At least 28 players, 29 if Justin Faulk gets loaned, will enter the U.S. National Junior Team’s preliminary camp in Camrose, Alberta, Friday, looking for one of 22 spots on the final roster. The competition will be fierce and tensions should run high.
This will be the third year USA Hockey has held a pre-tournament camp in which the final roster had yet to be set. In years past, USA would select players based on their performance in the National Junior Evaluation Camp in August and the first half of the season. Based on the results at the tournament, it became evident that maybe it was time for a change. So in 2010, the pre-tournament camp was held. The result? Gold. So rinse and repeat in 2011. The result? Another medal. The second time around it was bronze, but it was the first time the U.S. had medaled at the WJC in consecutive years. We’ll call that a success.
The pre-tournament camp allows USA Hockey to get one final look at the talent pool and allows the staff to more easily separate the players that are close to one another in ability.
In addition, this pre-tournament camp raises the compete-level within the players. Playing for a job will cause some players to rise to the occasion and others to fade. Most importantly, the players are competitive from the second the camp begins and that often carries right into the tournament. Making the team is the confidence booster at the end of the battle.
Many of the roles are likely already established with only a few holes to fill in camp. It’s up to the on-the-bubble players to prove why they deserve a shot. They don’t have much time to do it, as the camp begins on Dec. 17 and the roster is expected to be announced Dec. 22. That makes it all the more important to have a flawless camp.
Coming up after the jump, find out which American players likely have a fight on their hands before the tournament even begins.
Before we get into the competitions, it’s also important to take a quick look at the guys who probably don’t have too much to prove in camp based on a variety of indicators. That’s not to say the following players will be handed a spot, but each has made a pretty compelling case for inclusion on the final roster.
The two most comfortable players at the U.S. camp? Jack Campbell and John Gibson. The two goaltenders have their roles already established. That’s not to say they won’t have to bring that competitive edge. When USA Hockey decided to hold a camp like this, they also decided to pick the two goalies for the team ahead of time to give them a week of preparation leading into the World Juniors. Assistant coach Joe Exter will make sure these guys are locked in for the tournament.
There are four returning forwards for Team USA and each have done more than enough in the past half season to warrant a second selection. Those forwards include Nick Bjugstad, Emerson Etem, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker. All look to be virtual locks for roles within the top-six.
He might not be an absolute lock, but Kenny Agostino’s performance at the NJEC, combined with his outstanding play at Yale so far this season lead me to believe he’s got an inside track on a roster spot.
J.T. Miller has been one of the better American prospects from June to right now. After being selected by the Rangers in the first round at the draft, he’s been a top performer at rookie camps, the NJEC and for the Plymouth Whalers this year. He was also Team USA’s best forward at the 2011 Under-18 World Championship.
Connor Brickley is simply the toughest forward in camp. That toughness and grit will be required for a U.S. team that will be filled with high-skill players. Because he brings something a little different than anyone else, I can’t see him sent home.
Jarred Tinordi and Adam Clendening might be polar opposites on defense, but one thing they’ll have in common is a spot on the final roster. Tinordi’s enormous frame and physical presence makes him a shoo-in to be one of Team USA’s defensive stalwarts. Clendening’s high-end skill and offensive instincts could make him a power-play asset, especially if the U.S. has to go without Justin Faulk.
Faulk is on the team if he’s available. Jon Merrill is on the team if he comes in ready to play, but he’ll make an appearance in the battle section.
Now for the fun part…. the battles….
Stephen Johns vs. Austin Levi vs. Jacob Trouba
It is likely going to come down to one of these three for the seventh defenseman position. All three play with a physical edge, have good size and are strong on their skates.
Johns is the best known commodity as he spent two years at the NTDP, played in the U18 Championships and played very well at the National Junior Evaluation Camp.
Levi also had a good NJEC, but has barely any international experience. He’s been solid for the Plymouth Whalers in producing some points and playing a physical game.
Trouba is a 1994-born player and that youth could go against him, considering that Seth Jones might be ahead of him on the depth chart for young guys. However, of the three, he might be the best skater and most dangerous offensively. But again, it’s the youth that may hold him back.
You can also probably throw Kevin Gravel into this mix, but he brings a bit of a different element than these three and may have a different battle on his hands.
Kevin Gravel vs. Derek Forbort
Derek Forbort is a returning player for Team USA and would be next to impossible to knock off, but I believe if Kevin Gravel is to make the team, he’d have to go through Forbort to do it.
The two are similar players, while Forbort possesses more offensive ability. However, Gravel has proven his defensive game is developing quite nicely and could fit into more of a shutdown role. If Team USA is able to have Justin Faulk, Jon Merrill and Adam Clendening, offensive skills might be covered for Team USA.
Forbort is 6-5, 200. Gravel is 6-4, 190. Forbort was born on March 4, 1992. Gravel was born on March 6, 1992. Some of the similarities are kind of eerie, in addition to many of the on-ice similarities. It’s going to likely be one or the other, it’s probably not going to be both.
Gravel’s candidacy may be linked to Faulk and Merrill. Should one of those guys be unavailable, Forbort’s offensive instincts and adequate defensive game would likely win out. However, Gravel could have an exceptional camp and maybe steal a spot.
Then, there’s also the potential for Gravel to earn a spot as the seventh defenseman, though I still feel the other guys in that mix may bring something a little different.
Austin Czarnik vs. John Gaudreau
I believe one of these guys is going to make the team, but I don’t see how USA Hockey could take both of these offensively dynamic little guys.
Czarnik’s lone advantage over Gaudreau at this point is that he’s well known by USA Hockey brass as a former NTDP player and U18 World Champion. He has good wheels, doesn’t shy away from contact and gets to the tough areas to score when he has to.
Gaudreau is likely one of, if not the most skilled forward coming into camp in terms of pure puck skills. He could bring a lot to the power play, creating plays with his solid vision and snappy passes. Plus, he can get in there and score a few goals for you.
This is a tough call as each brings something just a little different. I might have to give the edge to Gaudreau, but it’s a slight one. Czarnik is a tenacious competitor who won’t go down without a fight.
Jon Merrill vs. Jon Merrill
Based on Jim Johannson’s comments in last week’s media teleconference, Jon Merrill is likely on the final roster. All he has to do is prove that he’s prepared, he’ll be a good teammate and that he won’t be a distraction.
In this setting, it is hard to see anything but Merrill being on his best behavior and proving he’ll be a good teammate and a player USA Hockey can rely on in this tournament.
T.J. Tynan vs. Shane Prince vs. Kyle Rau
It is likely that USA Hockey is going to go with more of a top-nine forward set up, where there are three lines that can be counted on for offense, with the fourth line bringing grit and defense to the table.
Because of that set-up, there is a good chance that two of these three players will make this hockey team in a top-nine role.
Shane Prince is offensively gifted, if not entirely dynamic. He brings a good skill-set and play-making ability to the table.
T.J. Tynan was heralded on last week’s conference call for his ability to play in all situations and be a productive player.
Kyle Rau also has a very good all-around game and plays with a fair amount of grit, though his skating is probably a step behind some of the other forwards coming into camp.
Because of that top-nine format USA is likely leaning toward, it’ll be important for the third line to have good all-around guys that can bring the offensive game, but stand up in defensive situations as well.
For that reason, if two of these three are to make the team, I believe it will be Rau and Tynan, who give up a little size to Prince, but have proven they can play at both ends of the ice.
If all three were to make it, I’d expect Rau to be a good candidate for a swing guy, or one that can play in many situations on any line at a given time. I still think the most likely scenario is that two of these three end up in Edmonton on Dec. 26.
Austin Watson vs. Billy Arnold vs. T.J. Tynan vs. J.T. Miller
This is kind of a weird battle in that there’s a chance all four of these centers make the team. What makes it intriguing is that Team USA has an abundance of centers in camp, with Bjugstad and Coyle easy locks at the position already. Both Tynan and Miller may be better suited for the wing for the U.S. anyway, thus canceling any chance for this projected four-way battle. That is, unless other wings in the camp emerge, forcing one of either Miller or Tynan back to the middle.
Miller’s success at the Under-18 championship came on the wing. His success in Plymouth has come at center. I’ve already slotted him as a lock, so whether it’s at center or wing, I can’t see him being left off the team.
Watson’s best bet to make the squad is as a shut-down, penalty-killing centerman. That’s a job he’s better suited for than any of the other three. He’s my front-runner for fourth line center.
Arnold is a natural center and would probably fit well in a third-line role. Miller would as well, Tynan probably less so.
If you’re still following, that would leave a potential battle between Tynan and Arnold, if Tynan is to be a center on this club. If it gets to that point, it’d be a really tough decision. Tynan has come on strong in the last two years offensively, while Arnold produces and can be pretty tough to play against.
So a lot needs to happen to get to that point, but it will be interesting to see how things get mixed up in camp as far as positions go.
Brian Ferlin vs. Brandon Saad
This is another one of those battles that really isn’t a battle. Ferlin replaced Saad at the NJEC when the latter turned down his invitation. Because of that, the two are somewhat linked.
Ferlin is more of a two-way threat on the wing, while Saad is a sure-fire offensive presence.
Saad has to come in and prove he’s healthy and motivated. Ferlin just has to keep on the path he’s been on since the Bruins selected him in June. Both probably end up on the team, but seeing how they stack up with each other might be a bit interesting to watch.
Others of note…
Due to a lack of familiarity with Josh Archibald, it’s tough to know who he’ll battle with. I think the easy answer is everybody, as he is a relatively unknown commodity to most of us. He skates for Dean Blais on a regular basis, so the coach had to see something in his player to bring Archibald to camp. If nothing else, the coach will be able to see how his own guy stacks up against the nation’s very best. If he holds his own, he just might be on the final roster.
Seth Jones isn’t a sure-fire lock only because of his youth, but he should be on the team. He’s too versatile and mature to be left home, especially if Team USA lacks depth on the blue line. He could be an impact player. So, with that said, I didn’t want to put him in the locks and I think he’s too different of a defenseman to be in a potential battle with anyone. He’s either on the team, or he’s not.
The camp should bring a lot of spirited competition and will provide plenty of twists, turns and surprises. All that matters is, at the end of camp, USA Hockey has 22 guys it is confident in. On Dec. 22, we’ll know which players USA Hockey feels will give the United States the best chance to compete for the gold medal.
There will be plenty of camp coverage right here on United States of Hockey throughout the event in Camrose. So stay close, and don’t forget, you can always ask questions on Twitter, Facebook or right here in the comments section.