Starting Saturday, 44 American hockey players will take the first step towards making the U.S. National Junior Team in Lake Placid, N.Y., at the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp.
Over the course of 10 days, the players will be evaluated on and off the ice to help give head coach Dean Blais a better idea of who he should be keeping a close eye on throughout this year. Blais will hope to find the right mix to help the U.S. get back to get back in the gold-medal hunt after taking bronze last January.
The camp will feature a series of practices, two intrasquad games, two split-squad games against Finland and Sweden, and finally, once more cuts have been made, two games against Sweden and one against Finland.
Every year, this camp provides excitement and a great look at some of the top American prospects in hockey. However, for the Junior Team itself, this camp helps set the tone. Blais will get his message across to the players of what will be expected of them, not only in camp, but also throughout the course of the season. The camp is just one step. It isn’t the end all.
Coming up after the jump a complete preview featuring info on Sweden and Finland, the U.S. players I’ll be watching closely and information on how to follow the camp from the comfort of your own home.
Before we get into the U.S. players, the rosters for both Sweden and Finland have to be mentioned, as they are both fantastic.
Sweden’s roster is highlighted by first rounders Mika Zibanejad (OTT), Jonas Brodin (MIN), and Rickard Rackell (ANA); along with other notable draftees like Johan Larsson (MIN), Ludvig Rensfeldt (CHI), Rasmus Bengtsson (FLA), Victor Rask (CAR) and Patrick Nemeth (DAL).
When first released, the roster was even more thrilling with Gabriel Landeskog (COL), Adam Larsson (NJD) and Oscar Klefbom (EDM) were announced as part of the team. However, those three recently withdrew from the camp.
Finland’s team also has a pretty solid draft pedigree, highlighted by first rounder Joel Armia (BUF) and other notables like Teemu Pulkkinen (DET), Christopher Gibson (LAK), Miika Salomaki (NSH), Markus Granlund (CGY) and Joonas Donskoi (FLA). The roster also features 2012 top prospect Olli Maatta, who was the first overall pick of the CHL’s 2011 Import Draft.
Now back to the Americans.
If you missed the changes to the camp, here’s a quick rundown:
Jamie Oleksiak, who decided to try out for Team Canada, was replaced by Islanders second-rounder Scott Mayfield.
Brandon Saad, who inexplicably declined an offer to play in camp, was replaced by Boston Bruins fourth-rounder Brian Ferlin.
Most recently, goaltender Mac Carruth had to pull out of camp, due to injury. He was replaced by Michigan State netminder Willie Yanakeff.
Now that the camp is less than 24 hours away, here are some of the players to watch closely this week:
Jarred Tinordi — The big defenseman from the London Knights is under enough scrutiny being a first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens, but many eyes will be on him during camp. With Oleksiak heading north, Tinordi’s biggest competition for a roster spot is gone. The U.S. always loves to have a big, physical presence on the back end. Tinordi has a chance to prove that job belongs to him during this camp.
Robbie Russo — He might be a fourth-round draft pick, but he was a steal for the New York Islanders. Russo is a pretty solid all-around defenseman, but has keen offensive instincts. This will be a tough blue line to crack, but there could be a spot for Russo. He’ll be on the same team in camp as Adam Clendening, who may end up being Russo’s biggest competition for a spot. Both will have to show off that offensive flair, without making defensive mistakes.
Stefan Noesen — With no international experience, Noesen might be a little less familiar to the USA Hockey brass, but his standout season in Plymouth opened plenty of eyes. The Ottawa first rounder will have a big opportunity to help familiarize the coaching staff with his game. He knows how to get to the net, and he’ll have to do it a bunch to make this team.
Shane Prince — Another guy with limited international experience, Prince put up a whole bunch of points with Ottawa in the OHL last year. Dogged by concerns that he benefited from playing with the league’s leading scorer, Prince has to prove he is high-end set-up man with unfamiliar teammates. He’ll have to mesh quickly with whoever he plays with to be in the mix.
T.J. Tynan — After leading the nation’s freshmen in scoring, Tynan has shown he can be a points machine. But can he do it against the best of the best of his American peers? He’ll have to show the wheels and skill he put on display at Notre Dame last season. His lack of size is not ideal, but as long as he can produce, no one will notice.
Connor Brickley — Brickley was in the mix for the team last season because of his hard-nosed physical play. He lost out to Mitch Callahan in the end, but could make the most of his second chance. He’s not the most offensively dynamic player, but if he brings the physical side of his game, he’ll stand out… one thundering check at a time.
Brian Cooper — Cooper is the only skater eligible for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in camp, so there’s some added incentive for him to play well. This will be a great opportunity for Cooper to put his name on the map before his first draft-eligible season begins. He had a stellar sophomore season in the USHL with the Fargo Force last year and should be counted on heavily there again this year. He’s undersized and probably a long shot to make the team, but he’s still one to watch, particularly for Draft fans.
Seth Jones — While Cooper is the only 2012 eligible, Jones is the only 2013 (!) eligible in Lake Placid. At just 17 years old, Seth Jones is by far the youngest player in camp. He’s been a well-known prospect since he was about 14, so the fact that he’s at this camp comes as no surprise. Because of his youth, he’ll have to prove he plays a mature enough game to keep up with the big boys. Should he prove that, he’s going to have a really good chance to make this team.
Scott Mayfield — The only reason Mayfield is at this camp is because Jamie Oleksiak isn’t. Mayfield, however, is not your typical replacement. His skating ability is going to give him an opportunity to make this team. Mayfield will have to prove the decision makers wrong for not initially including him. With that added motivation, he just may.
Shane McColgan — The way McColgan finished last season would get most people excited, with 19 points in 10 playoff games. If that production can carry over into this camp, he’ll be putting himself in a great position. A fifth-round pick by the Rangers, McColgan has some work to do to earn a spot, but his potential for a breakout is high.
Bill Arnold — Arnold somewhat blends into the fold here and some might forget about him. However, he’s a very strong individual with a tremendous shot and nose for the net. He’s had solid international experience and will need to call on that to help put him in a position to make the team. He’s a guy that you can easily forget about, right up until he makes a play that makes you say, “Whoa.” He’s a bit of a sleeper, so he’s worth watching.
J.T. Miller — Coming off a stellar World Under-18 Championship, the offseason has been an interesting one for Miller. He signed his first NHL contract, leaving a commitment to North Dakota on the table, and will play with Plymouth in the OHL next year. Despite all of those distractions, can Miller find that stride he hit at the World Under-18s? SIDE NOTE: Miller’s 18WC linemates, Rocco Grimaldi and Reid Boucher are on the Team White roster. One would have to wonder if they’ll be put together to see if they can recapture that magic that led Team USA to gold in Germany.
There are plenty of other great storylines to follow and players to watch, but those are the ones that will keep me most interested.
Every game from the National Junior Evaluation Camp will be webcast live on FASTHockey.com. USAHockey.com will be handling the live statistics.
I won’t be in Lake Placid, as I will be in Ann Arbor, Mich., to provide color commentary for the entire 2011 Under-17 Five Nations Tournament on FASTHockey. However, I will have plenty of Junior Camp news and notes along the way. So be sure to stay close to United States of Hockey for full coverage of a very busy week in American hockey.