Though the World Juniors deservedly gets all the headlines, the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge is another international tournament this time of year that deserves some attention. For many players, this tournament is the first significant step on a path toward the World Junior Championship and for many more a chance to put their names on the map as high-end prospects.
The World U17 Challenge kicks off Saturday in Victoriaville and Drummondville, Quebec. The 10-team tournament features five Canadian regional teams (Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West, Pacific), the U.S., Sweden, Russia, Finland and Slovakia. With such a strong lineup of European teams, this is setting up to be yet another outstanding U17.
The U.S. National Under-17 Team, which is made up of primarily players from the National Team Development Program, should have a really strong outfit as per usual at this event.
The tournament will also feature one of the most talked-about non-draft eligible prospects in the game right now in Connor McDavid, who will be playing for Canada Ontario (Team USA’s first tournament opponent).
The good news for you is that FASTHockey.com will be streaming the tournament live and free. You just have to follow a few simple instructions in order to do so and you can find out about how to access the stream here.
Coming up after the jump, a complete Team USA preview.
The U.S. National Under-17 Team enters the tournament as many before it has, with a lot of losses from the grueling first-half schedule the players endure in the USHL. Playing as a team full of 16-year-olds against junior teams is a tall order and one that is often met with disappointing results in the standings early. That said, this group has a lot of talent and is currently undefeated in games against its own age group.
Team USA won the U17 Four Nations Cup in November, outscoring opponents 18-7 over three games. After returning to USHL play, the U.S. went on an eight-game skid before earning a W in its pre-tournament game against Canada Pacific Friday night.
The squad will welcome four non-NTDP players for the tournament including a pair from the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, forwards Keegan Iverson and Dominic Turgeon. Recent North Dakota commit Austin Poganski, a forward for Cathedral High School in Minnesota, and goaltender Chris Birdsall of the USHL’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and a Boston College commit will also be part of the team. You can find the complete roster here.
They join an already solid NTDP group led by Jack Eichel, who won’t be draft eligible until 2015, but is already generating lofty buzz as a potential first-round pick. The Boston University recruit had three points (2g-1a) in Team USA’s 6-2 pre-tournament win over Canada Pacific. Eichel is currently leading the squad in goals (10) and points (22) and has loads of skill.
The good forward crop also includes sniper Sonny Milano, who has 20 points on the young season including nine goals. Alex Tuch and Chris Wilkie have also been standouts up front for Team USA, which has a lot of strength down the middle with its centers and a good mix of size and speed.
Among the others to watch up front, Ryan MacInnis, the son of longtime NHLer Al, who has some great size and is starting to put things together. Jared Fiegl is a big power-forward type who likes to get after it physically and can contribute offensively. His work ethic makes him exciting to watch at times.
On the back end, the U.S. has a good mix of size and mobility. One of the big standouts on defense so far is Jack Glover, who comes in at 6-3, 185, and can do well at both ends of the ice. He helped Benilde-St. Margaret’s win a Minnesota state title last year and is second among defensemen with 13 points in his first NTDP season.
Also among the notables on the back end is giftted puck-mover Brandon Fortunato who has 14 assists. Though undersized, the U.S. has seemed to have success with smallish defensemen who can help stoke the offense from the blue line with guys like Adam Clendening, Robbie Russo, Matt Grzelcyk and Will Butcher in recent years.
Big Ryan Collins, who along with Glover played for BSM and has committed to Minnesota, is another guy to watch on the back end. He, along with Joshua Wesley, can really shut opposing forwards down.
In goal, Edwin Minney has had to carry the mail for the NTDP this year with Blake Weyrick going down with an injury early in the season. He’s had his share of shellings, but has a lot of upside with his big 6-4, 197-pound frame. Minney’s numbers are ugly, but they often are for the U17 goalies in the first half.
Chris Birdsall, who will come in from Cedar Rapids, offers the U.S. a very sound option between the pipes. He’s played extremely well for a 16-year-old goalie in the USHL and is another guy with loads of upside. Keep a close eye on how Team USA uses its netminders in the tournament, as I’d expect them to trade off a bit to start.
The U.S. National Under-17 Team is led by head coach Danton Cole, who guided the U17s to a second-place finish in Winnipeg in 2011 and steered the U.S. National Under-18 Team to gold at the 2012 World Under-18 Championship. Having a coach with extensive international experience behind the bench is a big help in tournaments like this.
Team USA’s World U17 Hockey Challenge Schedule (All Times ET)
Sat., Dec. 29 — vs. Canada Ontario — 1:30 p.m.
Sun., Dec. 30 — vs. Canada Atlantic — 1:30 p.m.
Mon., Dec. 31 — vs. Canada Quebec — 7:30 p.m.
Wed., Jan. 2 — vs. Slovakia — 1:30 p.m.
Thurs., Jan. 3 — Semis — TBD
Fri., Jan. 4 — Championship/Third-Place Game — TBD
One look at the schedule tells you all you need to know. This tournament is a grind. With eight games in nine days (including the pre-tournament game), there isn’t a lot of time for rest.
The way the tournament is scheduled, the U.S. gets its bye after a three-in-three against all of the Canadian regional teams in Group B. Opening with Ontario, one of the favored teams in the tournament and closing that three-in-three with host Quebec is a huge test. That day of rest will be much needed before Slovakia and then, presumably for Team USA, the medal round.
The World Junior set-up is tough, but the World Under-17 schedule is far worse. The games are intense and the turnaround is tight, so it’s a battle of endurance for even the best conditioned player.
— Team USA has four players with fathers who played in the NHL:
Ryan MacInnis is the son of Hockey Hall of Famer Al MacInnis, who posted 1,274 points over 20 seasons between the Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues.
Dominic Turgeon is the son of Pierre Turgeon, a former first overall pick and member of the 500-goal and 1,000 point clubs after 19 seasons in the NHL.
Joshua Wesley is the son of Glen Wesley, who won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes and played 20 seasons in the NHL with Boston and Hartford/Carolina. His No. 2 was retired by the Hurricanes in 2009.
Chris Wilkie is the son of David Wilkie, a former first-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens. He played in 167 NHL games with Montreal, Tampa Bay and the New York Rangers
— The U.S. beat Canada Pacific, 6-2, on Friday night in its only pre-tournament tuneup. Jack Eichel had three points (2g-1a) and was named Team USA’s player of the game. Chris Wilkie also scored twice, while Sonny Milano and Ryan Bliss each collected a pair of assists. Chris Birdsall stopped all 11 shots he faced, while Ed Minney stopped four of six.
— Team USA has had a hard time getting over the hump the last two years, making it to the championship game in both 2010 and 2011 before falling to Canada Ontario and Russia, respectively. Team USA also placed second at the World U17 Challenge in 2008 and 1999.
— The U.S. last won the event in 2010, with a team featuring many players currently on the U.S. National Junior Team including U17 championship game heroes Tyler Biggs, who scored twice against Canada Ontario, and John Gibson who was mere seconds away from earning a 2-0 shutout before Ontario scored a late, inconsequential goal. Team USA also captured the title in 2001 and 2002, both with rosters featuring quite a bit of current NHL talent.
— The new NTDP website will be the best spot for USA coverage as the WJC takes up a lot of the digital ink here. I’ll have posts previewing and reviewing the medal-round games, should Team USA make it there.
— You can follow all of the results, stats and anything else at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge website found here.
I’ll also provide some World U17 Updates sprinkled into my WJC coverage, so stay tuned for that. Otherwise, watch on FASTHockey or follow the other links provided for more up-to-the-minute coverage.