On Wednesday, USA Hockey will announce its pre-tournament camp roster for the U.S. National Junior team in preparation for the 2014 World Junior Championship. The candidates will then convene in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota for the first portion of its camp Dec. 15-18.
This U.S. team will be missing some key age-eligible players either due to injury or NHL duties. Because of that, the depth for this team is a little troublesome. A relatively lackluster summer camp in Lake Placid (that at least ended on a high note) and a potentially confusing first half for some players must have made for some tough decisions.
With Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba and Alex Galchenyuk in the NHL, which is something Team USA had to know was coming, a rather unexpected blow to the depth and experience came this week.
Defenseman Patrick Sieloff, who has been out since early October after contracting an infection after receiving an injection for a sore hip, won’t be available for Team USA. He is currently home in Ann Arbor, Mich., recovering from the infection and is not expected back in action by the Calgary Flames organization until early 2014. Sieloff would have been the lone returnee on defense.
Additionally, I have heard, but have been unable to definitively confirm that Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick and eligible returning forward Ryan Hartman’s availability for the tournament is questionable. He has been out since Nov. 9 with an undisclosed injury.
If Hartman is indeed out, that leaves forward Riley Barber and goalie Jon Gillies as the lone returnees from last year’s gold-medal squad. That’s a dramatic turnover in roster.
At this point, it is unclear how many players the U.S. will invite to the camp. Last year, 27 candidates were called to New York for the pre-tournament evals. There seems to be a lot more spots up for grabs this year, which could lead to a larger number of players being brought to Minnesota. The camp then travels to Sweden, presumably with some cuts still to make.
I’ve been closely covering this tournament either in an official capacity with USA Hockey or as an independent writer since 2008. I don’t recall any year being as difficult to predict as this one in terms of who will be invited to camp and what the final roster will look like.
There aren’t nearly as many slam dunks this year as there seemed to be last.
Since the WJC format has changed to four teams from each five-team group getting into the quarterfinals and no more byes for first-place finishers in group play, there’s a little more room for stumbles. Not like in 2012 when Team USA stunningly missed the medal round entirely. When you get to the playoff portion, anything can happen.
For Team USA, it’s about finding the right mix of players at this point. They cannot ice their best team this year with potentially five missing eligible returnees. So finding the players that fit specific roles and hoping a few can step up in big situations will be key.
Since I’m not sure of the number USA Hockey will invite, I simply went with last year’s numbers for my camp roster projection. So I picked 27 players, three goalies, nine defensemen and 15 forwards. Team USA’s final numbers will almost certainly be three goalies, seven defensemen and 13 forwards.
Draft rights in parenthesis
1. Jon Gillies (CGY)
2. Anthony Stolarz (PHI)
3. Thatcher Demko (2014)
Other possibilities: Alex Nedeljkovic (2014)
The goalies offer the easiest decisions, it would seem. These were the last three goalies standing in the summer camp and each has mostly lived up to preseason billing.
Gillies had a bit of an injury two weeks ago for Providence, but it sounds as though he’ll be fine as he hasn’t missed a start since leaving a Nov. 22 tilt against UNH early. He has been otherwise outstanding for Providence this season with a .945 save percentage and 1.81 goals-against average in 14 games this year.
Stolarz very well could push for a few starts as he has been solid with London in the OHL. He has a .929 save percentage and 2.40 goals-against average. Gillies is the more polished of the two, but the U.S. can feel very comfortable in net with this tandem.
Thatcher Demko may just be along for the ride. The youngest player in college hockey this year will turn 18 Sunday. He had a rough start his last time out for BC, but is likely the goalie of the future for Team USA.
Note: These ARE NOT projected pairings. Each D is listed on the side he shoots. Draft rights or year of eligibility in parenthesis.
Brady Skjei (NYR) – Connor Carrick (WSH)
Matt Grzelcyk (BOS) – Steven Santini (NJD)
Ian McCoshen (FLA) – Tony DeAngelo (2014)
Gavin Bayreuther (2014) – Brett Pesce (CAR)
Will Butcher (COL)
Other possibilities: Tommy Vannelli (STL), Connor Clifton (PHX), Michael Brodzinski (SJS), Anthony Florentino (BUF), Nick Ebert (LAK), Jake Bischoff (NYI)
There are some really, really tough decisions to make here. With Jones, Trouba and Sieloff all out, a lot is lost. There will be no player with WJC experience on this D corps.
The defense is going to be tough to pick a little further down the lineup. It seems like Skjei, Carrick, Grzelcyk and McCoshen would be stone-cold locks for this team. Steven Santini probably is in that mix as well.
It hasn’t been confirmed that Carrick will be made available to Team USA, but it’s hard to see a way he wouldn’t be. He currently plays for the Capitals’ AHL affiliate in Hershey.
After that, it becomes more difficult.
Anthony DeAngelo has had an incredible year for the Sarnia Sting and leads all defensemen in the OHL with a staggering 39 points in 27 games. He has to at least be at camp, but he did show some struggles in August and was a mid-camp cut. Still, the way he’s played and the tools he brings offensively should be welcome on the blue line. He’s had a bit of a checkered past with USA Hockey and you never know how that plays out, but he’s earned a camp invite it would seem.
He could be in direct competition with Will Butcher, who I believe earned a spot in this camp way back in August, when he was consistently one of Team USA’s best puck-movers next to Carrick.
After that, the picks of Bayreuther and Pesce are pretty much stabs in the dark. Bayreuther is having an incredible year for St. Lawrence and with no international experience to his name, he might be worth bringing in just to get a look at him next to this group of players. He’s had a really intriguing start as a freshman with 12 points in 16 games. He’s getting pucks to the net a lot, too, with 49 shots on goal this year.
Pesce had a so-so camp in August, but he plays a style that could bring balance to Team USA’s defensive corps as a shut-down guy. With Sieloff out, Steven Santini and Brady Skjei are strong defensive-defensemen, but Pesce is a pure stay-at-home guy. His mobility on the big ice may be questionable, but he brings size and some physicality as well. Having balance on the back end is never a bad thing.
If the U.S. wants to stick with more mobility or more offensively capable blueliners, they could look to either Vannelli or Brodzinski, each of whom Don Lucia will be very familiar with.
Vannelli was a mid-camp cut in the summer, while Brodzinski made it to the end. The former left Minnesota before the season, while Brodzinski has been splitting time for the Gophers with Jake Bischoff. I don’t know if either is ready for the WJC at this point, but both are having solid campaigns.
It’s a tough call on defense, but the U.S. has a core to build around. Just hard not to imagine what it would look like with cornerstone guys like Jones and Trouba.
NOTE: This is NOT a lineup projection, but players are listed in potential positions. Draft rights or year of eligibility in parenthesis.
Nic Kerdiles (ANA) – Danny O’Regan (SJS) – Riley Barber (WSH)
Adam Erne (TBL) – J.T. Compher (BUF) - Ryan Hartman (CHI)*
Stefan Matteau (NJD) - Andrew Copp (WPG) – Hudson Fasching (LAK)
Sonny Milano (2014) – Jack Eichel (2015) - Taylor Cammarata (NYI)
Thomas DiPauli (WSH) – Brady Vail (MTL) - Cole Cassels (VAN)^
*If injured: Tyler Motte (CHI) as replacement
^More likely to play center
Other possibilities: Ryan Fitzgerald (BOS), Nick Schmaltz (2014), Henrik Samuelsson (PHX), Mike McCarron (MTL), Quentin Shore (OTT), Zach Stepan (NSH), Jake Guentzel (PIT)
At forward, the U.S. could have only one returnee if Hartman is out. There are some options, but it could be a very young group, with many of the better options 1995-born or younger.
The U.S. always plays for the gold medal at this event, but this year, it might be a good time to take a few risks with younger players that can contribute and build some experience for next year. That’s not to say the U.S. should throw in the towel here, but there’s a lot of skill among some younger players. It’s risky, but it could pay off if the goaltending holds up.
Among the forwards in this projection, three were not in the summer camp and two of them are under-age players (under-18) — Jack Eichel and Sonny Milano. I think there’s a possibility of a third in Nick Schmaltz, but since it is so rare for underagers to come from somewhere outside of the NTDP, I left him off this projection. That said, he’s had a remarkable season internationally at the Ivan Hlinka and World Junior A Challenge, so he could be a trailblazer perhaps.
Milano currently has 40 points in 23 games for the U.S. National U18 Team. With that pace, he could approach Patrick Kane’s single-season NTDP record of 102 points. Eichel is just five points behind his teammate in four fewer games. The two also torched the U18 Four Nations in November.
The Hartman injury makes things really tricky. If he’s out, there’s a huge gap left. He has such good two-way tools and World Junior experience is so helpful.
Having guys like Nic Kerdiles and Riley Barber who have been producing very well over the last two seasons helps a lot on the top line. They should get a lot of ice as a result.
Where it’s hard, is finding which players would be able to fit into certain roles. The top nine is serviceable, but there aren’t a ton of candidates to fill out the grind-line roles that were so important to winning gold last year.
That may force a few guys to adapt to a defensive role. Stefan Matteau, who has NHL experience and is in the AHL right now, very well could play that type of game assuming the Devils loan him to Team USA. Big Hudson Fasching could have to mix things up a bit in a bottom-line role as well. Thomas Di Pauli would be another one, but he has been injured off and on this season and missed each of Notre Dame’s last two games. His defensive game would get him on the roster if healthy, I think.
The center position is pretty difficult to figure out. It seems as though Andrew Copp and J.T. Compher would be locks, with Danny O’Regan a strong candidate. Then Eichel could potentially play into a prominent role somewhere with those guys and leave the more defensively stable Copp to be more of a grinding, physical center with fewer offensive responsibilities. That role could also go to Vail, who is a strong two-way player, but also one who didn’t have a great camp showing in August.
There are a lot of question marks in this group, but with the new tournament format, strange things could happen. This team doesn’t have nearly the firepower it did up front as last year, but if they get creative, they could surprise a few folks.
Unlike last year, when the United States of Hockey projection got 24 out of the 27 players named, I’m fully expecting the hit rate to be lower this year. There’s just too much uncertainty overall at this point.
As soon as the roster comes out Wednesday, I’ll have a general breakdown, followed by player-by-player analysis for each position. It should be a fun week as we head towards the 2014 WJC.
Also, Hockey Canada announced it’s preliminary roster today. With 25 on the list, three cuts will have to be made. You can view it here.