With 24 hours passed since USA Hockey unveiled its preliminary roster for the 2014 World Junior Championship, it’s worth looking at the entire roster as it’s constructed. We had the rapid reaction and player-by-player breakdowns(forwards here, defense and goalies here), but not a real thorough assessment of the roster as a whole. Until now.
Though the final roster is not complete, there’s obviously a lot you can learn about the makeup of Team USA in who was invited to the training camp. This year, flexibility and versatility in the lineup was the big key. Having players that are experienced in multiple positions and in roles they’ve played in the past allows the roster to remain in flux even after the puck drop.
To gather a few other opinions to combine with my own, I asked a few friends in the scouting and hockey writing community their thoughts about this roster. Average was a frequent descriptor, with underwhelming being another. I agree. This is not a team that is going to enter the tournament as a favorite or maybe not even projected to win a medal.
This is what happens when you take four of the best age-eligible players away from the team. NHLers Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba, Alex Galchenyuk and the injured Patrick Sieloff are all unavailable. This is a problem Canada runs into annually, but has the depth to cover those holes with players that would be top guys on a lot of other teams. The U.S., particularly in this age group, does not have the depth to do the same.
I think the staff is fully aware of the limitations of this group and it shows in the selections. A lot of the players have a lot of international experience. Eighteen guys on this roster have had experience at USA Hockey’s NTDP in Ann Arbor, with others having played on various select teams. Familiarity breeds at least a little bit of confidence. The fact remains, this team is going to have to make up for some deficiencies when stacked up against World Junior competition.
The great equalizer, however, as it so often has been for U.S. teams in the past, is goaltending. Having a tandem of Jon Gillies and Anthony Stolarz, who are the top goalies in their respective leagues, is a huge benefit to Team USA. You get one of these guys to steal a couple of games for you and the medal hunt is back on.
Another possible equalizer is going to be the tournament format. This year, the top four teams in each group make it to the playoff round, while the bottom two in each will play a relegation series. So there shouldn’t be any fears that something like the 2012 relegation-round disaster will happen this time around. It also means every team has to play the same number of games to get to the medal games, making the path a little more difficult for each.
That’s the positive. The negative of the new format is that every team has to play in the quarterfinals. There is no bye to the semifinals to play for in the prelims anymore. Additionally, the U.S. is playing in Group A, the lighter of the two groups (Canada, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany). Once you get to the playoff round, the teams crossover. If the U.S. finishes behind Canada, it is likely they will have to play one of Russia, Sweden or Finland in the quarterfinals. All of those teams should match-up well with the U.S.
With a tough road through the medal round, it is going to be important for Team USA to not only find the right mix of players, but the right lineup, too. If there are ways Don Lucia can cover some of the warts through the way he structures the team, maybe they can pull a few surprises here and there.
With this group, it’s tough to know exactly how roles will be defined and how the depth chart will look. This is a team that is going to have to find ways to manufacture offense. The skill level is not terribly high up front. There are several guys that do a lot of things well, but it doesn’t seem like the U.S. has that go-to scorer that you can expect big points out of.
That’s a big reason under-ager Jack Eichel was added and may be inserted into a prominent role in the roster. Head coach Don Lucia didn’t commit to doing that just yet as he wants to get a few more looks at Eichel and see how he performs in camp, but that’s why the 1996-born forward is there. He has the potential to be a dynamic presence at forward. Maybe he won’t be as effective at 17 as he would be next year, but he has that potential to make some things happen and give Team USA a much-needed offensive weapon.
Then you have to find the players that can fit into established roles. Having one line that can match-up defensively in key situations is important as last year proved.
Thomas DiPauli is probably the best defensive forward in the mix, but then you might have to take a productive college player like Andrew Copp and make him your shutdown center. That was a role the speedy and skilled Cole Bardreau played expertly last year and Copp certainly has the goods to do something like that. The same goes for J.T. Compher, though his offensive capabilities may be too good to pass up for a bottom-of-the-lineup role.
The top six is probably where the U.S. is going to lag behind several of the other countries. Riley Barber is a proven scorer at the college level and likely will be relied on heavily for offense. Nic Kerdiles also should play a prominent role on one of the top two lines on the left side.
Other candidates for top-six roles include Adam Erne, Ryan Fitzgerald and Stefan Matteau on the left side, Compher, Danny O’Regan, Quentin Shore and Eichel at center, and then Ryan Hartman and Hudson Fasching on the right.
The U.S. tends to go with a top nine format with three scoring lines, so whoever doesn’t make it onto the second line in that group could slot down.
The position that always intrigues me on Team USA is what they do with the 13th forward. In the years Team USA was on North American-sized surfaces, it usually went to a crash-and-bang kind of player like Luke Walker in 2010 or Mitchell Callahan in 2010. Last year, for the big ice in Ufa, they used it on a skill player. Jimmy Vesey and Mario Lucia eventually flipped with Vesey playing a more prominent role as the tournament wore on, but it was important to have that skill.
I think the candidates are a little different this time around. To me, some of the clear options are Tyler Motte, Fitzgerald and Henrik Samuelsson. Each is a little different.
Motte and Fitzgerald are both undersized, but bring a mix of speed and skill. Motte also has more of a defensive element to his game. You could fill them in in a lot of spots throughout the lineup. Then the real wild card is Samuelsson.
He has great size, plays a physical game, is strong on the puck and has the ability to produce, as he has at the WHL level the last three seasons. Samuelsson isn’t the fastest guy though, and might not fit into the up-tempo style the U.S. is going to have to play to compete. Still, there’s a lot to like about him as a net-front guy on the power play or in those tighter, more physical contests.
Having only two cuts at forward doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s really interesting how much the team dynamic could get altered by one or two guys.
The lack of experience on defense is of moderate concern as well. And that lack of scoring prowess up front is going to impact how the final defensive group looks. There will be one cut to make on the back end, but who that final cut is going to be is going to depend on just how much production the U.S. staff thinks they’ll need out of their D corps.
Among those invited, Connor Carrick, Matt Grzelcyk, Will Butcher and Anthony DeAngelo are the best pure puck-movers. Ian McCoshen is the strongest two-way player, while Brady Skjei, Steven Santini and Brett Pesce are most effective in their own zone.
I have a hard time believing the U.S. will bring both Butcher and DeAngelo to the tournament, as they’re somewhat similar and there needs to be at least some balance on the blue line. That said, if both have good camps and look like they could be a source of supplemental scoring, things could change and one of Pesce and perhaps Santini is at risk of missing the cut.
How the top four shakes out is interesting, too. Three of Team USA’s best four defensemen are lefties — Brady Skjei, Matt Grzelcyk and Ian McCoshen. Depending how comfortable any of them are on their off-hand side, the U.S. staff might want to consider trying in camp. There’s also plenty of mixing and matching they could try to get certain players more ice time if warranted.
The funny thing about the World Juniors is that you really never know what to expect. Last year’s U.S. team was a bit of an underdog due to the lockout making it a true best-on-best tournament and having Canada and Russia in the group. Did anyone see that 5-1 shellacking of Canada in the semis? I sure didn’t. They got good goaltending and scoring got hot at the right time, but they also had a ton of talent on that team, too.
Conversely, the 2012 team on paper was one of the most talented teams the U.S. has iced at a World Junior Championship in recent memory. They finished a shocking seventh. You just never know how things can play out.
A lot of that depends on goaltending. If the U.S. gets the best of Jon Gillies in the tournament, their chances at medaling are dramatically higher. Still, with the new tournament format and a lot of question marks coming into the WJC, it’s going to be a tough road.
There are still some tough decisions left to make for the U.S. staff in terms of cuts, but they couldn’t be more important to get right.