With a training camp roster announcement expected in just a few short weeks for the U.S. National Junior Team, the picture should probably start to clear a bit. Only it hasn’t, especially on defense. Some of that is performance based, in other cases it’s injury-related.
Either way, as the time comes to make a final decision, Team USA’s blue line looks unsettled to say the least. That was essentially the expectation, however, when Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones made NHL rosters on opening night. The decisions were always going to be tough, but not much has happened to make them any easier.
There are very few clear choices for Team USA’s D corps, which will eventually be whittled down to seven players more than likely. At this stage, even without Jones and Trouba, that is of moderate concern.
Though the decisions are difficult, there is still a fair amount of talent in this group. It’s just a matter of finding the right mix, which is hard every year.
Coming up after the jump, a comprehensive look at candidates to fill out Team USA’s defensive corps.
USA Hockey invited 16 defensemen to its summer orientation camp, but USA Hockey has never shied away from going outside the camp attendees to find players to give a shot to make the squad. This list starts with the 16 guys invited to camp, but expands the net a bit at the end to some of those not invited who could be in the mix.
In no particular order, here’s the U.S. defensive pool.
Patrick Sieloff — Abbotsford Heat — The only player from last year’s defensive corps that seemed likely to return hasn’t played a game since Oct. 5. According to Calgary GM Jay Feaster, the Flames prospect received an injection for a sore hip, which apparently caused an infection that has kept Sieloff off the ice. With an indefinite timetable for his return, the U.S. is in quite a bind. His experience and solid physical, defensive play would probably help the team a lot, but if he’s not ready to play by the WJC — a distinct possibility — that’s three age-eligible D the U.S. have to find a way to replace (Jones and Trouba being the others). I’m sure the U.S. staff will give Sieloff every opportunity to return, but there’s not much they can do about his situation. Calgary Flames
Matt Grzelcyk — Boston University — The Terriers have been struggling this season with a fairly young roster and Grzelcyk is no exception. That said, he leads the team in shots on goal, has five points in 11 games and offers the U.S. a high-end puck mover who can exploit the big ice. He was narrowly beat out by Sieloff for a spot at the last WJC. A heady playmaker, even though Grzelcyk has performed slightly below expectations, I don’t think the U.S. can afford to leave him home and almost certainly won’t. His skating, distribution and hockey smarts should be a big asset. Boston Bruins
Connor Carrick — Hershey Bears — With three NHL games under his belt and 12 games in the AHL so far, Carrick’s pro experience should prove helpful in Malmo. He was also probably the best defenseman at Team USA’s summer camp as well. The Capitals would have to allow Carrick to be loaned to Team USA, but there’s no reason to see why they wouldn’t barring a sudden dissipation of depth on their NHL roster near WJC time. Carrick brings a strong offensive element, but defends well with some good physical strength. Assuming Washington releases him, he’s on the team. Washington Capitals
Brady Skjei — University Minnesota — If Sieloff does end up out of the tournament, Skjei likely becomes the primary shut-down defender for Team USA. He has good size and high-end skating. With a big ice surface as his home rink at Minnesota, he knows the ins and outs of positioning and picking his spots. As long as Skjei doesn’t try to do too much in a given game, he can be a really effective defender and provide the odd point here and there when he jumps into the play. His ability to skate the puck out of trouble is among his most valuable tools for the U.S. New York Rangers
Ian McCoshen — Boston College — One of the best freshman defensemen in the country this season, McCoshen has played big minutes at Boston College and has excelled. His two-way capabilities and poise in all areas of the ice could be a real help to Team USA. He has good size, too. With six points and a plus-15 rating for BC, McCoshen has catapulted into the top-four discussion for Team USA and very well could play well in that role. Florida Panthers
Steven Santini — Boston College — McCoshen’s teammate is still a strong candidate for the U.S. as well. The need for a player like Santini, a physical, stay-at-home type defenseman, is increased if Sieloff can’t go. Santini plays with a bit of snarl and navigates the defensive zone incredibly well. He can be prone to mistakes with the puck on his stick at times, but it’s only a moderate concern. Santini might be a year away from being an optimal candidate for the WJC, but in a year like this, you might take a gamble on him. It wouldn’t be that big of a gamble, though. Santini was the best defenseman at the World U18 Championship in April by a large margin. New Jersey Devils
Brett Pesce — University of New Hampshire — Pesce struggled a bit in the summer camp navigating the big ice against the high-end speed of his opponents. He is a prototypical stay-at-home defenseman, meaning he’s got competition in Santini. Pesce has a bit of a size advantage, but Santini has the edge on mobility. With a modest showing at the camp, Pesce might have needed to have a little better start than he did at UNH this season. Without any real offensive elements to go along with the defensive style, he has a bit of an uphill climb to make the squad. Carolina Hurricanes
Will Butcher — University of Denver — Among the pure puck-movers, Butcher probably had the best showing at the summer camp. Butcher’s start at DU has been a bit up and down. He has three power-play goals, but was mysteriously suspended by head coach Jim Montgomery for a rather big game against Colorado College for “not doing the right thing.” It’s the only game he has missed this season. Butcher is probably still a candidate for Team USA’s seventh defensive spot. He’s a good skater and distributor and has a quick shot from the point. He still probably couldn’t play in high-leverage situations at the WJC level, but as a potential power-play specialist, there’s an opening. Colorado Avalanche
Connor Clifton — Quinnipiac University — After a really strong performance at the summer WJC camp, Clifton has played in every game for the hottest team in college hockey. He has three goals and an assist in 13 games and brings an interesting element. Like Butcher, a potential candidate to be Team USA’s seventh defenseman, Clifton has a bomb of a shot and could be a weapon on power plays and with protected minutes. He also has a physical side, which is a bit of a separating factor from Butcher, but he’s not at the same level as a puck-mover quite yet. Both Clifton and Butcher may have to compete with Tony DeAngelo however. Phoenix Coyotes
Michael Brodzinski — University of Minnesota — A skilled defenseman, Brodzinski had a fairly good camp in the summer making it to the second round of cuts. However, this year at Minnesota he has evenly split his time with Jake Bischoff. Unfortunately for Brodzinski, not playing a regular role for the coach who will also be leading Team USA is a bad sign. It’s more of a numbers situation at Minnesota, but if he can’t play a regular role at Minnesota, it’s hard to see how he would draw in for this team. He’ll be a stronger candidate next year anyway. San Jose Sharks
The following players were invited to the summer camp, but were among the mid-camp cuts.
Tony DeAngelo — Sarnia Sting — Though he was cut in the middle of camp, DeAngelo didn’t necessarily play poorly. I think it’s fair to say others played better though. Now he’s the leading scorer among defensemen in the OHL with 32 points in 24 games. That includes eight goals, so he’s an obvious offensive weapon. DeAngelo has some serious skill from the backend and the production this year is ahead of his career pace in two previous OHL campaigns. He can take a few risks, which I think would be of some concern on the bigger ice surface. That said, you can’t argue with what he’s done so far this year. I would be moderately surprised if he was not invited to camp. The way he’s played, he deserves another chance to prove he can make the team. 2014 NHL Draft Eligible
Nick Ebert — Windsor Spitfires — Ebert was very average at the summer camp and was not a surprising cut when it happened. He clearly has all the physical tools, but his decision-making wasn’t the best. Back in Windsor for his fourth OHL season, Ebert has some good numbers with four goals and 12 assists in 21 games and a plus-17 rating. I don’t know if that’s enough to earn him an invite to camp, though. Especially with the similarly built and skilled McCoshen looking more like a lock. LA Kings
Gage Ausmus — University of North Dakota — Another shutdown style defender, Ausmus was good, not great at the WJC camp. This year, he hasn’t really played his way into a regular role at UND. He’s sat out three of their 10 games so far and probably won’t be able to unseat any of the similarly-skilled players. San Jose Sharks
Dylan Blujus — North Bay Battalion — Never really distinguishing himself from the competition, Blujus was another unsurprising cut from the summer camp. He got a late start to this season after offseason knee surgery. The late start combined with being more of an unknown commodity when it comes to international competition makes him seem more like a long shot at best at this point. Tampa Bay Lightning
Tommy Vannelli – Medicine Hat Tigers — After leaving the University of Minnesota before the season even began, Vannelli landed with the Tigers in the WHL. In 22 games so far he has 21 points. Though Vannelli is off to a fantastic start, his offense was never really a concern. He’s a solid skater and has a lot of skill with the puck on his stick. Questions about his ability to defend at the WJC level are probably keeping his odds long to make this team. Six goals and 15 assists in a new league is notable however. Also, even though Vannelli left Lucia’s Minnesota squad, I wouldn’t expect that to impact his candidacy much if at all. There seemed to be a mutual understanding between player and school. St. Louis Blues
Keaton Thompson — University of North Dakota — Thompson has appeared in just one game for UND. Goes without saying that’s taking him out of consideration. Anaheim Ducks
The following players were not invited to camp, but could be playing their way onto the radar.
Gavin Bayreuther — St. Lawrence University — The leading scorer among junior age-eligible defensemen is this SLU freshman. Undrafted out of the USHL last season, Bayreuther had 33 points splitting between the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and Fargo Force. Now with 10 points through his first 12 collegiate games, perhaps he is playing himself onto Team USA’s radar. The Canaan, N.H., native also has 38 shots on goal. That’s an average of three shots per game so far, which is awfully good for a freshman. I think he’d be a long shot, but maybe a guy worth bringing to camp just to learn some more about. Second-year Draft Eligible
Anthony Florentino — Providence College — The true freshman defenseman has been solid for one of college hockey’s best teams this year. He has seven points and is a plus-10. Florentino also has some good size at 6-1, 210 with mobility. Florentino was playing prep hockey last season, so he doesn’t have a ton of experience against elite competition like he’d see at the WJC. However, the smoothness of his transition to college hockey is notable. Like Bayreuther, he’s a guy the U.S. wouldn’t have a really good book on. They probably won’t bring in more than one defenseman who wasn’t in the camp, but Florentino should be in the mix of players worth monitoring further. Buffalo Sabres
At this point, I think the strongest candidates include Patrick Sieloff, Connor Carrick, Matt Grzelcyk, Ian McCoshen and Brady Skjei. Beyond that, and especially if Sieloff isn’t ready, there is plenty to battle over. If those five are indeed locks, then there are two final roster spots and probably at least four spots left to make it into the training camp roster.
It’s a solid group to choose from, but hard not to see the void left by Trouba and Jones here. The U.S. really won’t bemoan the loss of those two and certainly won’t lean on that as an excuse. The depth takes a hit, but there’s enough talent in this mix to put together a serviceable D corps.
The U.S. is going to likely head into the WJC as an underdog despite being the defending gold medalist. They have the weaker of the two pools despite the fact that Canada is with the U.S. in Group A. Getting to the medal round shouldn’t be the problem. The playoffs will likely be a heavy challenge.
Having a strong defensive corps will put less pressure on Jon Gillies to have to put the team on his back night in and night out. That’s why finding the right mix is going to be so important. It looks like that will be a more difficult task this time around.
The U.S. staff has a few more weeks to hope this picture starts to clear up a bit more, but they should have enough of a core to build around at this point at least.
A little World Junior-related side note: I joined Guy Flaming of The Pipeline Show on TSN 1260 in Edmonton last weekend. We chatted about many U.S. candidates including Taylor Cammarata, Nic Kerdiles, Riley Barber, Henrik Samuelsson and more. To listen to the full interview, click here.