USA Hockey will be announcing their preliminary roster for this year's IIHF World Juniors Championships on Tuesday. The team selected will travel to Boston December 16-19 for practices and a scrimmage against Boston University to help trim their roster down to the 23 players that will compete at the World Junior in Montreal and Toronto in late-December/early-January.
So who will the US pick to represent them at the World Juniors this year? I tried to pick my own roster. This isn't necessarily what I think USA Hockey will do when making their final decision, but these are the players that I would take to camp.
Overall, I'm excited about this squad. I can't remember another year where the US had this much offensive talent to choose from. If the US really opens things up, they could score a lot of goals this tournament, because they've got some very good talent at their disposal. The defense is good, not great, and goaltending is always a bit of a crapshoot in a short tournament like this, but this is definitely a US team with the talent to be in medal contention and a break or two away from winning the whole thing.
Here's my roster:
Thatcher Demko, '95, Boston College, Evan Cowley, '95, University of Denver, Brandon Halverson, '96, Sault Ste Marie(OHL)
We'll start with the easiest decisions first. Thatcher Demko was the third goalie on last year's team with the idea that he would be the starting goalie on this year's team. Demko hasn't given any reason to question his qualifications as starting goalie of this team. More than likely, the US tournament hopes will come down to how well he plays.
Backing him up, I've been impressed with Evan Cowley this year after he's taken over the starting role in Denver. He's a solid Plan B if Demko falters at all.
History suggests that USA Hockey will take a '96 as their third-string goalie in order to help groom him for next year's tournament. The favorite to get that spot is likely Plymouth's Alex Nedeljkovic. He's got the inside track after being selected to play for the US World U18 team last spring. Nedeljkovic didn't wow me in that tournament though, and I've always felt like Halverson had a much higher ceiling as a prospect. It's largely irrelevant though, as I don't think the third goalie sees a significant minute in this tournament.
Jack Eichel, '96, Boston University, Hudson Fasching, '95, University of Minnesota, Adam Erne, '95, Quebec(QMJHL), JT Compher, '95, University of Michigan, Auston Matthews, '97, NTDP U18, Dylan Larkin, '96, University of Michigan, Sonny Milano, '96, Plymouth(OHL), Nick Schmaltz, '96, University of North Dakota, Alex Tuch, '96, Boston College, Kyle Connor, '96, Youngstown(USHL), Justin Bailey, '95, Kitchener(OHL), Tyler Motte, '95, University of Michigan, Chase DeLeo, '95, Portland(WHL), Jeremy Bracco, '97, NTDP U18, John Hayden, '95, Yale University
I'm going to assume Eichel, Fasching, Erne, Compher, Matthews, Larkin, Milano, Schmaltz, and Tuch are all locks. Erne didn't do much for me at last year's tournament, but it's nearly unprecedented for the US not to take a returning player, and given the all the youth in this group, it's hard to see the US passing on a '95.
That's a very good start to have the top three lines settled like that, and with so much high-end talent. Hudson Fasching is the only player drafted outside of the second round, and there are no concerns about him after he played so well in this tournament last year. Most likely, Eichel centers the top line, Matthews centers the second line, and either Compher or Larkin centers the third line. That will be a huge strength for this team.
After those nine players, the decisions for the last four roster spots become very interesting. At a certain point, it's not really about talent, but about finding guys to fit the roles the coaching staff wants them to play. Traditionally, USA Hockey has opted for grinders to fill out those last few roster spots to fill a defensive role. It would be fun to see them take a more modern approach though and try to create four lines of talented offensive players. Make that fourth line effective defensively by playing with the puck on the other team's end of the ice rather than hoping their big guys can get through a shift without anything bad happening.
I tried to go with a mix of offensive talent and traditional fourth line grittiness in my picks.
Picking Kyle Connor would go against past tendencies for the US World Junior team, but I loved the way he played with Auston Matthews at the World U18s last year, and it seems like he's played well enough in the USHL this year to earn consideration. Justin Bailey is another more offensive-minded player that is having a strong year in the OHL. And it's probably a longshot, but I'd like to see Jeremy Bracco get an opportunity at this tournament. He's exactly the type of player USA Hockey has avoided for their lower lines throughout history, but I'll take the occasional defensive miscue from him when I'm pretty confident he'll put up offensive numbers.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's not a lot of size between Tyler Motte and Chase DeLeo, but there's a lot of grit and heart. Motte nearly made last year's team before going home due to illness, and that alone likely earns him an opportunity. Hayden is the prototypical big, fourth line grinder with an NTDP background that USA Hockey has traditionally looked for when filling out their bottom lines.
If USA Hockey wants to go with pure skill, players like Taylor Cammarata and Trevor Moore would be fantastic options. I realize a fourth line with Taylor Cammarata and Jeremy Bracco would be terrible defensively, but how much defense would they be playing with the way that they can move the puck?
Or, if they wanted to go more traditional, there's a lot of good defensive-minded options out there like Karson Kuhlman or Anders Bjork.
Whatever way USA Hockey goes, there's a lot of good options, and I'm really excited to see what guys like Eichel and Matthews can do in this tournament.
Ian McCoshen, '95, Boston College, Steve Santini, '95, Boston College, Will Butcher, '95, University of Denver, Anthony DeAngelo, '95, Sarnia(OHL), Noah Hanifin, '97, Boston College, Ryan Collins, '96, University of Minnesota, Brandon Carlo, '96, Tri-City(WHL), Jonathan MacLeod, '96, Boston University, Anthony Florentino, '95, Providence College, Louie Belpedio, '96, Miami University
First off, I'm including Steve Santini who has been out since the end of October after having wrist surgery. I've heard rumors that he may be back as early as mid-December, which would hopefully mean he could get into form and be ready for the tournament. It would be a big boost if the US was able to have Santini for this tournament. But I listed an extra name here in case Santini isn't ready to go.
The biggest story of the training camp will be what the US does with Anthony DeAngelo. There's no doubt that DeAngelo is the most talented offensive defenseman the US has. But he has a long and checkered history with USA Hockey and many have questioned if the US would ever pick DeAngelo, under any circumstance. But I don't think this is a particularly strong group, and the US can use all the help they can get. If the US is going to take Will Butcher, and it's nearly a guarantee that they will, there's no reason not to take DeAngelo, who is basically the same player, but much better. It shouldn't be too hard to keep DeAngelo's attitude problems at bay for a two week tournament.
Outside of the three returners, and DeAngelo if the US decides they want to put up with him, there aren't any real locks on the blue line. Noah Hanifin is probably the closest, but he was snubbed from the Evaluation Camp this past summer. I think he's got too much talent to ignore though, especially when it's going to be tough to fill out the bottom of the depth chart.
I like Ryan Collins, Brandon Carlo, and Jon MacLeod as big guys that aren't going to provide much in the way of offense, but will play a solid, safe game that hopefully frees up smaller guys like DeAngelo, Butcher, or Louie Belpedio to be more aggressive offensively.
I went with Anthony Florentino in sort of the last spot. But it's really a toss-up at that point. Michael Brodzinski has played well enough at times to look more than deserving of a spot, and brings a little more offense to the table. Zach Werenski has played well enough at the NCAA level to deserve consideration, and in a different year, I think probably makes this team. But if USA Hockey is already taking Hanifin, I don't see them playing with two '97-born defensemen, even if that might be the right move. I'd be happy with any of those three getting an opportunity to impress at camp.