Sunday evening, 29 players from around the United States will gather in Minneapolis, Minn., to begin preparations to defend the gold medal at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden. Only 20 skaters and three goaltenders can make the final roster, meaning six cuts will be made at some point during the camp.
The candidates will spend four days at the University of Minnesota with a series of practices, scrimmages, other activities and one exhibition game, utilized to help in the final decision process for who will make the final roster.
The camp is always a fascinating exercise, especially when there is still a fairly high number of cuts to make as there is this year. Every coach runs this camp differently. With 29 players involved Team USA’s, Don Lucia will have to weigh the value of team cohesion against competition for roster spots.
Based on who has been named to the roster, there’s still a ton left to sort out when it comes to team construction and who will fit what roles. The U.S. has many players that can play multiple positions and fit into a variety of roles. It gives the coaching staff options, but it also leaves a very short time from for things to come together as they’ll need to.
The U.S. management team and coaching staff is expected to make at least a few cuts before the camp is taken to Sweden where Team USA will play two more exhibitions — one each against Finland and Sweden — and have more practices. I would not expect the U.S. to have the roster completely finalized at that point, though. Unfortunately some players will have to make the trip only to return a few days later.
It’s the hard reality of this year’s group. There are very few sure things, which makes for tough decisions and sometimes late ones. Things usually sort themselves out fairly quickly in camp, though. The players ready for this level often separate themselves early, while those that aren’t tend to make themselves known just as easily.
I don’t know if it will be as obvious this time around, but there’s a lot that can be learned when the top players gather and are compared side-by-side.
Here’s what to watch for in camp…
The coaching staff will come into camp with an idea of who will fit where and who they might play with. The early parts of camp begins the experimentation to see if it will actually work.
Forward lines and defensive pairings that may have showed some promise in the summer camp often get the first go with each other. If there’s still some chemistry, they might be kept together. There weren’t a ton of lights-out lines in Lake Placid, however, which makes that process a bit tougher.
There’s also the experimentation with guys that are teammates now on their regular teams or have been previously.
Special teams is something the team usually needs to get clicking quickly in tournament play. Very often, players who are going to be utilized in PP and PK roles are going to get assigned those very early in camp in order to get the pre-tournament reps in. They don’t always stay together for the tournament. Players in those roles, even early in camp, often are part of the final roster and are usually in those same roles early in the tournament. Some players on the bubble in camp are sometimes given a chance on special teams, however, to see if they could play a specialist role, so there’s that as well.
The exhibition game against Minnesota State Tuesday should be one of the biggest evaluation point of the camp. The U.S. coaches will have been through three practices with the group at that point. They’ll know who they want to get more looks at in a game situation and also know they’ll have two exhibitions in Sweden to try and smooth things out. Tuesday is likely to be the last chance for some bubble players to make their case.
With a camp of this size, the battles for roster spots are plentiful and perhaps less predictable than ever.
There are numerous centers in camp, or guys that can play center and wing. Because of that, it’s tough to know who the team is envisioning as a center on this team. Here are the six, who I think would be most likely to be in the crowded center competition: Danny O’Regan, Jack Eichel, J.T. Compher, Andrew Copp, Quentin Shore, Vince Hinostroza, Zach Stepan. You could possibly throw Ryan Hartman into that mix, but I think he’ll be more valuable on the right wing.
That’s a lot of capable players and most have the versatility to play in a lot of places in the lineup. That also means a lot will have to sort itself out in camp. That will be one of the most intriguing battles to watch. With so many players involved, it’s really anyone’s guess at this point.
It also may be a bit unsettling that there are that many candidates and few obvious ones for the final roster.
On the blue line, the recent addition of Jaccob Slavin really throws things for a loop. That said, I think one of Will Butcher or Anthony DeAngelo will make Team USA, but not both. They’re each solid offensive-minded defensemen who move the puck extremely well and could see power-play time and would bring good value in a seventh defenseman role.
Slavin, meanwhile has to have eyes on one of the spots occupied by Steven Santini or Brett Pesce, who are both right-shot, shut-down defensemen. Slavin has more puck-moving skills than both, but he is a lefty. His addition could also put Matt Grzelcyk on alert as a good two-way left-shot defenseman. I think Grzelcyk’s spot is pretty safe, but increasing the competition on defense is probably a good thing at this point.
On the left side, there is a group of players that could battle it out for the last spot. I think Nic Kerdiles, Stefan Matteau and Adam Erne are all but assured spots on the team. That leaves Ryan Fitzgerald, Tyler Motte, Thomas Di Pauli and perhaps Henrik Samuelsson duking it out for either a fourth-line or 13th forward-type role. Some of those players could also have to adapt to life on the right side as well to potentially seal a spot.
The goalies are all set and it is highly likely Jon Gillies will be Team USA’s starter as a returning player. That said, it is important for the goaltenders to have a good camp. Lucia has not committed to a starter yet and things could play out differently in camp. Anthony Stolarz is the primary competitor for Gillies.
Both had fair performances in the summer camp, but have been the top goalies in their respective leagues. Gillies is the more polished of the two and has WJC experience, but performance in the exhibition games can change things. I think it’s Gillies’ to lose at this point, so as long as he plays well, he should be the No. 1 guy.
There also could be a few battles that sprout up over the course of camp. The staff is going to have a pretty good idea of who they think will make the team before the first practice even, more than likely. But you don’t bring in 29 players without being a bit more open-minded. They should be. That leaves the door open for every guy on the bubble to make a statement.
For Fitzgerald, Slavin and Eichel, the three players that weren’t in the Lake Placid camp, they may have a little more to prove, but they also come in with somewhat of a clean slate. Other players in camp may have struggled in Lake Placid, like guys that were cut midway through the camp such as Samuelsson, Hinostroza and DeAngelo, already redeemed themselves with first-half performances in season. Now they have to take the next step to grab a spot on the roster.
As mentioned already, there is very little that is predictable about Team USA’s camp this year. A lot is going to have to get sorted out over the four practices and one game and even then, there might not be enough info to make sweeping cuts.
The team makeup usually leads to usually tells a lot about the style, but even before the roster is pared down to 23, the camp usually details some of the systems and general style the team will play.
Like almost all U.S. teams these days, it would appear this team has put a premium on speed and mobility. Strong skating is as big a tool on the big ice as anywhere else and can help narrow the size and skill gap facing the U.S. with other teams.
Where the camp may help show a bit more of the style is in how Team USA’s D corps is utilized. There is good balance in the group with some offensive guys, more defensive-minded players and a couple of strong two-way blueliners. The various combinations used in camp could tell just how heavy Team USA is going to go on offense or how much value it is going to put in having stronger defenders.
The forward group is what it is, so there shouldn’t be too many surprises there. Like all U.S. teams, it should be three scoring lines with a defensive, shut-down line with some grit mixed into the lineup here and there. The 13th forward spot is always one of the most interesting battles in camp as the player in that role has so often aids the flexibility in how the lineup is constructed. A number of players could fill in there.
Special teams systems will also come to light in camp as that is often an area that takes time to click. They should get some solid reps in practice and hopefully in the exhibition game as well. Special teams is also one of the most crucial areas in any tournament for any team. Having a good power play and penalty kill can be the difference in those tight contests with a lot on the line.
The camp often tells a lot about the coaching staff as well. Don Lucia has many years of head coaching experience, but he has never coached a national team in as high level a tournament as the WJC. His assistants, save for David Lassonde who was on last year’s staff working primarily with the goalies, don’t have any WJC experience either. Bob Motzko, head coach at St. Cloud State, and Greg Brown, an assistant at Boston College, have many years of experience within the age group, however.
This is an area where I think USA Hockey will really miss the strong voice of the late Tim Taylor, who was director of player personnel for the last four U.S. National Junior Teams. He knew the tournament backwards and forwards and usually knew the players better than they knew themselves. His advice on the final roster selection will be sorely missed.
That said, Jim Johannson, Team USA’s GM, has been to this tournament so many times and has seen the good and bad. His voice should be a prominent one in the final decisions on who to cut.
Though the staff is light on WJC experience, they’ve had success at the highest levels of college hockey, which obviously means a lot. There could be some challenges along the way, but as Phil Housley showed last year, lack of experience doesn’t change the job much.
It’s all about making adjustments when they need to be made. That all starts at camp as the biggest hurdle is to get the right 23 guys on the roster to be able to play with the lineup a little bit if things aren’t working out. That’s what makes the early parts of camp so crucial.
It should be a very interesting couple of days in Minneapolis. I will be attending the camp and filing reports starting on Monday and will also be taking in the exhibition game against Minnesota State. So be sure to check out all the latest on USofH throughout the process.
The camp is open to the public at the University of Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena.
Team USA Minnesota Training Camp Schedule (all times CT)
Sun., Dec. 15 – Practice – 6:30-8 p.m.
Mon., Dec. 16 – Practice – 10-11:30 a.m.
Mon., Dec. 16 – Practice – 5-6 p.m.
Tues., Dec. 17 – Practice – 10-11:30 a.m.
Tues., Dec. 17 – Exhibition vs. Minnesota State* – 7:37 p.m.
Wed., Dec. 18 – Practice – 9-10:30 a.m.
* – Game will be played at Verizon Wireless Arena in Mankato, Minn.