By Bob McKenzie – TSN
A week today, Hockey Canada will name 30 players, give or take a couple, to compete for the 23-man national junior team roster at the final selection camp that opens two weeks from today in St. Catharines, Ont.
So there’ll be plenty of time to analyze what Team Canada may or may not look like when it takes to the ice for the 2018 World Junior Championship, Dec. 26 – Jan. 5, in Buffalo.
In the meantime, it’s an interesting exercise to look at the pool of talent USA Hockey is in the final stages of assessing before it names the 28 young Americans who will be invited to Team USA’s final selection camp, which opens Dec. 15 in Columbus.
The Americans, of course, are the defending WJC gold medalists, courtesy of the thrilling/heartbreaking — it’s all a matter of perspective — gold-medal game shootout in Montreal last January.
This time around, the host nation and defending champion looks like it will once again be a top contender, if not perhaps the favourite on home ice.
The American program has been on something of a roll lately at the WJC.
Since ending Canada’s run of five straight gold medals, when John Carlson scored in overtime in Saskatoon to win the 2010 tournament, the Americans have won three gold medals in the last eight years, as well as two bronze.
Canada also has won five medals in the last eight years, but only one gold to go with three silver and one bronze.
If you focus only on the last five years, the Americans have two golds and one bronze compared to Canada’s one gold and one silver.
In head-to-head play at the WJC over the last four tournaments, the U.S. has won three of the five meetings. That includes a current three-game winning streak topped by the one that mattered most — last year’s gold-medal game.
Team Canada and Team USA will meet once again this year, Dec. 29, when they take their preliminary round WJC contest to the great outdoors of New Era Field, home of the Buffalo Bills.
So what are we to make of this year’s U.S. national junior team?
Well, Team USA head coach Bob Motzko, who guided them to gold last year, will have some firepower at his disposal.
The top offensive line is potentially projected to be Ottawa Senators (2016) first-rounder Logan Brown between Edmonton Oiler (2017) first-rounder Kailer Yamamoto and Buffalo Sabre (2017) first rounder Casey Mittelstadt. That trio would bring impressive extremes of size, skill and speed. Mittelstadt plays in the middle at the University of Minnesota but is viewed as a left winger for Team USA.
There appears to be the prospect of considerable strength down the middle.
Beyond Brown, strong contenders to lock down roster spots include Montreal Canadien (2017) first- rounder Ryan Poehling; Boston Bruin (2016) first-rounder Trent Frederic and San Jose Shark (2017) first-rounder Josh Norris. Now, it’s important to note that any of these three centers could end shifting to the wing if needed, but if Team USA opts to go with them in the middle it looks to be a strong group.
If Mittelstadt, as expected, is the first-line left winger with Brown and Yamamoto, there’ll be a tremendous amount of competition for the spots behind him.
WJC returnee Kieffer Bellows, the New York Islander (2016) first-rounder, is a strong contender, but who isn’t among a group that includes 2018 draft-eligible Brady Tkachuk, who’s expected to be a top-five pick next June, Anaheim Duck (2016) first-rounder Max Jones and Dallas Stars (2016) first-rounder Riley Tufte. That’s quite a quartet that blends a lot of size and above average goal-scoring ability.
On the right side, Yamamoto owns the top spot and WJC returnee and New Jersey Devil (2016) third-rounder Joey Anderson is bound to get one of the 13 forward spots. Will Lockwood, the Vancouver Canucks’ (2016) third-rounder, is another strong consideration on the right side.
That’s a dozen U.S. forwards who have been mentioned. Not every one of them is a lock to make it, but all are strong contenders and would have to either play their way off the team or be displaced by younger, in some instances first-year NHL draft eligible or more experienced but less (NHL) heralded talent.
Either is always possible.
It will be fascinating to see if USA Hockey is at all enticed by the notion of perhaps inviting some of their blue-chip under-17 players to the national junior team camp. USA Hockey’s U-17 team is as strong as it’s ever been and Jack Hughes (potential No. 1 pick in 2019 NHL draft), Cole Caufield and Alex Turcotte (son of former NHL player Alfie Turcotte) are dynamic offensive stars on that team.
Hughes, in particular, is an intriguing possibility. His older brother Quinn, a potential top-five pick in this year’s NHL draft, is a strong contender to get one of the seven spots on Team USA’s blueline. USA Hockey was said to be “assessing” Hughes, Canfield and Turcotte in the weeks leading up to the opening of the final camp, though it’s a long shot any of them get the call.
Whatever the composition of the final 13 forwards is, there looks to be a nice blend of speed, skill and size.
On the blueline, the first two spots would appear to be spoken for.
Boston Bruin (2016) second-rounder Ryan Lindgren and Calgary Flame (2016) third-rounder Adam Fox are returnees from last year’s gold-medal team. Lindgren will play the left side and get hard matchup minutes while Fox is expected to quarterback the power play and be the top offensive presence from the blueline.
There’ll be a lot of competition for the remaining five spots on defence.
As mentioned, the dynamic speed and puck-moving ability of Quinn Hughes will give him a chance to land a spot on the final roster. Columbus Blue Jacket (2016) second-rounder Andrew Peeke was strong for Team USA at the Summer Showcase and should also contend.
Beyond that, there’s a substantial pool of fairly large blueliners, including Winnipeg Jet (2017) second-rounder Dylan Samberg and Los Angeles King (2017) fourth-rounder Mikey Anderson, among others. Samberg and Anderson were teammates with Waterloo in the USHL before both moving to the University of Minnesota-Duluth this season.
In goal, Team USA will, technically, have two returnees. Joseph Woll, who is Toronto’s (2016) third-rounder, and Jake Oettinger, who is the Dallas Stars’ (2017) first-rounder, were both on the roster last season. But it was Tyler Parson who starred in net, especially in the gold-medal game. Parsons played five of the Americans’ seven games; Woll played the other two while Oettinger was the insurance policy at No. 3.
This year, Woll and Oettinger are expected to compete for No. 1 status.
On Dec. 5, the day after Team Canada unveils its final selection camp roster, Team USA is expected to name three goalies, 10 defencemen and 15 forwards to its final camp.