It's an annual tradition here that once the World Juniors ends, we take a look at the potential candidates for next year's US World Juniors team.
Here is last year's piece speculating on this year's roster. Some of it turned out to be pretty accurate. Some of it ended up cringe-inducingly inaccurate. And then this...
Jeremy Bracco nearly made the team this past year, so he's got to have a great shot next year. There's a strange relationship between Kyle Connor and USA Hockey, but he'll likely be a mid-first round draft pick this summer, they can't leave him off again.
...*cries real tears*
But that's all part of the fun of this exercise. Players will rise and fall over the next 11 months. Players like Will Borgen will come from nowhere and end up playing a big role on next year's team.
So here are some of the grinders, 200-foot players, and unsung heroes that could be wearing the red, white, and blue next season when the US heads to Canada.
Best Guess: Luke Opilka, Tyler Parsons, Jake Oettinger
Others Under Consideration: Michael Lackey, Stephen Dhillon, Matt Jurusik, Evan Sarthou, Evan Smith, Ryan Larkin, Dayton Rasmussen
Opilka would have been the third goalie/goalie-in-waiting on this year's team if he hadn't been sick. Parsons was the fourth goalie invited to this year's camp, so they probably start as the front-runners for next year. It's likely at least one goalie from the '98 birth year gets invited to gain experience for the future. Dhillon and Oettinger are the most likely candidates out of that birth year.
Best Guess: Zach Werenski*, Charlie McAvoy*, Chad Krys*, Casey Fitzgerald, Caleb Jones, Ryan Lindgren, Adam Fox
Others Under Consideration: Steve Ruggiero, Zach Osburn, Cam Dineen, Joe Masonius, Jack Sadek, Doug Blaisdell, Grant Gabriele, Ryan Shea, Joe Cecconi, Griffin Luce, Nick Boka, JD Greenway, Jacob Olson, Ryan Zuhlsdorf, John Marino, Adam Parsells, Spenser Young, Max Gildon, Josh Maniscalco, Quinn Hughes, David Farrance
We won't even pretend Noah Hanifin is an option for next year, even though he'll still technically be eligible. The big question will be the availability of Zach Werenski. Werenski anchored a very thin group this past tournament, and would likely have to do the same next year. I'd put Werenski's odds of available at 50/50, with maybe a slight edge torwards him being available.
I don't have a problem with any of the seven names in my guess, but I'd have a tough time picking an eighth name I'd feel comfortable with. It's worth noting that all seven defensemen are NTDP alums. Unless I'm forgetting somebody, there just isn't a lot outside of Program alums. I really like the mobility of this group though. Even the more defensive-minded guys like Jones and Lindgren can skate and move the puck.
Best Guess: Colin White*, Matt Tkachuk*, Alex DeBrincat*, Brock Boeser*, Clayton Keller, Kieffer Bellows, Christian Fischer, Jack Roslovic, Max Jones, Luke Kunin, Casey Mittelstadt, Brendan Warren, Erik Foley,
Others Under Consideration: Jeremy Bracco, Trent Frederic, Jordan Greenway, Willie Knierim, Riley Tufte, Tage Thompson, Dennis Yan, Michael Floodstrand, Troy Terry, Kailer Yamamoto, Drake Rymsha, Tim Gettinger, Cam Askew, Brent Gates, Tommy Novak, Robby Jackson, Chase Pearson, Scott Reedy, Evan Barratt, Grant Mismash, Michael Pastujov
Again, we won't even pretend that Auston Matthews will be an option for the United States, even though he's technically eligible. He'll be in the NHL. There's the possibility of Colin White, Brock Boeser or Matt Tkachuk not being available as well, but at this point, I would say the likelihood is low.
We'll get this out of the way first: I really want to believe next year is the year for Jeremy Bracco. But this year, it came down to a zero-sum decision between Alex DeBrincat or Bracco, and unless there is a significant change in the thinking behind creating this roster, the same issue will be there again next year. There's an extra twist in this plot with Bracco being a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect and the US playing their pool games in Toronto next year.
Overall, this looks like it should be a great forward group. The four returners were all significant contributors this year. Keller, Bellows, Roslovic, and Fischer all could have been contributors on this year's team. Kunin will be a nice veteran presence that can play a versatile role.
Mittelstadt is a bit off-the-board as a pick, and much will depend on how he looks in the first half of next year where ever he is playing, but I've never seen a reason to bet against the kid. Warren, Foley, and Knierim are exactly the type of very nice players that I'll end up cursing when the US fails to score enough in a critical game.
Check back at the beginning of next season when we know if anyone besides Matthews and Hanifin will be lost to the NHL, but I like the look of next year's team. It lacks the true star power the US has had in the last two tournament's with Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel, but maybe that will be for the better if it forces them to take a more balanced approach to their line-up. Goaltending is a bit of a question mark, but it's no less settled than last year, and that ended up working out.
The US is in a tough group next year with Canada and Russia, so there's a decent possibility of finishing third in the group and drawing Finland or Sweden in the quarterfinals. But this is a team that should definitely be in contention for a medal. It will be difficult for anyone to stop Canada on their home ice, but it would be nice to see the US give them a serious run for their money.