Now that the Thanksgiving holiday is over, we’re less than a month away from the 2017 World U20 Championships, better known as the World Juniors. The tournament this year will be held in Toronto/Montreal and the United States will be looking to take home gold for the first time since the 2013 tournament.
The road to that gold medal begins in the next week or so when USA Hockey announces the preliminary roster that will head to training camp in Buffalo, NY before cutting their roster down to the final 23 players that will participate in the tournament.
Here’s our best guess of what that final roster might look like:
This is always the most interesting, and sure to be the most controversial. The fact that Bob Motzko, a man who has made his career on the back of smaller skilled forwards, is coaching provides some hope that this will finally be the year that the US takes advantage of their entire arsenal of skill. On the other hand, there’s every roster decision USA Hockey has ever made for these international tournaments, up to and including this summer’s World Cup of Hockey embarrassment.
There’s a lot of good options here. For the first time ever, the US could fill every forward spot with a first round draft choice if they chose to do so, though they shouldn’t and won’t.
We’ll start with the guys that won’t be available. Auston Matthews is an obvious and expected one. Matt Tkachuk seems to have earned a regular spot in the line-up for Calgary as well, so he won’t be available for the tournament. The big question mark is Clayton Keller, who has been out almost a month with a lower body injury. Keller was said to be “week-to-week”, whatever that means, so he’s no guarantee to be available for the tournament. Losing Keller would almost hurt more than Tkachuk, because as much as much as I like the depth of the forward group, I don’t think there are a ton of true centers available. Brock Boeser also missed last weekend with what sounds like an upper body injury, but it sounds like he should be able to go by the time the tournament starts, even if he’s not 100%.
I’ve got seven guys that I put in my “definitely have to have” group:
Logan Brown(Windsor(OHL)) is a potential game-changer at the center position. There’s nobody in the tournament that can match up with him and if he has a big tournament, the US is going to do very well.
I also love Colin White’s(Boston College) versatility up the middle. I want to get away from the salary cap mindset of roster formation as much as possible, but White has the ability to center a top scoring line, or also play a more conservative third line role.
I mentioned the health of Brock Boeser(North Dakota) above. He had a bit of a disappointing tournament last year and the US will need him to be more of a scorer at this year’s tournament. He’s got the ability to be a tremendous finisher, though he’ll need someone to get him the puck in prime scoring areas because he really struggled to create his own opportunities last year due to his skating.
One answer at center, especially if Keller is out for the tournament, is Jack Roslovic(Manitoba(AHL)). Roslovic was at one point expected to report to the OHL, but stuck with Winnipeg’s AHL affiliate and has produced there. Roslovic isn’t a natural playmaker, but his incredible puck-handling ability should help create some open space for teammates.
The other guy playing in the AHL that should definitely be on the team is Christian Fischer(Tucson(AHL)). Like White, Fischer is a player that brings the best of both worlds to the wing position. He’s got the size that he’s not going to have any trouble banging on the boards and playing a physical game, but also has quick feet and the ability to play an uptempo game.
The same goes for Max Jones(London(OHL)). I’ve always been higher on Jones than most, but he’s shown he belongs on this team with his start to the year. He’s always had the size and skating ability to be a great two-way player, but he’s also showing more of his offensive abilities this year now that he’s not stuck behind Marner/Tkachuk/Dvorak. He’s going to bring a physical edge and hopefully contribute some offense too.
The last lock I have on my roster is the perpetually underrated Joey Anderson(Minnesota Duluth), who is off to a great start to his freshman season with the Bulldogs. Anderson maybe isn’t the most exciting player, but he’s going to make whoever he is on a line with look better because he’s great at getting the puck to skill players and letting them work, and he capitalizes on opportunities when he gets them.
Those guys, plus Keller if he is healthy, are a great start to a team. There’s a lot of good choices after that, but some tough decisions will have to be made.
I guarantee the first thing most people will look for when the camp roster is officially announced is whether or not Jeremy Bracco(Kitchener(OHL)) is included. Bracco has served as the avatar of the debate between skill vs. grrrrit in picking the United States roster the past two years. Guys that couldn’t score goals won out over Bracco the past two years, at least for a little while until the US got into the medal round and couldn’t score goals.
We shall see. Last year, the final decision was rumored to come down to either Bracco or Alex DeBrincat(Erie(OHL)) for a top line scoring role—stop for a moment to consider the insanity of thinking a guy could play on your first line, but no other line on your team—with DeBrincat getting the final nod, and ultimately having a disappointing tournament. But that might be the best indicator of which direction Team USA intends to go this year. If both Bracco and DeBrincat make the roster, things might be different this year. If it’s one or the other, that’s a pretty clear signal that it will be more of the same from the US.
Heading into the season, I wouldn’t have even considered the possibility of Kieffer Bellows(Boston University) not making the team, and Jordan Greenway(Boston University) making the team, but after the first months of the season, my opinion may have flipped. Bellows has not been scoring as much as hoped for Boston University and his +/- compared to teammate is so atrocious that it can’t be explained away by the imperfections of the stat. Maybe Bellows has earned enough leeway given his history to still get an opportunity, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he had to wait until next year. Meanwhile, Jordan Greenway has taken a big step forward this year. He’s always had the talent, but has never done much with it. This year, he’s really played with more fire and intensity in his game and it is paying off.
Luke Kunin(Wisconsin) and Tage Thompson(UConn) were pretty close to being in the lock category. Two players that have a lot of international experience with the NTDP and are proven, reliable scorers at the NCAA level. Scoring goals is really hard and both of those guys know how to do it.
That right there is 13 forwards, not counting Clayton Keller. Like I said, it’s a tough group to crack. There are a few other guys that I think should get heavy consideration and may get a look in camp with a chance to earn a final roster spot. Many are guys I could see making the US roster in a different, less deep year.
I’ve been impressed with Tommy Novak(Minnesota) this year. I’m not sure how he’d hold up in a tight-checking physical game like the US will see against Canada and Russia, but his hands and his ability to shoot the puck, especially on the man advantage are really intriguing.
Similarly, Tanner Laczynski(Ohio State) is off to a really hot start with the Buckeyes. Laczynski has the skating ability to play at this level, though again I’m not sure if he’d be able to handle the physical nature of some of the tougher games.
Casey Mittelstadt(Eden Prairie HS) and Kailer Yamamoto(Spokane(WHL)) both performed well at the World U18s last spring and have bright futures ahead of them as likely first round draft picks next summer, but I don’t think either gets a shot in this tournament.
Erik Foley(Providence) and Cam Askew(Shawinigan(QMJHL) are both really tough two-way forwards, and I could see USA Hockey picking either one to play a lower line role, but I think they’d be sacrificing too much scoring ability to do so.
Troy Terry(Denver) provides some versatility since he’s been playing center recently, and he’s an NTDP veteran, which always seems to help. I’d have no specific issue with him making the team, other than that he’d be bumping somebody really good off the roster. Same goes for Trent Frederic(Wisconsin), though he’s been injured recently.
And finally, my wildcard pick that I’d really like to see make the team is Patrick Harper(Boston University). Of Boston University’s amazing freshman class, he’s arguably been the best, leading the Terriers in scoring. He’s small, but he’s got big time skill and could be an offensive spark-plug for the team.
This group wasn’t nearly as fun to put together as the forwards because the options are much more limited.
We knew Noah Hanifin wouldn’t be available for the second straight year. There was some hope last year that Zach Werenski might be available, but he put that to rest by making the Columbus roster and playing some great hockey.
Without those two anchors, it looks like a pretty weak group on the blue line. The good news is that if the forwards are able to do what they’re capable of doing, they may not need as much from their back end.
I have three guys in my “definitely have to be there” category:
I’m not convinced Charlie McAvoy(Boston University) is a true #1 defenseman that can carry this team like a Zach Werenski did last year, but he’s the most talented blue liner the US has.
Again, I don’t think the US needs big fireworks from the defense if the offense is producing up to its’ capability, so I think Ryan Lindgren(Minnesota) makes a lot of sense. He’s not flashy and doesn’t make many big, noticeable plays, but he’ll play tough, reliable defense all tournament.
I do think they, and every team, need a true puck-mover on the point though, and Adam Fox(Harvard) is the perfect guy. He’s an incredible playmaker that is going to move the puck up the ice and let the forwards do their thing.
Filling in the last four spots was a tough job.
I’ve been impressed with the progression of Jack Sadek(Minnesota) this year, and think he deserves a shot. Sadek has always had the natural athletic talent, but lacked experience and confidence last year. This year, he has been more assertive and is looking like the smooth-skating puck mover many hoped he would become.
Luke Martin(Michigan) has been playing a lot of minutes for the Wolverines this season, and that seems to have really helped him. Martin isn’t the most dynamic player, but he’s a big, steady presence and has really cleaned up his game so that he’s not making as many major errors. He should be a guy that gets you to the next shift for the most part in this tournament.
Caleb Jones(Portland(WHL)) and Casey Fitzgerald(Boston College) should both be mobile defensemen and have the ability to move the puck up the ice. Again, the US isn’t a team that should be spending a lot of time in their zone and having guys that can move the puck to their forwards should be the focus.
It was hard enough to come up with seven names that there aren’t too many others I’d seriously consider. Cam Dineen(North Bay(OHL)) is another offensive-minded puck-moving defenseman, though I think Fox plays his same role only better.
Goalie should be fairly straightforward. Jake Oettinger(Boston University) should get first crack at being the starter with Tyler Parsons(London(OHL)) as the back-up. Joseph Woll(Boston College) is a solid third string option that could earn a lot of playing time if the other two struggle and he gets hot.
Oettinger and Woll can both come back next year, so there’s no need to worry about developing someone for the future.
Overall, I don’t think the US has a John Gibson or Jon Gillies type in net that could really carry the team in net, but they should be solid enough at that position that it isn’t a major liability.