Every year, USA Hockey’s National Junior Evaluation Camp provides the staff of the U.S. National Junior Team a great chance to get a close look at its candidate pool under one roof. Normally things start clearing up as some players separate from their peers and give the staff at least some kind of picture of what its final roster will look like when the World Junior Championship rolls around. After taking a few days to digest all of the happenings in Lake Placid, that might not have been the case this time around.
From the second the roster for the camp was released in June, the lack of depth was evident. Without Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba and Alex Galchenyuk, there’s some massive holes that are uneasily filled. There really wasn’t a player in camp that played at a high enough level to project to fill those gaps with any amount of confidence. That puts more pressure on the staff to find the right mix of players to have a chance at defending gold at the WJC. It’s a tall order at this point.
There’s a lot that will happen over the course of the middle of the season, but some of the things coaches saw at this camp will be a part of the decision process when it comes to decide who is in and who is out.
Coming up after the jump, a look at the evident holes in the lineup coming out of camp, a quick recap on each player’s performance, their chances coming out of camp and a wild stab at a way-too-early-no-way-it-will-be-right projected roster.
The one thing this camp always seems to show is where the trouble spots are going to be for the selection process. Unfortunately for the U.S. staff, there are some major gaps at this point that don’t necessarily have a really solid solution.
1. Center — There is a real issue down the middle for this team. Danny O’Regan looks like he could be an adequate option in the top-six, but it is tough to project him as a true No. 1. J.T. Compher potentially could be thrust into a top-six role, but he showed more of an energetic, gritty style that would be ideal in a third- or fourth-line center. Andrew Copp could potentially be a fourth-line guy. After that, it’s a lot tougher to predict. Quentin Shore had a solid camp, but not sure he’d be a fit as a No. 2 C. Dom Toninato showed flashes as well, but seemed to struggle with the pace of Sweden and Canada. Same goes for Boo Nieves, who showed flashes of top-six potential, but not a complete enough game for the role.
Potential Solution: Jack Eichel is the top 1996-born American and is a natural center. He had a dominant season at the U17 level and played well when called up to the U18s, but really struggled at the World U18 Championship. His skill level should make him an option and one worth considering for a long time.
2. Left Wing — Beyond Nic Kerdiles, there weren’t a ton of guys that jumped out as top-six options on the left side. Taylor Cammarata started out great, but really disappeared after camp cutdowns, making him less of a sure-shot for the top six. Stefan Matteau had a disappointing camp, but with what he brings to the table and the rest of the field, he’d be a tough guy to leave off. Thomas Di Pauli made a case to be a shutdown winger at the position, but again you’re still looking at a potential hole in the top six. This could be difficult to address, unless there’s a natural right winger who would be able to make the switch to the left side.
3. Top-four D — The U.S. had a lot of solid, if unspectacular defensemen in camp. This may not be a hole so much as it is an area in which the U.S. could be better. There are guys that can step in and eat the minutes of Jones and Trouba, but probably not adequately enough to ease the loss of those two. Matt Grzelcyk, Patrick Sieloff and Brady Skjei all look like prime candidates, while Connor Carrick made a case for himself to play some big minutes. Steven Santini and Ian McCoshen also could be possibilities in a top-four role. There’s plenty of guys that would be excellent options as fifth, sixth and seventh defensemen, but there was no guy in camp that looked like a bona fide No. 1. This is a unit that will have to play some really great hockey for the U.S. to have a chance.
There are also a few positions of strength for the U.S. at least.
1. Goaltending — Jon Gillies and Anthony Stolarz each got full games in the last two games of camp and both looked pretty solid. Gillies was sensational against Canada, while Stolarz shined against Finland. If all goes as planned, these will be the goalies for the team, with Thatcher Demko, more than likely, filling the extra goalie spot.
2. Right Wing — This isn’t necessarily an overwhelming group, but right wings are plentiful for this club. Considering Ryan Hartman, a returnee from last year, wasn’t in camp, there are some tough decisions ahead. Riley Barber was somewhat inconsistent, but showed he’s the best option as the top-line guy who can provide some scoring pop. Hartman is a likely option in the top six after playing a fourth-line role last year. Hudson Fasching had a standout camp and could be a bottom-line guy. There’s also Adam Erne, who came on strong late in camp and Michael McCarron, who was better in the earlier stages. One or both of those guys should be on the final roster as a second- or third-line guy, depending on what happens with Hartman. Either one could be a solid 13th forward as well.
Now a look at the individual players, listed by position and then in alphabetical order with NHL rights in parenthesis…
For players cut in the middle of camp, see here (they are not included in this list).
Thatcher Demko (2014) — Demko wasn’t great in his appearances, but he didn’t have a ton of help in front of him either. As the youngest goalie in camp, I think he showed well enough to be strongly considered for the third goalie spot. He’s a likely option to be the starter in 2015, so getting him as much U20 experience as possible is helpful.
Jon Gillies (CGY) — An incredible performance in the Saturday finale against Canada erased what had been a very average showing in camp. Gillies looked confident, athletic and overall solid in his last game, which included this acrobatic save. He’s still the front-runner to be the No. 1 guy when the WJC rolls around.
Anthony Stolarz (PHI) — After a few underwhelming efforts, Stolarz was mostly good in his full game against Finland during regulation. He was exceptional, however, in the shootout, showing his quickness and making some big saves. Stolarz has a massive frame, but is stunningly athletic for a goalie of his size. He still needs some seasoning, but he’s a world better than he was this time last year and that’s encouraging. He’s the No. 2 guy for now, but I would not count him out to earn starting duties just yet.
Mike Brodzinski (SJS) — There were always little flashes of Brodzinski’s offensive talent and he has some really good puck skills. His defensive game lacked a bit at this level and I’m not entirely sure he’s ready for the World Juniors yet. That said, there’s a lot of potential here. Once he rounds out his game, he may have a shot to make the team next year, but I don’t see him as a realistic option in 2014.
Will Butcher (COL) — From start to finish, Butcher had a pretty strong camp. He was solid in moving the puck in transition, he made some nice plays to evade pressure and showed some real skill on the power play. He’s a gifted puck mover and adequate defender, which leads me to believe there’s a chance he could make this team as either a bottom-pairing or seventh defenseman, along with power-play duties.
Connor Carrick (WSH) — Probably the best defenseman overall in camp in terms of performance, Carrick was a real standout. Coming in, I figured he’d be a bottom-pairing guy, but if the depth isn’t there, he could slide into a top-four role. He showed good two-way play, but was making some exceptional offensive reads and distributed the puck extremely well. I thought he was a strong candidate for inclusion on the team before and this camp only strengthened that opinion.
Connor Clifton (PHX) — Clifton stood out early in camp and somewhat faded to the background a bit. He was scratched for two out of the three games after cutdowns, which made him a little tougher to evaluate as things went on, but I think he may have to wait another year anyway. Clifton has a lot of similar characteristics as other guys in camp, particularly Carrick, with less experience. Among the skills Clifton was able to display, however, was his physical edge and strong shot. There could be a place for him next time around.
Matt Grzelcyk (BOS) — It was a somewhat quiet camp for Grzelcyk, but he was a guy that was mostly just steady throughout. He didn’t do a ton of flashy things offensively, which is something he can do at times, but that may have been on purpose. Grzelcyk was making good reads at both ends of the ice and sometimes he really impresses with his ability to escape pressure in the defensive zone. I thought he was a lock coming in and I still feel that way. Grzelcyk is a prime candidate to get top-four minutes at the WJC.
Ian McCoshen (FLA) — I was impressed with McCoshen’s poise and his ability to deal with the pace. This camp is quite a step up from the pace of a regular-season USHL game and the forwards bring some elite skills, but McCoshen dealt with all of it expertly. I think he showed some good offensive instincts and was good in his own end as well. His size and mobility could come in handy for the team when the roster is decided. I don’t think I’d call McCoshen a lock, but he strengthened his candidacy after this camp.
Brett Pesce (CAR) — It took him a while to adjust to the pace and where he was supposed to be on the bigger ice surface, but Pesce improved as the week went along. He made a lot of questionable decisions with the puck and showed that the offensive side of the game doesn’t really come naturally to him. As more of a shutdown D, you can live with that so long as it doesn’t result in turnovers. I thought Pesce was a leading candidate to join the team as a shutdown defender, but based on some of his decisions and miscues, I’m less certain about that. I think he needs to have a strong first half to build a case for his candidacy.
Steven Santini (NJD) — Santini was a little inconsistent in camp, having a great start and then a very average middle, but a strong finish. He had a strong showing against Canada, displaying his strong defensive capabilities and physicality. Santini could be a shutdown defender on this team and may be able to find a spot in the top four if he can maintain steady defensive play throughout the first half. Though I don’t think he’s a lock, Santini is a strong candidate for the final team.
Patrick Sieloff (CGY) — The lone returnee from last year’s team on defense looked like it for the most part in camp. He was strong defensively and showed improved puck-moving abilities. There’s a good chance Sieloff will be part of the leadership core of next year’s team and I don’t see any way he’s left off the roster if he’s healthy.
Brady Skjei (NYR) — Expectations were high for Skjei coming into camp and I think he mostly met them. Vastly improved from his camp a year ago, Skjei showed solid play defensively and was utilizing his high-end skating extremely well. He has good size and was throwing his weight around a bit in camp. Skjei also showed an ability to get the puck out of trouble with his feet and help the team transition well with strong zone exits. I don’t see him being left home unless he tanks in the first half at Minnesota.
Riley Barber (WSH) — It’s hard to believe a year ago, Barber wasn’t even invited to this camp. This time around he was one of the better forwards. The forward crop as a whole didn’t do a ton of great things, but Barber showed glimpses of top-end speed and skill among his peers. He’s a lock for the final roster and will be relied on heavily for scoring.
Taylor Cammarata (NYI) — My first glimpse of Cammarata in camp was the final game before cuts and it was a good one. Cammarata was showing off his skill and creativity against Finland and helping USA White dominate the game. After that, he was more difficult to pick out. He had fewer puck touches and without the puck on his stick, there’s not as much Cammarata can do at this level. At times he looked overmatched physically as well. Unfortunately, he was scratched against Canada, which was the opponent I was most hoping to see him against. I think he’s still heavily in the mix for the team, but he has to show he’s going to be the guy from that USA White vs. Finland game and not the one from the last two he played in.
J.T. Compher (BUF) — One of the better centers for most of the camp, I thought Compher was really strong when playing a bottom-six role and playing an aggressive, grinding two-way style. He showed good speed and was able to generate some chances as well. Compher can be really tough to play against and I think that makes him a strong candidate to fill one of the center roles on the final roster. There’s just not a ton of competition. Assuming Compher is able to make the smooth transition to college hockey, I think he’ll be on the team.
Andrew Copp (WPG) — A prime candidate to play the fourth-line shutdown role the U.S. will so badly need to succeed, Copp had a fair camp. I thought he would’ve been a bit better, but he went from being a top line guy at the end of the season at Michigan to being asked to execute bottom-line responsibilities. He has the capability to play that role with his physical strength and hard-nosed game. I think the competition for that bottom-line center is still fairly open, but I think Copp has at least a bit of an inside track.
Thomas Di Pauli (WSH) — One of the best penalty-killers in camp, Di Pauli showed that he can be a role-player. With the ability to line up at center or wing, Di Pauli seemed most effective on the left side, which is an area of weakness for Team USA. If he can bring a strong shut-down game, kill penalties and make thing difficult for opponents in general, his chances of making the club are dramatically better. The bottom-line competition seems awfully wide open, but Di Pauli is most definitely in the mix after this camp.
Adam Erne (TBL) — Though Erne lacked consistency, he showed glimpses of the style of play that will earn him a spot on this roster. When he was using his frame and establishing more of a power game, Erne was much more effective. He has solid distribution skills and an elite-level shot that can be deadly when he’s given an open look. I think he could earn a spot on the right side with Team USA as either a second- or third-line wing, or he could slot in as a 13th forward as well. Should he have a strong first half, I think Erne will be on the final roster.
Hudson Fasching (LAK) — The surprise of the camp for me, I saw Fasching establish a role for himself as more of a defensive-minded power forward with good physicality and a solid on-ice work ethic. Fasching was doing well at both ends of the ice and was creating some chances in tight with his big frame and footwork. Though he doesn’t have a lot of skill to be really productive, Fasching may have been able to carve out a spot as a fourth-liner. His position on the team is far from safe, as he’s a guy that also needs to show this kind of performance throughout the first half, but he’s better positioned now than he was before the camp.
Jake Guentzel (PIT) — It was hard for me to get a good read on Guentzel, but I’m not overly confident he did enough in camp to establish himself as a strong candidate for the team. With his skill-set, Guentzel is more of a top-six player with very little defensive element to his game. As such, I think it’ll be tough for him to carve out a spot on the final squad barring a world-beating first half at Nebraska Omaha. He has good speed and skill, but I don’t know if it’s at a World Junior level yet.
Nicolas Kerdiles (ANA) — Probably the most capable left winger in camp, Kerdiles had his good and bad moments like everyone else. Most of all, he showed some good offensive ability and looks like he should be the front-runner for a first- or second-line role. Kerdiles is a powerful skater who uses his frame well and he seems to navigate the big ice surface with ease. As long as he’s healthy, he’s in.
Stefan Matteau (NJD) — With 17 games of NHL experience, expectations were high for Matteau and I don’t think he ever really came close to meeting them. He’d show flashes of a power-forward game every once in a while, but never consistently enough to make a big impact. Even with his shortcomings in camp, the U.S. might have no other choice but to bring Matteau, assuming he doesn’t make the Devils out of camp. He’ll have to be watched closely throughout the first half, though.
Michael McCarron (MTL) — The big Canadiens first-rounder had a lot of good flashes, but like Cammarata his last two games played were awfully quiet. McCarron showed the ability to be a strong power-forward for this group, be a net-front guy on the power play and use his physical play to his advantage. The biggest problem I see right now is finding where McCarron is a fit. If he has a good first half in London, they’ll find a place for him. His skating isn’t top-end, but it’s adequate for his size and I’m still impressed by his hands for being 6-5, 225. He could use some work on his decisionmaking, but McCarron is very much still a candidate for this roster.
Tyler Motte (CHI) — Motte showed good quickness and some skill in a solid camp performance. He had some good two-way play and worked really well when playing with Compher and Fasching in the middle parts of the camp. His speed was an important asset for him to show in camp and I think he accomplished that, but I’m still struggling to find where he fits on this roster. I think he could play a two-way role, kill penalties and maybe add some scoring punch if needed. He benefits from a weak position at LW and if the USA brass thinks he can be a role-player for this team, he’ll have a chance. Motte still has quite a bit of work to do to make the club, but I don’t think he’s taken himself out of the running at all.
Cristoval Nieves (NYR) — Nieves is one of those guys where if he finds that missing piece to his game, he could be really good. With size, speed and some truly remarkable puck skills, he’s got a lot of the tools going for him. He just couldn’t seem to finish the play out with the right decision or buy himself time when he needed it. That led to poor shots or turnovers and that’s going to be tough to do at the WJC level. The speed and skills are there, but I think he needs some more work. That said, he’s the kind of guy that could make a good case for being on the team in the first half. Nieves should have a substantial role at Michigan next year and could earn a spot that way. I don’t think he did enough in camp to say one way or another.
Danny O’Regan (SJS) — Probably the best forward in terms of pure skills in the camp, O’Regan made a lot of good decisions with the puck, got behind defenses and created some good opportunities. That said, I don’t know if he’s a true No. 1 at the WJC level and that’s a concern, because no one else is either. I think O’Regan could fill that role and do OK, but he’s going to be relied on heavily for offense and he’ll have to deliver. Though I wouldn’t say O’Regan is a stone-cold lock to make the final roster, he’s fairly close.
Henrik Samuelsson (PHX) — It was a tough camp for Samuelsson. From penalty trouble to an overall ineffectiveness offensively, there wasn’t a ton going right for him. He showed a few flashes of his good puck skills, but he didn’t establish his physical game enough and the footspeed is clearly an issue at the WJC’s incredibly fast pace. I think this camp put a severe hit on Samuelsson’s chances and he was a guy coming in that I thought the U.S. would be able to pencil in for a spot. He’ll have to have a monumental first half, I think, to get back into consideration.
Quentin Shore (OTT) — Shore was solid for much of camp, but mostly quiet until the Canada game when he was given the opportunity to center Nic Kerdiles and Adam Erne. Shore scored a shorthanded goal and another on the power play and showed he might be able to fill a top-two center role. I don’t think he’s a leading candidate for those spots, but he’s in the mix and probably strengthened his candidacy for the team overall. Shore is versatile and showed some good smarts throughout the camp. His shorthanded goal against Canada was probably the best U.S. tally the whole week. Shore will have to have a solid first half, but he’s definitely in the hunt.
Zach Stepan (NSH) — I thought Stepan did several positive things in camp. He showed a willingness to focus more on defense when he needed to and showed some flashes of good skill to create off the rush and get pucks to the net. He kind of faded to the background after the cuts were made, which is of some concern. Stepan, whose cousin Derek was captain of the 2010 WJC champs, is very much on the bubble. I don’t know if his play in camp really swayed his chances in either direction. A good first half at Minnesota State, where he should play a featured role, could help a great deal.
Dominic Toninato (TOR) — There were several instances in camp where Toninato impressed me. At times, he showed good patience and vision and some general playmaking ability. His speed is good enough and I thought his skills were slightly above average. There were a few questionable decisions out there, but he did display a willingness to play two-way hockey and do some things defensively. He’s good on faceoffs and has a decent frame. I think he’s in the mix, but I’m not quite sure where he fits in the lineup. A good first half at UMD with production could make him a potential top-six guy, but he does have some of those skills to slot in a more defensive role or even as the 13th forward, which can be a kind of jack of all trades for the team. His candidacy is still in flux, but I think he’s earned some extra looks coming out of camp.
Thus ends coverage of another National Junior Evaluation Camp. Thanks very much for following along with the updates. Be sure to stay close to United States of Hockey from now until the World Juniors ends for complete coverage of the U.S. National Junior Team and its selection process. Also, I’ll always answer any and all WJC-related question on Twitter: @chrismpeters