USA Hockey will take a significant step in narrowing down its U.S. National Junior Team preliminary roster when the squad meets Sweden for its first pre-tournament game Thurday. The U.S. will dress the requisite 22 players for the game, which will air live on NHL Network at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Team USA GM Jim Johannson has said Thursday’s game will be a big part of the decision process for the three cuts USA Hockey will have to make to get down to 23 players for the tournament. Two defensemen and a forward will have to be let go by Dec. 22, which is when the roster is planned to be announced.
The series of practices Team USA has held, with small area games and informal scrimmages will have weighed heavily into consideration on top of the players’ complete bodies of work. For those on the bubble, Thursday could be make or break. For the guys that are safe from the clippers, it will be a chance to build chemistry and familiarity with linemates.
Coming up after the jump, what to watch for during Team USA’s exhibition.
Exhibitions are usually played under International Ice Hockey Federation rules, meaning the U.S. will have to scratch four players, one of which will be a goalie, to get down to 22 for the game against Sweden.
With the vast importance placed on this game against Sweden, expect any player that is considered to be a bubble guy to be in the lineup. That would leave a couple of the guys you’d expect to see on Team USA sitting in the stands.
It will be particularly interesting to see how defensive scratches are handled, seeing as there is an abundance of left-shot D in camp and the decisions down the left side are far from easy.
What complicates the scratches is the potential interest in building some consistency into special teams. If there’s more emphasis on trying to get guys working together, that will impact who ends up a scratch.
That’s a tough decision to make. You want to give everyone a fair evaluation, but this team only gets two exhibitions before games go live, so reps with unfamiliar teammates is still important.
Either way, based on previous experience, if a player got scratched for the first exhibition it’s usually a good thing.
This is an area where you might also be able to determine a bit who will make the final roster. This is a tournament where special teams are so vital to success. Goals can be hard to come by, so a good power play on the big ice sheet will be important.
With that in mind, expect the U.S. staff to try to get some of its preferred units a few looks in the first exhibition game, pending who’s scratched.
The next game against Finland will probably be more indicative of Team USA’s plans for the tournament, but in terms of who is expected to make the team, it bears watching against Sweden.
Getting as many pre-tournament reps in a live-game scenario is a good way to get more familiar with each other.
Line Combos, D Pairings
It’s always good to see who will play with who. With only having to scratch one forward (more than likely), the game against Sweden should be a good look at the vision for this team, at least in part.
There’s a good chance the lines will get jumbled up a bit in the game, just to see who works best with who. You’ll probably see a few guys even switch positions a bit.
With all of the experimentation already done in camp practices, the staff already has a pretty good idea what they think will work, but getting it implemented in the game will really test their theories.
As for the D pairings, this could be incredibly interesting to keep track of. A lot of the pairs could be interchangeable, but it’s going to be interesting to see which guys are together the most and who gets a few turns at special teams.
With the D that they have in camp, a lot of these guys are already familiar with each other from playing at the NTDP (only Mike Reilly and Shayne Gostisbehere are not NTDP alumni). That should allow the U.S. staff a little more flexibility with how they set up the pairings.
That’s kind of what makes watching these games fun. There’s still plenty for the staff to sort out, but getting this first glimpse of some of their ideas in game action should be awfully intriguing.
The U.S. is probably glad to have the opportunity to go up against two quality opponents before getting to the tournament. Sweden is the defending gold medalist at the World Juniors and has offered the U.S. a formidable opponent internationally at all levels.
Sweden is the favorite to win Group A, but its gold-medal hopes have taken a serious hit in recent weeks. Three of its top 1993-born players will be unavailable for the tournament, which is going to negatively impact Sweden’s depth.
Oscar Klefbom and Jonas Brodin, two of the top Swedish defenders in the group and a pair of first-round draft picks are injured. Mika Zibanejad, who scored the OT game winner against Russia last year to give Sweden WJC gold, was not released by the Ottawa Senators from its AHL affiliate. All three are tough to replace.
Sweden still has a bevy of elite players in guys like Hampus Lindholm, Filip Forsberg, Elias Lindholm, Rickard Rackell, Sebastian Collberg and Oscar Dansk.
This is going to be a tough team and should give the U.S. a good test. It’s always good to get a preview of one of the big-time teams from the tournament, so don’t forget to keep a close eye on what Sweden can do in this exhibition.
Whether Team USA wins or loses this exhibition game is probably irrelevant, or at least close. Still, the game provides some sort of measuring stick. With Sweden being one of the top teams from the other side of the bracket, it’s good to see how Team USA matches up player for player.
A win can help build a little bit of confidence, but only slightly. The players know it will be a lot different when the lights are bright and the games matter. A loss provides a little adversity and something to build off of. Since the game doesn’t really count, that wouldn’t hurt either.
Getting a good result doesn’t necessarily have to mean a win or loss either. A good result for the U.S. is a competitive game, a chance to get some chemistry, getting a good idea of what works and what doesn’t, and getting the players prepared.
Check back with United States of Hockey after Thursday’s game for some quick analysis. As always, you can follow some in-game analysis on Twitter.
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