American Prospect Update: Four Nations Cup Previews

In a player’s NHL Entry Draft-eligible year, how he plays against his draft peers can have a big impact on how that player is viewed by scouts. That is a big reason international competition can be so important for a player in his draft season.

This week, the U.S. National Under-18 Team, from which 20 players are eligible for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, will be competing at the 2011 Under-18 Four Nations Cup in Monthey, Switzerland. Team USA will take on opponents from Switzerland, Sweden and Finland in a round-robin format. The team with the best record at the end of the weekend wins the Cup.

The tournament officially begins Friday, but the U.S. will meet Switzerland at 11:30 a.m. ET today in a pre-tournament tilt.

The U.S. plays for real Friday, with a tournament-opening match-up against Sweden (6:30 a.m. ET), followed by Finland Saturday (6:30 a.m. ET) and closes it out against the tournament host Sunday (9 a.m. ET). Live statistics for the event can be followed here.

Coming up after the jump, a quick preview of some of the players that can help themselves in a big way in Switzerland and a brief look at the 2011 Under-17 Four Nations Cup, which will be running simultaneously in Russia.

It seems the U.S. has a stranglehold of late on the November U18 Four Nations Cup. Team USA has taken the title each of the last three years, an impressive feat.

Due to the brief nature of a Four Nations tournament, it is difficult to win. One misstep can be the difference between first and second. All three games matter, and every goal scored and allowed matters. There’s no time for a let down.

The U.S. National Under-18 Team playing in this tournament is the group from the National Team Development Program. The fact that these players play year round and are now in their second year with each other is often an advantage, but each team they’ll face will offer a difficult challenge.

International hockey can be so unpredictable, so while Team USA looks like it will be favored, it will be anything but a cake walk.

The U.S. is kind of limping into this tournament, having lost three of its last four games, including two losses against NCAA Division III opponents. After having last weekend off, expect a pretty motivated club when the tournament gets going Friday.

A few players in particular could benefit in a big way from playing against the international competition.

Miles Koules — He’s been up and down on a lot of draft lists and this could be a chance for him to break out a bit. Last year, he led the U.S. Under-17 Team with 10 goals in international play. He was particularly productive in the November event last season. After a good showing at the NHL RDO camp in August, Koules has had a lukewarm start offensively with five points in 14 games. After spending the entire season playing against mostly older and stronger competition in NCAA Division I and the USHL, Koules should benefit in a big way playing against his peers. He’ll be one to watch for sure.

Stefan Matteau — Matteau has come into this season playing a more offensive game, as he is one of three players atop the U.S. leader board with eight points this season. It is tough to tell whether or not Matteau will be a more offensive player at the next level, as he has the ability to be a dependable two-way player. It’s tough to figure out what Matteau is sometimes. This tournament may help clear the picture as we get to see Matteau against his own age group and playing with some confidence after his quick start to this season.

Riley Barber — Barber is the only player on this team that wasn’t a full-time NTDPer last year. He was chosen to join the program mainly because of his outstanding effort in the one tournament he spent with the U17s last season. With five goals on the young season, he is the U.S. National Under-18 Team’s leading goal scorer. Now that he’s familiarized himself with this team, this may just be a huge opportunity for Barber to step out in front a bit. I’ve heard great reports about his on- and off-ice work ethic, so we’ll see if it pays off.

Patrick Sieloff — The big defenseman is skyrocketing up draft charts. He might be one of the most violent body checkers in this draft, but he also plays a very steady defensive game. The international game may force Sieloff to harness some of that violence he plays with, but it could allow his defensive capabilities to shine. He’ll have to avoid penalty trouble, as he currently leads Team USA with 40 PIM (15 more than the next highest). Nonetheless, he’ll have to remain physical, play smart and show what he can do. He’s all of the sudden become a really exciting prospect to watch.

Collin Olson/Jared Rutledge — Both of the U18 goaltenders will likely see close to equal time in this tournament. Each has a sub-.900 save percentage, but looking at some of the competition this club has faced early in the season, I’d expect that to change soon. Against some elite offensive players in this tournament, both netminders will be challenged. The tournament provides a chance for Olson to re-establish himself as a top-tier goalie prospect, while Rutledge will have an opportunity to prove he also belongs in the discussion.

Ryan Hartman — Hartman is the lone forward on this U18 Team that isn’t draft eligible in 2012, but he’s definitely one to watch for 2013. After leading Team USA with 34 points last season, including a team best 22 goals, it’s been surprising to see him go through the U18’s first 13 games without a goal. He has four assists, but it’s easy for one to expect him to be more productive. I recently spoke with U18 head coach Danton Cole who said that the points haven’t been coming, but Hartman has played really well. Will this weekend provide that opportunity to reestablish that goal-scoring touch?

The U.S. National Under-18 Team is a very intriguing group. The point production has been very balanced this season as 11 players have five points or more through Team USA’s first 13 games this season. The balanced attack should continue for Team USA, but it should be expected for several players to step out into the spotlight a bit, providing an early-season boost to draft stock.

At the end of the day, these players should be focused on one thing, winning the tournament. With the way Danton Cole has had this team preparing over the last two weeks, it should be expected that this will be a focused and motivated group.

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The U.S. National Under-17 Team is in Balashinkha, Russia for the 2011 Under-17 Four Nations Cup, which begins Friday. Team USA, which is made up entirely of the NTDP’s U17 squad, will take on Russia, Switzerland and Slovkia, in the group’s first international tournament together.

The U.S. is in search of its third straight U17 Four Nations Cup and can expect a very tough test in Russia. For many players on the U.S. roster, it will be their first time representing their country against international foes. That provides for a lot of excitement, nerves and also, perhaps, a little inexperience.

This U17 club has gotten off to a fairly impressive start to its season, despite the fact it’s only won three of 10 games. Considering that they’re 16-year-olds against all U20 teams, there’s bound to be an adjustment period. There always is for the U17 Team at the NTDP. The fact that this squad has won a few and been in almost every game its played against USHL teams is pretty impressive.

Now, they’ll have a chance to pick on some guys their own size. For the U17s, playing in their own age bracket is a pretty pleasant respite from the grind of going up against older, stronger competition. That’s not to say it’ll be a walk in the park. It’s always difficult for a U.S. team to go into Russia and win.

The food, the time difference, the weather all take time to adjust to. The squad is already in Russia and will skate in an exhibition against Russia today at 10:30 a.m. ET. It’s a good way to test that readiness and potentially shake off the rust without the pressure of playing a game that counts for the tournament. That’s not to say they won’t want to win. USA-Russia is USA-Russia, no matter the stakes.

Here’s a brief look at some of the U17 players off to good starts in this young season…

Tyler Motte — Motte came in with a high pedigree and has lived up to the hype. The Michigan native has posted five goals and five assists to lead Team USA. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s a threat just about every time out.

Luke Voltin — Voltin is off to a similarly hot start for the U.S. With seven points, all coming against USHL competition, he’s provided some solid play so far.

Anthony Louis — The diminutive Louis has been a revelation in the early goings of this season. He’s 5-6, 136 and his five goals are tied with Motte for the team lead. Louis is riding a four-game goal-scoring streak coming into the tournament. Perhaps he’s just getting warmed up…

J.T. Compher — I watched Compher in practice while in Ann Arbor last week and I just marveled at his strength. He’s not just pushing people around either, he’s putting up points with seven through Team USA’s first 10 games. He’ll be a beast to play against for the European clubs. You’ve got to love that grit he brings to the table.

Hudson Fasching — There’s a lot of hype surrounding Fasching, and after talking to the big forward last week, he feels no pressure from it. I also spoke with head coach Don Granato about Fasching and the U.S. bench boss marveled at the improvement he’s seen out of the Minnesota-native. With a goal and three assists, the stat line isn’t where many may have expected, but this tournament may just provide the jump-start Fasching needs.

Kevin Labanc — Labanc is a bit unheralded, but that may soon change. He has yet to score a goal but has five assists for Team USA. The Staten Island, N.Y., native has loads of offensive skill and creativity. This might be the setting for him to let that loose a bit more. Despite the fact that he’s not even eligible until the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, his is a name to remember.

Both tournaments should provide plenty of interesting info about both U.S. teams, as we continue to watch these players develop. Expect full tournament recaps from both events next Monday.

Also, check back Thursday for a recap of preliminary round action from the World Junior A Challenge. Team USA takes on Canada West tonight. You can watch the event live on FASTHockey.com at 10:30 p.m. ET. All you have to do is sign up for a free account. I caught USA-Sweden Monday night and it was a pretty solid broadcast. If you want to follow some of the top Junior A players in the U.S., it’ll be worth your while, ya know… cause it’s free.

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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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