With now less than a month before USA Hockey brings together 27 or so players to its pre-tournament camp in New York City, the picture remains a little fuzzy on which seven players will make up the defense corps for the U.S. National Junior Team.
The battles for roster spots aren’t as wide open as they are at some of the forward positions, but USA Hockey has the challenge of finding the right mix for a medal-contending defense. The good news is, they have a lot of different options, so it won’t be a situation where they’re struggling to find players that are good enough.
Fact is, there are going to be some really talented defensemen left home.
In goal, the battle is for the back-up position and with USA Hockey reportedly thinking they’ll bring three goalies to the pre-tournament camp, it sounds like that battle is still too close to call.
While there is more uncertainty than comfort in what the U.S. has at the forward position, defense and goaltending is likely to be the difference between medal contention and an earlier-than-expected exit.
The pieces are there for this to be a world-class defensive battery.
Coming up after the jump, a look at some of the brewing competitions at both positions.
The U.S. has the luxury of depth among its pool of defenders. On paper, this group has as about as much talent as you could hope for, which is why it’s going to be more about finding the right mix than taking the best players available. A lot of these guys are going to be even on talent. It just comes down to what they can bring, and each has a little something different.
USA Hockey is likely to bring nine defensemen to camp, so the final decisions are likely to come down to the wire.
As of right now, Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba are going to be the guys that you want on the ice a lot. Don’t anticipate them playing together, though.
Jones could quite easily be a 20-25 minute man for this team, but he may not have to be. Jones’s value skyrockets when you play a team like Canada, due to their forechecking style. His poise under pressure and confidence with the puck make him the perfect antidote for that kind of game. He just doesn’t get rattled. Those same skills will matter against every team, but there’s that added benefit of what a player brings against Canada, with the next-door neighbors in the same group.
Trouba is another guy that can give you big minutes and brings the snarl. He’s shown improved offensive capabilities at Michigan this year, averaging just under a point-per-game and posting four goals in his first 10 collegiate contests. He has the World Junior experience and the skill to be a potentially dominant force this year.
The U.S. also has a host of skill players that can create offensively from the defensive position, which is going to be especially important this year with some questions up front.
That’s a big reason I think Shayne Gostisbehere will be a potential top-two pairing defenseman for Team USA. He has poise with the puck and knows how to create. He’s great on the power play and has more than enough hockey sense to be effective in the D zone. He lacks physical strength, but he has that skill and speed to get away with it. Gostisbehere has also played on the big stage before, having been part of Union’s Frozen Four run last season.
Then there’s a big competition I believe the U.S. has an incredibly tough decision to make in. That one is between Minnesota’s Mike Reilly and Boston University’s Matt Grzelcyk. Both have shown flashes of being offensively dynamic.
Reilly gets involved in the offense a lot and can be especially sneaky with high-end puck skills, but he’s struggled a bit at Minnesota, especially in his own end. That’s a bit of a concern. Coming out of the camp in Lake Placid, Reilly looked like a potential top-pairing, power-play defenseman. In several viewings this year, that certainty is dwindling. A big benefit to Reilly is his regularly playing on an Olympic ice sheet. He has good wheels and should know how to use the big ice to his advantage. I don’t think he’s played himself out of the conversation, but he has a tougher battle on his hands than when he started the season.
That opens the door a little wider for Grzelcyk, who also stood out in the summer camp. Based on the play of other guys in camp, I thought Grzelcyk’s age and size might nudge him out of the conversation, but he’s been stellar as a freshman at Boston University. With a goal and nine assists, Grzelcyk is tied for second in scoring for the Terriers. His vision and confidence with the puck are really intriguing. He could potentially exploit the big ice with stretch passes and offers the U.S. a solid power-play contributor.
USA Hockey is going to want some guys that are going to bring that offensive flare, but getting back to defensive defensemen the U.S. has another solid group of players to decide among.
You have to believe Connor Murphy has a pretty good shot at a spot on this roster. He had an OK camp in Lake Placid, but is just another smart, steady guy and he has size. Murphy knows how to play the game effectively. He’s a self-aware player. He knows how to play to his strengths and cover his weaknesses. That’s a sign of a good hockey player. His skating might leave a little to be desired, but he’s so sound in his own end, the U.S. may not be able to leave him behind.
Patrick Sieloff grants Team USA another option and another guy who brings a bad attitude to the ice, and that is a compliment. He’s already delivered a host of devastating checks as a part of the Windsor Spitfires and did it a bunch last year at the NTDP. One thing that stands out about Sieloff is how he somewhat altered his game at the Under-18s last season. He made a bigger commitment to sound defensive play than trying to destroy every guy as he crossed the blue line. That allowed him to be a big part of shutting down opposing forwards, and he never really lost his physical edge in the process, just harnessed it.
Then there’s Brady Skjei, who offers Team USA its best skating defenseman probably. He’s had a few tough moments at Minnesota this year as a freshman, but has size, physicality and explosive speed when he gets going. Those tools are going to be very attractive on the big ice, but he’s not playing the minutes at Minnesota you’d expect from a first-round draft pick. It’s becoming less clear there’s a spot for him on this team, but his physical attributes keep him in the hunt.
Conversely, Jake McCabe is logging big minutes in a top-four role at Wisconsin and he’s getting the job done at both ends of the ice. He has good enough puck-moving ability, the mobility to play on the big ice and the strength to make things difficult for opposing forwards. He had a decent camp in August, nothing eye-popping, but he proved he can play at that high level. He’s looking more and more like he’d make a great sixth or seventh D and play effective minutes. McCabe can be a little mistake prone, but I think he brings certain elements that make him more attractive than other candidates. He can also do something like this every once in a while, too, which is nice.
There’s another group of guys that are firmly in the hunt as well, including sound two-way guys Garrett Haar of Western Michigan and Andy Welinski of Minnesota Duluth.
Haar and Welinski are similarly-sized, similarly skilled guys that have looked good this season. Welinski is a 19-year-old freshman at Minnesota Duluth and has been a top-pairing guy for the Bulldogs, which gives him some valuable experience. Haar has an extra year of college under his belt and is a top-four guy for a very stingy defensive team. Both have a bit of an up-hill battle to climb, especially if McCabe ends up as either of their head-to-head competition. One of these two look like a good option to bring into camp at least.
North Dakota’s Jordan Schmaltz and Cornell’s Joakim Ryan are likely to get a few extra looks as well as good puck-movers, but I don’t believe either will be there when the camp is decided. As good as both are from a skill standpoint, neither was very strong in the August camp (both got sent home early) and stylistically, they don’t seem to be a real clear fit when looking at what the other players bring to the table. That said, with the competition still fairly open, there’s a chance one of these two can earn a spot to battle in camp should anyone else falter.
The goaltending competition is confined mainly to the backup role. USA Hockey plans to bring three goalies in camp, and there’s little doubt that in addition to John Gibson, it will be Providence’s Jon Gillies and Guelph’s Garret Sparks going to New York City.
Gibson will be the starter, barring something unforeseen. He’ll be a good one, too, as he’s been mostly dominant at the OHL level this year. Gibson was in net for the game that got away from the U.S. against Finland in the prelims last year, that essentially started the downward spiral to a seventh-place finish. I think that one might have been a learning experience for Gibson as it appeared he got away from what makes him effective a little bit.
When as his best, Gibson is one of the better goaltending prospects in hockey. His calm demeanor between the pipes, immense net coverage and sneaky athleticism should make him tough to beat.
If he’s his normal self, he’ll be the key to Team USA’s success as he has the ability to take over games. He will play every important minute for the U.S. in this tournament and against such a stacked field, he could be the difference between medal or no medal.
The competition for No. 2 is really interesting. With USA Hockey likely bringing in three goalies, it could come down to which of the two performs better over the three days in the pre-tournament camp in New York.
Jon Gillies has been mostly terrific in his freshman season at Providence. He’s played all but one period for the Friars, and has registered a 5-4-1 record, 2.05 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. He’s also a 1994-born player, which means he’s eligible for the next World Juniors and with a relatively shallow goaltending crop among American 1994 and 1995-borns, the U.S. is likely to need him in 2014. Getting that WJC experience is important, especially when Gibson is the clear guy and the No. 2 goalie might just be along for the ride.
While experience is good, there’s something to be said for veteran poise. That’s what Garret Sparks brings to the table. His general numbers are only OK with a 3.16 goals-against average and .912 save percentage, but he seems to be better under pressure. Sparks has seen an average of 33 shots per game, so he’s been put to work. The more shots the better for Sparks, who is 5-1-1 when seeing 40 or more shots in a game. That’s a good sign for his confidence and poise between the pipes. There is no bigger pressure cooker than the World Junior Championship, so what he’s done so far certainly counts. If USA Hockey has any doubt Gillies would be ready if he needed to be called upon, Sparks likely claims the job.
Anthony Stolarz was the other goalie in the August camp, but he’s been less-than-stellar in limited action at Nebraska Omaha. He’s a raw talent and has a lot of development ahead of him. He’s not ready for this level just yet.
Ohio State freshman Collin Olson — who was not invited to the camp in August, but was the best goaltender at the World Under-18 Championship last spring — could get an extended look, as he has been solid in his first five appearances at the collegiate level. He’s also a 1994-born goalie and would be a likely candidate for next year’s club. Olson has posted a 2.37 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in 300 minutes of action. The downside is that he may not have enough reps before the pre-tournament camp. That makes it much more realistic that USA Hockey will come into camp with Gibson, Gillies and Sparks.
The U.S. can be happy with the depth it has to choose from for these positions, but the choices will be tough. It’s hard to know what mix is going to work best, but there is certainly enough variety among the candidates to go in any direction they choose.
Coming into the home stretch of World Junior prep, pre-tournament coverage will only be ramping up even more as the picture begins to clear for who’s in and who’s out. Be sure the stay close to United States of Hockey all the way through the World Junior Championship for the most comprehensive Team USA news, notes and analysis.