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U.S. Concludes NJEC with 5-1 Thumping of Canada

Boston University defenseman and Boston Bruins prospect Charlie McAvoy
Boston University defenseman and Boston Bruins prospect Charlie McAvoy
Matt Dewkett

Plymouth, Mich. -- If Bob Motzko and the rest of the USA Hockey brass were looking for an exclamation point to a relatively promising week at the National Junior Evaluation Camp, they got just that Saturday evening.

The U.S. squad thumped Canada, 5-1, in its final game of the camp at the USA Hockey Arena. In a sign of good things to come for the red, white and blue, five different goal scorers found the back of the net. Boston University freshman Clayton Keller, the seventh overall selection by the Arizona Coyotes in this past June's NHL Draft, was the only player to have more than one point.

Forgetting the split squad games the first two days of camp, the U.S. concluded the round robin with a 2-1 record. In addition to Friday's triumph over their rivals to the north, the Americans beat Sweden, 4-3, and lost to Finland, 2-1.

A Man Among Boys

Longtime observers of Charlie McAvoy have always been able to point to his skating, his poise with the puck and his ability to step in and join the rush. As his freshman year progressed at Boston University, he showed signs of truly becoming an elite two-way defender.

However, he didn't seem to get the credit that was truly deserved. Looking back at it, the Boston Bruins could have gotten the steal of the draft when they pegged him off the board at No. 14.

McAvoy has really taken his game to the next level. He delivered two absolute bone-crushing hits over the past three days, including one tonight on Florida Panthers prospect Lawson Crouse in Saturday's third period.

While the two displays of physical prowess will likely be what most fans remember, McAvoy's skating and puck-moving abilities were what really made a world of difference for the Americans. Whether it was quarterbacking the power play, retrieving pucks in his own zone or starting the breakout, McAvoy was smooth, confident and in charge.

Deep Crop of Forwards

Again excluding split-aquad action, Keller and Providence sophomore Erik Foley led the U.S. with three points over the last three games of camp. Seven different players lit the lamp at least once.

In addition to Foley, Logan Brown and Jordan Greenway both scored twice for the Americans. Jack Roslovic, Brock Boeser and Troy Terry also found the back of the net. Kieffer Bellows and Christian Fischer each had two helpers.

That's excluding Tage Thompson who scored four goals in the two split-squad games. The UConn sophomore led the U.S. in shots on goal in the three full squad games, and he only played in two of them. The first round pick of the St. Louis Blues was a dominant presence on the power play in his rookie year for the Huskies, but many questioned his overall ability.

It looks like he's taken a step in his play. He appears more explosive like he's put on some added bulk to get that leg push-off to gain separation. He protected the puck, using his big 6-foot-5 frame, and he made several nice passes in the offensive zone after drawing defenders his way.

Getting back to Foley, the Winnipeg Jets prospect was another forward who's really elevated his game. He was very good around the goalmouth and played well below the dots. He's a tough customer around the net and isn't going to lose too many battles for loose pucks. His goal in yesterday's loss to Finland was a perfect example of a puck finding him and him knowing what to do with it right on top of the crease.

That It Factor

It's more than just offensive acumen that should have opponents of the U.S. worried come December. This squad looks to have a little bit of everything necessary to make a run at a Gold Medal for the first time since 2013.

The Americans have players with elite offensive skill sets and speed. But, the U.S. also has a good mix. They have guys like Thompson, Greenway and Brown who have size.

They have agitators in guys like Bracco and Greenway. Two games in a row Bracco was chirping and ready to tussle with a much larger opponent at the opening face-off. Greenway stepped right in and was ready to go to battle after McAvoy's big hit on Crouse.

They have guys who will get down and block shots and work hard in their own zone. Even a guy like Keller who gets all the accolades in the world for his offensive ability made a couple of nice plays, getting back to disrupt Canada's transition on Friday night.

Biggest Concern

If there's one glaring weakness on this U.S. team as it prepares to head north of the border in December, it's that there are too many offensive-minded defensemen and not enough true stay-at-home types. While McAvoy showed that he can clearly be a top pairing guy at this level, there isn't really another big shutdown defender that can be a force against a guy like Eli Tolvanen, who schooled the U.S. defense twice Friday.

Last Line of Defense

Tyler Parsons made 35 saves on 36 shots for the win Saturday night, and stayed cool, calm and collected on a few occasions where the U.S. let its guard down defensively. He'd like to have the goal back, as it was a weak backhander that trickled through the five-hole.

Overall, the goaltender who backstopped the London Knights to the Memorial Cup was very good. Parsons and incoming Boston College freshman Joseph Woll will likely be the top two candidates to get the starting nod for the Americans.

Woll is more of a typical modern era goaltender. He's big, gets down in the butterfly and doesn't move around as much as Parsons, who is more athletic and likes to play the puck and challenge shooters at the top of the crease.