With the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship now less than two months away, United States of Hockey will be spotlighting candidates a few times per week, in addition to tracking other WJC-related news all the way up to USA Hockey’s pre-tournament camp.
Alex Galchenyuk — Center
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wis. Birthdate: Feb. 12, 1994
Current Team: Sarnia Sting
NHL Rights: Montreal Canadiens (1st Rd., 3rd overall, 2012)
National Team Experience: U.S. Under-18 Select Team (2011 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka)
There was much confusion last year. Was Alex Galchenyuk Russian or American? By virtue of being born in Milwaukee, Galchenyuk is American. At least in the eyes of the United States government. If you’re still confused, read this.
Assuming there are no hang-ups (and there isn’t expected to be) with the International Ice Hockey Federation and their sometimes confusing eligibility rules, USA Hockey will have a legit No. 1 center in Galchenyuk.
His on-ice skill is hard to match, especially among this American forward pool.
There haven’t been a ton of game-changing players on U.S. national teams. U.S. teams have had players step up, but never in a way that was wholly dominant, not even in the gold-medal years of 2004 and 2010. I don’t know that Galchenyuk, as an 18-year-old can be that dominant force, but he certainly has the potential to be.
He should have some good wings to play with, which is great for a player that has Galchenyuk’s distribution skills and he should have room to create. As long as Galchenyuk performs up to his ability, the U.S. has one of the more dynamic talents it’s ever had at this tournament.
It will require a lot more than one player to take down the tough competition U.S. is bound to face in Ufa, but there’s something to be said about having a player the coach feels comfortable throwing out on the ice in late-game or need-to-score situations. That’s what Alex Galchenyuk can potentially bring to the table.
Galchenyuk currently has 32 points in his first 20 games with Sarnia this season, including 13 goals. He’s shown no ill-effects coming off of his severe knee injury last season and clearly hasn’t lost the touch.
The jump from a regular-season game in the OHL to the World Juniors is larger than you might think, but there’s reason to believe Galchenyuk could come close to matching his in-season production rate in Ufa. He certainly has the talent.
That said, U.S. fans can’t put too much pressure on an 18-year-old kid who hasn’t played at this level before. He had a lukewarm Ivan Hlinka and probably wasn’t quite game ready during a solid, if unspectacular, performance at the National Junior Evaluation Camp.
Yes, he’s the third-overall pick in the draft and one of the more dynamic talents not in the NHL, but he’s still 18. The World Juniors is a meat-grinder when it comes to competition and is only amplified by the amount of pressure these kids put on themselves to perform well and above all, win.
Galchenyuk is no stranger to expectations and hype, so he may be able to handle the mental grind that is the WJC better than most. If USA Hockey hopes to shake off its embarrassing finish from last year, it will need him to.
Catching Up With Other Top Candidates
John Gibson — G — Kitchener Rangers — There’s no question Gibson is on the team, but it’s important to mention just how well he has played for the Kitchener Rangers this year. The OHL’s No. 1 goalie has a stunning 1.89 goals-against average and .941 save percentage, both league bests, to go along with an 11-3-0 record. Gibson has won eight of his last nine starts and really has had only one clunker of a game this season. I’m sure USA Hockey would love it if he’s able to ride a hot streak right into and through the World Juniors.
Johnny Gaudreau — F — Boston College — Another lock for the final roster, Gaudreau is coming off a three-goal weekend against a pair of tough opponents. He’s had at least one point in each of BC’s nine games and leads the Eagles with 12. Gaudreau lined up quite often with Galchenyuk in camp and in all likelihood, the duo would make a formidable top line with a burly right winger like a J.T. Miller or Stefan Noesen.
Jacob Trouba — D — University of Michigan — Trouba plays on the edge, no question. He’s going to go for the hit and worry about the consequences later. He’s already been suspended once after an apparent head shot earned him a game disqualification. He might have to be a little more careful at the WJC, but the fact is, U.S. teams need guys that are going to assert themselves physically. Trouba did it better than anybody last year as an underager at the WJC and will have to do it again in a much larger role this year. The IIHF does have a pretty strict supplementary disciplinarian though, so he’ll have to make sure the hits are clean. Here’s the hit that got him suspended:
Seth Jones — D — Portland Winterhawks — The top prospect has been as good as advertised in his first WHL season in helping Portland to the best record in the league. Jones has done his part defensively, but his offensive game has really come around as well. The big defenseman has 14 points, including six goals in 19 games and is a plus-14. Jones should be able to contribute at both ends of the ice, but expect him to primarily match-up against opponent’s top lines in a defense-first role.
Vince Trocheck — F — Saginaw Spirit — Along with Galchenyuk, Trocheck ranks in the top 10 of OHL scoring with 31 points. He’s in the middle of a six-game point streak and already has 11 points in the month of November. His performance this season is an extension of what he was showing at the Junior camp as well. His quick-strike scoring ability makes him an attractive center option.
Stefan Noesen — F — Plymouth Whalers — Noesen is currently producing at a rate fairly below his career norms in the OHL, but has recently showed signs of it picking up. With 12 goals and 18 points in 19 games it’s not exactly like he’s slumping anyway. In his last five games, Noesen has five goals. He could be that big body winger that sees time with a guy like Galchenyuk. Gaudreau-Galchenyuk-Noesen was a line the U.S. tinkered with, until Noesen showed chemistry with Sean Kuraly and Mario Lucia. Based on his play at the summer camp and his goal rate this season, Noesen still looks good for a top-six role.
Sean Kuraly — F — Miami University — There might be a little cause for concern after Kuraly’s slow start to his college season. There’s typically an adjustment for freshmen, but Kuraly’s size and skill set should help ease that transition. Also, he’s a 19-year-old freshman, so there’s reason to expect a little bit more. Both of Kuraly’s goals have come on the power play as well. He was the best forward in the U.S. Evaluation Camp in August, which affords him the benefit of the doubt, but without an uptick in production, he might end up battling for a spot down the stretch.
Connor Murphy — D — Sarnia Sting — The best news when it comes to Murphy is that he’s been healthy all year. Having played in all but one of Sarnia’s games this year, Murphy has been a sound shut-down defenseman in helping the Sting to a division-leading 12-7 record. His defensive smarts make him reliable and possibly the best defenseman among the 1993-born candidates for the Junior team. He could be a real leader for this group.
Rocco Grimaldi — F — University of North Dakota — Grimaldi’s point production slowed last week, but he still has six points in eight games and more importantly looks great. Coming off that bad knee injury, Grimaldi continues to show elite speed and has been an offensive threat in just about every game. He’s also looked better in the defensive zone, which could allow him to more adequately fill a center role if need be. The way he’s played so far makes him look more like a lock for the final roster.
J.T. Miller — F — Connecticut Whale — Miller has six points in 12 games in the AHL this year including a pair of goals. While they’re not earth-shattering numbers, the experience and competition he’s getting right now more than makes up for it. It might do Miller some good to get back into games against his peers and have a chance to play more of a featured role.
– It appears Mario Lucia is nearing his return to the Notre Dame lineup after an off-season broken leg. He doesn’t have much time to prove he’s ready for the competition, but there’s no real need for him to rush back after a serious injury. A healthy Lucia would certainly help solve some of the depth problems down the left side.
– After his impressive performance at the World Junior A Challenge, it might be worth USA Hockey taking a look at Vince Hinostroza. A player hasn’t made the U.S. Naitonal Junior Team out of the USHL since 2009 when Danny Kristo made the jump from the Omaha Lancers. Hinostroza had eight points including six goals and was simply dominant at that tournament in a way I haven’t seen since following the event. It’s a long, long shot, but Hinostroza has the capability to play a high-energy role. The gap between the World Juniors and the World Junior A Challenge is gigantic, but Hinostroza’s dominance suggests he might be ready for this type of tournament.
– Defending WJC champion Sweden won a U20 Four Nations tournament last week, with many of its top candidates for its WJC entry for this season. Sweden went undefeated in games against the Czech Republic, Finland and Russia. This tournament is a terrific tuneup for Sweden and Finland in particular, which each got valuable game experience as teams heading into the WJC. Both are in Group A in Ufa and could be potential cross-over opponents for the U.S. in the playoff round.