ranks, where he’ll be one of the oldest players, will help the big center get back into the swing of things offensively.

Though the lack of production is a moderate concern, Kuraly’s skill set allows him to contribute in other ways if his offensive woes continue.

Kuraly has good two-way abilities and plays a physical enough game to play that type of role if the depth chart dictates it. The Ohio native has also been terrific on draws this year, leading Miami’s regular centers with a 60.7 percent success rate at the dot.

 Based on who the U.S. will have in camp with highly offensive centermen in Alex Galchenyuk, Vincent Trocheck and Rocco Grimaldi, Kuraly may be better served in a fourth-line role, but there’s competition for that spot too.

The way he played in camp shows he could also provide some scoring punch at the bottom of the lineup. On top of that, he does have 46 shots on goal this year, so his 6 percent shooting percentage should come up as the bounces start going his way.

Before slotting Kuraly in the fourth line however, it’s important to remember just how good he was in August. Playing mostly on a line with Mario Lucia and Stefan Noesen, Kuraly was   part of the most dominant trio of the whole camp. Could reuniting these three spark Kuraly? I’d expect them to get some reps together in camp to find out.

Kuraly has the two things that have become hallmarks of U.S. teams. Great speed and grit. If he can display the finish he had from August when he scored six goals in camp, there’s a spot for him somewhere. You can’t completely ignore his slow start, but his skills can forgive the production shortcomings.

He’ll likely be in a fight with Cole Bardreau, more of a defensive specialist, for that final center spot or there’s a chance you could see Kuraly make the team as an extra forward who can fill a variety of roles when needed.

If he can be adaptable and effective, Kuraly is a good guy to have on the roster. He won’t have a lot of time, but he’ll be given every opportunity to prove he can be the player he was in August.

Which Players Have the Most to Prove in Camp?

Sean Kuraly — C — Miami — OK, so maybe there was a reason this segment follows Kuraly’s spotlight. For all the reasons mentioned above, Kuraly is on the bubble. His production rate in college is much lower than expected, but his camp performance is still fresh in everyone’s mind. It comes down to showing them he is still that guy that lit the Lake Placid on fire.

Brady Skjei — D — Minnesota — Like Kuraly, the adjustment to college hockey has not been necessarily smooth for Skjei. The Rangers first rounder was a healthy scratch on Friday against Colorado College, which probably isn’t what USA Hockey was hoping to see after naming Skjei to its preliminary roster. He was back in the lineup the next night, but struggled a bit. To be fair, a lot of the Minnesota D did in that game, particularly the third period.

For Skjei, he’s a guy that has the tools to play at World Junior level and be effective. He’s struggling in college currently, but a lot of true freshman do. Essentially, this camp is make or break for Skjei’s WJC, or so it would seem.

One of the important things to remember is that Minnesota assistant coach Grant Potulny will be serving in that same role for Team USA. If anyone knows what Skjei is capable of this year, it’s Potulny. Skjei wouldn’t have been invited if there was any doubt from the guy that’s been working with him every day. Don’t expect Skjei to get an preferential treatment though. He’s still in a battle for a spot and with his size and speed, he has a chance to be there, but camp is going to be crucial.

Cole Bardreau – C — Cornell — There’s always something to prove for Bardreau, who plays with a chip on his shoulder. Having been passed over in the two previous NHL Drafts, Bardreau may have been the surprise pick for camp, but he had a strong showing in Lake Placid in August. Bardreau plays with speed and tenacity, with good defensive awareness. Despite his 5-10, 184 frame, Bardreau also plays physical and is a relentless forechecker.

He will likely have the chance to be reunited with former NTDP linemate Blake Pietila in a fourth-line role. That duo continually received the toughest checking line assignments at the 2011 World U18 Championship and were successful in containing players like Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Mika Zibanejad and Filip Forsberg.

Even though Bardreau has the good track record and was terrific in the summer camp, he is battling for a spot due to the depth at his position. Kuraly may be his primary competition and if that’s the case, Kuraly has a big size advantage on Bardreau.

The Cornell sophomore will have to prove he can play effective defense and provide energy  every shift. It will also help to show good chemistry with Pietila and whichever right wing USA Hockey tries in that fourth line role.  He has the work ethic and plays the style the U.S. can utilize, but he’ll have to prove he can play that role better than anyone else.

Riley Barber — RW — Miami — The nation’s leading scorer among freshman has a little extra work to do in camp since he wasn’t in Lake Placid in August. He is a former NTDP player, so USA Hockey knows him well, but he also has to impress head coach Phil Housley to make the team.

Housley has been out scouting this year, but he’ll be more familiar with the guys he was able to watch exclusively in the summer. Based on that, Barber will have to endear himself to the coach quickly in camp and show he brings something different than his competition.

Barber is playing a position that already has three 1993-born players looking like locks with J.T. Miller, Stefan Noesen and Tyler Biggs all offering a mix of experience, size and scoring punch. That could mean Barber’s primary competition is going to be former U18 teammate Ryan Hartman.

Hartman’s versatility gives him a bit of an advantage, but if Barber shows his point production from Miami can translate at the World Juniors, there’s reason to find a spot for him. That could be as a 13th forward or he could beat out one of the more established right wings. He has a bit of an uphill battle, being one of just two players that weren’t in Lake Placid, but what he’s done during the first half at Miami won’t be ignored.

Mario Lucia — LW — Notre Dame — For reasons mentioned in Monday’s spotlight, Lucia has to prove he is healthy enough to endure the rigors of the World Junior Championship. Having missed 10 weeks with his broken leg, building up to a condition that can handle the potential for six or seven games in 10 days can be tough.

It might be difficult to prove definitively in camp, but Lucia is likely to be given the benefit of the doubt in regards to his health due to what he can bring to the team. If any concern crops up over the course of camp, it becomes a more difficult decision.

Jimmy Vesey — LW — Harvard — The Crimson’s leading scorer likely has an inside track on a spot on the second or third line in Ufa, but the competition at left wing isn’t over just yet. Vesey had an effective, but unspectacular showing in Lake Placid, proving that he belonged in the conversation at least.

Harvard has only had nine games so far this season while most college teams have had 14-17, with the junior players playing closer to 30. Not having as many reps as some of the guys he’ll be competing against for spots could hurt his camp performance.

Vesey’s lack of international experience will also likely be taken into account when decisions are made, but his play in camp will trump all. If he performs well in camp, playing the way he has at Harvard with good two-way capabilities, he’s going to have a good shot at making the team. He’ll have to compete against Lucia and likely Devils first-rounder Stefan Matteau for a role, which won’t be easy.

Coming soon: A spotlight on Seth Jones and the ever-present CHL vs. NCAA dynamic on U.S. junior teams.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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