The U.S. National Under-18 Team will look to improve on its silver medal finish at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship this year, while continuing a medal streak that dates back to 2004. The World Under-18 Championship will be held in Laapeenranta and Imatra, Finland, April 17-27.
The U.S. will bring a team to the tournament, as it does every year, comprised primarily of players from the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor. Twenty of the 22 players come from the NTDP, in fact. The roster includes several top prospects for the 2014 and 2015 NHL Drafts. It is one of the most highly scouted events on the NHL Draft calendar.
You can follow along as well. FASTHockey.com will stream all of Team USA’s games live and free starting Thursday. Unfortunately, for the first time since 2010, I won’t be calling the games. I had to bow out due to increased responsibilities at CBSSports.com with the NHL playoffs, so I will greatly miss being there for one of my favorite events in hockey. The full broadcast schedule is at the end of this post.
The Under-18 Championship follows the same format as the World Junior Championship. It is a 10-team tournament this year featuring Canada, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Switzerland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany and Denmark. Players eligible for this tournament were born in 1996 or later.
Team USA will play out of Group B, which includes the Swiss, Czechs, Danes and Finns.
Team USA will be led by head coach Danton Cole, who last guided the U.S. National Under-18 Team to gold at the 2012 World U18 Championship. He’ll bring a highly-skilled roster to Finland with a few key players from outside of the NTDP as well as a few called up from the Under-17 Team.
Coming up after the jump, a complete look at Team USA’s roster, the broadcast schedule and some brief thoughts on the team.
This U.S. roster is highly skilled, there’s no question. Led by Jack Eichel, the only returning player from last year’s team, the forward crop is dynamic with three solid scoring lines and some grit mixed in. This group has some really gifted skaters and a lot of guys that can put the puck in the net. The top two forward lines this club boasts are as good as any I’ve seen at this tournament on paper, if not better (it’s probably better).
The defense has good balance, which is important for any team in this tournament as getting the D engaged offensively can be a huge benefit on the bigger ice surfaces in Europe. There’s a good mix of sizes as well, with twin towers Ryan Collins and Jack Glover leading the way. There’s a lot of skill back there as well led by Brandon Fortunato and the exciting Noah Hanifin. Jack Dougherty also should be one of the better two-way blueliners in this tournament.
In net, the U.S. has the guy they’ve been with over the last two years in Edwin Minney who has made great strides in his game over the last season-plus at the NTDP. The wild card, however, is Plymouth Whalers netminder Alex Nedeljkovic, who has two solid OHL seasons under his belt with Plymouth and numbers that inspire some confidence. It will be interesting to see how the goalie situation plays out.
Players eligible for 2014 NHL Entry Draft unless otherwise noted. College commits in parenthesis
Edwin Minney (Michigan State) — Wind Gap, Pa. — A big presence in the net at 6-4, 185, Minney is an ahtletic netminder who endured a trying U17 season. His save percentage this year is sub-.900, but U18 years typically come with low SV% due to the strength of schedule. He did go 20-9-1 this year as the U18s’ primary starter with a 2.76 goals-against average. NHL Central Scouting Goalie Ranking: 7
Alex Nedeljkovic – Parma, Ohio — One of two players not from the NTDP, Nedeljkovic joins the team with impeccable credentials. The Plymouth Whalers netminder finished the regular season second among all goalies in the OHL with a .925 save percentage. There are only three 1996-born goalies in the top-20 in that category and Nedeljkovic is No. 2 in the whole league. He was also excellent in the playoffs last season for the Whalers and has shot up draft charts all year long. The added bonus with Nedeljkovic is that he has international experience, having backstopped the U.S. U18 Select Team at the Ivan Hlinka in August. NHL CSS Goalie Ranking: 4
Louie Belpedio (Miami University) — Skokie, Ill. — Not the tallest defender, but physically stout and one that doesn’t shy away from contact, Belpedio is a solid two-way defender. He has good puck skills to get the puck up ice and has shown an ability to get pucks through to the net as well. He has 20 points from the blue line this year including seven goals. With three goals in his last five games, Belpedio is getting hot at the right time, too. NHL Central Scouting Ranking: 107
Ryan Collins (Minnesota) — Bloomington, Minn. — At 6-4, 210, Collins is Team USA’s biggest body on the blue line. He has good range and moves well for his size, using his reach very well. Collins can be physical, but may not be classified as a snarly defender. Keeping things simple makes him successful in his own zone. He has limited puck skills, but is more than capable of making a good first pass out of the zone and making quick decisions when the puck is on his stick. With just five points this season, there’s not going to be a lot of offense coming from Collins. NHL CSS Ranking: 57
Jack Dougherty (Wisconsin) — Cottage Grove, Minn. — A tough two-way defenseman with some good offensive abilities, Dougherty can do a little bit of everything for Team USA. He should draw top-four minutes at the U18WC with his solid skating and he should be able to exploit the big ice a bit. Dougherty has gotten his fair share of draft buzz this year, even being floated as a first-round possibility, but that may be a little lofty. Either way, there’s some real talent here and he should be an important player at the Worlds. NHL CSS Ranking: 30
Brandon Fortunato – North Hills, N.Y. — A dynamic offensive-minded defenseman, Fortunato has top-end puck skills and creativity. At 5-9, 144, he’s probably not the ideal size for a defenseman and was left unranked by Central Scouting, but what he does with the puck makes him extremely effective and could even get him drafted anyway. With 32 points including 29 assists, he was the U18′s top scoring defenseman this season. Fortunato is a good skater and has really sound on-ice vision. He is excellent at creating time and space for himself, which leads to Fortunato making a lot of nice plays with the puck. The defenseman reportedly decommitted from Harvard and is currently being pursued by several top college programs. His skills are definitely worth watching. NHL CSS Ranking: N/A
Jack Glover (Minnesota) — Golden Valley, Minn. — Another sizable defenseman, Glover is a rangy rearguard who covers a lot of ground well. He’s a solid player at both ends of the ice and moves the puck decisively. He ended the regular season with 22 assists. Glover has good mobility and footwork and can take the body. Earlier this season Glover was listed by several scouting services as a potential first-rounder. He’s fallen back a bit, but his pro potential remains high. NHL CSS Ranking: 38
Noah Hanifin (Boston College) — Norwood, Mass. — Hanifin may be the most-watched defenseman on this unit. He was called up to the U18 squad from the U17 team and has stepped right into an important role for this team. At 6-2, 200 pounds he’s got a pro frame, but he also has high-end hockey sense. Hanifin is poised with the puck on his stick and skates extremely well. Since his call-up, he’s had eight points in six games including seven assists. Prior to joining the U18s, Hanifin posted 32 points in 45 games with the U17s. At this point, Hanifin is one of, if not the best defenseman heading into the 2015 NHL Draft. He is a high-end talent and should be a major factor in this tournament despite his youth and the talent surrounding him. Draft eligible in 2015
Jonathan MacLeod (Boston University) — Dracut, Mass. — Another defensive-minded defenseman, MacLeod can play a punishing physical game and makes opponents work for anything they get against him. He has good mobility to keep forwards in front of him and can make a few plays here and there. Primarily, he’ll have to be solid defensively as his offensive skills are limited. MacLeod had seven points in 44 games, but he’s getting a fair amount of buzz for his defensive capabilities and even got a fairly lofty ranking from CSS. NHL CSS Ranking: 44
Anders Bjork (Notre Dame) — Mequon, Wis. — A slick forward with good puck skills and creativity, Bjork posted 40 points this season including 19 goals. He may get overshadowed in this forward group, but he has the potential to be very dangerous in the offensive zone with good skating and confidence in his ability to handle the puck. He’s a good source of secondary scoring for Team USA and that is always important to have in the international events. NHL Central Scouting Rank: 101
Kyle Connor (Michigan) — Shelby Twp., Mich. — One of the two outside additions to this club, Connor is coming off a fantastic season with the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms. The Michigan recruit finished second in the USHL with 74 points as a late 1996-born. I can’t begin to tell you how impressive that is. For reference, Connor out-scored Johnny Gaudreau at the same age in the USHL by two points. He has a solid frame and there’s a good burst in his skating which allows him to open things up. He really strengthens Team USA’s ability to score goals as he had 31 this season with Youngstown. Assuming he’s been able to gel with the team and get on the same page with his linemates, he could be a major factor. Draft eligible in 2015
Jack Eichel (Boston University) — North Chelmsford, Mass. — Perhaps the most exciting American forward prospect since Patrick Kane, Eichel has been one of the most talked-about players outside of the NHL of late it seems. The hype machine is ramping up for Eichel vs. Connor McDavid for the No. 1 spot in next year’s draft. He had 77 points this year, which is the seventh most productive season in NTDP history and there’s still seven games to go. Making it even more impressive, he’s done this in 46 games. Phil Kessel (twice) and Patrick Kane are among the names ahead of Eichel currently on that chart. He had 33 goals as well, which is incredibly tough to do in the U18 season with so many tough opponents including Divsion I colleges. Then you throw in the fact that Eichel was consistently one of Team USA’s best forwards at the World Junior Championship this year and you have to be excited about what’s to come in this tournament for Eichel. He was on the team last year and vastly underwhelmed, eventually being relegated to the 13th forward slot and getting stapled to the bench, which is something he’d probably like to erase. There’s no question his game continues advancing. His point production shows that. Eichel is so strong on the puck using every bit of 6-1, 191-pound frame. He is a powerful skater and vastly skilled. It seems like the game is just way slower for him than everyone else, too. This is a huge event for Eichel to staple this performance into the memories of scouts, especially with McDavid not at the tournament (yet) this time. If he can help lead his team to the gold medal and put up a few points along the way, his stock will only continue its upward trend. Draft eligible in 2015
Jared Fiegl (Cornell) — Parker, Colo. — With only five points in 38 games this season, Fiegl is not going to be lighting up this tournament on the scoreboard. Instead, he’ll be hoping to light up opponents. A big, rugged forward with a hard-nosed game, Fiegl is going to bring some toughness and work ethic to the bottom of the lineup (can we fit more grit descriptors in one sentence?). At 6-1, 208, Fiegl can be an imposing presence on the ice and will be an important guy to bring depth and stability to the bottom of the lineup. He has a great reputation for his character and what he brings to every shift as well. NHL CSS Ranking: 142
Shane Gersich (North Dakota) — Chaska, Minn. — After making the jump from high school to the NTDP this year, Gersich’s season ebbed and flowed, which can be pretty typical as a player builds strength. There’s no question he has some serious skill, though, and he should thrive on the bigger ice surfaces in Finland. With good speed and quickness, he has really good offensive-zone sense and vision to find plays. He put up 32 points in 54 games and will need to bring scoring depth to Team USA. Gersich will look to bring home some gold to compare with the one his uncle Neal Broten won in Lake Placid. NHL CSS Ranking: 132
Ryan Hitchcock (Yale) — Manhasset, N.Y. — At 5-9, 171, Hitchcock is one of Team USA’s smaller forwards, but size is hardly a concern. With 35 assists this season, Hitchcock was one of the better distributors on the team, ranking third on the squad in that category. He has a bit of an edge in his game, too, which allows him to get to the tougher areas of the ice and still be a factor. He’s another guy that has to really support scoring depth. NHL CSS Ranking: 131
Dylan Larkin (Michigan) — Waterford, Mich. — A scout favorite all season, Larkin is getting buzz as a potential first-round pick in the upcoming draft. It’s not hard to see why. Teams really love guys who can play his style of game (which mixes in some power with skill) and still produce and Larkin does that with ease. He put up 52 points in 54 games this year, showing touch around the net with 29 goals. At 6-0, 192, he doesn’t have world-beater size, but Larkin is able to out-muscle and outwork opponents, and in a lot of case he can out-skate them, too. His puck skills are less pronounced than other guys that have his production, but they’re there. He’s a big reason why Team USA’s top-six forwards are going to give a lot of teams trouble in Finland. NHL CSS Ranking: 17
Auston Matthews – Scottsdale, Ariz. — Team USA’s youngest player may be one of its most intriguing. A late-season call-up from the U17 team, Matthews posted 33 points in 24 games with the younger group. Since joining the U18 Team, he’s made an instant impact with seven goals and 10 points in 17 contests. At 6-0, 199, he has good solid frame and can create well using his frame to protect the puck and extend plays. He brings even more skill to an already talented group and despite his youth should be a source of scoring depth for Team USA. Draft Eligible in 2016 (not a typo… it’s really 2016)
Sonny Milano (Boston College) — Massapequa, N.Y. — One of my favorite prospects coming into this NHL Draft, I think Milano was getting overlooked a lot because of Eichel, but you can’t ignore what he’s done this season and how he’s developed in the last two years. Milano has some explosiveness to him in terms of puck skills and skating. He also got physically stronger which makes him so much harder to take the puck from on top of his ability to handle the puck as well as he does. Offense really seems to come naturally to him. He put up 76 points, which puts him right with Eichel and among some impressive names on the NTDP’s single season list. He led the club with 50 assists as well, which would have tied the single-season record had U17 forward Jeremy Bracco not posted 58 assists this year to shatter the previous mark co-held by Andy Hilbert and Patrick Kane. Milano isn’t getting overlooked anymore and he certainly won’t be when he’s on the ice in Finland. He has the potential to be deadly, often playing on Eichel’s wing. He and Eichel very well could be the best 1-2 punch the U.S. has had in this tournament in a long, long time. NHL CSS Ranking: 16
Dylan Pavelek (Michigan State) — Marysville, Mich. — Pavelek is going to help fill out Team USA’s depth with a solid two-way game. He had just 17 points this season, so he may not be one of the first guys off the bench in this tournament, but Pavelek is a solid player overall. At 5-11, 191, he doesn’t get pushed around and can give Team USA some effective shifts in a variety of situations. That versatility is valuable at the bottom of the lineup. NHL CSS Ranking: N/A
Nolan Stevens (Northeastern) — Manhattan Beach, Calif. — The son of LA Kings assistant coach and former Flyers head man John Stevens plays a pretty simple game. Nolan has good size and at 6-2, 183 is one of Team USA’s bigger forwards. He had just 12 points this season, but can be a rugged presence at both ends of the ice. He’s a smart player as well, playing a physical game without getting himself into penalty trouble and being a tough matchup for whoever he lines up against. NHL CSS Ranking: N/A
Alex Tuch (Boston College) — Baldwinsville, N.Y. — If you’ve been following the draft a lot lately, Tuch’s name is one you’ve heard rather often. He was the top American ranked by Central Scouting at No. 12, which has helped increase his buzz in a big way. It’s all warranted, too. At 6-3, 215, he has a pro frame already and teams love the size. What makes teams get really excited, however, is the fact that Tuch has some really solid puck skills (and not just for a player at his size). He has make-em-miss abilities at times, though can overuse his skill every now and again. Tuch skates pretty well and drives the net. You can find him playing with Eichel and Milano a lot, which almost doesn’t seem fair when they’re on the ice together. He was third on the team with 61 points, which included 29 goals in 54 games. Tuch has the toughness you want in a big man, but his ability to make things happen offensively is why he’s going to be one of the most watched prospects in this tournament. NHL CSS Ranking: 12
Joe Wegwerth (Notre Dame) — Brewster, N.Y. — At 6-3, 230, Wegwerth is Team USA’s biggest forward. He also may be its meanest. Wegwerth led Team USA with 119 PIM this season. The nastiness can get negated sometimes by international rules, but the physicality really can’t waver. That’s something that is still necessary, even on the bigger ice surface, and Team USA can use him as a hard-nosed grind-line presence. He only seven points this year, so Wegwerth is there to make things difficult on opponents and be efficient in the shifts he gets. There are a lot of guys like Wegwerth in the NHL, which is why teams will be interested to see if that toughness can translate into solid defending and aggressiveness on the forecheck. NHL CSS Ranking: 139
Team USA U18 World Championship Schedule
Here’s a look at Team USA’s schedule. Things get going Thursday morning at 8 a.m. ET. Remember, all games are live and FREE on FASTHokcey.com, so don’t be afraid to start your morning watching hockey.
All Times ET
Thursday, April 17 – Team USA vs. Switzerland — 8 a.m.
Saturday, April 19 – Team USA vs. Czech Republic — 8 a.m.
Sunday, April 20 — Team USA vs. Denmark – 11:30 a.m.
Tuesday, April 22 — Team USA vs. Finland — 11:30 a.m.
Thursday, April 24 — Quarterfinals — TBD
Saturday, April 26 – Semifinals — TBD
Sunday, April 27 – Bronze-medal Game — 8 a.m./ Gold-medal Game — noon