With the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship just over a month 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.
J.T. Miller — Center/Wing
Hometown: East Palestine, Ohio Birthdate: March 14, 1993
Current Team: Connecticut Whale
NHL Rights: New York Rangers (1st Rd., 15th Overall, 2011)
National Team Experience: National Team Development Program (2009-11), U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team (2011 U18 World Championship, gold), U.S. National Junior Team (2012 WJC, 7th place)
Assuming the New York Rangers release J.T. Miller from Connecticut to play in the World Junior Championship, he will be the only returning forward from last year’s squad. Maybe that’s a good thing, seeing as the 2012 outfit put forth one of the worst finishes for a U.S. squad in more than a decade. Even though it might be considered negative experience, that experience is important.
Miller played a somewhat limited role on the 2012 U.S. National Junior team, as the youngest forward, but found himself getting put into bigger situations as the tournament wore on. Miller ended up with two goals and two assists in Team USA’s six games. As last year’s team showed, it can be tough to produce at the WJC, but Miller found away to contribute.
Not only that, but if there’s any sense of sourness from last year, you would have to think that would only fuel Miller for a better result in 2013.
A year older, wiser and stronger, Miller would play a key role for Team USA in 2013, likely as a top-line player. The natural center played on the wing for all of the Junior Evaluation Camp, likely to free up the gifted forward to focus on creating offense and scoring goals. He saw time with Johnny Gaudreau and Alex Galchenyuk, which could be a nice top line if USA chooses to go that route.
More on Miller’s potential role for Team USA and the case for the Rangers granting his release, as well as some updates on other notable candidates after the jump.
As a younger player, Miller played like a bull in a china shop, running around the ice sometimes looking like there was no game plan. That has changed a lot over the last two years and the maturation of J.T. Miller is nearing its completion as he marches toward what might just be a very successful professional career.
Miller is good at both ends, but his ability to make plays in the offensive zone is just what the U.S. will need to have success. The Ohio native skates with power and strength, but has soft hands and terrific vision. He is also an expert at creating time and space using either his body or his feet, or both. He’s the type of guy who can work as either a primary set-up man or the go-to scorer, depending on the situation. You can put him on the power-play, penalty kill, whatever. He can also do things like this...
Perhaps Miller would be able to provide some leadership on this squad based on not only his World Junior experience, but his AHL experience as well. Miller currently has six points (2g-4a) in 14 games with the Whale this season. Not eye-popping numbers, but he’s a 19-year-old in his first full season of professional hockey.
The Rangers have to decide whether or not it’s worth Miller missing repetition at the professional level to play against players his own age. Should Miller be released, he would likely miss nine regular-season games for Connecticut, which currently sits 11th in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.
When it comes to first-round picks like Miller, the investment a team makes is a big one, so no one can blame the Rangers for doing whatever they want with their property. The Rangers will be the ones to decide what they feel is best for Miller’s long-term development.
That said, I think USA Hockey has a good case for why Miller should be released to play in the tournament.
First of all, the World Juniors is really a world-class event, especially this year with so many would-be NHL rookies likely available for competition. The U.S. has both Canada and Russia in its group and would likely play one of Sweden, Finland or the Czech Republic in a cross-over quarterfinal, so there’s some top-quality competition.
On top of that, Miller would play a marquee role for the U.S. He’d see a lot of ice time, probably a lot more than he sees in an average AHL game, would be part of the power-play, possibly the penalty kill and might even wear a letter on his jersey. He may be playing against his peers and will be one of the more physically developed players in the tournament, but there’s some real value in that experience.
That may be worth a brief respite from the pros. Nine games is a lot to miss, but six to seven at the WJC is like giving Miller playoff experience in the middle of the season in terms of pressure and high stakes.
There’s also a track record of success among players that were released from their AHL teams mid-year to take part in the tournament including John Carlson, who became a folk hero in 2010 for some reason or another. Nick Leddy, Kyle Palmieri, Jeremy Morin and Jerry D’Amigo were all AHL players that were released and played large roles for the U.S. bronze medal team in 2011 as well.
If the Rangers feel like it’s better for Miller in the long-term to stay in Connecticut, that’s where he’ll be. If that’s the case, it leaves the U.S. with a gaping hole to fill with very few options to replace a guy who would have been leaned on so heavily.
I’ll be staying on this and trying to find out where Miller stands, but if this is like years past, it could come down to the wire on a final decision.
Other Candidate Notes
Jimmy Vesey — LW — Harvard — If you had a chance to sit down and watch NBC Sports Network Friday, there was a pretty solid hockey game between Harvard and Cornell. You also had a chance to witness just how unfreshman-like Vesey looked.
The Predators prospect had one assist in the contest, which was his team-best eighth point. Vesey now has five goals and three assists on the year. He has good vision and puck skills, to go along with a 6-1, 195-pound frame
Most intriguing to me was how sound Vesey was at both ends of the ice. He continually got the drooly-analysis Pierre McGuire often reserves for Mike Richards, but deservedly so. He showed a commitment to playing in his own end, was good in transition and was able to contribute offensively in a variety of ways.
One of the benefits of the Ivy League schools starting a few weeks after the rest of the country is that it gives guys like Vesey a chance to bulk up. He already looks bigger from the summer evaluation camp, which is a great sign.
Everything happens faster at the WJC and on the big ice, adjusting to the speed is of paramount importance. That’s the only real concern I see with Vesey at this point, but it could be a minor adjustment for a player with his hockey sense. The lack of depth down the left side is starting to make Vesey look less expendable. I won’t call him a lock just yet, but he’s looking like a very likely candidate to fill a left wing role for Team USA.
Mario Lucia — LW — Notre Dame — After looking a little tentative in his first game back from a broken leg Thursday, Lucia came back Friday night and scored his first collegiate goal in helping the Irish complete a road sweep against rival Michigan. The offensive ability is there, and that likely wasn’t going to go away with his injury, but Lucia has precious few weeks to show his legs are strong enough for the World Juniors. Getting the goal is certainly a step in the right direction, though.
USA Hockey hasn’t said when it will announce the preliminary roster for the pre-tournament camp, but going back through my notes, it has typically been named within the first week of December. That means Lucia has essentially two more weeks of hockey to show what he can do. Notre Dame has a huge home series this weekend as it welcomes North Dakota to South Bend. That could be a make-it-or-break-it series for Lucia’s WJC chances as well.
Here’s ideo of Lucia’s goal (1:17), as well as a rocket shot from WJC-lock Jacob Trouba (0:48) and a pair of tallies from potential long-shot candidate Robbie Russo (0:16 and 1:20) can be seen here:
Stefan Noesen — C/W — Plymouth Whalers — A player that is likely to be a key cog for Team USA went down with an apparent ankle sprain recently. According to Plymouth brass, the sprain is not serious and Noesen isn’t expected to miss too many games. The situation is worth monitoring, since ankle sprains can be unpredictable at times. Unfortunately for Noesen, the injury halts a hot streak in November, in which the forward tallied seven goals and 12 points.
Rocco Grimaldi — C — Univ. of North Dakota — Grimaldi’s point production has slowed a little bit since his hot start to the season, but he’s remained a threatening presence for UND. He leads the team with 38 shots on goal, has scored four times and also has three assists. One of those goals came Friday in a 4-4 tie against Minnesota Duluth. It was a good example of Grimaldi’s size working to his advantage. Though he’s 5-6, he’s so difficult to contain and on the goal, Grimaldi was able to squeeze in tight to the net and his quick hands helped him get the puck over the goalie. Earlier in the play, Grimaldi also won a draw clean in the neutral zone. He’s won 51.1 percent of his faceoffs this year and that’s another area where his diminutive stature seems to be an advantage for Grimaldi. He could become an important threat for Team USA no matter where they put him.
I’ll be taking a break from the blog for Thanksgiving, but should be back in the swing of things by Monday. World Junior coverage will continue then with more player spotlights and as much up-to-date info as I can collect on the status of the difficult decisions that lie ahead for USA Hockey in selecting the U.S. National Junior Team. Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving.