After an unexpected delay to trim down the defensemen to seven, the U.S. National Junior Team staff has still not been able to finalize its roster. One cut will still have to be made on the back end, but since this decision is not likely to come on Christmas Day, we’ll go ahead and detail the eight remaining in the hunt for spots on Team USA.
I’m told all of the eight defensemen skated for the entirety of Team USA’s first practice since landing in Ufa. That would be a good sign that the pending medical issue that delayed the decision may be cleared up by now.
Even before the final decision is made, this unit should be the strength of the team thanks to its good mix of size and mobility. Team USA’s scoring depth should get a boost with a trio of highly-skilled offensive defensmen and a bevy of good two-way guys.
The biggest question remaining for this defensive corps is how they can maintain the balance between that offensive skill and commitment to defense. With so many guys that like to get up ice, the U.S. D will have to pick its spots well.
As built, this team doesn’t have a prototypical shut-down pair, so finding that balance will be key to Team USA’s success going up against highly-skilled outfits from Canada, Russia and perhaps you could throw Slovakia in there, too.
Coming up after the jump, more on this defensive corps and a look at each of Team USA’s eight defensemen still in the mix for the World Junior Championship.
The defense plays a significant role in Team USA’s good overall team speed, which will help at both ends of the ice. That good recovery speed will allow the D to take a few more chances up ice. Most, if not all of Team USA’s defense has very good distribution skills, which should help stoke the offense and make them more dangerous in transition.
Defensively, this team doesn’t have a lot of guys that are going to be overly physical, so smart positioning and good sticks will be necessary to slow teams down in their own end. Most of the guys on the back end can play soundly enough in their own zone, but that ability to burn teams in transition is going to be a big key to winning hockey games.
The minutes leaders on the back end are likely to be Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba. Both play strong defensive games, but can contribute offensively. Jones’ steadiness and Trouba’s good all-around game make them each a big part of what this team will be able to do in the tournament.
Shayne Gostisbehere — Margate, Fla. — The slick-skating defenseman has speed that kills and good hands. He likes to jump into the play and create offensively. He needs to be careful with the puck, but is mostly good with his decisions. Defensively he can keep forwards at bay with a good stick and sound positioning. His skill set allows the U.S. to play that up-tempo style and he’ll also probably see some power play time.
Matt Grzelcyk — Charlestown, Mass. — After suiting up in a seventh defenseman role in the pre-tournament games, that could be where Grzelcyk slots in during the tournament. Grzelcyk has good versatility and hockey sense, which should allow him to slot in with any D partner and be effective. He should see some power play time. He has great distribution skills and should be a weapon in transition when he’s on the ice.
Seth Jones — Plano, Texas — When he keeps things simple, he’s as good a defenseman as you’ll see in this age group. Jones likes to be more aggressive offensively now, but he’s most valuable in his own end, shutting down top lines and breaking down forechecks with his calm play. He can get the puck up ice quick and has a heavy shot. He should see a lot of special teams time and get the most ice of Team USA’s blueliners.
Jake McCabe — Eau Claire, Wis. — Team USA’s recently-named captain is solid at both ends of the ice. He has good offensive skills and plays a sound physical game. McCabe has been a top-pairing defenseman at Wisconsin all year, so he can play as much or as little as you need him to and be just as good. McCabe’s versatility makes him a good guy to have on the bench and gives him value in a variety of situations.
Connor Murphy — Dublin, Ohio — A steady presence on the back end, Murphy gives the U.S. a very reliable right-shot defenseman who can contribute offensively. He is good at shutting down opposing forwards in the D zone with a good stick and terrific awareness. It was believed Murphy was the player in question dealing with an injury that prevented the decision from being made on schedule. He’s had a history of bad luck with injuries, but if he’s good to go, he will be an important part of this lineup.
Mike Reilly – Chanhassen, Minn. — With high-end puck skills and speed, Reilly provides the U.S. an offensive weapon on D. He could afford to be better in the defensive zone, but what he brings to the table offensively have the potential to make up for it. He can be an ace on the power play. The U.S. clearly wanted speed and skill on the backend, which is why the cut who they cut and why Reilly is here.
Patrick Sieloff — Ann Arbor, Mich. — Though a bit undersized, Sieloff has a nastiness to his game that makes opposing forwards take note. He’s not just all toughness though. Sieloff is smart and positions himself well in his own zone. His puck skills are a bit underrated as he can move the puck well and escape pressure. Sieloff’s heavy body checks are helpful in setting the physical tone of the game, however. His style might make him penalty prone, so he’ll have to pick his spots well. If the injury indeed was to Murphy, it would appear Sieloff is the most likely to end up getting cut.
Jacob Trouba — Rochester, Mich. — Perhaps the most physical of Team USA’s defensemen, Trouba can impact the game in variety of ways. He has WJC experience and will serve as an alternate captain on this team. His mean streak makes life tough on opposing forwards, while his offensive game can put defenders on their heels. He should see time on the power play as a trigger man with his vicious shot and play a lot of minutes in general.
United States of Hockey will be on a break Christmas Day, but come back on Dec. 26 for a full preview of the World Junior Championship and more on Team USA. Merry Christmas to you and yours!