As hard as it may be to believe, what with the distraction of a lockout and our hockey body clocks completely out of whack, the World Junior Championship is just over two months away. Two months until the best hockey tournament this side of the Olympics. Can you feel it? CAN YOU!?
OK, well maybe you can’t just yet, but the WJC is coming up real quick and as a result, today marks the beginning of extensive lead-up coverage for the tournament and the U.S. National Junior Team.
While the NHL is dormant, junior leagues have been up and going for over a month, college teams are about to enter their third week of competition and the USA Hockey scouts have been out in full force.
With the National Junior Evaluation Camp shrinking in the distance, players are going to have to rely a lot more on what they’re doing right now to earn a spot on the U.S. National Junior Team. The performances from August will not be forgotten, but without a strong follow up in the first half of the season, it can leave a player on the sidelines.
Competition remains wide open for a lot of positions, and every game will count for a lot of these players.
With that in mind, the U.S. World Junior Watch will be closely tracking the top candidates for Team USA from here on out.
Coming up after the jump, a look at the few locks for Team USA, those likely to make the final roster at this point and those in the hunt, but on the bubble, as well as what my U.S. roster would look like if the tournament started tomorrow.
The Locks (95-100% Chance to make team)
John Gibson — G — Kitchener Rangers — Returning from last season and putting in a strong performance in the OHL already, with a 6-2-0 record, 2.37 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. There’s no goalie within a mile of Gibson right now, nor has there been since summer.
Jacob Trouba — D — Univ. of Michigan — Another returnee, Trouba has already endeared himself to the Wolverine faithful with his physical play and rocket shot. He has two goals on the young season and has been logging a lot of ice time, helping soften the blow of Michigan losing Jon Merrill for six weeks. He’s on the team and he’ll be playing a lot.
Seth Jones — D — Portland Winterhawks — He would have been a returnee if he didn’t get hurt in a pre-tournament game. Jones is a lock to match-up against opponents top lines. He has good offensive instincts, posting six points in 11 games so far, but his defensive capabilities are elite. Team USA’s strength will be its defense and it centers around Jones.
J.T. Miller — C/W — Connecticut Whale — Playing in the AHL will only help Miller, the third and final returnee from last year’s squad. With three assists in his first four games this year, he’s looking like he belongs. His play-making ability has grown over the last two years and he looks like a lock for a top-six role.
Alex Galchenyuk — C — Sarnia Sting — Though he had a lukewarm camp in August, Galchenyuk is beginning to heat up after a slow start in Sarnia. He has five goals and 10 assists, to rank within the top-20 in the OHL. The U.S. just doesn’t have a lot of players with his skillset and he’ll need to be a key contributor if the U.S. is to have success.
Johnny Gaudreau — LW — Boston College — The small, but dynamic forward already has five points through the first three games for BC. He has championship pedigree as both a USHL and NCAA champ and unrivaled puck skills among his peers. His ability to create offense is why he gets a spot.
Tyler Biggs — RW — Oshawa Generals — Biggs is already making his presence felt in his first OHL season with 11 points in 13 games. The toughness factor cannot be understated, as the U.S. has proven when it lacks grit, it lacks wins. In the same preliminary round group as Canada, the U.S. can’t afford to be out-muscled. Biggs plays a style that can set the physical tone of games and has enough offensive pop to contribute a few points.
Vincent Trocheck — C — Saginaw Spirit — Currently tied for the OHL lead with 20 points, it’d be hard to see Trocheck getting left home. He’s a good center at both ends of the ice and has that offensive pop the U.S. is going to need in an incredibly tough field. As long as he doesn’t falter, Trocheck is well positioned for a final spot.
Stefan Noesen — LW — Plymouth Whalers — After a strong camp in August, Noesen already has seven goals in 11 games for Plymouth. His mix of size, speed and scoring touch make him the prototypical U.S. forward for an event like this.
Likely (75-94% Chance)
Brady Skjei — D — Univ. of Minnesota — The competition for positions on the U.S. defense is very much on. Skjei’s ability at both ends as well as his skating ability look to make him a highly likely inclusion, closer to the 90 percent range.
Sean Kuraly — C — Miami Univ. — The best forward in Team USA’s August camp, Kuraly has the speed and strength that could make him a top-two center on this team. He’s been held off the score sheet in his first four college games, which is only a moderate concern as he makes the adjustment. However, if such a slump continues, it won’t go unnoticed. His strong performance from the NJEC keeps him at 90 percent.
Connor Murphy — D — Sarnia Sting — Size and smarts make Murphy a likely candidate for inclusion. He’s stayed healthy so far this year, which hasn’t been easy for the big man. He plays such a mature, poised game, he’ll be hard to leave off the final roster. I’d put him around 85 percent.
Mike Reilly — D — Univ. of Minnesota — His ability to create offensively from the blue line makes him look indispensable, but there are concerns about his ability to defend at this high a level. Despite those concerns, I don’t see him being left off. He can get the puck up to those highly skilled forwards with relative ease and is a terrific player in transition. I think he’s at an 85 percent chance.
Rocco Grimaldi — C/W — Univ. of North Dakota — Coming off an injury that kept him out almost all of last season, Grimaldi has shown no ill effects. The speed is still there, as are the elite puck skills. His size is a non-issue thanks to his tenacious play and physical strength. He can play at center or wing and should produce no matter who he plays with. Grimaldi’s looking like an 80 percent.
Shayne Gostisbehere — D — Union College — In a standout performance in camp, Gostisbehere showed keen offensive abilities and strong skating. He has two goals (both in the same game) already in this short season and has the skills to contribute at both ends of the ice in Ufa. Due to the uncertainty of the positional battle that will be ongoing among defensemen, I’m putting Gostisbehere at 80 percent.
Blake Pietila — LW — Michigan Tech Univ. — A front-runner for a role on the fourth line, Pietila has brought the offense this year, too. He has four goals and five points to lead the Huskies, which upset No. 1 Minnesota last Friday. He has the ability to go to the dirty areas of the ice, win board battles and get involved defensively. That on-ice work ethic lends itself well to a role he’s likely to have to fill. Enough for me to give him an 75 percent likelihood.
In The Mix (50-74% Chance)
Jake McCabe — D — Univ. of Wisconsin — I think McCabe is the front-runner for the seventh defenseman spot. He’s a top-pairing Dman at Wisconsin and is very strong defensively, with just enough offensive skill to move the puck well and help in transition. The fact that he’s going to be logging a lot of minutes and face opponent’s top offensive units this season leads me to believe he’s got the best chance at 70 percent.
Ryan Hartman — RW — Plymouth Whalers — Hartman has solid puck skills and plays a hard-nosed style on the ice. He’s a good skater and while he has underwhelmed some scouts I talked to just a little bit in his draft-eligible season, with three goals and five assists through 11 games, he has some value in his versatility. You can throw Hartman in a top-nine role, or you can stash him on the fourth line and let him bang and crash. Either way, you’ve got a guy that can contrinute in some way. I’ve got Hartman at 70 percent.
J.T. Compher — F — U.S. National U18 Team — USA Hockey often includes at least one 17-year-old on their roster and as of right now I think Compher is the only one with an honest shot. I like his chances of making the 13th forward spot for Team USA, spotting in at center and earning time on the wing. His versatility, tenacity and scoring ability give him an edge over some of the other players that were in camp. The only real thing going against him is his youth, which is why I’ll give him a conservative 65 percent chance of earning a roster spot.
Garrett Haar — D — Western Michigan Univ. — I think McCabe’s toughest competition could end up coming from Haar. He has been contributing offensively on WMU’s really strong blue line and is solid defensively. The D is going to be so tough to crack, but I think Haar is going to give it an honest run. I’ll give him a 55 percent shot at knocking off one of the defensemen previously mentioned.
Jimmy Vesey — LW — Harvard Univ. — Injury to Mario Lucia and the suspension to Nic Kerdiles opens up a big opportunity for the highly-skilled Vesey to earn a role on one of the top three lines for Team USA. Harvard has yet to play a regular-season game, but Vesey did score in its lone exhibition. Vesey doesn’t have any international experience, but if he shows that keen scoring touch these next few weeks at Harvard, he’s got a 55 percent shot at making the team.
Garret Sparks — G — Guelph Storm — As long as John Gibson is healthy, he’s going to play every game, but Sparks is looking more and more like the best candidate to back him up. As Guelph’s starter, he hasn’t put up great numbers, but the inexperience among the rest of the field could help Sparks grab this role. He has a 3.40 goals-against average and .904 save percentage. I think it’s enough to give him a 50 percent likelihood of making the final roster.
Jon Gillies — G — Providence College — Despite Sparks being the more experienced, Gillies has made a strong impression through his first four college games. Considering Providence’s competition this year, his 2.11 goals-against average and .924 save percentage through four starts is notable. Gillies also has a benefit of being a 1994-born player and with Gibson a lock to grab the starting spot, it may behoove USA Hockey to try and get a younger guy some valuable experience. It just comes down to consistency and poise for Gillies, which is why he’s at 50 percent.
Patrick Sieloff — D — Windsor Spitfires — Bone-jarring hits, defensive responsibility and relative steadiness will keep Sieloff in the hunt for that seventh defense spot. He has that element of toughness that will be unmatched by any of his competitors. I’m not convinced that’s enough to get him a spot this year, though I expect him to be a huge contributor in 2014. Still granting him a 50-50 shot he’ll steal a spot.
Brady Vail — C — Windsor Spitfires — A surprise omission from the Junior Evaluation Camp, Vail has been on fire to start the OHL season. He has 10 assists and 16 points through 13 games. While his offensive production is impressive, it’s his defensive abilities that make him a candidate to earn a spot on this team. The production is an added bonus. Vail looks like he could be an ideal candidate as a shutdown center, having gone head-to-head with some of the OHL’s best over the last two years. I’d expect Vail to earn an invite to the pre-tournament camp either way. A lack of familiarity with him internationally makes me believe he’s got a 50 percent shot to knock off a guy like Steven Fogarty and earn a spot.
On The Bubble
Nic Kerdiles — W/C — Univ. of Wisconsin — Kerdiles won’t be playing in any games for four more weeks, which loses him some significant evaluation time for the WJC. Good news for him is that he’s a known commodity to USA Hockey with his time at the NTDP. He was a top performer at the World U18 Championship and had a strong camp in August. He’ll get about two or three weeks before the camp roster will be finalized to calm concerns of rust. I think he’ll be in camp either way thanks to his proven versatility and would put his chances very conservatively at 45 percent.
Steven Fogarty — C — Univ. of Notre Dame — Fogarty has been adequate at Notre Dame, but in several viewings I’m unsure he can play at the level necessary to be a strong two-way center for Team USA. He’s right on the cusp, but with the emergence of Brady Vail as a legitimate candidate, Fogarty looks a little more expendable. That said, there’s a lot of games between now and then for Fogarty to adjust. His size and skill keep him an attractive option and I’d expect him to still earn an invite to pre-tournament camp. I’m dropping him to a 45 percent chance, which is still pretty good considering the slow start.
Stefan Matteau — RW — Blainville-Boisbriand Armada — He has four goals and four assists in 12 games, but he’s also collected two suspensions and most recently even his team gave him an extra game for an egregious check-from-behind. There’s always been a bit of a loose-cannon quality to Matteau’s game. He has terrific size and strength and there’s not a lot of depth on the wing for Team USA, which is why he’ll remain firmly in the mix, but he’s far from a lock. Penalties and/or suspensions can be devastating at the WJC, and that concern leaves Matteau at risk of being kept off the roster. He’s at 40 percent for me.
Mario Lucia — LW — Univ. of Notre Dame — A seriously broken leg in a preseason practice takes Lucia from likely to somewhere between possible and doubtful. He’s a highly skilled left winger and while he’s apparently ahead of schedule in his recovery, this is the type of injury that isn’t easy to jump back in and play at a high enough level. The World Junior pace is going to be faster than anything Lucia’s ever played at and a leg injury like his leaves concern he’ll be able to keep up. I’m putting his odds at 20 percent for now.
Keep an Eye On…
Travis Boyd — C — Univ. of Minnesota — I don’t know if Boyd has enough of what this team needs to earn a final spot, but he’s already collected four points in his first four games with Minnesota. He’s a gifted penalty killer and overall smart player with some skill. He’s a guy to watch.
Matt Grzelcyk — D — Boston Univ. — A victim of a pair of older guys that play a similar style, Grzelcyk should garner consideration for his high-end puck-moving ability and poise under pressure. He’s looked solid at BU so far and belongs in the competition for D, but I don’t know if it’s his year.
Andy Welinski — D — Univ. of Minnesota Duluth — A top-four defenseman as a freshman, Welinski is another guy that should get considerable looks in this logjam at defense. He already has a goal this year and could be looked to for his two-way capabilities. Just not ready to put him over the other guys listed.
Alex Broadhurst — C — London Knights — A point-per-game player with London, Broadhurst is handling himself quite well on one of the best teams in junior hockey. He was cut from camp in August, but this quick start could give him a chance. There might be a need for a guy with his skills at wing, not center, since he has a fairly long line in front of him at that position.
Henrik Samuelsson — C — Edmonton Oil Kings — Another guy with a long line ahead of him at center, Samuelsson could be a candidate to fill a spot on the wing. He was also cut from summer camp, but has put up 14 points in 13 games in the WHL. His strength and toughness are nice features that will keep eyeballs on him.
If The WJC Started Tomorrow
Here’s what my U.S. WJC roster would look like if the tournament started tomorrow, as well as who I think should be invited to camp.
Gaudreau – Galchenyuk – Miller
Grimaldi – Trocheck – Noesen
Kerdiles – Kuraly – Biggs
Pietila – Vail – Hartman
In camp: Vesey, Fogarty, Lucia, Matteau
Reilly – Jones
Skjei – Trouba
Gostisbehere – Murphy
In Camp: Haar, Welinski, Sieloff
In Camp: Gillies
The World Junior Watch won’t be this in-depth every week, but there will be plenty of coverage of the lead-up to what should be an exciting tournament. Stay with United States of Hockey all the way through the tournament for the most comprehensive Team USA coverage.
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Jordan Schmaltz not even one to keep an eye on? First pairing defenseman for UND, 2 points in 2 games so far. He is much better defensively than I anticipated.
Samuelsson would be a great fit for a bottom six role. He sees a lot of PK time in Edmonton and is normally on the ice for defensive zone faceoffs. That and he’s not far removed from having a regular shift on international sized ice which could be a huge advantage this year.
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No Adam Erne in the mix? I’d pick him over Compher as the underager in a heartbeat. 27 points in 17 games as a 17 year old in the Q? Not too far off his competition, Nathan Mackinnon, who will likely be on Canada’s roster this year. It’d be silly if USA Hockey didn’t give this kid a serious look.