On Saturday, 44 hopefuls for the U.S. National Junior Team will hit the Olympic Center ice in Lake Placid, N.Y. It is just the first step towards making the team that will look to defend America’s gold medal at the World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden.
The U.S. is going to experience some heavy losses of key players that are still age eligible. In all likelihood, Jacob Trouba, Seth Jones and Alex Galchenyuk will be playing a regular shift in the NHL come World Juniors. That’s the two best defensemen from last year’s team gone and a lot of offense to replace in Galchenyuk. None of the three will be in camp. So there are certainly going to be challenges for this team to overcome.
The depth of this class pales in comparison to the last few, which is going to put a lot of stress on the defense and assuredly the goaltending. As such, this camp will provide an important first look at what Team USA has to work with in these positions.
Coming up after the jump, an in-depth look at the four goaltenders and 16 defensemen invited to the National Junior Evaluation Camp.
NOTE: Players are listed in alphabetical order. Players’ expected 2013-14 team listed in parenthesis. Player’s designated camp team (Blue or White) listed after current team. Draft rights in italics at the end of each capsule.
The U.S. will look to a group of four goalies to try and find a way to adequately replace last year’s tournament MVP John Gibson. It’s no small task, but an important one. Jon Gillies is the lone returnee at the position and if the tournament started tomorrow, would almost certainly be the starter. Assuming he plays as he did last year, he’s the No. 1 in ink.
Since last year, teams are allowed to bring three goaltenders to the tournament, so the battle for the last two spots is on. It actually began in May when a group of goalie candidates converged in Ann Arbor to go through a separate evaluation camp. The successful goalies were invited to Lake Placid and in all likelihood, these are the guys who will be challenging each other for a spot on the roster.
After Gillies, it is very much up for grabs.
Thatcher Demko (Boston College) — USA Blue — The youngest of the four goaltenders invited, Demko actually accelerated his schooling to attend Boston College next season. He’s not even draft eligible until next June, but has some really strong potential. He spent last season with the U.S. Under-18 Team and had some remarkable performances against NCAA opponents. The goalies often don’t put up especially great numbers in the U18 season at the NTDP due to the older competition, but Demko managed a 2.08 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. He was a little inconsistent at the World Under-18 Championship however, as the U.S. took silver. That said, he’s a leading candidate to be the No. 1 guy in 2015 , so it would make a lot of sense to bring to Malmo with three goalies allotted each team. If he’s not the No. 2, he should be a shoo in for No. 3. Expect big things out of him at BC as a younger-than-true-freshman. 2014 NHL Draft Eligible
Jon Gillies (Providence College) — USA White — After serving as the understudy to John Gibson last year at the World Junior Championship, it looks like Gillies is the clear favorite to take over the starting gig for Team USA in 2014. He’s coming off a remarkable freshman campaign at Providence, in which he posted a stunning .931 save percentage and 2.08 goals-against average, all while facing roughly 28 shots per game. He has a huge 6-5, 215-pound frame and has solid technique. After his confidence-building season at Providence — he was named the national rookie of the year as well — Gillies is poised to be the go-to guy at the World Juniors. He struggled at last year’s WJC camp, so we’ll see how he fares this time around with much higher expectations. Calgary Flames (2012, 3rd Rd., 75th overall)
Collin Olson (Ohio State Univ.) — USA White — He only appeared in nine games last year with OSU and was a surprise omission from last year’s WJC camp, but Olson has a track record of international success, which will help his cause. The soon-to-be sophomore goalie was brilliant in the 2012 World U18 Championship when he posted a perfect 5-0-0-0 record, 0.80 goals-against average, .966 save percentage and three shutouts. He allowed just four goals all tournament. Olson should see expanded responsibilities in Columbus next year, which he’ll need to seize in Ohio State’s first season in the Big Ten. He has the benefit of working with Joe Exter, an Ohio State assistant who was the WJC goalie coach on three occasions. Olson is a big, athletic goaltender. He’ll need a good showing in camp and a strong first half to push for the No. 2 position. Carolina Hurricanes (2012, 6th Rd., 159th overall)
Anthony Stolarz (London Knights) — USA Blue — Stolarz, who will be making his second WJC camp appearance, had an awfully interesting 2012-13 season. The big 6-6, 220-pound netminder started the season at the University of Nebraska Omaha, but ended up leaving the program in search for more playing time after struggling in limited action. He found a home with the OHL’s London Knights. Stolarz got the reps he was seeking, appearing in 20 regular-season games and 18 playoff contests. His game still needs some smoothing out, but his potential has been evident for the last two years. With his size and athleticism, Stolarz has to show his game grew from the last WJC camp to earn an honest look. He should play a lot in the first half next year, so making a good first impression in Lake Placid can only help. Philadelphia Flyers (2012, 2nd Rd., 45th overall)
Stomaching the probable loss of Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones might keep Team USA’s staff up at night. As a result, the only potential returnee from the 2013 gold medal squad is Patrick Sieloff, who was more of a seventh defenseman on last year’s club. He’ll almost assuredly be back next year to help anchor the blue line.
After Sieloff, the decisions start getting tougher as the U.S. has several candidates with either little high-level international experience or youth. There’s also a pretty wide mix of ability and skill sets among those coming to camp, but there should be a serviceable defense that can be fashioned out of it.
Among those that would seem likely to make the final roster, Matt Grzelcyk, who was the very last cut on last year’s team and Brady Skjei, who also made it to the pre-tournament camp only to get cut. Steven Santini, who was named the best defenseman at the most recent World Under-18 Championship, would appear to have very favorable chances of making the final list.
Gage Ausmus (Univ. of North Dakota) — USA Blue — With a standout performance at last year’s World Under-18 Championship, Ausmus showed a keen ability to play a lot of minutes and play high-level shutdown defense. As a strong defensive defenseman who uses his physicality well, Ausmus won’t put up a lot of points and his feet can be a bit heavy. After rescinding his commitment to Denver last season in the wake of George Gwozdecky’s firing, Ausmus committed to North Dakota. With some turnover on the blue line, Ausmus could see some quality playing time as a true freshman. He has a bit of an uphill battle for this year’s team and perhaps even for first-cuts in this camp due to quality depth among more defensive-minded defensemen like Brady Skjei, Brett Pesce and former D partner Steven Santini. It will take a lot for Ausmus to leapfrog those guys. San Jose Sharks (2013, 5th Rd., 52nd overall)
Dylan Blujus (Brampton Battalion) — USA Blue — With no international experience to his name, Blujus has only his OHL record to rely on. Good thing for him, it’s been mostly solid. He’s a pretty solid two-way defenseman with decent puck-moving skills, some physical edge and good mobility. He also is one of the biggest defensemen in camp, which will help his cause some. Since his offense probably won’t lead to a high level of production at the WJC, he has to prove his skating ability and athleticism will translate well on the bigger ice surface. For me, Blujus is more of a tweener to make the team because he’s got a lot less of a record compared to a lot of his competition. He has to show he brings something different to the table and has a perfect opportunity to do so in this camp. The coaching staff isn’t going to be too familiar with him, so he might want to introduce himself rather emphatically with his play in Lake Placid. Tampa Bay Lightning (2012, 2nd Rd., 40th overall)
Michael Brodzinski (Univ. of Minnesota) — USA White — One of the many defensemen brought into camp with solid offensive abilities, Brodzinski has plenty to prove to Team USA head coach Don Lucia, who will also be coaching Brodzinski at Minnesota. With some international experience from events like the Ivan Hlinka, he won’t be flying completely blind. This is going to be a big jump up, however. So this camp is a great chance to see what Brodzinski has. He led all defensemen in the USHL last season with 16 goals and made the all-rookie team while with the Muskegon Lumberjacks. He’ll have to show that offensive side translate in this camp if he hopes to make it past the first cuts. He’ll be an intriguing one to watch in Lake Placid, but I think it’s going to be tough for him to shine against his fellow competitors. San Jose Sharks (2013, 5th Rd., 141st overall)
Will Butcher (Univ. of Denver) — USA Blue — With two World U18 Championships under his belt, Butcher has about as good of experience as you could hope for a 1995-born option on defense. A gifted puck-mover, Butcher showed flashes of a high-end offensive game last season. He was a bit inconsistent over the course of the year and has been prone to take risks, but Butcher certainly could exploit the big ice. He showed improved defending at last year’s World U18s, which is encouraging due to Butcher’s lack of size. He has a good shot from the point and could be a power-play type guy. Like Brodzinski, Butcher has to compete with many solid defensemen with offensive skill. His skills and experience are there, but the performance will have to be as well in camp. Colorado Avalanche (2013, 5th Rd., 123rd overall)
Connor Carrick (Plymouth Whalers) — USA Blue — Another semi-undersized offensive-minded defenseman, Carrick brings an added physical edge to the table which could give him a little separation from his competition. Despite his 5-11, 190-pound frame, Carrick has good physical strength which helps him be more effective at both ends of the ice. His defensive abilities are still developing, but he does bring a fair amount of offensive skill. Carrick posted 44 points in his first OHL season last year, including 12 goals. He knows how to get the puck to the net and certainly has some playmaking ability. The big thing Carrick will have to show is some maturity in his decisions as he can be prone to take risks and mistakes are enhanced on the big ice surface. I think he’s firmly in the mix for a spot though, especially with his experience at the 2012 U18WC, where he was part of the D corps that allowed just four goals all tournament. Washington Capitals (2012, 5th Rd., 137th overall)
Connor Clifton (Quinnipiac University) –USA White — A similar player to Carrick, Clifton has good offensive tools and some toughness. He has a good shot from the point, strong skating ability and he likes to mix things up a bit. It might be a bit tougher for Clifton to stand out this year, as he has so much competition, but I think he’ll be a real option for the 2015 team. He’ll need to have a pretty spectacular performance to stick in Lake Placid and to remain in the mix. He’s a high-end, high-profile recruit for Quinnipiac, though. He should see a lot of meaningful playing time for the Bobcats and that could help his cause. Phoenix Coyotes (2013, 5th Rd., 133rd overall)
Anthony DeAngelo (Sarnia Sting) — USA Blue — Another terrific offensive defenseman and one of just two first-year NHL Draft eligible player to make the camp, DeAngelo has a chance to make a big impression. In his second OHL season last year, DeAngelo posted a staggering 49 assists and 58 points in 62 games. That’s pretty darn impressive for a 17-year-old defenseman. Unquestionably, DeAngelo has a lot of skill and can create. He also has some international experience, most recently at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka. DeAngelo has had some run-ins with his national team coaches, however, which will undoubtedly be taken into consideration. I like the fact that he’s being given a chance to show what he can do and make a new impression on this coaching staff. I think DeAngelo has the goods to push for a spot this year, but wouldn’t be surprised if he has to wait another year for his shot at the WJC. Either way, I like that he’s in camp and I think he’ll be one of the defensemen I’m most interested to watch. 2014 NHL Draft Eligible
Nick Ebert (Windsor Spitfires) — USA Blue — It’s been a really interesting couple of years for Ebert, who had a dynamic rookie season in the OHL in 2010-11. He was getting top-10 buzz for his draft year, but an underwhelming performance led to him being the very last pick in the draft in 2012, somewhat stunningly. Ebert bounced back a bit last year and showed some development. He even had a brief stinr with the ECHL’s Ontario Reign and did well in his first foray into pro hockey. Ebert’s always been a tremendous athlete, he has a heavy shot from the point and skates well. The physical tools are there for him to contribute. There’s a reason he was a top prospect at one time. Ebert has a chance to further resurrect his lofty status with a good first look in camp. Los Angeles Kings (2012, 7th Rd., 211th overall)
Matt Grzelcyk (Boston University) — USA White — One of the few sure things in my eyes to make the roster, Grzelcyk comes into camp with high expectations. A very smart puck mover, Grzelcyk has the skills to match his high hockey IQ. He was the very last cut from last year’s team, which had to be a tough pill to swallow, but with the U.S. winning gold, it’s hard to argue with. Now Grzelcyk has a chance to be a leader on this team and play a lot of minutes. His skills are good for any size surface, but he should really be able to take advantage of the big ice. He had a stellar freshman campaign at Boston University, putting up 23 points including 20 assists. He has a U18WC gold medal to his name and has been through this process before. Grzelcyk just needs to play his game in Lake Placid and he’ll be just fine. Boston Bruins (2012, 3rd Rd., 85th overall)
Ian McCoshen (Boston College) — USA White — McCoshen brings a solid two-way game to the table and also good size. He was the first pick of the second round in a very deep draft, which goes to show you where he’s valued. A lot of what he does now screams pro. Having played in the USHL since he was 15, he showed improvement in all three seasons, which has been a problem for other players who entered the league early like himself. He had a career-best 40 points last season for the Waterloo Black Hawks. He’s headed to Boston College next year after waiting quite a long time to pick a school. McCoshen should see substantial playing time along with fellow freshman and WJC candidate Steven Santini. The big thing McCoshen will have to show in this camp, like his fellow USHLers invited, is that he can manage the jump from the USHL to WJC caliber. As good as the USHL is (and the same goes for CHL guys too), this is quite a jump up in skill and speed. Having played on an Olympic-size sheet in Waterloo should make the transition a bit easier, however. Florida Panthers (2013, 2nd Rd., 31st overall)
Brett Pesce (Univ. of New Hampshire) — USA White — After a truly impressive campaign as a true freshman at UNH last year, Pesce positioned himself very well for a spot on this team as a shut-down defender. There’s not going to be a lot of offense coming from Pesce, but he has good size, can play physically and just give Team USA a reliable presence. He hasn’t had much of any international experience, which is why his performance in camp will be important. Additionally, with so many dynamic puck-movers in camp, the pressure is on to show how important his defensive style can be to the team. Managing the bigger ice surface with elite players from Sweden, Finland and Canada is a tall order for any defenseman, but if Pesce can keep up and continue to defend at a high level, he’ll have a really good chance of putting himself near the top of the depth chart. Carolina Hurricanes (2013, 3rd Rd., 66th overall)
Steven Santini (Boston College) — USA White — After the performance Santini had at last year’s U18 World Championship, I think he’d be an extremely hard guy to cut. He received the directorate award as the tournament’s best defenseman without registering a single point. He was a minutes-eating, quick, physical shut-down defender who dominated opposing team’s top lines, with opponents scoring only twice total in the tournament with Santini on the ice. After two years at the NTDP, Santini’s defensive game has grown to a near-elite level. The only guy I’ve seen dominate in a defensive role at the U18s like he did was Seth Jones the year prior. Not trying to compare, but that’s how good Santini was at the U18 Worlds. There is pretty much no offense to speak of in Santini’s game, but he has proven what he does defensively is really valuable. He’ll have some tough competition, but if Santini plays up to his ability, he’s going to be a really strong candidate to make the club. New Jersey Devils (2013, 2nd Rd., 42nd overall)
Patrick Sieloff (Windsor Spitfires) — USA White — The lone returnee from last year’s team on defense in camp, Sieloff will be looked to for leadership in camp and probably on the national team in December. A physically sound defender, Sieloff can be an intimidating presence along the walls or in open ice. He was more of a seventh defenseman last year, but when he was called upon, he stepped up and played very well. While his game would appear to be tailored more for an NHL sheet, with his bruising physical play, Sieloff showed he can utilize it on the bigger ice sheet as well. He already has two IIHF gold medals to his name (2013 WJC, 2012 U18WC) and has a contagious work ethic on and off the ice. He might even be in the running for captain when all is said and done. His presence in camp will be an important one. Calgary Flames (2012, 2nd Rd., 42nd overall)
Brady Skjei (Univ. of Minnesota) — USA Blue — Though his own head coach will be leading Team USA, Skjei can’t be counted a lock just yet. He was in the mix for last year’s team, but was one of the late cuts. Skjei showed improvement over the course of his freshman season at Minnesota, which got off to a bit of a rocky start. If he took another step forward this year, I think he’d be an easy pick for the team, but we won’t know until he gets out there in Lake Placid. Skjei is one of the best skaters in camp and utilizes the bigger ice well. He has enough offense to contribute a few points here and there (even though it never really materialized at Minnesota last year), but is probably better in his own end. I think he’ll be watched very closely throughout the camp and the first half of the year. If he can play at his best, Skjei brings a skill set the team will need to try and defend the gold medal at the WJC. He’s the type of guy the USA staff will give every opportunity to make the team. As some added pressure, Skjei is the only defenseman to have been a first-round selection at the NHL Draft camping with the U.S. New York Rangers (2012, 1st Rd., 28th overall)
Keaton Thompson (Univ. of North Dakota) — USA Blue — Thompson’s been one of those prospects that can be a bit perplexing. He’s got a lot of tools to be a really strong two-way defenseman, but I think he’s still working on putting it all together. No question, Thompson has some puck-moving upside, with some physicality and smooth skating ability. He needs to make some crisper decisions when he has the puck, which I think will come with maturity and confidence. I think it’s going to be tough for Thompson to make a breakthrough for this team at this point, but I really like his potential for next year’s team. He’s going to get some great coaching at UND this year and should be able to round out his game a bit more. Thompson does have the potential to break out even as a freshman. If he does, his prospects for the WJC change dramatically. We’ll see how he handles the camp first, though. Anaheim Ducks (2013, 3rd Rd., 87th overall)
Tommy Vannelli (Univ. of Minnesota) –USA White — Vannelli is another guy I’m not sure is ready for this challenge yet, but I’d bet he will be in 2015. That said, among the offensive defensemen, Vanelli has the best size and is probably one of the better skaters. He has some really good creativity, but can take some of those costly risks at times. Vannelli is good at getting the puck to the net and creating on the fly. I think he needs to build strength to be effective at the WJC level, but we’ll see how he manages the competition in Lake Placid. He has the benefit, or perhaps curse, of having Don Lucia as his coach at Minnesota. Lucia will know whether or not he can trust Vannelli on the big WJC stage pretty quickly. I think this camp will be really helpful for Vannelli’s development, coming off of his joining the U18 team at the World Championship last year. The tools are there. Once the strength and decision-making catches up, he has the potential to be a real good one. St. Louis Blues (2013, 2nd Rd., 47th overall)
Coming up next, a look at the 24 forwards invited to the camp, as well as what to watch for when things kick off in Lake Placid.
All Photos via USA Hockey