Next week, USA Hockey will announce the players that will attend their World Junior Selection Camp, to select the team that will defend last year's gold medal. This is my take on which players USA Hockey should be selecting for their camp, and their final roster.
This installment will focus on the players that could make up the US team's forwards.
Others Considered: Brock Nelson, Shane Prince, Austin Watson, Tyler Pitlick, Kevin Lynch, Alex Aleardi, Nick Bjugstad, Nick Shore, Jon Parker, Jared Knight, Matt Nieto, Seth Ambroz, Kenny Ryan, Phil Lane, Shane McColgan, Tyler Maxwell
First off, we have to start with player availability. Kyle Palmieri, Jeremy Morin, and Jerry D'Amigo are all playing pro hockey this year. It was looking like a safe bet that all three would be available for the tournament, until yesterday when Jeremy Morin was called up to the NHL by the Blackhawks to replace an injured Marian Hossa. Hossa is said to be out 2-3 weeks, meaning Morin could theoretically be on his way back down to the minors just before the tournament, but he reportedly played well last night, and could be in line to stick with the Hawks. Couple that with the news yesterday that the Boston Bruins are rumored to be considering releasing Tyler Seguin to the tournament to save a couple bucks(Seriously? Couldn't you just switch your insurance to Geico instead?), and it's been a rough 24 hours for Team USA. Anyway, for the purposes of this, we'll cross our fingers and hope Morin, as well as the other two AHLers are released for the tournament. If not, pick another name from the Others Considered category.
This will be long enough as is, so in regards to the six returning forwards, I'll just say it's extremely rare for the US not to take a kid that played on a previous World Junior team, and the year after they helped win a gold medal probably isn't going to be the year they start.
As for the camp invitees, there's an incredibly deep group to choose from and a lot of tough choices are going to have to be made. There's probably only one guy from my camp invite list that I'd classify as a 'must-have'. The eight others could just as easily be switched for eight different players from the Others Considered list and you're not going to see much drop off. This is how I would compose my team though. It's going to be mess with so many variables to consider, so try to keep up.
I think Drew Shore would be the one non-returning player the US would have to pick. Shore is having a great year, and the US needs natural centers. It's a perfect fit, and hopefully Shore continues his hot play with a huge tournament.
Charlie Coyle is a high draft pick that is off to a pretty solid start this season at Boston University, and again, gives the US another option at center.
One area that seems to be lacking from the returning players is size and toughness. Something the US likes to look for, and will need from their lower lines. Chris Brown was one of the last players cut from last year's team, a move that I strongly disagreed with. He's not having as strong of a season this year, with only two power play goals, but Brown provides a big body that can hit with anyone, play solid defense, and hopefully chip in a garbage goal or two.
Mitchell Callahan of the Kelowna Rockets isn't very big, but is a tremendously tough and scrappy player, and has taken his game to the next level this season by becoming a point-per-game player in the WHL. A big part of Canada's success, other than their vasts amount of talent, obviously, is that they're able to physically intimidate teams at the international level, and I think it would be important to have the type of player that isn't going to back down.
I picked Connor Brickley for similar reasons. He's not going to score as much as some other candidates that might get left at home, but he'll throw his weight around and do the dirty work you'd need a third or fourth liner to do. The one issue with guys like Callahan and Brickley is that there is a very fine line between playing aggressive and physical hockey and taking it too far and spending too much time in the penalty box, which the US can't afford to do.
When you start breaking down the players available, there's an interesting subset of freshman WCHA players who were high NHL Draft picks last summer, but are off to relatively slow starts in the WCHA this year in Beau Bennett, Brock Nelson, and Nick Bjugstad. Most people seem to taking Bjugstad as a given to make the team, but I probably wouldn't take him based on what I've seen. Ironically, Bennett is probably the player I like the least out of the three, but I chose to go with him, simply because I think with a little more space on the ice against younger players, his elite offensive ability might be a huge benefit on the power play.
I know I was a bit down on Saad in the game I saw him play last week, but big picture, he's had an excellent season, and has performed very well for USA Hockey in the past. Same goes for Emerson Etem, who is having a very nice year in Medicine Hat.
It's not a necessity to take someone from the '93 birth year, with so much talent available, but I think Rocco Grimaldi is worthy of a spot. While some of the other candidates from the '93 year like Seth Ambroz and Shane McColgan are playing themselves out of the first round of the draft this year, Grimaldi has done nothing but impress, despite his size. I also really like Grimaldi because of the versatility he provides. He's a center, which this team needs, and while he's got some offensive talent, he's incredibly underrated as a defensive forward. He may not have the size to throw big hits, but he plays with such high intensity and speed that no one is ever going to beat him for a puck.
The one problem with my list is that there are only three natural centers on the list: Shore, Coyle, and Grimaldi. That means either sliding somebody into the middle, which is a tough transition to make, or picking somebody else. Tyler Pitlick is a possibility there. He's played some center, and while he isn't the scorer his teammate Etem is, he's pretty well-suited for a more defensive role. It's worth noting he had a bigger impact in the WCHA last year than guys like Bjugstad, Bennett, and Nelson have had this year, even if those other guys may be better long-term. Nick Shore has played some center this year too, but I'm not quite sure he's there talent-wise. I'm inclined to go with three centers and ten wings and hope somebody has enough experience at center to slide over, or that someone can learn. It's a risky proposition, especially when one of the centers is an under-ager, but it's a risk I'll take.
As for some of the other names I didn't select, Shane Prince is a name a lot of people have been talking up based on his play this year. I haven't seen him, so I didn't select him, but I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up at the camp. He's a winger whose best asset is his tremendous speed.
Austin Watson is a tough player to judge. Statistically, he's not having a very good year, but he's playing on a dreadful Peterborough team. It's tough to tell how much of that is him and how much is the supporting cast. Again, I wouldn't be shocked if he was selected.
Matt Nieto was a very tough omission. He's been a solid contributor to USA Hockey in international play in the past. But I can't see him cracking one of the top scoring lines with so many players returning, and he really isn't a good fit for a defensive checking line.
Jonathan Parker is a WHL kid that I really liked when he was younger. It's taken him a long time to put things together, but he's finally having a great year as a point-per-game player in the WHL. It may be too little, too late though with such a deep group of forwards available.
And then there is Jared Knight. People are going to say it's politics that keeps him out of camp, but if not wanting a player on your team because he continually acts like an assclown is politics, so be it. I've maybe mentioned this once or twice before, but for people that don't know the story, when AJ Jenks signed with the Plymouth Whalers, backing out on a commitment to the NTDP and Michigan, exactly like Knight, he, very privately, expressed some disappointment that he would likely never get to play in the World Juniors because of that. But publicly, he kept his mouth shut and just went out and played hockey, and eventually, he got invited to the World Juniors and ended up with a gold medal. The US team is good, but if they're going to win the gold medal again, they'll have to do it as a team, not as a collection of individuals more worried about telling you how good they are, especially when it's very debatable if they're any better than what else is out there.
Final Roster Projection: Kyle Palmieri, Jeremy Morin, Jerry D'Amigo, Jason Zucker, Chris Kreider, Ryan Bourque, Drew Shore, Charlie Coyle, Rocco Grimaldi, Brandon Saad, Mitchell Callahan, Chris Brown, Beau Bennett