With eight practices and exhibition games against Russia and Switzerland providing evaluation for general manager Jim Johannson and head coach Dean Blais, USA Hockey’s announcement of their 22 man roster offered few surprises.
High profile players returnees like Nick Bjugstad and Jack Campbell will continue to stay in the Edmonton area until the end of December as well as four other players that also represented the US at the 2011 World Junior Championships. In addition, lesser known role players like Austin Czarnik and Kevin Gravel will enter the fold in the US’ quest to medal for the third straight year.
Ultimately, with the Carolina Hurricanes opting not to loan Justin Faulk and an upper body injury to Seth Jones, the USA Hockey made just five cuts from their twenty-nine player preliminary roster. Czarnik and Josh Archiblad, players I believed where on the outside looking in heading into camp, were not surprises as both had an impressive camp. Archiblad played well in his third line role in the two exhibitions, scoring one goal and adding an assist. Czarnik impressed as well netting a goal and two assist in the team’s final exhibition against Switzerland. Defenceman Gravel, another player unlikely to make the team at the beginning of camp, was selected over Austin Levi—the team’s only cut on the blue line. Gravel played well in both of the team’s exhibitions and should serve as the team’s seventh defenceman.
The biggest surprise came in the opportunity forward Shane Prince was given to make the team. Not given a chance to play in Switzerland game and playing on the third line in the Russia game did not bode well for Prince as he was one of the five cuts USA Hockey made
Prince was one of the best forwards at the summer evaluation camp, scoring twice and adding a goal in games against Sweden and Finland in addition to three assists in the USA’s split squad games. Prince played with Czarnik and Brian Ferlin against Russia, a line that did not click the entire night and did not see much ice during the game. Would things have been different had Prince replaced Kenny Agostino on the left side of the Bill Arnold and JT Miller line against Russia? I would like to think so as it would have benefited his supporting/set-up style much more, but it did not work out for Prince who was a top ten leading scorer in the OHL last season.
Below is a positional breakdown for the US and what I believe are the team’s strengths and weaknesses heading into their opening game against Denmark on Boxing Day.
Nothing has changed from the preliminary roster as Johannson and his staff opted to invite only Campbell and Gibson. The two Ontario Hockey League goaltenders provide the biggest strength for the US as both have risen to the occasion at the international stage. Everyone knows about Campbell’s resume at this tournament and as Campbell goes, the US goes. If the US is able to come home with medal this year, it will largely be in part to Campbell having his best overall tournament performance out of three times he has played in World Junior Championship.
Should Campbell falter, 18-year-old Gibson should be able to support the US. Gibson backstopped the US’ gold medal run at the 2011 U18 World Championships with a 2.34 GAA and a 92.59 SV% en route to being named the tournament’s top goaltender. Gibson has also had very good rookie year for the Kitchener Rangers (14-6-0, 2.52 GAA, .933 SV%).
Let’s face it: the outlook on the US’ defensive group has gone from scary good to mediocre in the span of just four months. With a Jamie Oleksiak deflection to Canada, a Seth Jones injury and a Justin Faulk non-release, major would-be pieces from the US’ back end will not be there come Boxing Day. Without question, this is the US’ biggest weakness and could be the reason for overall tournament struggles. Nonetheless, returnees Derek Forbort and Jon Merrill, who has yet to play in an actual game this season, and Jarred Tinordi should be able to cover some of the slack from the losses.
The tournament could also solidify 17-year-old Jacob Trouba’s draft stock as a top ten pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft. Trouba has played well for the U18 National Team Development Program this season, but a preformance on the big stage can only help. Much will be expected of the young Trouba, who registered an assist in each exhibtion game.
The back end has no shortage of size with Forbort, Gravel, and Stephen Johns all listed as six-foot-four and above. In fact, only five-foot-11 Adam Clendening is listed under the six foot mark. The big boddied presence will help against the talented forward groups preliminary opponents Canada and Finland have.
During camp, not only did the forwards who were locks to make the team play well, but the top line combinations coach Blais put together as a whole played well. In the Russia exhibition, the first line of returnees Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, and Emerson Etem played great together. Blais replaced Etem with Brandon Saad on the first line for the Switzerland game clicked as well. I believe Blais will continue with the Zucker, Coyle, Saad line in at least the team’s final tune-up against Slovakia tonight.
In my preliminary writeup, I believed JT Miller would be better suited this year in a checking line role centering Bill Arnold and Connor Brickley. While all three made the team, it appears Miller could be effective in a top six role on the right wing. Miller played across Kyle Rau in the Swizerland game and I could see a soon to be healthy Nick Bjugstad centering Miller and Rau on the second line. Bjugstad and Rau have already developed chemistry playing the entire year on the University of Minnesota’s first line together.
Unilike the top two lines, the third and four lines have so many pieces that have yet to be put together. The third line could have much more scoring pop than many anticipated with centre T.J. Tynan, Etem playing on his right side, and likely Brickley on his left. The fourth line would be much more of a grind-it-out type of line with Arnold centering Austin Watson and Czarnik. Czarnik, who is a right handed centre, I feel could adjust to playing left wing. The extra forward would then be Josh Archibald, a right wing on coach Blais’ University of Nebraska-Omaha team.
Overall, the US has a very strong group of players upfront. With the US team being selected a week later than fellow Group B opponent Canada, developing chemistry between likely linemates for the forwards is key. The team has just two practices and the exhibition against Slovakia to prepare for their opening game against Denmark so the crunch is on to come together as a forward group. Can the team come together in time? Can the bottom six forwards play their designated role? Only time will tell.
Much has already been made of the distractions surrounding this year’s team. Charlie Coyle’s move from Boston University to the Saint John Sea Dogs has already been made public (Link: http://futureconsiderations.ca/coyle-leaves-bu-joins-sea-dogs/). Rumors also swirl around possible moves Adam Clendening (London Knights) and Connor Brickley (Saint John) could be making to the CHL post-tournament certainly do not help to minimize the distractions. On the other hand, distractions may be minimized as this team may have the strongest leadership nucleus that has been assembled by USA Hockey.
I believe Jason Zucker will continue the trend of WCHA players captaining the US World Junior squad and follow in the footsteps of John Ramage (2011, Wisconsin) and Derek Stepan (2010, Wisconsin). This will be Zucker’s third World Junior Championship and the University of Denver forward always leads by example with his passion for the game. As for the assistant captains, I believe the team will select Jarred Tinordi and Jack Campbell. Tinordi is a natural leader who was the captain of the U18 NTDP for the 2009-10 season and is the London Knights captain this season. Campbell, like Zucker, returns for third World Junior Championship. While I could see the team selecting someone else because of his position, I have heard numerous USA teammates state they’ve never wanted to play harder for someone when Campbell was backstopping their team.
Enough cannot be said in regards to the leadership behind the bench this season. Coach Blais returns for the second time in three years while his assistants have impressive resumes as well. Joe Exter, who is currently an assistant at Ohio State University, spent the last four years as an assistant at the National Team Development Program and has coached 13 of the players previously in Ann Arbor. Scott Sandelin is the assistant coach at Minnesota-Duluth, last year’s national champion and current number one team in the nation. Tom Ward, the head coach of the hockey factory at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, is the team’s third assistant.
Does this team have enough depth to compete with Canada? Can this team fill the holes left by players who were expected to dawn the USA crest come Boxing Day? While there are many questions that cannot be answered at this time, one thing is for certain: the USA is going to have their hands full in Group B. This is one of the strongest Finland teams in recent memory and it is always Canada’s tournament to lose—especially with Canada hosting the tournament. The USA has come away with a medal at the last two World Junior Championships, but I believe Team USA fall short of medal stand and finish fourth.