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Alex DeBrincat Should Be Playing in the World Juniors

Erie Otters v Niagara IceDogs Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

I really thought I wasn’t going to have to do this this year. Not after three consecutive underwhelming performances in this tournament due to a lack of offense, and a very public embarrassment at this summer’s World Cup of Hockey. I thought the days of USA Hockey punishing themselves with a self-imposed salary cap were over.

But USA Hockey decided to go with the same strategy that failed last year, choosing between Jeremy Bracco and Alex DeBrincat for a “scoring role,” only this time, choosing the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect to avoid a media firestorm when the team played in Toronto. That means Alex DeBrincat, one of the top goal-scorers in the OHL with two consecutive 50-goal seasons, and 30 goals in 28 games so far this season, will be sitting at home this year rather than representing the United States.

There were plenty of excuses to try to justify the decision, and none made a lot of sense. Let’s start with the “DeBrincat was terrible in last year’s tournament” meme that has been going around. Yes, it was bad that he took a dumb penalty in his first game. But after that, he got hurt in his second game. We’re punishing a kid with his track record for one bad game and then sustaining an injury?

And let’s not lose sight of the fact that the whole reason so much focus was placed on DeBrincat’s importance in a scoring role was that once he got hurt, there was no depth behind him after Team USA chose not to even invite Jeremy Bracco and Kyle freakin’ Connor to their preliminary camp.

Meanwhile, I watched Tanner Laczynski play last year during the World Juniors too, and he was fine for a USHL player, but not exactly lighting the world on fire. He certainly didn’t look like he belonged in last year’s tournament. So why does DeBrincat’s performance 12 months ago deserve such tougher scrutiny than other players that made the roster?

DeBrincat was also apparently terrible at the August summer camp too. My wrist would get tired making an inappropriate hand gesture before I could fully convey my feelings towards that summer camp. If USA Hockey wants to use it to introduce systems and build chemistry, then fine. But there is no reason it should be an evaluation tool. It’s summer hockey, and extremely foolish to value that over real games. I’d rather they just got rid of the whole thing if all it is going to do is provide flimsy cover for baffling, terrible roster decisions.

Other excuses include that DeBrincat is too soft and “only a juniors player”. Well, it’s a tournament for junior hockey players—It’s even in the name of the tournament!—and DeBrincat has established himself as one of the best players in one of the best junior leagues in the world. He should be in this tournament.

The irony of the situation is that Bob Motzko would not be coaching Team USA if he hadn’t been so successful at St. Cloud State, built largely on the success of recruiting extremely skilled players that were passed over by other schools because they lacked size. Players like Ryan Lasch, Garrett Roe, Kalle Kossila, David Morley, Jimmy Murray, and Mikey Eyssimont.

But it really shows that this is an institutional problem for USA Hockey. They’ve done some amazing work at the grassroots level to really increase the talent pool that they have to choose from, but the people in charge of picking these teams are still stuck in the mentality that they have to pull off a Miracle on Ice to win a gold medal.

So just like last year, we’ll see how it goes. Maybe Team USA wins gold anyway. But if they don’t, the first place to put the blame will be on the fact that they didn’t bring their best possible roster to the tournament yet again.