HOCKEY: Final Exams for United States Juniors in Finland

Auston Matthews courtesy Getty Images

Auston Matthews courtesy Getty Images


der Eishockeyzuschauer



One day after winning its one and only international exhibition contest in preparation for the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championships, the United States formalized its official 23-man roster for the annual tournament being hosted this season by the Finnish capital city of Helsinki. Although it is widely acknowledged that the Americans, with five 1st round National Hockey League Draft picks plus the player who is universally anticipated to be the first overall pick at the upcoming 2016 NHL Draft this summer on the squad, appear to have a strong team which should be able to contend for a medal, a great deal of pre-tournament talk has focused on the surprising long list of talented and experienced players who are NOT on this particular junior national team. But Ron Wilson, the long time NHL bench boss who has already coached the United States at the IIHF World Championships in 1994 and 1996, the World Cup of Hockey in 1996 and 2004 as well as the Winter Olympic Games in 1998 and 2010, knows full well that, in the end, any kind of medal at this year’s WJC will validate his selection methods.
On Tuesday, third period goals from Sonny Milano of the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters and Canadian junior player Alex DeBrincat as well as shutout goaltending from substitute goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic lifted the United States to a 3-2 come-from-behind victory over host Finland in an international exhibition match at the Isku Arena in Lahti, Finland. Christian Dvorak, the 19-year-old native of Frankfort, Illiniois, who skates in the Canadian junior system for the London Knights and leads the entire Ontario Hockey League in scoring at present, opened the scoring for the United States with one minute remaining in the first period. But the Finns, who featured right wing Kasperi Kapanen of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies in their line-up, seized the advantage early in the second period by scoring two goals in six and a half minutes against USA starting netminder Brandon Halverson, the 19-year-old native of Traverse City, Michigan, who was the 2nd round pick (# 59 overall) of the New York Rangers at the 2014 National Hockey League Draft and plays in the OHL for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Nedeljkovic, the 19-year-old native of Parma, Ohio, who was the 2nd round pick (# 37 overall) of the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2014 NHL Draft and currently tends the nets for the Niagara IceDogs in the Ontario Hockey League, replaced Halverson exactly halfway through game and, significantly, blocked all fifteen shots Finland sent in his direction. Both Halverson and Nedeljkovic were backup goaltenders on the United States roster at the 2015 WJC in Canada last winter but only the New York Rangers prospect actually got any playing time. Halverson stopped all fourteen shots he faced in the Americans’ 6-0 preliminary round victory over since relegated Germany at the Centre Bell arena in Montreal.
UNITED STATES line-up vs Finland
goaltenders – Halverson (Nedeljkovic 30:00)
defense pairs –
Werenski, Carlo;
Belpedio, Borgen;
Fortunato, Collins;
Krys, McAvoy
forward lines –
Tkachuk, Matthews, DeBrincat;
Milano, Dvorak, White;
MacInnis, Schmaltz, Boeser;
Hitchcock, Eansor, Bjork;
Donato, Keller
Because it was only an warm-up against Finland on Tuesday, the United States were allowed to dress all 22 of the skaters that the junior national team brought to Scandinavia for its pre-tournament training camp but, shortly following the game against the Finns, the Americans trimmed their roster by cutting 19-year-old defenseman Ryan Collins, the sophomore from the University of Minnesota who was the 2nd round pick (# 47) overall of the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2014 NHL Draft and also a holdover from the United States squad at last season’s WJC tournament, as well as Clayton Keller, the 17-year-old native of Swanson, Illinois, who is a member of the U.S. National Development Team program.
The release of Collins certainly was surprising given that he was one of only three defensemen from the United States’ 2015 WJC squad still left on the pre-tournament roster. Of course, thanks to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Americans are already without without the services of Noah Hanifin, the 18-year-old former Boston College blueliner who skated at last year’s WJC before becoming the fifth overall player selected in the 1st round of the 2015 NHL Draft this past summer. The bottom line for Wilson’s club is that three of the seven defensemen on the United States roster for the 2016 WJC in Finland are 18 years old – or younger.
This United States junior national team led by Wilson has come under criticism ever since the first training camp was held back in late August as several prominent players with a lofty NHL Draft status were nowhere to be seen. The most prominent absentee was beefy Boston College right wing Alex Tuch (6’4″ 220 lbs), the 19-year-old native of Baldwinsville, New York, who skated in five games (one goal, one assist) for the Americans at the 2015 WJC last winter. University of Michigan freshman Kyle Connor, the 19-year-old left wing who was the 17th overall player taken in the 1st round of the 2015 NHL Draft by the Winnipeg Jets as well as Jack Roslovic, the 18-year-old University of Miami (Ohio) center who was the 25th overall player chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft, also by the Winnipeg Jets, were two other ‘ big names’ to also be passed over.
This American team does not lack for offensive firepower, however, make no mistake. Milano, the 1st round pick (# 14 overall) of the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2014 NHL Draft who notched two goals and two assists in five games for the United States at the 2015 WJC, has totaled 11 points in 22 games for Lake Erie playing against far more experienced senior professionals in the American Hockey League. University of North Dakota right wing/center Nick Schmaltz, the 19-year-old returnee who logged an assist in five games for the U.S. squad at last season’s WJC tournament, was the 20th overall player selected in the 1st round of the 2014 NHL Draft by the powerful Chicago Black Hawks and will be joined up front in Finland by a pair of 18-year-old players who were tabbed in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft this past summer – University of North Dakota right wing Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks) and Boston College right wing Colin White (Ottawa Senators).
Perhaps the biggest scoring threat on the United States squad at the 2016 WJC will be none other than Auston Matthews, (above) the extraordinarily talented center who has been called the “best player in the world not in the NHL”. The 18-year-old native of Scottsdale, Arizona, had a goal and two assists for the United States at the 2015 WJC and should be even better this term with that experience under his belt. Matthews, who made the unusual move of signing for powerful Swiss first division club SC Zurich in the summer, has been having an excellent season as evidenced by 14 goals and 25 points in only 22 Nationalliga A games.
Aside from the current OHL scoring leader Dvorak, the 2nd round pick (# 58 overall) of the Arizona Coyotes at the 2014 NHL Draft who has already gotten his professional feet wet by skating in two regular season AHL games and five Calder Cup playoff contests for the Portland Pirates last spring, the United States attack will also have DeBrincat, the recently turned 18-year-old native of Farmington Hills, Michigan, who skates for the Erie Otters and currently leads the OHL in goal-scoring. Yet another very highly rated prospect eligible for the upcoming 2016 NHL Draft this summer on the American roster is Matthew Tkachuk, yet another recently turned 18-year-old who is the son of four-time U.S. Olympian Keith Tkachuk, who skated in 1,201 games and scored 538 goals in the vaunted National Hockey League. Ryan MacInnis, the 19-year-old Kitchener Rangers left wing who was the 2nd round pick (# 43 overall) of the Arizona Coyotes at the 2014 NHL Draft, is yet another offspring of a yet another highly accomplished and well-known NHL veteran.
The United States will be anchored at the back by Zach Werenski, the skillful 18-year-old University of Michigan sophomore defenseman who was the eighth overall player taken in the 1st round of this past summer’s NHL Draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets. A very smooth skater as well as an excellent puck-mover, Werenski had a goal and an assist for the American team at the 2015 WJC last winter. The other WJC veteran on the United States roster is Brandon Carlo, the 19-year-old native of Colorado Springs who was the 2nd round pick (# 37 overall) of the Boston Bruins at the 2015 NHL Draft and plies his trade in the Canadian junior system for the Tri-City Americans.
One most intriguing defenseman for the United States to keep an eye on is Charlie McAvoy (6’1″ 210 lbs), the native of Long Beach, New York, who is a freshman at Boston University and only just turned 18 a few days ago on December 21st; a strong skater who has serious upside potential as an offensive defenseman, McAvoy is widely projected as a certain 1st round NHL Draft pick this summer.
The United States, who won the gold medal at the annual IIHF World Junior Championships in 2013 but have been eliminated by Russia at the quarterfinal stage of each of the last two WJC tournaments, should have no trouble reaching the knockout round in Finland this year. The Americans are seeded in Group A with the formidable teams from Canada and Sweden but, in all honesty, really should be able to handle both Switzerland and Denmark. The real test for Ron Wilson’s United States side will not only be to reach the medal round, but secure some sort of hardware, as well.

Categories: Phantoms Hockey


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