The U.S. National Junior Team opens camp Friday in Buffalo with 26 players vying for 23 spots as the Americans seek to improve on a bronze medal finish from last season.
To do that, Team USA’s head coach Bob Motzko is going to need to find the right mix with two cuts to make among forwards and one on the blue line. It appears as though all three goaltenders named to camp will be on the roster USA Hockey submits before the tournament, with each of the invitees having an honest shot at the No. 1 job.
Team USA will hold a series of practices at the HarborCenter in Buffalo starting Friday morning and running through Dec. 20 before heading to Oshawa, Ontario for the remainder of camp.
The team has often played at least one exhibition game against a college team before the end of the U.S. based portion of the camp, but that won’t be happening this year, which means one less opportunity for Team USA candidates to make their case in a game setting. The Americans will, however, be playing two pre-tournament exhibitions against Switzerland and the Czech Republic before the tournament. The final roster is expected to be announced on Dec. 24.
With all of that in mind, let’s get into what to know about Team USA as camp nears…
Brock Boeser’s injury will leave a big hole, but not a devastating one
The University of North Dakota announced Wednesday that sophomore forward Brock Boeser underwent surgery on his right wrist. He won’t be able to return to action until January, meaning USA will be without a player that almost certainly would have been one of their top two right wingers.
The Vancouver Canucks first rounder would also have been a returning player from last year’s team and in a much better position to contribute this time around. Boeser had a relatively underwhelming first WJC, finding himself slipping down the lineup. However, based on his play in the second half of last season for the national champs and 16 points through 13 games so far this season, he’d have been a big part of things for the U.S.
The good news for the Americans is that for the third straight year, they’ll boast remarkable forward depth coming into camp. They have two of the top three scorers in the OHL in Jeremy Bracco (TOR) and Alex DeBrincat (CHI), each of whom would likely play on the right side for this team. I think both would have been locks anyway, but Boeser’s absence only raises their value to the team. The same goes for Tage Thompson (STL), who was one of Team USA’s best forwards in the summer camp and has continued scoring at UConn this season. He has 12 goals and 18 points in 20 games this year and very well could assume a top-six role for the U.S.
While losing Boeser hurts, the depth is there to absorb it.
The real wild card of the camp, and the player who may most benefit from Boeser’s absence, is Patrick Harper of Boston University. The Nashville Predators fifth-rounder was the only player invited to this camp who wasn’t also in the summer evaluation camp. He is BU’s leading scorer with 20 points in 17 games and is incredibly dynamic. Having gone directly from prep school to college, he flew under the radar, but could play his way into a role on this team.
Minnesota Duluth freshman Joey Anderson (NJD) is another forward who should see the door open wider to him, without this outright guaranteeing him a spot.
There were a lot of years where a loss like Boeser would have been a death knell for a U.S. squad. This year, it’s more of a speed bump.
Who is the No. 1?
The U.S. is bringing three goalies to camp that all have an excellent case to be the club’s No. 1 goalie. BU’s Jake Oettinger is the draft-eligible prospect that many are interested in seeing, but London Knights goalie Tyler Parsons (CGY) and Boston College’s Joe Woll (TOR) are having great seasons themselves.
Parsons is the lone 19-year-old among the goalies and helped backstop the Knights to the Memorial Cup last season. This year, he is tied for third among OHL goalies with a .916 save percentage while winning 11 of his 16 starts. That championship pedigree and extra year of experience help make Parsons an attractive option.
Meanwhile, Oettinger has the glossiest numbers with a .932 save percentage through his first 15 collegiate starts. The first-round buzz has been growing around the 6-foot-4, 205-pound netminder, which may speak as much to the relative lack of depth in the draft as it does to Oettinger’s overall talent, but he’s got a lot of talent.
Meanwhile, his old NTDP tandem-mate is making some big saves on Chestnut Hill for the rival Eagles. Woll has made 17 starts for BC, while posting a .917 save percentage and looking like a very calm presence between the pipes.
Both Oettinger and Woll split time in net at last year’s World U18 Championship, with both performing extremely well in a tournament that ended with a bronze medal.
It’s a really tough decision for Motzko, but the good news is that if one of them falters, there’s another high-end goalie to go to right on the bench. But goaltending is no doubt going to be hugely important for this team because….
Finding the right mix on defense is crucial
There is no doubt that this team’s weakness will be on its blue line. While the forwards can absorb the losses of Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk and the injured Boeser, the blue line is going to be hurting with the best age-eligible rearguards, Zach Werenski and Noah Hanifin, busy in the NHL. Werenski put together one of the best individual performances by a U.S. defenseman I’ve seen in the WJC last year, so there’s just not a lot anyone could do to replace him.
This time around, it’s going to be up to Boston Bruins first-rounder Charlie McAvoy to anchor a blue line that has talent, but some noticeable limitations. Having watched the games from the summer camp, McAvoy really stepped up and appeared to take on a leadership role. Expect him to log a lot of minutes and play in all situations.
There is only one cut to make on the back end and that’s going to be a real challenge. My gut says that it is going to come down to BU’s Chad Krys (CHI) and undrafted Jack Ahcan who plays for Motzko at St. Cloud State and remains draft eligible this year.
Krys is a returnee from last year, but he struggled with the World Junior pace and his production has been minimal at BU this season. He has just three points in 17 games so far for a team with a lot of weapons. But he is very much a known quantity with valuable tournament experience.
Meanwhile, Ahcan is producing at a pretty solid clip with 13 points through 15 games in his first collegiate season as a 19-year-old. He is 5-foot-7 and 184 pounds, which is a challenge only because the rest of the blue line isn’t huge, but he’s got really good offensive instincts. On top of that, Motzko has seen him all year and should have a good knowledge of how to deploy him in this setting.
While figuring out who to cut is going to be a big part of the camp, finding the pairings that work is more important.
I would say there is a high likelihood that McAvoy and Caleb Jones (EDM) are the top pairing the U.S. sticks with. I at least think they’re the right- and left-shot defensemen best equipped for the duty. Ryan Lindgren (BOS) and Casey Fitzgerald (BUF) would appear to be a potential match, too. Both of those pairings made up the top four in Team USA’s final summer evaluation camp game against Canada, which the U.S. won handily, 5-1.
That said, the U.S. may need to find a way to get Adam Fox (CGY) into an elevated role. He is Harvard’s second-leading scorer as a true freshman with 16 points in 11 games and has continually produced as his game continues to mature. With his playmaking abilities, he’s going to be able to get the puck in the hands of those super talented forwards.
Meanwhile, the U.S. will have it’s only true “shutdown” defenseman in Joseph Cecconi (DAL). He is also the only defenseman taller than 6-0 on the roster, coming in at 6-2, 222. It’s a smaller blue line, which is why I think we’ll see Cecconi likely earns a spot despite his limited production
That leaves Krys or Ahcan as a potential seventh, if this ends up being how things shake out.
Strength down the middle
It had been so rare for the U.S. to have great centers, but as we’ve seen over the last few years with Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews, the talent gap is narrowing at this important position.
Team USA seems to have an abundance of talent down the middle here.
BU’s Clayton Keller (ARI), who returned from injury just in time to make the U.S. roster, is the most dynamic player on the roster. He can play wherever you need him to, but he makes a lot of sense as the No. 1 center for this team. All of the pieces are in place for him to have a massive tournament now that he’s healthy.
Then the U.S. has the supremely versatile Colin White (OTT), one of the breakout performers of last year’s WJC team, and Wisconsin’s Luke Kunin (MIN), who actually has been playing a lot of wing for the Badgers. The good thing about both of these guys is that they have enough two-way skills to help with matchups. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kunin shift to a wing, but he spent some time in the middle in the summer camp.
Big Logan Brown (OTT) more than likely has to be in your top nine up front. His performance in the U18s last year and continued success with Windsor should make him a weapon. He could be a good fit with the smaller guys like DeBrincat and/or Bracco.
But it doesn’t stop there because I haven’t even mentioned Jack Roslovic (WPG), who is having a tremendous rookie year in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose. He’s in line to be the only pro player on Team USA’s roster, coming into the tournament as the AHL’s fourth-leading rookie scorer with 19 points in 25 games for the Moose.
And there’s even more: Tanner Laczynski (PHI) is having a sensational year for Ohio State and is probably a candidate to be Team USA’s fourth-line center. And if he’s your fourth line guy, he’s one that is leading his team in scoring with 22 points in 15 games. Don’t look for a traditional grind line on this squad.
Meanwhile, there’s also Denver’s Troy Terry (ANA), who is playing center and leading the second-ranked Pioneers in scoring with 17 points so far this season. He played wing in the summer camp, though, so he is less likely to fit into the center mix here, especially due to the uncertainty on the left wing.
Having center depth like this just didn’t happen a few years ago, so this is an important development for USA Hockey.
Speaking of the left side…
The U.S. has some tough decisions to make in general, but filling out the left wing is a little more challenging due to the season Kieffer Bellows (NYI) is having at Boston University.
After scoring 50 goals at the NTDP last season while skating alongside Clayton Keller, Bellows is off to a tough start for BU. He has four goals and six points in 15 games for the Terriers and was a healthy scratch for their last two games. Adjusting to the college pace appears to be the issue with Bellows right now. It’s only faster at the WJC.
That said, Bellows is a tremendous shooter and has a nose for the net. He may have to have a pretty incredible camp to make the roster based on where his game is at right now. If he’s not ready, the U.S. is going to have to make some adjustments.
The door opens wider for Terry in this instance, while it looks like Jordan Greenway (MIN) and Erik Foley (WPG) can probably pack for an extended stay in Canada.
Then the U.S. has to figure out which of their centers can slide in or which of their right wingers are a fit to play on their weaker side.
The best part about all of it is that they have so many options to play with, which isn’t always the case.
Without being in Buffalo and no exhibition games to cover before Dec. 21, I’ll be keeping an eye on things, but I highly recommend also following:
Dave Starman, color commentator for NHL Network’s WJC coverage
Steve Mears, play-by-play for NHL Network’s WJC coverage
They’ll often have the most up-to-date info, but I’ll be working on things from back here.
Stay tuned for more coverage throughout the week and as the tournament gets closer.
It’s great to be back.