USA Hockey announced Thursday morning that its preliminary roster for the U.S. National Junior Team has been trimmed by two players. Erie Otters sniper Alex DeBrincat (CHI) and big Windsor Spitfires center Logan Brown (OTT) have been released from the camp. There is still one skater left to cut and the U.S. brass has to decide if they will carry three goalies or not.
Head coach Bob Motzko had said multiple times that the hope was to have the team decided before the final exhibition game on Friday night against the Czech Republic. That game was supposed to serve more as a dress rehearsal than an evaluation game, but more time is needed.
By the way, the U.S. won their first exhibition game going into the tournament, topping Switzerland 4-3. The result is irrelevant to the main story, however, which is that the U.S. roster is cut down.
Every time a player gets cut, there’s usually a pretty wide reaction. It’s going to get more engagement than almost anything outside of a team playing in a gold medal game. This is the kind of stuff people love to talk about and debate.
The general reaction in regards to DeBrincat in particular being cut is that it’s the “same old USA Hockey” leaving a scorer at home. But the way this roster is structured makes this situation unique to previous ones.
There is no question that Alex DeBrincat is a special talent. His numbers in the OHL have been incredible and once again he is among the league’s top scorers with 30 goals and 60 points in 28 games so far this season for Erie.
From a pure numbers standpoint, it’s almost unbelievable to leave him off. But there are a few elements here that make this decision at the very least understandable. Don’t confuse my rationalization of the decision with agreement. There’s just a fair case to be made that Team USA’s decision isn’t as egregious as it is being portrayed, which is why I think it deserves closer inspection.
While with the Otters, DeBrincat has been a dynamo, but within the various team settings with this particular U.S. outfit, he has been underwhelming. He also may be one of the rare would-be returnees where playing in a previous WJC hurt his chances.
DeBrincat was ejected in his first game for spearing, suffered an injury in the next game and when he returned to play, it was clear he wasn’t at 100 percent and struggled with consistency. He did manage to score one goal in the quarterfinal upon his return, however. It wasn’t his fault for the injury, but his attempts at showing he was a fit for this roster went unfulfilled.
At this summer’s evaluation camp, DeBrincat struggled. I think he might have gotten lost in the system that is so predicated on speed. While he’s not slow by any stretch of the imagination, the quickness this team plays at may not maximize his scoring potential. That became a bit more evident in the summer camp games. And while I was unable to see the exhibition against Switzerland, it sounds as though it was more of the same there.
Again, if I was picking the team, he’d be on it. Body of work matters a lot to me, but when you get so few chances to see how a player is going to fit in with the group you have, you can’t discount when something isn’t clicking. There’s just no time to experiment now.
I’ve noticed a lot of chatter on Twitter suggesting this is more of the same from USA Hockey, calling back to the many questionable decisions of the World Cup roster where proven scorers were left off for players that play more of a grinding style. That’s simply not the case with this team. DeBrincat is not being sacrificed so the U.S. can have a line of attack dogs.
Team USA does not have a traditional grind line in camp. They’re banking on their best defensive forwards being responsible while not sacrificing offense. Almost every forward on the roster is among his respective team’s top three in scoring. This U.S. team’s identity is to attack the opposing net at all times. They still have a roster that can do that and have a number of proven goal scorers like Kieffer Bellows, Tage Thompson and others.
I just can’t buy this as a traditional “sacrifice scoring for defensive responsibility” cut that often USA Hockey gets scrutinized for. There’s not one guy among the right wings that doesn’t produce at a high level for his respective team.
They have the depth to absorb this loss, but it remains a risky cut. Annual 50-goal scorers don’t produce like that by fluke. If the U.S. offense stagnates in the tournament, this is the cut everyone will remember. It will be a fair criticism if that’s the way it goes.
As for Logan Brown, his inclusion in this camp at all speaks to how much I think USA Hockey wanted to take him. They wanted to at least give him a shot to show he was healthy and ready.
Brown hasn’t played since Nov. 12 while nursing a wrist injury. It is really, really hard to go from sitting out a month to being ready for the pace of the World Juniors. Based on what was explained to Bob McKenzie of TSN, Brown was a little rusty and lacked the pace necessary to be part of this team. That’s unfortunate because he is a really solid player, but you need him at 100 percent readiness in a short tournament like this. I don’t blame Team USA for not wanting to wait and see.
He’ll be eligible for next year’s team and likely will be a key player for them.
As it stands, Team USA has its 13 forwards. Unless they choose to bring eight defensemen, this is the group the Americans will be counting on to bring the offense.
These aren’t lines… just want to show the forward roster by position.
Clayton Keller* (ARI) – Colin White (OTT) – Tage Thompson (STL)
Jordan Greenway (MIN) – Luke Kunin* (MIN) – Jeremy Bracco (TOR)
Kieffer Bellows (NYI) – Tanner Laczynski (PHI) – Joey Anderson (NJD)
Erik Foley (WPG) – Jack Roslovic (WPG) – Troy Terry* (ANA)
Patrick Harper (NSH)
* Could play center or wing.
As for the defense, the U.S. coaches actually sat two of their top guys last night to get longer looks at the guys on the bubble. That they’re no closer to deciding is a little interesting, but perhaps also a little concerning.
Knowing that the D corps is one of the areas for concern for this team, getting this last cut right is really important. Having cut DeBrincat, I don’t think there is any way this team should go into the tournament with eight D and 12 fowards. You need that extra player up front if one of your expected scorers can’t produce.
In all honesty, I have no clue what direction things are going to go in on the blue line. There are a lot of different options, but I think they have enough back there to play the system that Motzko wants them to play. Puck retrieval and distribution are the most important traits for this group.
My opinion on this U.S. team remains unchanged even amid the cuts. They have a high-end group of forwards, with a lot of scoring talent throughout. Their defense is mobile enough to contribute to the system and goaltending has a chance to be another strength of this team, no matter who starts.
They have as good a chance as any team to win the tournament in a year where many teams are depleted by NHL losses or injuries.
Expect a full tournament preview in the coming days.