When the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp kicks off in Lake Placid, N.Y., Saturday, 45 players will compete with and against each other in hopes of impressing the onlooking staff. Seventeen of them will be defensemen, which is the group of players Team USA’s brass will have the toughest time cutting down.
This defensive crop is awfully deep, with a good balance of size and differing skill sets. With such a versatile group, head coach Phil Housley should be able to put together a well-rounded D corps for the final roster in Ufa. There is often talk of snubs when creating a camp roster like this, but you’d be hard pressed to find players not in camp much better than those invited. I don’t really think there were any “misses.”
Coming up after the jump, a look at each of the 17 defensemen invited to camp, including what each needs to do to give himself a chance at the final roster.
Here’s how this will go. I’ve got the defensemen broken up by birth year, then the format is as follows:
Name — 2012-13 Team –NHL Draft Rights (Team, Rd., Overall, Year) — Report
So here it goes…
Brian Cooper — Univ. of Nebraska Omaha — ANA, 5th, 127, 2012 — At 5-10, 180, Cooper comes into camp as a bit of an underdog after earning a surprise invite last year. Last season, his third with the USHL’s Fargo Force, was a bit of a question mark for Cooper, who saw a dip in offensive production. He’s not big enough to be a shutdown guy, but he has terrific skating ability and surprising strength for his size. Being reunited with former Force coach Dean Blais at UNO could do wonders for his game. If he’s to make the team, he’ll have to prove he can play a solid two-way game, while playing the body and making good decisions with the puck on his stick.
Shayne Gostisbehere — Union College — PHI, 3rd, 78, 2012 — Gostisbehere was a puck-moving revelation at Union last year as a true freshman. He skates well and has really solid on-ice vision. The big concern here is physical strength as Gostisbehere comes in at 5-11, 160. If he’s going to make the team, he’ll have to show his puck skills are high end and his heady play mitigates the lack of size. He has no international experience, so this camp is of vast importance to his chances of making the final roster.
Garret Haar — Western Michigan Univ. — WSH, 7th, 207, 2011 — Haar is an intriguing addition to the camp. He does a lot of the little things well and has some offensive upside to be considered a potential darkhorse for the final team. With average size and some significant competition in camp, Haar is going to have to find a way to stand out. He had a nice freshman season at Western Michigan and has proven he can move the puck well, play the body and skate. He’ll need to have all three of those skills going at a high clip in camp to put himself in a good position early.
Jake McCabe — Univ. of Wisconsin — BUF, 2nd, 44, 2012 — Coming off a really strong season at Wisconsin which earned him a second-round selection at the NHL Draft, McCabe is riding a wave of momentum. He also has international experience, winning U18 gold in 2011. McCabe’s versatility and physical strength makes him an awfully attractive package, as his offensive tools continue to grow. He has the defensive awareness to be part of a shutdown pair, which is likely what Team USA would need out of him if he were to make the final roster. McCabe will have to prove he can take the body while also keeping top offensive players (particularly in the games vs. SWE and FIN) in check. If he proves he can keep up, he could be in Ufa.
Connor Murphy — Sarnia Sting — PHX, 1st, 20, 2011 — One can only wonder what Connor Murphy would look like if each of his last four seasons weren’t cut short by injury. Despite all of the lost time, Murphy has developed into an elite defensive prospect, which is awfully impressive. Between him and Seth Jones, Team USA has two of the smartest hockey players you could hope for. Meticulous in his positioning and puck pursuit, possession and protection, Murphy, if healthy, could be a leader for this club. In limited action with Sarnia last year, he scored eight goals and 26 points, so he can bring the offense too. All he needs to do is stay healthy and he’s in.
Mike Paliotta — Univ. of Vermont — CHI, 3rd, 70, 2011 — The tremendous leaps Paliotta has made in his development over the last three seasons makes him an interesting option for Team USA. At 6-3, 198, Paliotta offers a big body. He skates well for his size, throws his weight around a little bit and has some good puck-moving abilities. He had a nice freshman year for the Catamounts last season and if he takes another step forward developmentally this year, he’s going to get a long look for the squad. Paliotta will have to prove in camp that his game has rounded out just a bit more than it was last season.
Mike Reilly — Univ. of Minnesota — CBJ, 4th, 98, 2011 — Of all the defensemen in camp, I think I’m most interested in watching Reilly. After the way he absolutely torched the BCHL last year (83 points in 51GP), I think it’s important to see what he looks like away from the powerhouse Penticton Vees. This camp is going to be a jump up in competition, but Reilly just may have the tools to manage it with ease. He’s not overly big at 5-11, 163, but his offensive capabilities should overpower that fact. Reilly has to prove that his offensive output was not simply a product of the BCHL’s competition.
Robbie Russo — Univ. of Notre Dame — NYI, 4th, 95, 2011 — Russo may end up coming into this camp a bit under the radar to those on the outside, but among the USA Hockey brass, he’s a well known commodity. A strong puck-moving defenseman, Russo can QB a power play or trigger the transition. He skates well, has a poise with the puck and patience in all zones. His production was a little underwhelming at Notre Dame last year, but his understanding of the international game could come in handy. If Russo is to make the team, he’ll have to prove his poise and heady plays with the puck are at a high enough level to surpass some of the 1994-born players with similar skills.
Joakim Ryan — Cornell University — SJS, 7th, 198, 2012 — Ryan was one of the surprise additions to the camp, but is a welcome surprise. Having played internationally with Sweden in prior non-IIHF tournaments, the New Jersey-born Dman was barred from competing for the Tre Kronor due to playing all of his amateur hockey in the U.S. Ryan is likely a longshot for this team, but his game has really grown over the last few years. He’s a bit undersized, but has solid puck-moving abilities and grew into a top-four role for Cornell last year. If he’s going to make the team, he has to prove that his hockey sense outweighs his relative lack of size.
Jordan Schmaltz — Univ. of North Dakota — STL, 1st, 25, 2012 — After a roller coaster season, Schmaltz ended it on a high note winning the Clark Cup with the Green Bay Gamblers and earning a first-round selection. Schmaltz is a high-end offensive defenseman, who skates extremely well. He needs a little work in the defensive zone, but those offensive tools are extremely attractive. Schmaltz has a little more rounding out to do as opposed to his competition for a spot, but his skating ability and offensive tools could give him an early inside edge. He’ll have to show his offensive tools are indispensable to make the club, and they just may be.
Andrew Welinski — Univ. of Minnesota Duluth — ANA, 3rd, 83, 2011 — Another Clark Cup champion from the Gamblers, Welinski is probably less of a dark horse for this team than you’d think. He’s a very heady two-way defenseman with a good 6-2, 193-pound frame and was named USHL’s defenseman of the year as well as USA Hockey’s junior player of the year. Welinski’s offensive tools are pretty high end, but they often won’t come at the expense of defense. He was particularly good for the U.S. at the World Junior A Challenge last November, which was his first taste of international competition. As long as he handles the adjustment to college from the USHL well enough, Welinski is going to have a good shot at making this final roster.
Connor Carrick — Plymouth Whalers — WSH, 5th, 137, 2012 — A defenseman with high-end offensive skills, Carrick comes in a little undersized. He has good strength for his frame and pretty good wheels. Coming off a two-goal, four-point performance at the U18 Worlds, Carrick has shown he can produce at the international level. I think he’s probably a long shot for this team, but if he can show his production will translate at this higher level, he’ll keep himself in the mix.
Matt Grzelcyk — Boston University — BOS, 3rd, 85, 2012 — Carrick’s D-partner for most of the 2011-12 season, Grzelcyk thinks the game at a very high level. Like Carrick, he is undersized, but his puck-moving skills are near-elite. Grzelcyk is also good in his own end despite his size deficiency. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes with the puck, which is exactly what he’ll have to show in camp, even though he’s probably a long shot for the final roster. Maturity beyond his years on the ice will be required to have any kind of success.
Seth Jones — Portland Winterhawks — Draft Eligible in 2013 — As the captain of the U.S. National U18 Team at the World U18 Championship, Jones put on a show. He would have been on the WJC team last year as an underager had he not gotten injured in a pre-tournament game. His hockey brain is advanced as I’ve ever seen for a defenseman his age. Though he has shown elite defensive skills, Jones flashed a high-end offensive game at the World U18s with 10 points in seven tilts. His calm, measured game makes him a lock for the final roster as long as he’s healthy.
Patrick Sieloff — Windsor Spitfires — CGY, 2nd, 42, 2012 — This tough-as-nails defenseman brings much needed snarl to this group. Though Sieloff can occasionally go a little overboard in trying to make a hit, he showed great reserve at the World U18 Championship, playing safe defense while not losing the physical edge. He’s a front-runner for a stay-at-home role on this team as long as he has a good first half in Windsor. Sieloff has to show that tough, but smart game in camp to show he belongs on the team at 18.
Brady Skjei — Univ. of Minnesota — NYR, 1st, 28, 2012 — There’s not a better skater among the defensemen in camp and that’s going to be a key tool for this team if Phil Housley wants an up-tempo attack. Skjei does his best work in the defensive zone and can shut down top forwards. His offense is at a decent enough level to be effective at the WJC level, particularly his ability to trigger the defense-to-offense transition. I think they’ll have a tough time keeping Skjei off the final roster no matter what. He has good size, plays smart and will be a weapon on international ice potentially.
Jacob Trouba — Univ. of Michigan — WPG, 1st, 9, 2012 — The lone returning defenseman from last year’s WJC, Trouba showed just how good he can be. He was physically dominant as an under-ager last year and undoubtedly will be again this year. Trouba hits, he can shoot and as long as he cleans up some of the poor decisions in his own end, he’s going to play a ton of minutes for this team. Returnees are usual shoo-ins and Trouba is no different. He should be one of the best defensemen in camp.
Don’t forget, you can catch all of the action in Lake Placid, which begins Aug. 4 and runs to Aug. 11, on FASTHockey.com. The complete broadcast schedule is available here.
Coming up tomorrow on USofH, a look at the 24 forwards that will be participating at the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in two parts.
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