Even before USA Hockey announced its 27-player preliminary roster, the defense was always going to be this team’s key strength on top of what should be a solid goaltending trio.
USA Hockey named nine defensemen to the camp roster, while it will also bring three goaltenders. Due to new roster rules within the IIHF, each team can bring three goalies so John Gibson, Garret Sparks and Jon Gillies are going to be your three netminders.
Team USA will need to get down to seven defenseman as it plans to have 13 forwards. That is going to make for some seriously tough decisions in camp as any of the nine brought in could conceivably contribute at the World Junior level.
The U.S. will open camp on Dec. 16 and spend three days in New York before traveling to Helsinki, Finland, for the remainder of the camp. Team USA GM Jim Johannson is still unsure if they will make cuts before leaving New York, but it is possible. USA Hockey expects to announce the final roster Dec. 23.
After reviewing the forwards earlier, it’s time for an in-depth look at the nine defensemen and three goaltenders participating at USA’s pre-tournament camp including which players might be battling each other for spots. All of that after the jump.
The U.S. defense group was devoid of any real surprises mainly because they had no less than 12-13 players that could be considered viable options. That depth gives Team USA some leeway with its final selection, especially with the diverse skill sets among the nine invited.
The U.S. medal hopes will rest significantly upon the big shoulders of John Gibson and this deep D corps. The U.S. is certainly not going to be blowing a lot of teams out in this tournament, so tough D and goaltending will have to help keep things close.
Despite the lack of tremendous scoring depth at forward, the U.S. has great mobility among the defensemen, which should help supplement the offense. Each guy on the preliminary roster each has some scoring know how, led by more offensive-minded guys like Shayne Gostisbehere, Matt Grzelcyk and Mike Reilly. Jake McCabe, Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones each have good offensive tools with more emphasis on D, while Connor Murphy, Patrick Sieloff and Brady Skjei are more defensive defensemen types.
The net should belong to Gibson, while Garret Sparks may get a shot to spell him for at least a game. I think Jon Gillies will end up as No. 3. He’ll have the experience for next season and has expressed a willingness to fill whatever role the team needs him to.
Any tournament the U.S. has ever had success in, it required excellent performances from the goaltenders. That doesn’t change a bit here.
Here’s a look at all three netminders and nine defensemen in alphabetical order.
John Gibson — Kitchener Rangers — He has World Junior experience, he has size and more than anything he has the mentality that works in these types of tournaments. Having been around Gibson during his NTDP days, the big goaltender is on an even-keel throughout a game regardless of situation. He had a gaffe in last year’s World Juniors, taking a penalty in the game against Finland that led to a power-play goal and an unraveling, but that was pretty uncharacteristic. Either way, if you look solely at his ability, he’s the clear No. 1 in this group. With a 2.20 goals-against average and .932 save percentage, he’s been one of the top goaltenders in the OHL and he has a pair of international titles to his name including the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and World Under-18 Championship. That track record of success is a plus. His inclusion does not come without concern, however. Gibson sustained a strained hip flexor last week and that can be a tricky injury. Johannson said they are not presently concerned about his availability for the tournament and that Gibson should be good to go. If he’s 100 percent, expect him to take the bulk of the minutes in net. He really could be the key to Team USA’s medal hopes. Anaheim Ducks
Jon Gillies — Providence — The 6-5, 230-pound freshman has some terrific tools and technical skills. He has played all but 20 minutes of the Friars’ season as a true freshman, which is no small feat in Hockey East, but it gets better. He has a 1.88 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in the face of his teams’ 7-6-1 record. In the games they’ve lost, it hasn’t been because of the big goalie. Gillies is still young and finding confidence in the repetition at Providence. As much as I think he could play right now, I have Sparks ahead of him on the depth chart. Gillies has limited international experience so his attendance at this tournament is important for next year. He’s probably the No. 1 guy in his age group right now and will be a likely guy to be in net next year. Gillies should provide some great competition for both Sparks and Gibson in camp at the very least and if called upon, his terrific season to date shows he’ll be ready. Calgary Flames
Garret Sparks — Guelph Storm — In his last year of eligibility for the tournament, Sparks caught a good break. He’s the right guy at the right time for the tournament. Though he likely gets stashed in the No. 2 role, he gives the U.S. a solid alternate option if need be. He was good at the National Junior Evaluation Camp in August and has come up big time and time again for Guelph this season. His 2.91 save percentage and .919 save percentage make him one of the top 10 goalies in the OHL. He has good size and athleticism and has seen a lot of rubber already this season. Sparks has limited international experience, so there’s not much of a track record beyond what he’s done in the OHL, but the Illinois native completes a nice battery for Team USA. Toronto Maple Leafs
Shayne Gostisbehere — LD — Union — A revelation as a true freshman last season at Union, Gostisbehere only continued to impress this summer in Lake Placid. He really came out of nowhere to get drafted, but continually reenforces Philly’s decision with his play. With great skating and tremendous offensive awareness, Gostisbehere can be a threat at both ends of the ice. He understands his physical limitations in the D-zone and makes up for it with a good defensive stick and sound positioning. He has the ability to exploit the big ice with his skating and vision, which will help supplement the offense should he make the team. Gostisbehere has been a point-per-game player with five goals and eight assists in 13 games. He also has played on the big stage as part of Union’s Frozen Four team last year and that experience certainly counts. The U.S. has a pretty tough decision when it comes to Gostisbehere, Grzelcyk and Reilly. It is unlikely they will take all three as they’re each similar, so it comes down to defending. That’s where I think Gostisbehere has an edge and what I believe will put him on the team. Philadelphia Flyers
Matt Grzelcyk — LD — Boston University — If you were able to catch the BU-BC game last Friday on NBC Sports Network, you saw what Grzelcyk can do. He was BU’s best defenseman and scored a beauty of a wraparound goal. Yeah, a defenseman with a wraparound goal. The thing about Grzelcyk is not that he contributes offensively, but that he has a terrific sense of when to turn it up and when to focus on D. His hockey sense and vision are standout tools, which helps his high-end distributing ability. Grzelcyk simply makes plays. When it comes to defending, he knows how to take care of his own zone with good positioning and awareness. Grzelcyk is terrific at keying the transition and knows how to catch opposing teams napping. He isn’t going to bowl anybody over physically and the size (5-9, 168) leaves little to be desired, but his hockey IQ makes you forget about it. Because he, Gostisbehere and Reilly are so similar, it’s tough to know where to draw the line. For Grzelcyk it might be his age. He’s eligible to return next year and while it would probably be unfair to go off of that, it might end up playing a role in a competition this tight. I think his primary competition for Grzelcyk is Reilly. Boston Bruins
Seth Jones — RD — Portland Winterhawks — Jones has been covered at length on this blog for the last three years, but hey, some of you might be new here, so here we go again. When it comes to defensemen, I don’t know that there’s been a better one among Americans than Seth Jones over the last decade. That includes No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Ryan Suter…. I know. It seems hyperbolic, but as a teenager Jones is about as good as there is. The first-year draft eligible could be one of the first two picks in the upcoming NHL Draft, but for now, he’ll have to settle on being a minutes eater for the U.S. National Junior Team. Jones has good offensive abilities, but his value lies in his defensive skills. He is physical when he needs to be, but it’s his smarts that allow him to shut down opponents’ top lines, which I’m sure he’ll be asked to do this time around. He’s as reliable as it gets. Jones is also terrific at absorbing the forecheck. He doesn’t make rash decisions under duress, which makes for fewer turnovers and more opportunities for a good transition out of the zone. He has a great first pass and has a heavy, accurate shot. You can put him in any situation and he’ll get the job done. Jones is a lock to play major minutes for this team. 2013 Draft Eligible
Jake McCabe — LD — Wisconsin — Though the Badgers have struggled this year, McCabe has looked pretty good for the most part. He is a solid two-way defender who plays physically and takes care of his own end first. He is physically strong and battles well along the boards and in the corners. The thing that McCabe will have to overcome is the mobility of the other guys. Though McCabe can skate, he’s not at the same level as some of the other guys that could end up as his competition, namely Brady Skjei. The one thing McCabe does have though is experience. He’s been a top defender for a major Division I program for two years and had great success at the U18 level two years ago. McCabe’s offensive game gets better every year. He has deceptive puck skills and is a crisp passer, which makes him a potential threat on the transition. McCabe has a good sense of when to jump into the play and when he needs to hold back. I think McCabe is a front-runner for Team USA’s seventh defense spot, but will have significant competition with Skjei and Patrick Sieloff, who both bring different elements to the table. Should be interesting to watch those battles in camp. Buffalo Sabres
Connor Murphy — RD — Sarnia Sting — It’s been a trying few years for Murphy. Having dealt with multiple injuries, many of the severe variety, Murphy hasn’t played a full season in the last four. Last year, he tore some ligaments in his knee in a freak accident during a practice at the Lake Placid camp. That kind of makes what he’s done over the last few years all the more impressive. Despite those injury woes, the big defensive defenseman was a first-round pick and any time he plays he’s one of the best defenders on the ice. The son of former NHL defenseman Gord Murphy, Connor has terrific hockey sense and a keen awareness of how to play defense. He’s got a terrific stick and has a knack for breaking up passes and creating turnovers. The area of concern for Murphy is his mobility, particularly on the big ice. He’s not the fleetest of foot, which can get exposed, but it can be corrected with good positioning and anticipation, which Murphy is able to do well. He’s one of only three right-shot defensemen on the roster and is a guy USA Hockey is very familiar and comfortable with. I think he’s on the final roster and might be a No. 5 or 6 D-man for this team, but he has the capability to make a sizable contribution to this group. Phoenix Coyotes
Mike Reilly — LD — Minnesota — One of the more dynamic defensemen you’ll find, Reilly has some terrific puck skills and can be an absolute terror on the power play. He knows how to get the puck up ice in a hurry and skates extremely well. There’s a smoothness to Reilly that can be mesmerizing at times. He showed a desire to get into the offensive zone and step into the rush a lot at the camp and has done much the same in his freshman season with the Gophers. Reilly initially struggled in the early goings of the season, but in recent weeks, he’s been outstanding. He has seven points in 15 games, which is probably lower than he expected to have at this point, but there’s reason to believe he’s ready to breakout. The big area for concern, and it’s popped up several times at Minnesota this year, is Reilly’s defensive abilities. Based on his competition right now, when it comes to defensive grades, he’ll slot behind both Grzelcyk and Gostisbehere. It comes down to how confident the USA staff is that he can contribute enough to live with some defensive deficiencies. That could be a huge deciding factor. That said, this kid has some intriguing tools that give him a good chance to be one of the final 23. Columbus Blue Jackets
Patrick Sieloff — LD — Windsor — I have a feeling when USA officials wrote down Sieloff’s name on the whiteboard they had Canada in mind. This tough-as-nails defender was made for those tough, gritty games where there’s just all kinds of bad blood. Sieloff is an excellent body checker, who can set the physical tone of the game all by himself. When he and Jacob Trouba were paired together last year at the NTDP, it was nightmarish for opposing forwards. Sieloff has had to learn to tone it done a bit as sometimes he’d take himself out of position and get burned going for a big hit. At times, he has shown that he can play a more reserved style without losing all of his edge. When he does that, he does a terrific job of keeping forwards in front of him and doesn’t get beat very easily. If the U.S. wants more snarl on the blue line, Sieloff makes a lot of sense. His primary competition to me is Jake McCabe and/or Brady Skjei, but Sieloff has a really great shot at being this team’s seventh defenseman, playing when he’s needed and making a statement when called upon. Calgary Flames
Brady Skjei — LD — Minnesota — Some might have been surprised that Skjei made it based on his somewhat slow start at Minnesota. That said, he’s got the physical attributes and tools that would work at this level even if he’s struggled a bit in college. Skjei is probably the best skater in this group which had to be a huge deciding factor in bringing him in. He’s one of those guys whose value only increases on the European sheet. He’s good defensively, has great size and strength and can contribute just enough offensively. He played a lot with Seth Jones last year and gave the U.S. one of the best D-pairings I’ve seen at the World Under-18 Championship in the four years I’ve been going. They might not be reunited a lot in Ufa, but it gives the U.S. a pair with good chemistry should they need it down the line. I think Skjei might have a bit of an up-hill battle this year though. He’s going to have to beat out McCabe and/or Sieloff, probably. He’s another guy where his age may play a factor and this time it’s more because he might not be quite ready for this tournament. The physical attributes are all there, but based on what he’s shown at Minnesota, he might need some seasoning. He’s still eligible for next year’s tournament if that’s the case. A good camp could change everything though. New York Rangers
Jacob Trouba — RD — Michigan — The lone returnee from last year’s WJC, Trouba has seen what seventh place looks like and I’m guessing he doesn’t want to be there again. As an under-ager on last year’s team Trouba emerged as one of Team USA’s best players throughout the tournament. He can play physical and make life pretty terrible for opposing forwards. On top of that, he’s a terrific skater who can do a lot with his feet in both his own end and offensively. Trouba has also shown added offensive abilities this year at Michigan. The true freshman has 10 points in 14 games for the Wolverines. With a rocket shot, he can be utilized on the power-play as a trigger man. While his offense is great, his defense is a big key to his success as a player. He takes pride in taking care of his own end and is an expert in stepping up on opposing forwards. Between Trouba and Sieloff, it’s hard to figure out who’s nastier. He’ll thrive in those physical games and if last year is any indication, he’ll take on all comers. Trouba may end up wearing a letter for this team and should be looked to for a lot of minutes in a variety of situations. Winnipeg Jets
Here’s a look at the positional depth chart as I see it right now. These are not projected pairings.
Gostisbehere – Jones
Grzelcyk – Trouba
Reilly – Murphy