2017 World Juniors: Team USA Notebook — USA-SUI Exhibition preview; Roster thoughts; Where’s the WJC Buzz?

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The U.S. National Junior Team has crossed the border after their five-day camp in Buffalo. Wednesday also marks a crucial evaluation day as the team looks to pare down its roster from 26 to 23, or possibly even 22 if they end up deciding to cut a goalie.

Team USA will be taking on Switzerland in Oshawa tonight at 7 p.m. ET. Unfortunately, it does not sound like any live stream will be available for the game, which is going to makes analyzing Team USA’s decisions a bit more difficult for those of us not there. However, the lack of availability of the game is another example of something I’ve noticed about this World Juniors in particular, which I’ll get into a bit more below.

The big news of the day, however, is that the U.S. roster could be decided as soon as tonight. The team hopes to make the cuts after the game so that they can go into their final pre-tournament contest Friday with their roster. Barring injury, illness or a decision they can’t just bring themselves to make yet, at least three players could learn their fate. The hope is to have the decision made by Thursday.

Team USA has typically brought 13 forwards and seven defensemen to the tournament, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that they go 12 and eight instead. I don’t think it’s overly likely, but it is possible. They also have the option of bringing three goalies with them, but don’t have to take all three. U.S. GM Jim Johannson told Mike Morreale of NHL.com that it hasn’t been decided yet if the team will bring all three or send one home. That probably won’t be official until after the final exhibition.

The picture becomes clearer within the next 24 hours, either way. So let’s get into some notes. UPDATE: Includes official lineup for tonight’s pre-WJC game:

What to watch for in the exhibition

Since a lot of you aren’t going to be able to watch the pre-tournament game against Switzerland, there’s not going to be a lot to watch.

There are a few things we already know anyway. Under head coach Bob Motzko, Team USA is going to play their typical up-tempo style. Motzko’s teams at St. Cloud State have been offensively dynamic, even though it has only been a more recent development that SCSU is attracting elite-level recruits. This U.S. team is not going to be sitting back on anyone and their defensemen are going to be extremely involved on the rush.

Another thing to keep an eye out for is the lineup sheet. Part of this game is evaluating the players on the bubble, but there’s also going to be some lines that they are testing out for the tournament. They have such a small window to come together in, so getting chemistry going quickly is a big factor. It will also be interesting to see how they decide to play the goalies with only two games before the tournament opens.

One of the things that the team has also spent a lot of time on this week is the structure of their special teams. It appears as though the top unit is going to feature four forwards and one defenseman. They have so many different options to choose from, it’s almost silly. A good power play can be a major factor in the tournament. Seeing who gets the bulk of the PP time tonight might be telling as to what they’re thinking.

USA Hockey is expected to post a line chart later today, which I’ll add to this post and breakdown later.

UPDATE: Here is the lineup for tonight’s game via USA Hockey:

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Some quick thoughts on the lineup:

  • I think that top line has a real good chance to stay as is. I thought we’d see Keller in the middle, but he’s going to be strong wherever he plays. Anything to maximize his potential offensively is a good move.
  • Wouldn’t be surprised if the fourth line is all vying for two spots with everyone else relatively safe. We know Kunin, who is not playing tonight, is a lock to make the team, while Greenway would appear to be a player likely to be on the roster. Greenway is a left winger, which seemed like the position they weren’t quite as deep in.
  • Patrick Harper going from being a guy who wasn’t invited to the summer camp to getting some run on a top-six line is intriguing to say the least. I have heard rave reviews about the dynamic elements of his game and think he has impressed enough to earn at minimum a spot as the team’s 13th forward.
  • USA’s top two defensemen on paper aren’t playing, giving each of the remaining six a lot of opportunity to shine. I’d think it may come down to Ahcan, Krys and Cecconi for who they’ll cut, but this is a tough unit to predict. Ahcan and Krys are pretty good fits for the style this team wants to play, while Cecconi is their biggest blueliner in camp.
  • I can’t say for sure, but I think Oettinger not playing is a good sign for him. This should be a chance to get a look at both of the other two goalies, assuming they rotate. We’ll see if Oettinger ends up starting the second exhibition matchup.

Wednesday night scratches

Per John Matisz, who is covering Team USA in Oshawa for the Toronto Sun, Team USA will have Charlie McAvoy, Caleb Jones, Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway and Troy Terry sit out among the skaters. Also, it was determined that Jake Oettinger will be the goalie on the sidelines.

McAvoy and Kunin are captains, so you know they’re already on the team. It appears safe to assume the same for Jones and maybe Greenway. However, I don’t believe this scratch bodes well for Troy Terry, who is currently leading the University of Denver in scoring this season.

While it’s merely speculation, Terry appeared to be a bubble candidate and was hard for me to figure out where he fit. He certainly has the ability to play for this team, but it’s a tough forward group to crack. We’ll have to see what happens with him when cuts are revealed.

The goaltending situation

It was generally assumed that the U.S. would take all three goaltenders with them to the tournament, but that may not end up being the case. Johannson told NHL.com that they will be evaluating the goalies all the way through the exhibition against the Czechs.

The decision on whether or not to keep all three in Canada will likely end up coming down to either wanting the added flexibility of an extra goalie, or perhaps even more likely, if the No. 3 guy on the depth chart will be able to accept that limited role. It’s a tough pill to swallow for any competitor, but the ones that accept the role can still be a valued teammate. Since this tournament isn’t overseas, it wouldn’t be hard to call back a goalie if one of the other two get hurt, but sometimes it works to bring all three.

Tyler Parsons is expected to get the start against Switzerland, but I’m not sure how long he will end up playing or who will end up backing him up. Jake Oettinger and Joe Woll are likely get their chances in live game action, too, as the competition closes out.

Kieffer Bellows and the importance of body of work

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Kieffer Bellows (USA Hockey)

One of the players I singled out in my preview piece in terms of potentially being on the bubble is Kieffer Bellows. The Boston University forward and New York Islanders first-rounder, has had some early-season struggles in his first collegiate season. He ended up a healthy scratch in each of his team’s last two games heading into camp.

That said, Bellows has been working with Team USA’s power plays, which is a good indication that they are giving him every chance to make the team. This is where body of work can carry a player over what he did in the first half of the season.

Despite just four goals and two assists in 15 games for BU, this is a player who scored 50 goals for the U.S. Under-18 Team last season. Only three other players in the history of the National Team Development Program have hit the 50-goal mark in a season. They are Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel (twice). Five of those 50 goals came for Team USA at the World U18 Championship, too. That doesn’t just get swept under the rug.

There’s no question that he has a tremendous scoring ability and his overall body of work, which is something I think should always be valued over “who’s hot” the first half of the season, justifies his inclusion if he does end up making it.

Special Teams

NHL.com’s Joe Yerdon reported that Team USA was using a power play unit that featured Clayton Keller, Tage Thompson, Colin White, Kieffer Bellows and Charlie McAvoy during one of the final practices in Buffalo. The amazing thing about this power play unit is that even with four forwards and one defenseman, you look at all of their other power play options among the forwards.

You almost can’t go wrong with the units you pick, but it all comes down to cohesion and chemistry. These guys have experience playing with each other, which plays a big role.

Also, it appears you can expect Luke Kunin and defenseman Adam Fox to be part of another power play unit. There are a lot of other candidates to fill in the holes that haven’t been mentioned. We’ll see who gets some run during the exhibition game.

Is it just me?

Or is this year’s World Junior Championship extremely low on the regular buzz that usually surrounds the tournament? I haven’t gotten the sense that there is much excitement among fans that normally seem to get into the tournament.

The exhibition games have almost always been live streamed over the last few years, but that won’t be the case this time around. There’s not a humongous audience for it, but the fact that no one is doing it this year — save for TSN airing Canada’s pre-tournament games on TV — leaves a lack of consumable content to attract fans and build some momentum around the tournament before it begins.

Part of this apparent lack of buzz has to be about the relative lack of star power among the draft eligible crop. Over the last three years we’ve had Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, or Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi in the same year. This year, consensus No. 1 Nolan Patrick couldn’t play due to injury and the 2017 NHL Draft class is really not all that thrilling compared to the last few drafts.

That said, I think there’s more to it than that. Part of it may be international hockey fatigue. Or maybe it’s just World Junior fatigue. It’s hard to explain.

For many years, the World Juniors has been the international appetizer that comes around annually to kind of keep fans engaged while they wait for the big show that is the Olympics. The WJC’s parity in recent years has made for compelling tournaments that has gained interest at a growing pace since 2010.

But this year, things are different. The presence of the World Cup may have sucked some of the life out of this tournament. That tournament consumed enough attention to make it a little more difficult to get back up for another international tournament with fewer recognizable names just a few months later.

The WJC is already up against it anyway as it is still a niche event within a niche sport. It’s going after a segment of the overall hockey audience that already has a lot to follow. On top of that, when the tournament is in North America, the WJC games will be in direct competition with NHL games. It’s hard to get fans to divide their attention to make room for the WJC when there are other things to focus on.

Another reason that I think this year lacks buzz is that the tournament isn’t all that big a deal in the markets it’s being held. Sure, Canadian fans love this tournament and the buildings will be mostly full, but after hosting the tournament with underwhelming attendance numbers two years ago, it’s hard to get excited about Toronto and Montreal again. Aside from the memorable final in 2015, the big storyline of that tournament was the lack of excitement the big markets were able to muster for non-Canada games.

Or maybe everyone is just worn out from the rollercoaster that was 2016.

Whatever the explanation, I probably shouldn’t judge the buzzworthiness of the event until it actually starts. If the U.S. and Canada can bring the heat this year, things will pick up just in time for their New Year’s Eve matchup. If it doesn’t, well… we might have some things to talk about. This just stood out to me as an unusually low level of excitement for the coming tournament.

USofH on the Air

USofH_FBI was on Lowdown with Lowetide on TSN 1260 in Edmonton talking Team USA and the NHL Draft here.

Also, be sure to check out my radio show “This Week in the NHL” on Lightning Power Play. You can listen when the show airs live here, or download the iHeart Radio app to catch the show live on Saturdays and Sundays. Search “Lightning Power Play” in the iHeart app.

On Saturday’s show (and we’ll have replays Sunday, Monday and Tuesday as well), I’ll be joined by Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News for a full World Juniors preview. We’ll hit on Team USA, but take a bigger look at the tournament overall. Hope you’ll check it out.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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