***Got a specific question about Team USA, one of the candidates or the World Juniors in general? All day today (Dec. 5), I’ll be answering your questions on Twitter. So make sure to tweet your questions to @chrismpeters and I’ll retweet with an answer. Remember, there are no dumb questions, I don’t think…***
At 5:30 p.m. EST, on NHL Network, the U.S. National Junior Team preliminary roster will be unveiled on NHL Live. In each of the last two years, 29 players have been named to this preliminary roster. The 29 (or so) players named tonight will be competing for 22 available spots on the final U.S. National Junior Team roster, which will be announced Dec. 22.
When that list is unveiled tonight, we won’t know what the final group will be, but the picture will become much more clear. We won’t know everything when the roster is initially announced tonight, but we should be able to at least piece together a few things.
Coming up after the jump, a look at what we’ll learn about Team USA when the preliminary roster is unveiled tonight….
The general, and probably correct consensus is that this is going to be a team built on speed.
What made Dean Blais’ 2010 squad so effective was its ability to out-skate any and all opponents. They brought in guys like Jerry D’Amigo and Danny Kristo, who weren’t thought to be superstars, but could fit a role and still fly up and down the ice.
When looking at the forward line-up that was kept intact at the National Junior Evaluation Camp, most of those guys were good skaters. There’s no doubt the top six are going to have to be able to move. There are plenty of guys in this pool up to the task.
What should be incredibly interesting to watch is what the defensive group will look like. There is a wide variety for Dean Blais to choose from when it comes to defensive style. There are plenty of good-sized guys available, but also a few smaller, more offensive-minded blue liners available.
There are going to be difficult decisions to be made on the blue line. I made my best guess last week, but there are plenty of question marks. Getting a look at the group they bring in might not be ultra revealing, but it will no doubt be intriguing.
The last thing worth paying attention to in regards to style is what kind of role-player type guys they’ll be bringing in. Every team needs a few guys that aren’t going to be producing offensively, but that will get their noses dirty and provide a different look for opponents. These are typically the guys that make most fans say, “…Him?”
As much of an elite tournament the World Juniors is, there needs to be a few guys that are going to assert themselves physically and be the type to out-work, not out-skill, the opposing teams.
With this preliminary roster, we should get a small taste of what this team is going to play like in Alberta.
The Age Factor
The World Juniors is undoubtedly a 19-year-old’s tournament. Older guys fare better, and most rosters will include 19-year-old players. That said, there is a variety of intriguing 18- and even 17-year-olds.
When the roster is unveiled tonight, we should know just how important age is in the number of 1992s in camp.
When it comes to the blue line, it should be very 1992-heavy in particular. Arguably the best 1993 defenseman in the age group is the Sarnia Sting’s Connor Murphy, who’s been out for months with injury (one he suffered in a freak accident at the NJEC). The only other 1993 defender I could conceivably see Team USA invite is Robbie Russo, of Notre Dame.
I believe 1994-born Seth Jones will get an invite, and I also think he’ll make the team. The bigger question is whether or not USA Hockey will send an invite to another 1994 D-man, 2012 NHL Draft-eligible Jacob Trouba.
It’d be almost unthinkable for Team USA to take two 1994 defensemen in the tournament, but a few question marks on the back end lead me to believe it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Trouba has vastly improved in his draft season, and he was pretty good to begin with. It’d be interesting to see what happens there.
Still have to believe that this is going to be a 1992-heavy roster, and considering how good that birth year is, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The 1992 birth-year might be one of the deeper classes the U.S. has produced in the last five years.
If you couldn’t already gather from the previous paragraphs, there’s a lot of difficulty in predicting, and probably in the actual decision making, for this team.
Here are the biggest complications that will become immediately clear once the roster is unveiled:
Justin Faulk — If he’s listed on the roster at all, we’ll know there’s at least a possibility that the Carolina Hurricanes will make their rookie defenseman available to Team USA. It doesn’t mean they’ll let him go, but it will mean there’s a chance. In the last two years, USA Hockey named 29 players with that 29th man playing professional hockey. Last year it was Jeremy Morin, who was released and joined the team. The previous year it was… well… perhaps you heard of this guy… he had a decent 2010 WJC… John Carlson.
Both Carlson and Morin missed the bulk of the pre-tournament camp, but when tournament time came, they were there.
Jon Merrill — Did his first-half suspension at Michigan sink his chances? All we’ve been able to do is speculate. USA Hockey will have to have thought long and hard about whether or not Merrill had done enough on his own to earn an invite. The fact that he hasn’t played a single minute of regular-season hockey at Michigan this year has to be a concern. The fact that it’s due to a disciplinary suspension is an even bigger concern. Will Dean Blais give Merrill a chance? We’ll know at 5:30.
Brandon Saad — Is he in or is he out? Having skipped the National Junior Evaluation Camp and missing significant time with an upper-body injury, has Brandon Saad done enough to find a spot? For the record, Saad returned from injury this weekend, playing in each of Saginaw’s three games. He tallied one assist. The declined invite, the potential rustiness, the consistency concerns and more make Saad an awfully unpredictable piece to the USA puzzle.
Every year there are one or two surprises on the preliminary roster. Typically it’s a player (or two, or three) that was not invited to the NJEC, that hasn’t been talked about a lot and that comes out of nowhere. Who will it be this year?
Minnesota’s Kyle Rau, perhaps? Maybe Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College? The aforementioned Jacob Trouba?
Was it one of the players cut over the summer like Robbie Russo? Or Boston University’s Matt Nieto? Perhaps Sarnia’s Reid Boucher? Or maybe Kelowna’s Shane McColgan?
Then there’s always seems to be a “surprise” omission as well, depending on who you ask. Everyone tends to get up in arms about a player or two, but you won’t find that from me. I haven’t watched these guys as much as director of player personnel Tim Taylor has.
As I’ve learned, there’s always reasons for one player or another to get left off. I might raise an eyebrow about a few guys, but only because I’ll be intrigued by what the thought process may have been. Fact is, we’ll almost never find out. The guys they pick are there for one reason and one reason only… that’s the group USA Hockey feels will give them the best chance to win. It’s just that simple.
This is a team that can ill afford to be selected based on politics or precedent. Those days, while wholly exaggerated to begin with, are gone. Players will be selected based on what they can do to help the team win, not what kind of message it sends.
As soon as the announcement is made, be sure to check back right here for a few brief thoughts on the roster. Then come on back Tuesday for a more complete roster analysis as well as thoughts from head coach Dean Blais and Jim Johannson, USA Hockey assistant executive director of hockey operations, coming out of their Tuesday media teleconference.
Also, don’t forget to tweet me your questions all day today leading up to the U.S. National Junior Team preliminary roster selection.
This is when things start getting really exciting. Should be a fun build-up to the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship.