While the World Juniors is going to get all of the headlines, another important international event is taking place in Canada this week. The 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge kicks off today in Windsor, Ont. The U.S. National Under-17 Team will look to improve on a second-place finish at last year’s event with a roster primarily made up of players from the National Team Development Program.
The World Under-17 Challenge is a 10-team tournament hosted annually by Hockey Canada. It includes five Canadian regional teams (Pacific, West, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic), the United States and a rotation of four European countries. This year, the tournament includes the Czech Republic, Germany, Russia and Sweden.
Of all the amateur tournaments in international hockey, this one may be the toughest to win overall. It’s seven games in eight days, including an exhibition (which the U.S. won last night, 6-1, over Canada-Atlantic), meaning it’s a grind for a 16-year-old hockey player. From the American perspective, you usually have to beat three or four of the Canadian teams to win the tournament. Then there’s the always strong outfits from Russia and Sweden.
This tournament has great developmental value for all of the players involved. The format is not much different from the World Juniors or World Under-18 Championship, tournaments many of the players at the Challenge will participate in. It’s also a chance for the North American players to see how they measure up against each other.
Lastly, this is a tournament that is a chance for these young prospects to put themselves on the map. This event has been a springboard for recently drafted American prospects like Tyler Biggs, John Gibson, Rocco Grimaldi, Brandon Saad and Jack Campbell. Since this is an event that takes place two, or three years before a player’s draft-eligible season, it is a chance to get noticed and be a guy that scouts keep a close eye on for the next two years.
The tournament is a lot of fun to watch, and this year, FASTHockey is making it available to all viewers for free. The entire tournament will be available on FASTHockey.com, live and on-demand. All you have to do is set up a free account and away you go. If you want to get a glimpse of the future stars of the NHL, this is a great tournament to take a peek at.
Coming up after the jump, a look at Team USA’s roster and who you should be keeping a particularly close eye on over the next week.
The U.S. National Under-17 Team is led by Don Granato, former AHL and USHL head coach. Twenty of the 22 players on the roster play at the National Team Development Program.
This squad, since it’s been together most of the year, has been pretty impressive from the start, having posted six wins in the United States Hockey League so far. It’s an impressive feat for a team full of 16-year-olds. The U.S. also has had international success, going undefeated at the 2011 Under-17 Four Nations Cup in Russia to take first place.
The roster has a lot of high-end prospects that will continue to rise up prospect lists and grab headlines over the next two years.
Here’s a quick scouting report on each of Team USA’s players.
The goaltending and defense should be solid for the U.S., though it’s safe to say the forward lineup is the strength of this team. The goaltending tandem of Hunter Miska and Thatcher Demko should be strong throughout the tournament. The defensive corps has a good mix of skill, despite not being an overly big group. As is the case with most U.S. teams, these guys can skate. They should be able to use their legs to make a lot of plays.
Hunter Miska – G – Miska has only been playing goalie for a few years, but he’s beginning to get the hang of this thing. He was named the U17 Four Nations top goaltender and has posted a 2.46 GAA and .896 save percentage. Pretty solid numbers for a U17 goalie. What he’s accomplished in a few short years playing his position is remarkable. USA Hockey saw something in him and it’s beginning to pay off.
Thatcher Demko – G – Demko is one of the two non-NTDP players on the roster. He was a standout for the U.S. Under-17 Select Team that captured this summer’s Under-17 Five Nations Tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich. He has tremendous size at 6-3, 190 and has a calm demeanor between the pipes.
Gage Ausmus – D – The University of Denver commit has been a steady presence on the back end for the U17s all season long. He’s managed to be a plus player in the USHL this season, which is difficult to do in the U17 year. He also has four assists overall for Team USA.
Will Butcher – D – Butcher is a sleek-skating offensive defenseman. He has great instincts and gets the puck up the ice quickly. He’s also committed to the University of Denver and should be a prized prospect for the Pioneers. With 11 points (4g-7a), he’s Team USA’s top scoring defenseman.
Michael Downing – D – Downing is the other non-NTDP player on the roster, currently skating for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL. He has five assists in 22 games for the USHL’s defending champs. Downing also captained the U.S. Under-17 Select team to the 2011 U17 Five Nations title in August. He has great size and can jump up into the rush for offensive support. A solid player that’s getting better, Downing’s committed to the University of Michigan.
Trevor Hamilton – D – Hamilton is another one of those defenseman for Team USA that can get the job done at both ends of the ice. While he lacks great size, he skates well and can make some plays. He has six points in 20 games this season and is committed to Miami University.
Clint Lewis – D – When I saw this team play in Cedar Rapids in early December, Lewis really stood out. He makes good decisions with the puck, plays the physical game and can shut down opposing forwards. Lewis has yet to make a college commitment, but I have a feeling there are a number of schools after him. At 6-foot-2, he’s also one of Team USA’s bigger defensemen.
Steven Santini – D – The Boston College commit has great size at 6-2, 205, but his skating ability and skill level is what really stands out. He has a good motor and gets up the ice quickly, helping Team USA’s speed in transition. He’s a guy that’s rounding out his game quite nicely too. He has seven points in 22 games this year.
Scott Savage – D – Another BC commit, Savage also possesses a nice skill set. He’s not an overly big guy, but he’s continually improving his game. Coming into the NTDP, he was one of the more widely known 1995-born prospects in the country. He has two goals and three assists in 21 games in 2011-12.
Keaton Thompson – D – Thompson may be one of the best players on this U17 squad. He played part of last season in the USHL at 15 and he plays a very mature game. Thompson has eight points this season including three goals. He’s the definition of an all around defenseman. The North Dakota native is going to stay close to home for school, as he’s committed to the Fighting Sioux (won’t be able to use that name soon).
Team USA’s forward lineup has a lot of speed and offensive firepower. There’s a good mix of big guys and small guys and everything in between. The overall skill level of this group is rather impressive. This is a team that should be able to score a lot of goals at this tournament thanks to its tremendous speed and litany of finishers.
Evan Allen – F – Allen is one of many forwards on this squad with good offensive abilities in all areas of the ice. He’s not the most skilled player of the forward group, but he skates well and gets to the net. The University of Michigan commit has nine points in 21 games.
Connor Chatham – F – Chatham is a big, strong forward that has verbally committed to the University of Denver. He plays a physical game and provides the U.S. with a strong presence in both ends. He has eight points in 22 games this season and should give the U.S. great depth.
J.T. Compher – F – This University of Michigan commit is a plain workhorse. He has a good amount of grit and toughness and just plays the game strong. Because he’s so tough on the puck, the offense has been clicking for him. He is Team USA’s second-leading scorer with 21 points, including 10 goals (third best on the team). He is a player I’d expect big things from at the Challenge.
Dawson Cook – F – Cook is another guy with good size for Team USA. He’s 6-2, 188 and is a guy that will give Team USA that strength in forward depth. Cook is committed to the University of Notre Dame and has posted two assists this season.
Hudson Fasching – F – When Fasching announced that he had committed to Minnesota, there may have been a loud shriek from the Gopher fan base. It even made the local news. This kid might be the most prized prospect of the 1995-birth year because of his great size, his good all-around game and budding skill set. He has 11 points so far this season, but his versatility will be tough to match in this tournament.
John Hayden – F – Hayden is the type of player you don’t notice until he pops a few goals in, but that’s a compliment. He isn’t flashy, but does a good job of going to the net hard and finding that goal-scoring area in front. He has nine points and has notched two game-winning goals this year. Hayden is committed to Yale University.
Tyler Kelleher – F – Despite being 5-6, 147, Kelleher is dynamic. He can absolutely fly and has really excellent puck skills. When he gets the puck on his stick, he makes things happen either with a stunning move or a pass you didn’t think he could make. He’s an exciting player to watch. Kelleher is third on Team USA with 18 points (9g-9a) and is verbally committed to the University of New Hampshire.
Kevin Labanc – F – Labanc may get overshadowed by some of the other forwards on this team, but you simply cannot deny this kid’s puck skills. He’s shifty as all get out and has no trouble dishing the puck off. He’s the type of player that creates room for himself and his teammates by buying time with his skill level. He has 11 assists, tied for most on Team USA. Labanc is committed to the University of Notre Dame.
Anthony Louis – F – Another little guy for Team USA that just plain gets it done. Louis has 13 goals this season, second most on Team USA. He often plays with Kelleher and Fasching, which offers Team USA a consistent scoring line. Louis is listed at 5-6, 130, but his speed and shot negate the size issue. This could be a big opportunity for Louis to show the world what he can do. He’s committed to Miami University.
Michael McCarron – F – You’ll never miss it when McCarron is on the ice. At 6-5, 220, he might be one of the biggest forwards the NTDP has ever seen. Not only is he big, he can move. He also plays to his size, bringing the physical game and parking in front of the net. He’s not in the least bit awkward on his skates and he can contribute offensively. McCarron has 12 points on the year including four goals. The Michigan State University commit is certainly one tough customer.
Tyler Motte – F – With 24 points including 15 goals, Tyler Motte is Team USA’s leading scorer. The stats don’t lie, either. Motte is legitimately elite. He plays the game with speed and quickness and possesses terrific puck skills. He has a deadly shot that would help him score goals at any level. Motte is Team USA’s most consistent threat in every game he plays and Granato can use this forward in just about every situation imaginable. Every coach loves to have a guy like that. Motte is committed to the University of Michigan.
Luke Voltin – F – Despite missing five games earlier in the season, Voltin has been a key contributor to the U.S. attack. The North Dakota commit has 10 points in 17 games so far. At 6-0, 175, he has good size and doesn’t shy away from the physical game. Now that he’s back to health, he should have a nice tournament.
This U.S. club is certainly going to push for the title at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. They have such great depth at the forward position and a good enough skill level on the back end. It’s a tough tournament to win, so the U.S. will have to play consistently and keep the same effort throughout this grind of a tournament.
It all starts tonight against the Czech Republic at 7 p.m. EST in LaSalle, Ont.
Here’s the rest of Team USA’s schedule, and don’t forget, you can catch it all live on FASTHockey.com… for free!
USA vs. Czech Republic – Dec. 29 – 7 p.m. EST
USA vs. Russia – Dec. 30 – 2 p.m.
Canada West vs. USA – Jan. 1 – 7 p.m.
Canada Pacific vs. USA – Jan. 2 – 7 p.m.
Semifinal TBD – Jan. 3 – 2 p.m. or 7 p.m.
Bronze-Medal Game – Jan. 4 – 2 p.m.
Gold-Medal Game – Jan. 4 – 2 p.m.
I’ll be keeping one eye on the World U17 Challenge, while keeping the main focus on the World Juniors, but I’ll provide periodic updates of this most underrated tournament. So stay close to USofH for all of your Team USA news, notes and analysis.