The World Junior Championship opens one week from today in Malmo, Sweden. The U.S. roster is still slightly in flux with three cuts to make before the puck drops on Dec. 26. The final roster is expected to be announced Dec. 23, barring anything unforeseen.
With 23 skaters competing for 20 available spots, there are still several tough decisions to make. Things started to clear up with the release of three players from camp yesterday, however, the injury to J.T. Compher who was one of the three let go, was an unexpected loss.
Losing a player that was likely on the final roster is another hit to the depth this team could ill afford. Already without eligibles Alex Galchenyuk, Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba and Patrick Sieloff, Team USA is well aware of where its deficiencies lie.
“I don’t think we’re going to go out there and razzle-dazzle anybody,” head coach Don Lucia said yesterday before the team departed for Sweden. “We just have to be a good hard-working, hard team to play against and get some timely goals. Score on the special teams.”
With that in mind, it puts more emphasis on finding the mix of players that can play the style necessary to close the skill gap.
There might be a little more skill in this group than they give themselves credit for as there’s several players vying for top six roles that have plenty of talent. However, when compared to some of the other countries and past U.S. teams in the tournament, they may fall short.
“I think we’re lacking a little more skill than we had last year, but I think it’s going to be about keeping it simple,” said forward Nic Kerdiles, a lock to make the final roster. “That’s how we’re going to be most effective and play USA Hockey – play hard, skate hard and I think if we do that, we’ll be successful.”
General manager Jim Johannson thought even with the losses that the team has already suffered either via NHL departures or injuries, the players left in camp have the capability to play the style necessary to have some success at the World Junior level. He noted that Tuesday night’s exhibition game showed some of the signs the team is getting closer to being ready for the tournament.
“I still think we have good depth and that showed [Tuesday] night,” he said. “The identity is going to continue to come. I thought we played with pretty good speed [Tuesday] night, but by nature of just getting together and working on communication, there’s going to be a little disjoint in play. Obviously there are areas that we’re going to grow into and guys are going to start to build their identity on this team.”
The depth and keeping things simple will help, but it’s also about finding players that can play roles on the team.
With three cuts to make still, there will be a special emphasis on players developing roles and proving they can play in special teams situations. Lucia has stressed from the beginning that he wants players that are capable of playing either on the power play and penalty kill or both. Those that can’t at the same level as everyone else will likely find themselves on the outside looking in when the final roster is announced Dec. 23.
“The special teams is always a big part of it so that’s an area we have to finalize our team, finalize our groupings and how guys are going to play,” Lucia said. “We’ll get some guys in and out of the lineup in those two exhibition games and finalize our 13 [forwards], 7 [defensemen].”
In international tournaments, where everything is compressed and the margin of error gets so slim, having established roles for certain players can be a big key in having success. If everyone has a specific job to do, with enough flexibility to play in various situations, and can do those jobs well, the U.S. has some structure in the lineup. With that structure comes a little bit more of comfort and an opportunity to make up for the relative lack of star power. There’s nothing wrong with a few specialists when you have only seven games to play.
Another way the U.S. should be able to close the skill gap is with its depth and talent at the goaltending position. Jon Gillies and Anthony Stolarz come into this tournament as the top goaltenders in their respective leagues and have already shown in camp that they’re even ahead of where they were in August at the summer evaluation. Meanwhile, Thatcher Demko will be able to gain some valuable WJC experience and is capable if needed due to injury.
“Goaltending is one of our real strengths,” Johannson noted. “We have three very capable goalies. Jon’s experience last year and the numbers he’s put up have been very impressive. Anthony Stolarz is a guy that’s already won 20 hockey games [with London] and looked pretty big and sturdy [Tuesday] night. Thatcher is a rising guy. Jon has a leg up due to experience and how he performed in Lake Placid. We feel pretty good about all three guys.”
Gillies is more than likely going to be the go-to guy, but Stolarz is showing he may at least deserve some playing time as well. The two have a very good relationship and that is helping both get better in the slight competition they have going.
“Competition breeds success, that’s the way we all look at it,” Gillies said. “We try to take things from each others’ game.”
The legacy left by Jack Campbell and John Gibson over the last five years in the U.S. net may put a little more pressure on the goaltending position to perform, but Gillies knows there’s more to it than living up to a certain standard.
“The only thing that really matters is how we go and try our best every night,” Gillies said. “You look what John Gibson and Jack Campbell did and it was phenomenal. If you try to fill their shoes, it’s not going to go well. Pressure is what you put on yourself.”
There will be plenty of pressure on the goaltenders as they could really be the difference in the tournament for this U.S. team if goal scoring falters.
In all three facets — goaltending, defense and forward — the U.S. has players that are more than capable of playing at the level necessary to compete. If they find the right mix in the lineup, get good execution of the system and the goalies live up to expectations, then Team USA looks like a contender again.