MINNEAPOLIS — Three players were released from the U.S. National Junior Team’s training camp this morning. Defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and forwards Ryan Fitzgerald and J.T. Compher will not be making the trip to Sweden. Compher suffered an injury, believed to be a broken foot, in practice Monday while blocking a shot during a penalty killing drill. USA Hockey still has three cuts to make before starting the tournament, with one defenseman and two forwards still on the chopping block.
As coach Don Lucia and general manager Jim Johannson explained, the cuts were not easy to make, but it came down to what role these players would fit into and who the other options in the group were. Compher was an unexpected loss as Lucia said he was likely to make the final roster and play an important role on the team.
DeAngelo had a solid game against Minnesota State, showing his creativity, but it was stressed that the staff wanted to see him make quicker decisions with the puck and not do too much with it. Fitzgerald meanwhile struggled to find a role and the other options Team USA had were a bit stronger.
Johannson shared his thoughts on Team USA’s cuts today.
J.T. Compher: “Compher’s situation is an unfortunate thing for a hockey player,” Johannson said. “Versatility, playing in all situations, pretty well describes the kid, so obviously he’s a kid that we had pretty high aspirations for.”
Compher was more than likely going to play a big role for this U.S. team as a guy who could swing between top six and bottom six, penalty kill and give energy. Don Lucia lauded Compher for the passion he plays with and that he play’s USA Hockey’s style very well.
Losing a bit of grit and speed with Compher, the door opens more for Zach Stepan and Vince Hinostroza to try and fill that void, more than likely. Quentin Shore put a very good foot forward in last night’s exhibition that could also put him in a bigger role for this team with Compher being out.
It’s an unfortunate loss for Team USA and it’s also too bad for Compher. He’s been one of the go-to guys for USA Hockey at the U18 level and would have been a solid player in the WJC. It also hurts Michigan, as they prepare for a tough second half of the season, but a timeline for his recovery was not known at this time.
Anthony DeAngelo: “DeAngelo is a name that’s going to come back to us,” Johannson said. “He has eligibility [for next year] and he’s a good hockey player. He gets measured in a small group here and not the entire group. You gotta fit a role and do that and we’ve got some other guys right now that have a little bit of an edge.”
When Johannson is talking about the small group, he’s suggesting the players that bring similar things to the table. Fitting a role is a huge part of building this team and when it comes to gifted puck movers, the U.S. probably has more confidence in Matt Grzelcyk and Will Butcher.
Lucia also mentioned the fact that they wanted to have more size and strength on the blue line, while other players with similar skills to DeAngelo were a bit more ready. The emergence of Jaccob Slavin last night was intriguing as well, as he showed some really strong two-way capabilities. He had two assists and showed he can really find the seams.
The U.S. will only have one player to cut on defense and it is going to be very difficult to make that decision. The entire group has talent and the ability to have success at the WJC level.
Ryan Fitzgerald: “Fitzgerald is a wonderful hockey player,” Johannson said. “He does a lot of good things. Where he fit in the mix, with special teams a priority, he was an in-between guy for us this year. Part of the comment to him is, and I hate saying this, I really wish he was a ’95 for the experience he has. He’s going to be a very good hockey player. The guys that are sophomores this year are where he’s going to be at or beyond next year.”
Readiness seemed to be the big key. Fitzgerald wasn’t in camp in Lake Placid and really needed to make a statement. He didn’t play poorly against Minnesota State, but he didn’t show where he could fit in terms of a top-six, bottom-six kind of role. The U.S. just had a few more wingers that are going to be able to fit into more defined roles and have success.
The special teams factor is huge, too. Lucia wants every player on the final roster to be able to play on the power play or penalty kill if needed. They didn’t see room for Fitzgerald on the PP and he wasn’t a strong enough option on the PK.
As Johannson notes, there’s a lot of expectations for Fitzgerald going into next year. The way he’s developing at Boston College gives him a very bright outlook for the future. Unfortunately, he won’t be eligible for next year’s WJC, but he should be a great college player and will have a shot at the pros down the line.
Now the U.S. has 15 forwards, eight defensemen and all three goalies. Two more cuts up front and one on the backend remain before Team USA drops the puck on Dec. 26 against the Czech Republic.
Team USA has two exhibition games remaining: Dec. 20 vs. Sweden and Dec. 22 vs. Finland.
According to Johannson, the plan is to have the final roster decided by Dec. 23.
The camp in Minnesota was educational. The U.S. team is starting to gel a bit and there’s plenty more work to do. The leadership core is starting to develop as well, with Johannson noting he likes the support each guy has for the others and thinks some individuals are beginning to stand out, though he wouldn’t say who.
Look for Riley Barber, Ryan Hartman, Matt Grzelcyk and perhaps Andrew Copp to be in that mix though. All but Hartman sat out last night
The U.S. now has eight days to prepare for the tournament, make a final few cuts and establish their identity. There’s a lot of work left, but this team is starting to come together.