In international hockey, with a small margin for error and opponents with elite-level skills, good goaltending and defensive play are paramount. The U.S. boasts what may be the best defensive corps in the tournament, which should in turn help out Team USA’s experienced goaltending tandem.
When it comes to strengths, it’s tough to find any bigger than the defensemen for Team USA. One through seven, all should play a big role for the team, see quality minutes and vastly improve Team USA’s chances at a fourth consecutive U18 gold. There’s a good chance all seven will be NHL Draft picks, three could possibly be first-rounders.
Goaltending is still a bit of a question mark for the USA. With no clear-cut No. 1 guy, both American netminders may see some time in the tournament. Both give the U.S. an experienced international goaltender, but both are quite different in terms of style.
No matter what, the U.S. needs to have all facets clicking. As long as the D plays up to its ability and the goaltending gives the added security it’s supposed to, this team could be tough to score against. That is exactly what needs to happen for what can be a potentially low-scoring U.S. team.
Coming up after the jump, a look at the seven defensemen and two goaltenders for the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team.
Will Butcher — Sun Prairie, Wis. — The lone 1995-born player to crack this D corps, Butcher brings a lot of talent and skill. Though a bit undersized, Butcher is an elite skater with good on-ice vision and strong passing ability. He can jump into plays, provide good support along the offensive blue line and create some offense. Butcher is strong in leading a transition, using his feet to get out of tight situations and creating time and space. He also gets the puck to the net quickly from the point. Having a high-end offensive defenseman, even though Butcher is an under-ager, will go a long way towards generating more scoring chances. NHL Draft eligible in 2013
Connor Carrick — Orland Park, Ill. — Carrick doesn’t boast great size, but he has high-end skating ability and very strong puck skills. He likes to jump up in the rush and get involved offensively, but Carrick can hold his own in the defensive zone. Limiting mistakes that lead to turnovers will have to be a focus for Carrick, but sometimes the risks he takes are well worth taking. He also has good strength and is not afraid of the physical game, whether it be giving or taking a hit. NHL CSS Final Ranking: 124
Matt Grzelcyk — Charlestown, Mass. — Despite limited size, Grzelcyk is anything but limited. With good puck skills, nimble skating and tremendous hockey sense, Grzelcyk can be an offensive asset. He’s not an overly physical player, making more plays with his brain than his body. Good decision-making and crisp passing are standout tools he has in his arsenal. This tournament could open a lot more eyes to what Grzelcyk can do. NHL CSS Final Ranking: 177
Seth Jones — Plano, Texas — Jones has been covered at length on this blog and other hockey publications making it hard to cover new ground. With an unlimited box of tools, Jones is one of the truly elite players in this tournament. A potential top-3 pick in next year’s NHL Entry Draft, Jones, who also serves as one of the team’s co-captains, will be a key player throughout the tournament. His mature game and pro-like decision-making make him tough to play against. A good defensive stick and his big 6-3, 200-pound frame allow him and his teammates a high comfort level when he’s on the ice. NHL Draft eligible in 2013
Patrick Sieloff — Ann Arbor, Mich. — Sieloff plays an exciting brand of hockey, especially for a guy who is more of a stay-at-home defenseman. He is solid on his skates and hits like a freight train carrying Mack trucks. Sieloff will have to be smart about picking his spots to lay the big hit, but when he connects, it’s terrifying. He’s not exactly tall, but he’s as strong as they come. He can do more than hit, but his physical game is the standout attribute to his game and a big reason he’ll likely be a second-round pick this year. NHL CSS Final Ranking: 31
Brady Skjei — Lakeville, Minn. — One of the best pure skaters in his age group, Skjei can do a lot with his feet. He’s also very strong defensively and gets involved in the physical game. While he can be offensive, he shines in his own zone. He also can be a one-man transition when he gets time and space. A player of his skating ability could have a big tournament playing on Olympic-size ice sheets. With that extra room, Skjei should be able to show pretty easily why he is a projected first-round pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. NHL CSS Final Rank: 19
Jacob Trouba — Rochester, Mich. — With a U18 gold and World Junior Championship experience, Trouba will be an invaluable asset for Team USA. A projected top-10 pick for the upcoming NHL Draft, Trouba has size and strength on top of being an excellent skater and possessing a bomb of a shot. He can be a factor in both zones and will usually dominate his opponents in the physical game. Trouba’s experience and his leadership as a co-captain will be very important for the U.S. throughout the tournament. NHL CSS Final Rank: 9
Collin Olson — Apple Valley, Minn. — With tremendous size at 6-3, 199, Olson is also quite athletic. In the always-tough-on-goalies U18 season, Olson put up solid, if unspectacular numbers with a 2.66 goals-against average and .893 save percentage, while posting a 14-10-1-1 (W-L-OTL-T) record this year. If Olson is the guy in goal, his size and athleticism should allow him to make the stops he has to make for Team USA and lead to a successful tournament. NHL CSS Final Goalie Rank: 21
Jared Rutledge — Chicago, Ill. — Though smaller than Olson, Rutledge is sound between the pipes with a more technical, refined style. At 5-11, 170, Rutledge has to do a little more to fill the net out, but the size doesn’t factor in a whole lot. He also has the slightly better numbers of the two goaltenders with 16-7-3-1 record, 2.65 goals-against average, .902 save percentage and three shutouts. If given the chance, Rutledge should be able to get the job done in the tournament as well. NHL CSS Final Goalie Rank: Unranked
If the internet cooperates, you can expect a more general tournament preview Thursday morning. Team USA opens action against Finland Thursday at 8 p.m. (2 p.m. EDT).
You can follow all of the Team USA action live on FASTHockey.com. I’ll be providing play-by-play for all U.S. and Canada games starting Thursday. You won’t want to miss this great peak at some of the best NHL Draft-eligible prospects in the world.