By Dayton Riemer – The Hockey Writers
The 2021 World Junior Championship will be like no other.
First, and maybe most obvious, is that the tournament will be conducted with no fans present, much like the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. It will remain in Edmonton as originally planned, but Red Deer will no longer split duties. Instead, the two cities will get a second chance to host next year’s tournament. Teams will also be allowed to bring two extra skaters into the bubble to accommodate potential injuries, as they will be unable to rush a backup player into the tournament without quarantining.
But the biggest change is that, with the NHL, AHL, much of the CHL and NCAA not fully operating, national teams will have precious few opportunities to watch players before they make their selection. This will be especially hard on the American team, who draw largely from college players across the United States, many of whom have not played a competitive game since last March.
Americans will be allowed to enter the Edmonton bubble on Dec. 13, which will only give Team USA general manager John Vanbiesbrouck and co. four to six games to evaluate college players, and no games for those playing in the Canadian junior leagues.
But it’s not all bad news for the USA. With the NHL still preparing for the upcoming season, several top players who would have been competing for a roster spot are now available to their national junior team, including Alex Turcotte, Trevor Zegras, Nicholas Robertson, and Arthur Kaliyev, who played for the USA in last year’s tournament in the Czech Republic. They’ll bring a ton of experience and talent if they can attend.
The rest of the team will also have experience, with several key returns after last year’s disappointing sixth-place finish, which will be more valuable this year than ever before. Experience and a group of highly talented players will make Team USA one to watch.
The one position that Vanbiesbrouck won’t have trouble selecting is goaltending. Spencer Knight is a lock to return as USA’s starter for the 2021 tournament. A first-round pick by the Florida Panthers in 2019, Knight was a brick wall for Boston College last season, posting a 1.97 goals-against-average (GAA) and a 0.931 save percentage (SV%), and helped propel the Eagles to first in the Hockey East division before the postseason was cancelled.
In 2020, Knight was one of the best goalies of WJC, recording a SV% of 0.913 and a GAA of 2.49. If it weren’t for the upset by Finland in the quarterfinal, he might have been named the best goaltender of the tournament. Instead, he’ll return for his third shot at a gold medal with a chip on his shoulder. He’ll be one to watch for the Americans, and he could steal a few games.
Knight will be backed up by Everett Silvertips phenom Dustin Wolf, who also was at the 2020 WJC. He’s been one of the best goalies in the WHL for the past two seasons, posting the lowest GAA in the league with a 1.69 in 2018-19, and a 1.88 in 2019-20. His one game at last year’s tournament was a rough showing – the upstart Germans bombarded him, slipping three goals by on just 20 shots. But, like Knight, Wolf will be eager to help the Americans advance and his experience makes him a very solid second option.
Two more goalies were invited to the National Junior Development Camp in October and will be competing for the final spot on Team USA. Drew Commesso is the likely favorite. A product of the National Team Junior Development Program, he was the team’s best goalie last season and became the second goalie selected at the 2020 NHL Draft, taken in the second round by the Chicago Blackhawks.
The other goaltender is Logan Stein, who has an age advantage over Commesso but is still a dark horse to make the team. He’s put up good numbers as the backup for the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks but hasn’t been drafted despite being eligible in both 2019 and 2020. Still, he has good size and has done well in a role with limited exposure, so the Americans could go with him as their third option to draw on his extra experience, which they have a habit of doing.
As opposed to their goaltenders, the Americans won’t have a wealth of experience on the blue line. Top defensemen Mattias Samuelsson, Zach Jones, and K’Andre Miller have all aged out, leaving Cam York as the only eligible returnee. However, the team won’t be without skill, as there are several players who just missed the cut last year and are eager for 2021.
Starting with York, Team USA will likely look to him to lead their defense thanks to his experience at last year’s tournament. Although he was a depth defender in 2020, he’s made some big improvements to his game and will be a key member of the team in 2021. Last season at the University of Michigan, he had five goals and 16 points in 30 games but has really stepped up this season, scoring four points in as many appearances. There’s a chance he could earn a letter on his jersey, too.
Fourteen other defensemen were invited to the Evaluation Camp, but with up to eight spots to fill, the competition will be high. Buffalo Sabres’ 2019 first-round pick Ryan Johnson is a safe bet to make the team. He was a late cut in the 2020 tournament, but has since shared the Golden Gophers’ Mike Crupi Most Determined Player Award and is looking more and more like a future top-four defenseman. Like York, he can excel in all situations and will be relied upon to lead the American defense.
Drew Helleson and Alex Vlasic, both 19, also have good a good chance to make the team. They have similar resumes: they are products of the USNDP, have played for the Americans internationally at the U18 level, were second-round selections in 2019, and are stay-at-home defensemen. Vlasic’s 6-foot-6 frame will be hard to cut, especially on a team that’s shaping up to be on the smaller side. With Helleson, the duo could form a deadly shut-down pairing.
Outside of those four, rounding out the defense will depend on what the Americans want to get out of their defenders. For a more dynamic offense, 19-year-olds Jackson LaCombe and Jayden Struble would be two of the better choices. LaCombe played the 2019-20 season and scored 13 points with the Golden Gophers, while Struble played just 21 games, but registered three goals and 10 points at Northeastern University. Domenick Fensore, a 2019 third-round pick, has excelled at every level he’s played at, but at 5-foot-7, he may have a tough time jumping over some bigger, similarly-skilled players.
If the Americans choose a more solid, defensive focus, then Jake Sanderson would be their best choice. The fifth-overall selection by the Ottawa Senators in 2020, Sanderson established himself as one of the best skaters entering the draft and shot up the rankings thanks to a huge second half in 2019-20. He’s excellent at putting the right pressure on his opponents and is able to transition seamlessly from defense to offense.
Also on the defense is future University of North Dakota teammate and fellow Senators pick Tyler Kleven. A big 6-foot-4 defender, he’s more mobile than his size suggests, but his best attribute is his physicality and he loves to throw big hits, a skill which the Americans don’t have in spades. However, he’ll have a tough time asserting himself over Henry Thrun, a 6-foot-1, all-around defender who was fifth in scoring in the NCAA among U20 defensemen with 21 points. Thurn is much more balanced than Kleven and his skill set can fit into any situation, much like Johnson and York.
Being right-handed has become increasingly valuable among defensemen and the Americans may also want to capitalize on the trend, which would create a spot for either Case McCarthy or Hunter Skinner, two of just five right-handed shots invited to the October evaluation camp. Neither project to be impact defensemen at the NHL level and are still fairly raw. However, McCarthy was one of the best defensemen at the U18 in 2019, and Skinner had 32 points in 62 games with the OHL’s London Knights last season, so don’t count them out completely.
The final three defensemen invited were all-around defenders Brock Faber, Marshall Warren, and Mitchell Miller. The first two are on the smaller side but offer very intriguing upsides if given the opportunity; they may end up just outside of the cut-off line. Despite a very good 2019-20 season with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm, Miller is unlikely to be considered for a spot after the recent controversy about his past actions, which led to his dismissal from the Arizona Coyotes and the University of North Dakota.
Here’s where things get really interesting. With the delay in the NHL season until Jan. 1, at the earliest, Zegras, Turcotte, Kaliyev, Robertson, and even Jack Hughes are free to return to the 2021 WJC. However, each of them would need to be loaned to compete, as the Blackhawks did with Kirby Dach. While none of their teams have made official announcements yet, it’s likely that all but Hughes would be granted the opportunity to play at the tournament.
That gives the Americans an incredibly dangerous top-six. At last year’s WJC, Zegras led all players with nine assists despite an early playoff elimination, and Kaliyev was top-ten in goals with four. They’ll join fellow returnees Cole Caufield and Bobby Brink, who both had a relatively quiet 2020 tournament but will be relied on heavily this year. Caufield was a point-per-game player as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin last season, and Brink was third in goals with the University of Denver.
The final returnee is John Beecher, who likely will slot into a depth defensive role and provide veteran stability to the bottom-six. That’s not to say he couldn’t be an impact player; the 2019 Boston Bruins’ first-round selection had nine goals and seven assists in his first season with the University of Michigan, and in 2018-19, he was a key player for the U18 Americans. Altogether, the group of returnees were huge for the Americans last year, and they’ll be even more dangerous in 2021.
The rest of the bottom-six is wide open. The two best bets are 2019 second-rounder Matthew Boldy and 2020 first-rounder Brendan Brisson. Brisson was second in scoring in the USHL last season with 59 points, just one shy of tying the leader. Boldy was left off the 2020 American squad based on the belief he wasn’t ready yet, and since then, he’s become one of the NHL’s top forward prospects. Last season with Boston College, he finished tied for fourth in points among NCAA freshmen.
Robert Mastrosimone is another player who has a good chance to make it this year after being left off of the 2020 team. He has a decent nose for the net, demonstrated by his seven goals and 10 assists with Boston University as a freshman, but he excels through his tenacity and vision. The only thing that could hold him back is that he is a bit undersized, and the Americans may not want to add another sub-6-foot player to their forward corps.
f size does become a concern, then Sam Colangelo may have an upper hand. By no means a huge player, his 6-foot-2 frame would still make him one of the biggest players in the top-nine. He also has great offensive instincts; last season, he played alongside Brisson on the USHL’s Chicago Steel, and together, the pair tore up the league. Colangelo finished just one point behind Brisson, but scored four more goals. Relying on past chemistry may be a strategy the Americans use this year since their development and evaluation time has been severely limited.
Other high-offense players competing for a spot on the roster are 19-year-olds Sean Farrell and John Farinacci, and 18-year-olds Thomas Bordeleau, Sam Stange, Luke Tuch, and Brett Berard. It will be difficult to choose, and given Farrell is off to a hot start in the USHL, he may have the advantage.
However, the Americans may want a more defensive, experienced bottom line, which will give Patrick Moynihan, Judd Caulfield, Michael Gildon, Dylan Peterson, and Landon Slaggert the upper hand. Caulfield is the biggest of the bunch, coming in at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, but Peterson isn’t far behind, also standing 6-foot-4 but just a hair lighter at 192 pounds.
Then there’s Matthew Beniers. He’s a 2021-eligible pick who’s projected to go in the top-10 and it’s easy to see why – at just 17 years old, he’s already played two full seasons with the USNDP and was the U18 alternate captain last season. He was second among U18s in points with 41 in 44 games and ranked first in goals with 18. The Americans usually take one or two draft-eligible players, but only if they are generational talents – the last undrafted players to make Team USA were Jack Hughes, Spencer Knight, Brady Tkachuk, and Quinn Hughes.
number of other forwards were invited to the evaluation camp but will have a hard time securing a spot in the top-12. That includes lone WHL forward Lukas Svejkovsky, as well as Owen Lindmark and Josh Nodler, who both play in the Big 10 conference. Matthew Knies, another 2021-eligible prospect, was also invited. He has great size, but so far he’s off to a slow start in the USHL and may not quite be ready for the U20 roster.
The Bottom Line
Last year’s bitter defeat still weighs heavily on the minds of everyone involved. The team should have medaled, but thanks to Finland, they were sent home early, despite having some of the best offensive players at the tournament. That is going to influence the roster for 2021, which could mean more emphasis on size to avoid getting pushed around by the weaker nations like Germany or Slovakia, who have surprised the Americans in the past.
The Americans will still enter the tournament with one of the best forward units and best goalie tandem of any nation. Their defense is a bit of a mystery, but with several top prospects to choose from, it too will be a highly-skilled group. With their top-six averaging under 6-feet, it will likely fall to the defense to make up the difference.
Don’t expect management to go all out on big, strong, defensive defenders – last year’s team didn’t get a lot of offensive help from the blue line, which may encourage the selection committee to look for players skilled at playing both ends of the ice, like Sanderson or Thrun.