The U.S. National Junior Team’s final roster was announced earlier today, but it’s a pretty long and complicated process to get down to what USA Hockey feels are the right 22 players to play in the World Junior Championship.
Dean Blais ultimately has to make the call on who he feels most comfortable with, but he has a pair of great player personnel people to help him with that decision process. Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations is the U.S. National Junior Team’s general manager. He handles, among other things, scouting and the administrative duties for the team including maintaining an open line with players and their current teams. Then there’s Tim Taylor, who is in his third year as the director of player personnel for Team USA.
Taylor is an incredibly bright hockey mind, and he’s been around for a long time, so he’s seen a lot. Taylor, who played college hockey at Harvard, was the head ice hockey coach at Yale University for 28 years. Additionally, he was an assistant coach on the 1984 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team and went on to become head coach for the 1994 Olympic Winter Games. So yeah, Tim Taylor has seen a lot of world-class ice hockey.
The seasoned veteran was gracious enough to carve out some time to chat with me today about Team USA’s evaluation and selection process, as well as to discuss the make up of this team and give a few scouting reports on some of Team USA’s lesser known players.
One of the most common questions I get asked about the U.S. National Junior Team is how USA Hockey goes about selecting the players for the camp. It’s kind of a difficult thing to answer, because the process is complicated and lengthy.
Taylor, who explained that the U.S. has a unique problem for this tournament in that its player pool is often playing at different levels of hockey [NCAA, CHL, NTDP, USHL, etc.], talked about the importance of the camp in getting a better feel for how certain players match up.
“When it comes to Canada and the European teams, most of their kids are playing in the same league or the same level,” Taylor said. “It’s hard for us to take a kid in the OHL that’s an offensively skilled guy and compare him to a guy that’s playing his first year in college hockey that’s an offensively skilled guy. So what we have to do with those guys is, if they’ve earned the right through excelling at their role in the league they’re playing in, we’ve got to get them together and see how they compare. That’s always a little bit of a challenge for us, to sort through that. The college game is different than the CHL game.”
There are often cries of politics and bias when a certain player is left out, but based on my own experience and after the conversation with Taylor, that notion appears patently false. Taylor is a straight shooter, and he expressed just how difficult the cuts were to make this year.
“The thing I can honestly say, even going back to this summer [National Junior Evaluation Camp], I don’t think we’ve had one kid that did not look comfortable at the level of the competition that the camp produced,” he said.
“Nobody played themselves out of consideration until the final cuts were made at this camp. That’s a sign that the depth in our country is really growing and that our scouting process is more and more accurate and has more and more credibility.
“Everybody came in [to the preliminary camp in Alberta] and made a case for himself in terms of his ability to fill a role that we anticipated he could fill. That’s how we ended up with the team we ended up with last night. We got the best working parts we could get given this group of players.”
When selecting a Junior team, there oftentimes will be excellent players left off because they just didn’t fit. Over a career that spans more than 40 years, Taylor has developed a philosophy about how to put a team together.
“I learned a long time ago, if you are putting a team together, you’ve got to get the personality and the character and the skill level of the player you want in your stable and then you adapt that character and skill level,” said Taylor.
“You adapt that player to the role you’re giving him, rather than saying we need a grinder on the fourth line. You might have to take that first line power forward [on his regular team] and say ‘hey, you’re going to be a 3rd line player in this mix, but here’s your role. It’s a huge role on the team, this is what you have to do.'”
Taylor talked about how some players have a certain skill set that works one way for his own club, but will work another way for this national team. He spoke about how a player may not kill penalties for his own team, but has a skill set that would allow that player to excel in a penalty-killing role in a tournament like the World Juniors. Those are the types of things that have to be fleshed out in the evaluation and selection process.
Now it’s time to switch gears and look ahead to the tournament. Taylor spoke about what will will be required of the defense, forwards and goaltenders in order to have success at the World Junior Championship.
Taylor sounded particularly confident in the group of forwards selected for this U.S. squad, but mentioned that everything starts with goaltending for American teams when it comes to international hockey.
“You look at any gold medal the United States has ever won in international hockey, and they all had good goaltending, even going back to the 1960 Olympics when Jack McCartan stole some games,” Taylor said. He also referenced Jim Craig in 1980 and Mike Richter’s 1996 World Cup of Hockey performance.
“You need your goaltending to get hot at the right time.”
Taylor likes the mix Team USA has on the back end.
“I think we’ve got a lot of height and length and I think we’ve got kids that have good positional awareness, good stick position and ability to make a good first pass,” he said. “We have a nice balance of right and left hand shots, guys that can work on the power play and guys that can shut people down and play that role.”
Taylor mentioned that it’ll be up to the coaching staff to take the group they have and mold it into a gold-medal defensive corps, but they have the pieces to do it.
As is the case with any Dean Blais team, speed is of paramount importance. Taylor feels like that’s exactly what the U.S. has in its forward group.
“Speed is a cornerstone of our team. Both on the back end and particularly up front. With the likes of the returning players [Nick Bjugstad, Charlie Coyle, Emerson Etem and Charlie Coyle], those four guys bring us a lot of speed,” said Taylor.
“We’re going to have speed on every line. We want to be a puck-pressuring team. That speed will allow us to do that. Now we can say we have speed, but the kids have to display it every shift. That’s our goal.
“Going back to the [2010 gold-medal] team and the coaching staff there, Dean Blais will emphasize that and demand it. Our speed has to be and I think it will be on display every night and that’s what we need. We use our speed individually and we collectively play the game fast. That’s the way we have to play.”
I asked Taylor to talk about a few of the players selected that perhaps the general public isn’t as aware of, as well as some thought on how Jon Merrill has looked having not been in game action since last April.
Taylor had this to say about Merrill: “He stepped in and did a very good job getting his game legs under him. He played two good, solid exhibition games for us. He’s a pretty special talent, so I’m happy he’s here and I’m happy he’s doing well.”
Austin Czarnik is a player Taylor is very familiar with, having served as an assistant coach at the National Team Development Program during Czarnik’s Under-17 season in Ann Arbor. Taylor also was on the bench as the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team captured the gold medal at the 2010 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. Czarnik’s line with Rocco Grimaldi and Luke Moffatt was Team USA’s most productive at that tournament.
“Austin Czarnik was a terrific player at the NTDP for two years,” said Taylor. “He was maybe in the shadow of some of the higher-profile, bigger, NHL-draft-appealing types that we had there because he was so small. I think he never got the credit he had earned.”
Czarnik was not at the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid last August, but Taylor and Johannson followed up on Czarnik at Miami University a few times and got rave reviews from the RedHawks coaching staff. When Johannson and Taylor saw the diminutive forward play this season, it only confirmed Miami’s reports. That led to Czarnik’s inclusion in camp, and he proceeded to show them they made the right call.
“There was no doubt in our mind that he deserved to be here,” Taylor said of the 5-foot-8, 152-pound forward. “He was dynamic here. He was dynamic in both exhibitions and gutsy. He’s proven he’s a small player that can play big. He knows how to use his body very effectively. One of the cornerstones of our team is going to have to be speed. He is an extremely fast player. He can skate fast and he can play the game fast, which are two different things.”
The play of 17-year-old Jacob Trouba caught many by surprise, including head coach Dean Blais. Taylor was at the 2011 World Under-18 Championship in which Trouba played as an under-ager.
“He played cautiously selected minutes at the U18 Worlds,” Taylor said. “He was not thrown in there on a regular basis, so he got his feet wet, but didn’t play a lot. He was like a young buck that got over-anxious or two aggressive with some of his decisions.”
However, in the last half season, Trouba’s game has really flourished.
“Under the tutelage of [NTDP head coach] Danton Cole and the maturation process that takes place over time, he’s calmed down in his decisions,” said Taylor.
The former Olympic coach called Trouba a man-child, in speaking about the player’s physical maturity.
“He’s a player that the coaches had no real feel for before this thing started, but he’s proven he’s physically one of our strongest and most powerful defensemen,” Taylor explained. “He can’t get knocked off the puck easily, but he can knock other people off the puck. His decision making was just fine here. His defensive and offensive reads were solid. He earned the right [to make the team].”
Josh Archibald was a player most people hadn’t even heard of as a late-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins and forward for Dean Blais’ University of Nebraska Omaha Mavericks. Taylor said that while Blais has a comfort level with Archibald, it wasn’t just that that allowed the Brainerd, Minn., native to get a shot.
“He’s a tough kid and he’s a kid who would willingly accept any role,” said Taylor. “I think he’s a kid that’s come out of nowhere to play well for Coach Blais. He plays with speed and energy, and finishes every check. He’s responsible defensively and aggressive offensively and that’s a nice combination. ”
Taylor has been around these games a long time and has a good feel for what allows teams to win at the international level. He, in concert with Jim Johannson, has helped revolutionize the way the U.S. National Junior Team is selected and his hard work scouting has led to much more accurate decision making by USA Hockey when it comes to selecting their teams.
In the two years Taylor has been on the job for the World Juniors, the United States has won medals in consecutive tournaments for the first time in USA Hockey history. It’s probably not just a coincidence.