The U.S. Has Another Title to Defend This Week

While the World Juniors rightfully gets all the headlines, there is another major international tournament about to kick off this week. The 2011 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge gets underway officially tomorrow after each team gets an exhibition game tonight. The city of Winnipeg will host the tournament, which should be a great site for it.

If you’re not familiar with the World U-17 Challenge, you’re not alone. The tournament, however, is hugely important in the grand scheme of things for the participating teams. It is in many cases the first opportunity for young players to represent their country on the international stage. It is also the first look for much of the 2012 and 2013 NHL Draft-eligible players against their own age group. So it’s a chance to get a head start with the scouts.

Just a quick crash course in the WU17HC: The event takes place in Canada every year, as it is put on by Hockey Canada. The host country fields five regional teams: Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West, Pacific. The tournament then is filled out with five other countries, which this year includes the U.S., Germany, Finland, Czech Republic and Slovakia. The European teams occasionally change (Russia and Sweden were part of last year’s tournament), but the U.S. has been attending the event on a fairly regular basis since 1995.

It’s a pretty grueling tournament with seven games (including the exhibition) in eight days. It’s a real test of stamina and resilience. I’ve been to the last two and have thought the tournament to be an outstanding event. It’s really exciting for these kids to get out there and compete for country and region. It’s also an incredible challenge for everyone involved since there is only one day off for each team. Additionally, for the non-Canadian teams, the World Under-17 Challenge is a chance to test their mettle in enemy territory with a passionate and usually loud home crowd.

Since the tournament’s inception in 1986, the Quebec Cup, the tournament’s trophy, has been raised by some notable NHL stars like Illya Kovalchuk, Joe Thornton, J.S. Giguere, Taylor Hall, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. Team USA has won it three times: 2001, 2002 and 2010.

It’s a proving ground for each player. Last year, Team USA, which annually sends a team composed almost entirely of players from the National Team Development Program, won the championship by going undefeated in Timmins, Ontario. The U.S. had to play every Canadian team except Team West and took on Russia and Sweden. No easy task.

The tournament also served as a coming out party for a number of American players:

Rocco Grimaldi, the 5-foot-6 dynamo that just missed the cut for this year’s World Juniors, led the U17s in scoring last year with 14 points. He was dominant out there and logged a ton of minutes. He proved he was among the elite in North America last year as he was named to the all-tournament team.

Tyler Biggs scored both of Team USA’s goals in its 2-1 victory over Team Ontario for the title. He showed off his size, strength and finish in front of a national audience on TSN and on NHL Network. He even got a shout out from Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada. Alongside Grimaldi, Biggs was a force and immediately put his name high up on scout’s lists.

John Gibson, the American goaltender, had struggled early last season in his first year at the National Team Development Program, but shined when the lights were brightest. In the championship bout, Gibson pitched a shutout until the waning seconds of the game, when  Ontario finally popped one in. He was a big reason the U.S. won that tournament, and particularly that championship game.

In 2009 the WU17HC was the first showcase for 2011-Draft eligibles Brandon Saad and Adam Clendening (both named to the all-tournament team) and 2010 draftees Derek Forbort, Jack Campbell, Jason Zucker and Jarred Tinordi.

This year, head coach Danton Cole brings in a U.S. team that has drawn comparisons to the NTDP’s vaunted 1992 birth year that saw several of its players drafted in the first round. I had the pleasure of watching this entire roster play at the 2010 Under-17 Four Nations Cup in Woodridge, Ill. Let me tell you, this is a very special group.

Having taken its lumps in the USHL, the U.S. squad gets its second crack at players their own age. Not knowing fully how deep the Canadian 1994 birth year is, I still think this team has to be considered the favorite for the tournament. They’ll hope to keep the Quebec Cup in Ann Arbor.

So let’s take a look at some of the players to watch, and the names to remember:

The strength of this team is its defensive corps. Most of them are highly skilled and incredibly mobile.

Seth Jones – The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, Seth is athletic and smart. He makes plays 16-year-olds shouldn’t make. He’s not draft-eligible until 2013, but I have him penciled in as a top-three pick right now. Sure it’s early, but he’s getting bigger (already at or above 6-foot-4) and he’s getting better. Watch him skate and move the puck, you’d think you’re looking at a seasoned pro most times, but its actually just the youngest player on the team.

Jacob Trouba – This guy can shoot. He’s got a pro-like slapper already. Not to mention he’s strong as an ox and can lay a big check. He’s gifted at handling the puck and making plays with his feet. He’s a power-play threat and a steady presence defensively. Without a doubt, a first-round talent.

Brady Skjei – I don’t mince words when I say this, he has one of the most beautiful skating strides I’ve ever seen. He can absolutely fly and it just looks effortless. I think he still has some work to do with various aspects of the game, but he can be a one-man breakout. He can use his feet to get the puck out of trouble spots and before you know it, he’s putting a shot on net. He’s a Minnesota kid that has clearly spent a lot of time on the ice honing his skating.

I could probably say something about each of Team USA’s eight defensemen, but I’ll save that for another time.

Up front, the U.S. has a lot of talent, but is still trying to figure some things out. However, a few players are beginning to stand out:

Miles Koules – The son of former Tampa Bay Lightning owner, Oren Koules, Miles was the talk of the Four Nations because he just produced. He led the team with seven points in four games and just made plays. He doesn’t have great size, but he has a good hockey mind. He’s able to find his teammates and can also fire the puck himself. Five of those seven points were goals. I think he needs a little work in the D-zone, but his offensive ability is undeniable.

Nicolas Kerdiles – Kerdiles has good size and is strong on the puck. He leads the U17s this season overall with 14 points (8g-6a). He can be used in a variety of roles and situations. I still expect a bit more out of him from the last time I saw him. You can kind of tell there’s more to his game that just hasn’t been unlocked yet.

Frankie Vatrano – Vatrano is a big boy (listed at 214 pounds). A big boy that can absolutely wire a puck under the bar. He has seven goals this season and I was told by the coaches, he’s got a natural gift for scoring. He struggled at the Four Nations, but could be a pleasant surprise at this tournament.

Thomas DiPauli – Here’s a guy that’s not very big, but supremely skilled. He has a chance to be one of the more dynamic players on the ice at any given moment. He has eight assists this year and just has a gift for finding his teammates. He’s got good hands and great vision, which helps him get out of tight spots. He makes his teammates better out there. He could shine on this stage.

Other notables: Players with NHL Dads: Henrik Samuelsson (Ulf) and Stefan Matteau (Stephane). Also, Quentin Shore becomes the third Shore brother (Drew and Nick before him) to play in the WU17HC for Team USA.

Lastly, the goaltenders:

Both of these goalies have a ton of ability and I think Team USA is comfortable with either of them in any situation:

Collin Olson – The thing that jumps out at you about Olson is his size. He’s 6-foot-3 and takes up a good amount of the net. He has the ability and athleticism to take away the bottom of the net and the size to keep the top covered when down. I liked what I saw out of him at the Four Nations. He was between the pipes for the championship game against a Russian team full of snipers and got the win.

Jared Rutledge – While smaller than Olson, at 5-foot-11, Rutledge is just a steady, fundamentally-sound goalie. He controls rebounds well and can recover quickly if needed. He also got a look at that Russian team in the Four Nations round robin, so he’s seen elite shooters and prevailed. He’s definitely a goalie to keep an eye on for the future.

There is an awful lot to like about this U.S. squad. I’ll be keeping tabs on the tournament and updating you as it progresses. Also, if you want to check out the tournament yourself, FASTHockey.com is carrying the entire event live, including Team USA’s exhibition against Team West tonight. Also, you can follow along at Hockey Canada’s website.

Don’t worry, I’m getting back to World Juniors coverage this afternoon with a full preview of Team USA’s game tonight against Slovakia.

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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.
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