Coming into the year as the defending World Junior Champions is an enviable position, but the last eight years have shown just how hard it is to repeat. Since Canada’s run of five consecutive world titles, no team has won the WJC in consecutive years.
The Americans will be looking to do it, on home ice no less as they head to Buffalo in 2018 in the very same position they were in, in 2011. The first steps toward the repeat bid were taken last week at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Mich. The Americans convened over nine days to practice and play in a series of games with the last three coming with a pared down roster against top WJC opponents Sweden, Finland and Canada.
The defending champs won all three games and went 7-2 when you include the split-squad games before cuts were made at camp.
I used to be able to spend a lot more time watching the games from this camp, but didn’t have that luxury this time. I did, however, watch the last three games after cuts which brought forth a lot of valuable viewing and information about this group.
Knowing that it’s summer hockey and because I only was able to watch the last three games, I wasn’t able to get a full read on every player that came to camp. I still took some to collect some overall thoughts based on what I was able to see. A lot tends to reveal itself in a short amount of time in these types of settings.
Team USA Outlook
Coming out of this camp, Team USA has to feel good about themselves. It’s kind of easy to feel good about your chances in August, but it was definitely encouraging to see such a strong effort from the American hopefuls throughout the camp.
The U.S. squad beat Sweden, Finland and Canada by scores of 3-2, 4-3 and 7-5, respectively, over the last three games. They weren’t all pretty, but they all had to be assuring to head coach Bob Motzko.
The coaching staff, entirely the same from last year’s team, is going to have some difficult decisions, but I think they’re going to feel really good about their long list for the final roster coming out of this camp. That starts with the returnees from last year’s gold medal squad and extends to the remaining players that managed to make it through early cuts. I also think there were three or four players sent home either because of injury or as a cut that will keep themselves in the mix, most notably forward Max Jones, defenseman Chad Krys — who was cut last year after playing in the 2016 WJC — and underager Oliver Wahlstrom.
This team’s strength, just as it was last year, will be in their forward depth. They have skill throughout the lineup with a lot of high-end talent at the top. I’m not sure it’s quite as deep as last year’s club, but it is fairly close. New faces not on last year’s team, particularly Casey Mittelstadt, Ryan Poehling and Brady Tkachuk, are going to be among the players the U.S. will be looking for consistent production from.
Again, like last year, the defense isn’t necessarily a weakness but there are a few concerns on the back end. Finding a player that can give them the kind of quality minutes Charlie McAvoy gave them last year is probably the stiffest challenge for the coaching staff. That said, returnee Adam Fox — a very different player in terms of skillset from McAvoy — asserted himself in this camp as a big-time player. More on him in a bit. The one thing that mitigates the lack of overall depth is the quality of puck-movers in this group. Fox and Quinn Hughes are dynamic and will likely be key players in the U.S. getting the better of their opponents in the possession game.
We already knew coming in that goaltending was going to be a source of strength as well. Joseph Woll and Jake Oettinger will certainly be dueling for the No. 1 job from now until the puck drops at the WJC, but Keith Petruzelli and Dylan St. Cyr both made strong cases to be the No. 3. Just as there was last year with Tyler Parsons, Woll and Oettinger, the U.S. has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to goalies.
No one is handing out gold medals in August, but this U.S. squad is very much a top contender.
One thing to note, as pointed out by my pal Jake Baskin — the roster that played against Canada in the summer camp last year was almost exactly the roster they took in the tournament. There was a difference of three players, two of which were not available for the WJC and a third, Logan Brown, was coming off of injury heading into the pre-tournament camp from which he was cut.
That’s not to say it’s a lock that the roster used in Saturday’s game against Canada is a lock for the roster in December, but it’s a pretty solid guide. So here it is for future reference:
Brady Tkachuk – Ryan Poehling – Joey Anderson
Casey Mittelstadt – Logan Brown – Kailer Yamamoto
Kieffer Bellows – Trent Frederic – Patrick Harper
Josh Norris – Jack Badini – Riley Tufte
Dylan Samberg – Adam Fox
Quinn Hughes – Andrew Peeke
Mikey Anderson – Phil Kemp
I’m going to put together a few notes on the returning players based on what I saw over the last three games, but I’m going to exclude the goalies. If there’s one group of players this camp won’t tell you a ton about it’s the kids between the pipes. I don’t think there’s any doubt if they’re healthy Woll and Oettinger are on the roster. Also, defensman Ryan Lindgren was unable to play during camp due to injury, but I’d expect him to be on the team.
Adam Fox (Harvard, CGY) — Among the returning players, Fox couldn’t have finished stronger. With seven points over his last two games, including five in the 7-5 win over Canada, Fox showed why he’s going to be a major asset in this tournament. While he is going to turn the puck over from time to time, the benefit to the way he plays far outweighs the risk. With great on-ice vision and decisiveness with the puck, he can make the offense go from the back end. He was simply lethal with the puck on his stick. Also, Olympic head coach Tony Granato told TSN Fox is very much in the mix to be on his roster, too.
Joey Anderson (Minnesota-Duluth, NJD) — Anderson had a quiet cap in terms of production until scoring a hat trick in the last game and adding an assist. Seeing him assert himself offensively is encouraging, especially since he’s more in a top six role for this team compared to last time around. His versatility is a big factor in why he’ll have a sizable role at the next World Juniors. I really like the idea of a line featuring him, Ryan Poehling and Brady Tkachuk. They’re really strong together.
Patrick Harper (Boston University, NSH) — Harper didn’t see much action in last year’s tournament as the 13th forward, but I think he’ll see more regular shifts going forward. The highly-skilled forward put up seven points over six games in camp, including a pair against Canada in the finale. He also saw time on USA’s power play and showed excellent distribution skills. Among USA’s forwards, he’s one of the craftiest.
Kieffer Bellows (Portland Winterhawks, NYI) — I think Bellows will still be on the team come December, but he finished the camp with one assist and didn’t necessarily look terribly sharp. He did have 13 shots on goal and had a few flashes in the little bit I saw. I’d fully expect him to light things up for Portland this season and make his case for the final roster, but I think he’s one returnee with a little more to prove. Bellows wasn’t stellar in last year’s tournament until he scored two huge goals in the gold medal game.
The “New” Guys
Casey Mittelstadt (Minnesota, BUF) — After a tremendous draft season that ended with him going eighth overall to the Sabres, Mittelstadt came into this camp vastly improved from this time last year. The assertiveness in his game after his last high school season and some time in the USHL is why he should be an offensive leader at this year’s tournament. Over six games in Plymouth, he had nine points including three assists in two appearances after cutdowns. Playing alongside Logan Brown and Kailer Yamamoto — a trio that dominated the 2016 U18 Championship — Mittelstadt controlled shifts many times he was on the ice. He is one of those players that the more I get to see of him, the more I like what he’s able to do. The on-ice confidence he seemed to carry into this camp will make him one of the key players Team USA leans on come December. Sabres fans are going to get a pretty solid first look at him on home ice.
Ryan Poehling (St. Cloud State, MTL) — Considering Bob Motzko is his head coach all year long, there’s little doubt Poehling is going to make the team. But that’s not why he’ll make it. Identified as one of Team USA’s best players throughout camp, Poehling looks poised to be a top-six center on this team. I’d expect him to play a very similar role on this year’s team as Luke Kunin did on last year’s championship squad as his two-way abilities are really strong. He had five points over his last two games and seven total.
Logan Brown (Windsor, OTT) — Though Mittelstadt seems to be the straw that stirs the drink on Brown’s line, the chemistry is undeniable. Along with Yamamoto, this trio really is a menace in the offensive zone. Between Mittelstadt’s and Yamamoto’s skill and Brown’s size making space and getting to good spots of the ice, I think it’s unlikely they’ll be split up as one of USA’s top offensive units.
Kailer Yamamoto (Spokane, EDM) — Yamamoto just makes plays. He’s a really smart hockey player and has the skills to make opponents play in open ice. The Oilers first-rounder gets a fair amount of it with teams having to also worry about both Brown and Mittelstadt on the same shift. Even if he was away from those two players, he’d be a lot to handle for opposing defenses.
Brady Tkachuk (Boston University, 2018) — It’s pretty clear Tkachuk is a likely top-10 pick, with some projecting closer to top-five. Brady gets compared a lot to dad Keith and brother Matthew, and rightfully so. There are a lot of similarities when it comes to snarl combined with offensive abilities. He’s also a really, really smart player. Pretty much everything he does leads to positive output. He’s hard on the forecheck and a menace in front of the net. Then he has the skill to finish. Tkachuk is the right kind of tough for today’s game and for this tournament.
Quinn Hughes (Michigan, 2018) — Another late birthdate on track for a first-round selection, Hughes played a very mature game in Plymouth. With the Under-18s last year he had a lot more freedom to freelance and take some chances. I think he picked his spots more carefully in this camp and it largely paid off. Seeing him last year, I can’t recall another NTDP defenseman that was that dynamic at his age. He finished camp with five points and showed some great poise on power play. I can’t see this team without him on it.
Riley Tufte (Minnesota-Duluth, DAL) — I wanted to point out Tufte because I think he’s come a long way in a year. I saw a few games of his with UMD last year and he just wasn’t up to speed. He got better as the year progressed and I think he entered this camp with a lot more confidence and as a better player. I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement and I’ll be interested to see if he ends up making the team. At his size, he has to be more assertive and harder on pucks. I look at what Jordan Greenway did last year for the World Juniors and they could really use a guy like that. I’m not sure the similarly-sized Tufte is ready to be that yet, though. There’s a chance he could grow into that over the next half season and Tufte will be a player I’ll be watching especially closely in the first half.
Mikey Anderson (Minnesota-Duluth, LAK) — There’s a pretty good chance we’re going to see brothers on the World Junior team. Mikey could join Joey after a tremendous season last year with Waterloo in the USHL and a strong showing in camp. He moves the puck well and keeps it relatively simple. He saw some time on the PK, too.
David Farrance (Boston University, NSH) — I don’t know if Farrance will make the final roster — he very well could — but even if he doesn’t, this was awesome:
Andrew Peeke (Notre Dame, CBJ) — Aside from Ryan Lindgren, Peeke is one of the better shutdown options for this team. He has good size and was very steady in this camp. Lindgren is a right-shot, Peeke is a left-shot, which could work out situation-wise for Motzko’s staff. He keeps things simple, but has great mobility to go with good size.
Sean Dhooghe (Wisconsin, 2018) — Dhooghe only had one goal throughout camp, but he made the last game as a 13th forward and if he makes Team USA, it’s probably in that role. I’m not convinced he’ll be there this year, but we could see him next year. I just wanted to make sure the record shows that I am one of the many out there that is fully bought in on Dhooghe as a folk hero. At 5-foot-3, 140 pounds, he went undrafted last year. His odds are long to make it, but is he ever tenacious and fun to watch. The kid doesn’t back down. He’s easy to root for.
That’s all for now. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter if you wanted some thoughts on players I didn’t mention.