As we covered yesterday, if all goes according to plan and each of Team USA’s six returning forwards is available (Jeremy Morin) and in good form (the rest), there are only going to be seven spots for the taking up front. That means 11 players can’t take a second off during camp. It’s hard to say who’s a lock and who isn’t at this point, but we’ll do our best. For the sake of your eyes, I’ve broken this up into two parts. This morning, Part I examines the best head-to-head battles going on at the camp starting tomorrow. These are players who are going to have to be on their toes all camp long.
Here are the battles to watch out there:
This one here intrigues me a lot because you look at all of the offensive prowess of these players. You need to have guys that can score goals, but you also need to have a very solid checking line, or at worst a guy who scares the bejesus out of defensemen.
Team USA invited Connor Brickley of the University of Vermont, Chris Brown of the University of Michigan and Mitch Callahan of the Kelowna Rockets (WHL).
One of these three guys is going to make this team, I have no doubt. At least one.
I think the guy with the best chance, and I base this on nothing but a gut feeling, is Mitch Callahan. Like Luke Walker before him, this is a pick that caught me off guard. The more I looked into it, the more I loved it. Luke Walker ended up being a bit player on last year’s World Championship team, but Callahan is anything but a bit player. He leads Kelowna with 33 points and he fights… look him up on YouTube. Now you can’t fight in the World Juniors, oh no, never never. Against the rules. However, you need to play with an amount of toughness and aggression to keep your opponents on edge. Callahan does that, and when you’re not expecting it… BANG. Puck’s in the net. That gives him an edge over the other two.
Chris Brown is the big boy of the group at 6-2, 194. He’s played at the World Under-18 Championships and won gold. He even scored a few big goals in that tournament. He hits hard and he’s a guy opponents have to be aware of. He’s not afraid to mix it up. In years past, he was prone to bad penalties and maybe being too tough at the wrong times. He’s curbed that this season, having only sat in the box for 12 minutes so far. Will he bring it every shift? Can he produce points if needed? Will he stay out of the box? These are the questions that he will have precious little time to answer. If he can’t rise to the occasion, he’s on the outside looking in.
Lastly, we’ve got Connor Brickley. Two words for opposing defensemen and anyone with their head down. WATCH. OUT. I’ve seen Brickley, in person, hit opponents with such force it made me jump in my seat. Not exaggerating. He does that with a 6-1, 195 frame. He’s the type of kid teammates love, because he can get everyone going with one shift. During Team USA’s game against Canada at the World U18 Championship in Belarus last year, Brickley completely took Erik Gudbranson’s head out of the game when he leveled the big Dman. Seriously crushed him. Team USA won that game 5-0. I have the best book on Brickley because I’ve seen him recently. If the U.S. feels they can afford two bruising forwards, including one who might not light the lamp a bunch, Brickley is in. Another advantage for Brickley is he can play center, but I wonder if he’s put on a wing for this team.
My initial feeling is that Brickley and Callahan are in. Brown is out, barely.
These next two guys are both one year removed from Minnesota High School hockey. Both are tall centermen, with good speed and a good skill set. I think only one of these two guys is going to make the final roster, but it just as easily could be neither.
Nick Bjugstad is a guy that everyone seemed to love last year during draft previews. Everyone, except me, I guess. That doesn’t mean he’s not a good player, because he is. He’s big, 6-4, 204. He lit up Minnesota High School, but has struggled to put up points in his freshman season at University of Minnesota. Part of that is because he was diagnosed with mono and missed five games. Still in 13 appearances, he’s posted just four points (2-2). However, with his big frame and his speed, assuming he’s fully recovered from his bout with mono, he’s a very attractive player for Team USA. But he’s got competition.
Brock Nelson has never ceased to amaze me. I thought because he was coming from a smaller high school in a weaker division, he might get passed over in the first round. I was wrong. He was a first round draft pick last year and had an absolutely stellar National Junior Evaluation Camp. He’s 6-3, 175 and he’s a freshman center for a very good University of North Dakota team. Nelson has six points while appearing in each of the Sioux’s 20 games. The question is, can he center a line that likely will be primarily used for checking. I just don’t know him well enough to say he can, contrarily I don’t know him well enough to say he can’t.
As much as I like their size, I can’t see Team USA taking both. Slight edge to Bjugstad because of that bigger frame. He’ll have to show he can use it to his advantage in camp. As I said, in a year with competition this stiff, you might not see either of these guys on the roster.
Here’s an interesting pair:
These two guys grew up together, practically. They played roller hockey at the Y together and they also spent a year together at the National Team Development Program. They are fast and they can score:
Emerson Etem and Matthew Nieto are speedy wingers that know how to get the puck to the net. In other years, maybe even next year, I wouldn’t think twice about putting both these guys on the team, and on the same line even. However, the depth of the returning class, might have one of these two just missing a roster spot.
Etem, out of Medicine Hat in the WHL, is a natural scorer. He’s got a wacky stride, but boy can he fly. He also plays his off wing, which is why I could see Nieto (who can play either side) on the same line. As I looked into it more, I just couldn’t see how Etem is left off the roster. His 35 points for the Hat, including 21 goals is hard to ignore. Not to mention, he’s plus-19 right now.
Nieto has played all 17 games for Boston University as a freshman, but has just six points. Five of those points are goals, which helps his cause. Neither Etem, nor Nieto are known for their defensive prowess. Etem is the one having a stellar season in the Dub, Nieto has looked good, but maybe not good enough at BU. I am giving the edge to Etem here, and I think Matt Nieto (who is 2011 draft eligible) will be a lock for next season, but out this year.
Interesting side note, as under-agers Nieto beat out Etem for the last spot on the 2009 U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team that won gold at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Fargo. I think the roles get reversed this time, though.
So there are the “bubble” guys for this team, or at least the ones with the most to prove. It’s going to be very interesting to see how Team USA decides to construct it’s team. They have the pieces in camp to make this your prototypical, speedy U.S. team. I don’t think there’s any doubt that a good portion of the 17 forwards invited can produce points, but a few of these forwards can separate themselves by showing they can play both ways. That’s going to be very important for this squad.
Coming up this afternoon, we’ll examine the forwards that I think Team USA can’t afford to leave off the roster. Some really outstanding hockey players are going to have to get cut, but that’s a problem you want to have.