The United States’ drive for five consecutive gold medals at the U18 World Championship kicks off Thursday and is the last on ice event remaining in 19 draft eligible players’ draft year on the team.
Collectively, the team comes to Sochi playing their best hockey all year having won their last 12 of 14 USHL games. The USA team has depth at every position, specifically at defense, which has been key to their last four gold medal runs.
The team is comprised of 20 players who have played all season with the NTDP U18 team and who won the Five Nations in February. The team also gets boots from Minnetonka (Minn.) High School’s Tommy Vannelli and top U17 NTDP player Jack Eichel. Both have been important to the team’s recent play, especially Eichel who has 14 points in 14 games since joining the U18 team.
Duplicating last year’s dominate performance en route to gold will be difficult to accomplish, but the team most certainly has the talent to win gold for the fifth consecutive year. Not getting off to a slow start will be of the utmost importance for accomplishing this as they open against host Russia tomorrow at noon EDT. The team will go onto play the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Finland in a four day span to end pool play.
In addition to the US’ quest for a fifth consecutive U18 World Championship, there are plenty of storylines to keep an eye on with the American entry.
This year’s team lacks a player like Jacob Trouba in that he was a surefire first round pick, but the Americans have numerous players who are borderline worthy of a first round selection in June.
Vannelli, Keaton Thompson and Steven Santini are three of the more intriguing fringe first rounders. Thompson and Vannelli have been big risers this season and have been featured on Future Considerations’ monthly top 30 rankings in select months. While all three were absent from Future Considerations’ March ranking for the 2013 NHL Draft, they all possess first round talent.
Thompson is a very reliable defenseman who is solid in all three zones and rarely makes mistakes. He’s far from a flashy player, but is one of those players who teams will know what they are getting if they select the North Dakota commit. Currently Thompson stands to be a mid-second round pick, but could sneak into the first with positive play over the 11 day tournament.
Vannelli has continued to settle in after joining the NTDP U18 team in February. Vannelli is a good puck moving defensemen who tries to stretch the ice with long passes. He has good offensive zone sense and can put up points at this tournament with his offensive tools. Vannelli would be a project pick as teams holdout for his strength and decision making to come along, but currently stands as a good second round option.
Santini has been the NTDP’s best defenseman all season long and will log a lot of minutes on the USA back end. He is the most reliable player in the USA’s own zone and like Thompson it is uncommon to see Santini make a mistake. The offensive aspect of Santini’s game could develop and provide added value for the team that selects him in New Jersey.
JT Compher is the best bet to be a 2013 first round pick on this year’s team and sits 27th in March. Compher is an impact player every shift he plays and has a very well rounded game. His set-up ability is his best asset, but his two-way play is right up there as well. Compher has a high compete level that will be amped up at the tournament. As a 17-year-old, he recorded two goals and three assists in six games in last year’s U18 tournament.
Hudson Fasching was featured as the 13th best player in Future Considerations’ preliminary draft rankings this year but has since tumbled out of the top 50. The fall is centered on questions his ability to play a power forward role at the next level in addition to concerns about his offensive production. I personally believe Fasching could take better advantage of his big frame and take the puck to the net more and get involved in the play more in the offensive zone. A good tournament addressing these concerns could go a long way in the eyes of scouts.
Heading to the season, many believed Will Butcher was a top-50 prospect and was sure to be one of the first American defensemen taken at the Draft. For much of the season Butcher’s stock has fallen largely in part to play in his own end and skating concerns. Butcher had a good last month of the season and, like Fasching, will try to regain some of the lost stock in Sochi. Butcher does have experience heading into the tournament having played on last year’s team. Butcher’s strongest asset, his offensive ability is likely to be on full display in Sochi.
John Hayden has been one of the biggest risers in all of the draft after missing the first fourteen games of the season due to injury and currently holds third to fourth round value. Hayden is great defensively with his physical play, willingness to block shots, and a tough-to-play-against attitude. The Yale commit is still a pretty raw talent with a questionable offensive upside and like most big young players could use improvement with his skating.
When watching Michael McCarron last season with the U17 team it was obvious the 6-foot-5, 227-pound forward was still growing into his frame as he struggled to get around the ice. Watching McCarron this year, his skating is improved as well as his ability to handle the puck. He is the perfect complement to his smaller line mates in Tyler Kelleher and Evan Allen and is able to create space for them while bringing physical play to the line. It is still tough to get a beat on where McCarron stands in this year’s draft class and this tournament will go a long way in figuring McCarron out.