Tough Decisions on the Blue Line

I cannot stress enough the amount of depth the U.S. system has created for itself over the last half-decade. Every year, the decisions will get harder and the competition tougher. That’s a great problem to have.

There were 10 defensemen invited to USA Hockey’s pre-tournament camp. Of those 10, it’s likely they will take seven. I’d have to say the cuts are going to be gut wrenching, because each one of these guys is just different enough to have a case made for them to make the team.

We start with the easy one though:

As I mentioned in my earlier post, John Ramage, is likely a lock to make the team. His game-winning assist (yes, I said it) was part of the lore of last year’s team and he did a great job throughout the tournament. He was part of a Wisconsin team that went all the way to the NCAA Division I national championship game and he’s a product of the National Team Development Program. He’s going to be a quiet leader for this group.

Maybe this next one is also a touch easier:

NICK LEDDY – Rockford Ice Hogs – The fact that Leddy is playing professional hockey right now doesn’t make him a lock, but it makes him a very safe bet. Due to an injury to Brian Campbell, Leddy actually made the Blackhawks opening night roster and played six NHL games this season. He already has his first career goal under his belt and has played against some of the best players the NHL has to offer. That experience should make him pretty close to a lock. Not only that, though, his fluid skating and calm presence should be a nice add to this year’s team. He has decent size to him, but isn’t overly physical. Expect him to make good decisions with the puck and help put up some points from the blue line. I expect to see him on the power play as well.

Now it gets tricky:

BRIAN DUMOULIN – Boston College  – I haven’t seen much of Dumoulin, but have heard nothing but good things. Obviously, he’s a big kid who can move the puck a bit. He’s got 10 assists at Boston College this year. Last season, he helped BC win the national title as a freshman, with 22 points and a staggering plus-40 rating in 42 games. He’s played in big games, he’s played with elite players and he’s shown he belongs. He was a 2nd rounder in 2009 and maybe has exceeded expectations. He is one of three BC d-men who got the nod for the camp and of all three has the best chance of making the team, I think. At 6-4, 210, he’s going to allow Team USA to take some of those smaller, offensive defensemen that will take a look at shortly. I’d say his chances are pretty darn good.

JON MERRILL – University of Michigan – Another big body on the back end. Merrill was in the mix for last year’s team, but was one of the first cuts at the pre-tournament camp. He’s played in two IIHF World Under-18 Championship for Team USA, winning gold on both occasions. At the 2010 World U18s, Merrill was one of the best players in the entire tournament and was named one of Team USA’s three stars. Additionally, he was a 2nd round pick after many thought he’d be a first rounder in the 2010 draft. This year, he’s playing for a solid University of Michigan team and is arguably their best defenseman as a freshman. At 6-4, 209, he’s got a great frame, but isn’t overly physical. He has a tremendous defensive stick and good offensive instincts. Most of all, he is a heady player, who rarely makes mistakes or is caught out of position. Another quirky thing about Merrill is that he doesn’t look like he’s skating hard, ever. However, he’s actually got an incredibly long stride that allows him great recovery speed in transition. With his international pedigree and his brilliant play of late, I can’t see him being left off.

Tougher still:

JUSTIN FAULK – University of Minnesota Duluth – The dog on Faulk has been his size. He’s 5-11 (you call that short?), but a SOLID 200 pounds. The kid is a beast physically. Last year, I sat in Coach Kurt Kleinendorst’s (then of the NTDP, now of the Binghamton Senators) office and he told me that Faulk might be the best defenseman in the 1992 class that included first rounders, Derek Forbort, Jarred Tinordi, a potential first rounder in Adam Clendening and second rounder Stephen Johns. I was initially surprised, but as last season wore on, I wondered if Kleinendorst was right. Faulk is an offensive force, particularly on the power play. He broke Jack Johnson’s NTDP record for goals in a season with 21 last year. Faulk has a blistering slap shot and decent speed. On top of that, he’s mean. He is unafraid of contact and knows when to lower the boom. He makes up for his lack of height with incredible strength. Team USA could use a threat like Faulk. Still, I wonder if the U.S. can afford to have both Faulk and Adam Clendening (who I’m getting to next) on the roster.

ADAM CLENDENING – Boston University – Clendening is a hometown boy for this tournament. He’s a native of Niagara Falls, N.Y., he’s been written about often in the local papers and is proud of his Western New York heritage. He’s also in his draft year. I don’t think that’s going to factor into the decision though. What will is the fact that, as U.S. head coach Keith Allain has mentioned, has no panic in his game. He’s calm, cool and collected at the back end, almost to a fault. The fact of the matter is, he has a great personality for this team. He’s not too high, not too low. Oh yeah, and he can play. He’s an offensive defenseman through and through. He led Team USA in points en route to the gold medal at the 2010 World Under-18 Championship. I never saw him play better. His pass to Rocco Grimaldi for the insurance goal in the gold-medal game was as dirty as they come. He raises his game to the level of play necessary to be successful. Like Merrill, he’s won two gold medals already at the U18 level and that experience is going to help. Still, he’s a little small. Like Faulk, he’s 5-11, but 10 pounds lighter. Still his vision, his hockey sense and his deadly accurate wrister from the point are going to make him a tough cut. Will the local boy make good? The inclusion of Leddy forces Team USA to wonder whether or not they want three d-men under six feet tall.

DEREK FORBORT – University of North Dakota – Up until this morning, I thought of Forbort as an absolute lock. That’s not to say I think he won’t make the team. I think he will, but he’s going to have to earn it. The knock on Forbort, who was a first-round pick at the 2010 draft, was his lack of physical play. He’s another big man at 6-5, 200 pounds, which is to his advantage. He’s got a great defensive stick, long reach and skates incredibly well. He’s another guy with a laid back demeanor, which seems to be a trend among these U.S. defensemen. Is that a good thing? Does it really matter at all? It’s hard to say. In the end, I think Forbort is there. He did miss some time this season due to mono, but from what I understand he’s back to full strength. He’s going to have to show that at camp and really assert himself right away. Still, he’d be really hard to leave off this team with his past international experience (a gold at the 2010 World U18s) and the fact that he’s had success against a very tough WCHA schedule.

Now here are the wild cards. I think all of these guys have a great chance at making this team, but I still just can’t be sure:

JAMIE OLEKSIAK – Northeastern University – This was a guy that came out of left field for a lot of people. I actually tweeted the night before that he might get a sniff at this camp. I have a feeling once USA Hockey realized that London Knights defenseman Jarred Tinrodi wasn’t going to make the camp, they wanted another big defenseman that wouldn’t back down. Well, when you’re 6-7, 240 like Jamie Oleksiak, who is there to back down from? He is having a standout year at Northeastern and I have heard he just keeps getting better. He’s not offensively gifted by any means, which actually helps his cause. If you look at the list above, pretty much everyone one of those guys outside of Ramage has a lot of offense to bring to the table. He’s the type that’s going to strike fear in the hearts of opposing forwards and coaches. Does he have the legs for a tournament like this? I really can’t be sure. Oleksiak is only 17 years old (until Dec. 21) and in his draft season. If he’s solid at camp, he may have a chance to beat out Faulk or Clendening.

PHILIP SAMUELSSON – Boston College – Samuelsson, son of NHL “bad boy” Ulf, is another big, stay-at-home defenseman. He’s listed at 6-2, 198. He’s won gold, at the 2009 U18 Worlds, and a national championship with Boston College. He’s also a second round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The knock on him has been his foot speed. He’s another guy that would be hard to cut, but in the end I don’t think his wheels are built for a tournament like this. Reportedly, Jarred Tinordi was left off because of his speed, and if that’s the case, it’d be hard to see how Samuelsson fits in. I really like this kid too. He’s tough and he is a pretty smart hockey player, but I just have a hard time putting him on this roster over some of the other guys.

PATRICK WEY – Boston College – This is a tough one for me to gauge. I have barely seen Wey play and I have heard lots of great things about him. He’s another guy that doesn’t put up a lot of points, but by all accounts, he’s been a solid contributor to Boston College’s outstanding teams of the last two years. He’s got that national championship ring to show for it. In the end, I just have a hard time putting him ahead of some of these other guys listed. That said, he could come into camp and just blow the barn doors off of the coaches and he’s in.

In summary, a big question will be, just how much offense does Team USA want from its blue line. If they think they can sacrifice one of those offensive defenseman, Wey or Oleksiak could be in.

Also, the first seven guys I listed don’t have a ton of snarl. There aren’t many big mean guys that are going to want to put a hurtin’ on opposing players. However, this is a highly competitive group. The fact that the U.S. has such a deep pool to choose from has to feel good for Keith Allain and his staff.

Again, the biggest thing that ALL of these guys have in common is that they’ve all been winners for most of their lives. They’ve played in big events and done well. Whether its World Juniors last year, the World Under-18 Championship, or the NCAA national championship, most of these guys have been there. Winning breeds confidence, but hopefully not cockiness, for this impressive group of American defensemen.

Coming up tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the head-to-head battles amongst the forwards fighting for spots on this year’s U.S. Junior Team. There are some dandies in that group as well.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in 2011 WJC, NHL Draft, NTDP, U.S. National Teams. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tough Decisions on the Blue Line

  1. paul says:

    I’ve watched OLEKSIAK a lot this year and you’re right, he’s not offensively gifted at all.But he’s also NOT the type that’s going to strike fear in the hearts of opposing forwards and coaches. At his size there should be an intimidation factor, but this kid doesn’t have it. Hes still very young so lets hope this edge comes with age.

    And no, he does not have the legs for this tournament, kid should spend time with Brian Boyle’s skating coach in the off season

  2. Pingback: One series in the WCHA | Rink and Run

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