The calendar has flipped over to December, which means we're less than a month away from the 2016 World Junior Championships, which this year, will be held in Helsinki, Finland.
Canada has already announced the players that will be attending their selection camp. USA Hockey will soon be announcing the players that will attend their pre-tournament camp in Boston as well.
We already took a look at what the US roster for this could look like last January after the US suffered a disappointing quarterfinal loss in the tournament. But much has changed since then. To start, the past 11 months have been of a worst-case scenario in terms of player availability. It was expected that Jack Eichel would be playing in the NHL and wouldn't be available for this tournament. Very few people, however, expected that Dylan Larkin would be on the roster of the Detroit Red Wings this quickly and thus not available. It also was considered a bit of a longshot that Noah Hanifin would be playing in the NHL. He's not seeing huge minutes with the Carolina Hurricanes, so there is always the possibility that they release him for the tournament, but it's worth assuming he won't be there either.
So who will make this year's team? I don't know for sure, but I have a pretty good idea of who should make it. Here is the team that I would take to Finland.
And here is how I came up with that line-up...
We'll start with the forwards and go by position.
Picked: Auston Matthews, Colin White, Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller
Other options: Dominic Turgeon, Scott Eansor
For a very deep US forward group, they are extremely thin up the middle. Having Matthews, who should be the tournament's best player, helps a lot. When it comes to the tournament's bigger games, any time Matthews is able to physically stand up, he should be out on the ice. White is the other lock to play up the middle. He's having a great season and should be perfect in that #2 center role.
Beyond that, the other two spots are toss-ups. I went with DeBrincat because I think you've got to find a way to get his scoring ability into the line-up somewhere and that's a logical fit. Keller isn't a traditional pick, but I love his skill and hockey smarts. I think he'd hold up well in this tournament.
Both of those picks would be a huge departure from what USA Hockey tries to do in building their team, but unless they feel comfortable moving someone that isn't a natural center(maybe Jack Roslovic?), I don't see a lot of other valid options. Turgeon and Eansor both got invited to the summer evaluation camp because there weren't any other options up the middle, but I don't see either being a difference-maker in this tournament.
We'll see. I don't think they'll end up picking DeBrincat and Keller, but I can't see a better option. If the US ends up falling short of expectations again because they get behind in a game and can't score to catch up, this is likely the roster decision I'll be complaining about the most.
Picked: Alex Tuch, Brock Boeser, Nick Schmaltz, Jack Roslovic, Jeremy Bracco
Other options: Conor Garland, Christian Fischer, Troy Terry, Cooper Marody
There were a lot of people unhappy about Bracco and Garland not being picked last year. I was probably the loudest critic of not taking Bracco. So why do I have Bracco barely making the team as the 13th team forward and Garland on the outside looking in? As much as I wanted to get them into the line-up, look at the four names ahead of them here and try to pick one to take out. Tuch, Schmaltz, and Boeser are locks. Maybe they take one of those two over Roslovic, or Roslovic moves to center opening up a spot. Kyle Connor has also been playing right wing all season even though he's a lefty shot, so that's another must-have you could add. Bottom line is I don't have a problem excluding those guys in favor of four guys that have a good chance at being productive in this tournament.
The other very likely option here is Christian Fischer, who is more in line with the type of player USA Hockey likes to pick for their lower lines. It wouldn't be egregious if he made the roster, but with better offensive options out there, and the US likely needing a lot of goals if they're going to win this tournament, I hope they look elsewhere.
Picked: Matt Tkachuk, Sonny Milano, Kyle Connor, Christian Dvorak
Other Options: Ryan MacInnis, Jordan Greenway, Max Jones, Ryan Hitchcock, Anders Bjork, Luke Kunin, Paul Bittner
So many good options here. I think the first three I listed have to be locks. I gave Dvorak the nod for the final spot because he's having a great year, and I want a team with more speed and offensive ability that size and grit. Again, if USA Hockey sticks a little closer to what they've traditionally done, I could see MacInnis being the pick. I like the size and energy Max Jones would potentially bring to the line-up too. One of those guys, especially MacInnis, could also sneak into the line-up as the 13th forward.
Hitchcock and Bjork fit the profile of the type of guy that seems to populate the US WJC line-up every year, but I think, or at least hope, that with so much depth available this year, the US tries to put together a line-up that can score from anywhere, rather than relying on just one or two lines and hoping the bottom two can just get to the next shift.
Kunin has played great for Wisconsin this year, but I just couldn't find a place for him. I wouldn't be perplexed if he was given a camp invite and earned his way onto one of the last four forward spots. Greenway and Bittner will get consideration because of where they drafted, but neither is productive enough offensively, or uses their size effectively enough for me to justify a spot.
Picked: Zach Werenski, Caleb Jones, Casey Fitzgerald, Chad Krys
Other Options: Brandon Fortunato
Everything would look a whole lot prettier for the US if we could slot Noah Hanifin in here. I don't see if happening though.
There aren't very many options for the US on the left side, especially since Jake Walman was ruled ineligible for the US. The options they do have are good enough though. Werenski will have to be the leader of the defense and log a lot of ice time. Jones and Fitzgerald have both played well enough this year that they should be serviceable. Fitzgerald has been dependable for Boston College this year, which is something the US defense will really need.
I went with Krys as the extra defenseman because I love his offensive explosiveness. He might not be ready for this level yet, but I'd like to see him be given the ability to really cut loose and hope his tremendous talent carries him.
There's a pretty big gap between these guys and Fortunato, and unless there's a surprise name out there, no other obvious choices.
Picked: Brandon Carlo, Ryan Collins, Charlie McAvoy
Other Options: Will Borgen, John MacLeod, Jack Dougherty, Louie Belpedio, Josh Jacobs, Aaron Haydon, Jack Glover
This is the opposite problem as the left side: lots of possibilities, but not many that I feel really good about. Carlo and Collins return from last year's team. Carlo should make a solid top pairing guy that anchors things and allows Werenski to play a little more aggressively. Collins hasn't played great this year, but there really isn't anyone charging hard to take his spot. McAvoy has the talent to play at this level, but also likely makes some big mistakes that hopefully don't come at the wrong time.
Among the other options, Will Borgen has never really been in the mix for this type of thing, but he's playing big minutes on one of the best college hockey teams in the country and frankly, outplaying many of the other more traditional candidates right now. Josh Jacobs got off to a slow start in Sarnia, but has played well recently and could be an option.
It's not a given that the US will go for an even split of left and right handed defensemen. Canada invited nine lefties and only two righties to their camp. But unless the US cuts Zach Werenski(they won't), there isn't going to be anybody left off this roster that you really hate being cut. With no big differences in talent, you may as well even things up and put all the D in the best possible position to be successful.
Picked: Brandon Halverson, Alex Nedeljkovic, Luke Opilka
These are pretty much the only three options. Halverson and Nedeljkovic were groomed for this job last year. It looked like Halverson would earn the starting job. He was first off the bench at last year's tournament and had a far better year than Nedeljkovic last year. But Halverson's numbers haven't been as strong this year. Goaltending certainly doesn't look like a strength for this year's squad, but it's a short tournament and all that really matters is getting hot at the right time. Let's hope the US goalies do get hot, because they'll likely need to bail out their defense a few times in this tournament.