In part one, I examined the depths of Team Canada’s upcoming World Junior entry and what to expect from its top prospects. Now, let’s turn Canada’s neighbours (or is it neighbors?) to the south and highlight USA’s top talents. Unlike Canada’s nearly uncontested roster decisions, USA Hockey received loads of criticism surrounding its selections after leaving off highly touted prospects like Jeremy Bracco (Toronto Maple Leafs/Kitchener Rangers), Kyle Connor (Winnipeg Jets/University of Michigan), Jack Roslovic [Winnipeg Jets/Miami University (Ohio)], Alex Tuch (Minnesota Wild/Boston College) and Conor Garland (Arizona Coyotes/Moncton Wildcats) off of their selection camp roster. There’s little doubt that any and probably all of these exclusions would have been impact players on Team USA; however, it is a testament to the nation’s great depth that it is able to fill out their roster and not have room for these great talents.
With that said, here are the Americans to key in on over the next few weeks.
Auston Matthews (2016 NHL Draft) was a household name on USA’s 2015 World Junior team as many anticipated the arrival of the unanimous number one ranked prospect for the upcoming NHL draft. Playing in Switzerland, Matthews has established himself as an impact player at the pro-level as an 18-year-old and will surely be the dynamic center USA builds it’s team around in Helskinki. He’s got all the coveted tools in a pro prospect including great size, smart hockey sense and a combination of grit and skill that franchise pivots are built around. There’s little doubt that Matthews is expected to be a World Junior top performer.
Matthew Tkachuk (2016 NHL Draft) is the second of eight potential 2016 draft eligible selections on Team USA and he’s slated to become a Top 5 pick when it’s all said and done. The son of former NHLer Keith Tkachuk, Matt is playing with the London Knights and currently leads the league in assists (45) as a first-year player. He’s an old pal of Auston Matthews from his NTDP days so it’s expected that he will line up next to the star pivot with OHL sniper Alex DeBrincat on the right side. Tkachuk is a very competitive forward who anticipates the play extremely well and his ability to create in tight quarters around the net is second to none.
Alex DeBrincat (2016 NHL Draft) shook off all doubters early this season that his outstanding production as an OHL rookie last season was a product of playing with Mr. Connor McDavid after exploding out of the gates to a tune of 33 goals in 30 goals to lead all OHLers. With DeBrincat slated to play alongside Matthews and Tkachuk there’s no reason to think he’ll slow down, especially with his ability to slip into scoring areas and unleash his killer shot. Scouts have come around on his diminutive size because it’s clear that his shooting ability and skill level is a natural quality that will translate to higher levels quite well.
Sonny Milano (Columbus Blue Jackets) may not be on USA’s top line but all bets are that he’ll be a go-to offensive weapon that the Americans lean heavily on. Known for slick and creative handling ability, Milano is capable of creating offense and his finishing ability is top notch as well. In his first pro season with Lake Erie (AHL), Milano has scored four times and added seven assists (22 games) – good production for a rookie. Playing against his age group, the Blue Jackets prospect should have no issues exceeding and could be a top tournament performer if his production catches fire.
Christian Dvorak (Arizona Coyotes) was somewhat of a surprise omission from USA’s entry last season and if his wild production in the OHL this season is any indication, he’s set to do some damage in Helsinki. Through 25 games with London, Dvorak sits first in OHL points (45), second in goals (28), fourth in assists (37) and leads the league in powerplay markers (13)….all while providing one of the most responsible two-way games in the league. With very few holes in his game, Dvorak will turn heads and put himself on the map …for those who aren’t familiar with his pro-level style of game.
Colin White (Ottawa Senators) took his game to Boston College this season and he’s excelled as a freshman, not only providing his intelligent defensive game but also chipping in offensively which is a pleasant surprise. Quick and smart in possession, White will take on a prime offensive role with the Americans and should earn top defensive minutes as a penalty killer.
Ryan MacInnis (Arizona Coyotes) is having himself a bit of a breakout season which is part of the reason the Kitchener Rangers are near the top of the Canadian Hockey League. Over the past few years, MacInnis has really underwent some significant development going from a support player to a front-line leader showing an ability to create offence more and more every game. Smart and strong on the puck, MacInnis has been really dangerous below the top of the offensive circle.
Nick Schmaltz (Chicago Blackhawks) has really came into his own during his sophomore season with the University of North Dakota to no surprise really. He’s a very skilled attacker who possesses high-end vision balanced well with creative puck handling ability. He’s already matched his rookie point totals (26) in half the number of games and is known as one of the best playmakers in the nation (23 assists in 20 games). USA will lean on Schmaltz in powerplay situations and if he’s able to hit his stride at the right time then watch out!
Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks) was a bit of a puzzle for me heading into the draft and appeared to be somewhat of a one-trick scoring pony relying solely on his lethal shot. He’s developed a more patient game in possession and has shown the ability to carry the puck longer than in the past. Either way, Boeser will be looked upon for his scoring abilities and it wouldn't be surprising to see him team up with North Dakota teammate Nick Schmaltz. He’s racked up 13 goals and 21 points through 20 freshman games.
Anders Bjork (Boston Bruins) is a versatile player who plays the game hard and fast – two attributes that will lend him well for success on USA’s bottom six. With high end skilled teammates above him on the depth chart, look for Bjork to provide the team with international experience and a hard-to-play against game. He sits tied in Notre Dame scoring with a handful of tallies and 16 points through 17 games.
Ryan Donato (Boston Bruins) is an intelligent two-way forward who made USA Hockey take notice after being left off their summer evaluation camp. His competitive, low maintenance style of game will likely see him adopt a bottom-six role. He’s picked up nine points in 10 games with Harvard as a freshman.
Scott Eansor (2016 NHL Draft) Is the lone WHLer on Team USA and the 19-year-old Seattle Thunderbirds centerman is clipping along so quickly with his offensive totals so fast that he’ll likely surpass his season highs early into the New Year. Like Bjork and Donato above, Eansor projects to line up deep in the USA lineup and be utilized in a penalty kill role.
Ryan Hitchcock (2016 NHL Draft) is another specialized forward that USA Hockey opted to include over the likes of more skilled players such as Clayton Keller. The Yale University sophomore is a quick footed, hard-working left shooting forward who brings versatility to the American roster. He won’t be relied on for points and will likely plant himself on one of the two bottom lines. Hitchcock has been passed over in two drafts.
Louie Belpedio (Minnesota Wild) is the former captain of USA’s Under-18 team and his mobile skilled style will surely be an asset transitioning up ice. Playing with Miami (Ohio), Belpedia has already registered two goals and 10 points in 16 contests to pace all RedHawks defenders and sits second in team scoring.
Will Borgen (Buffalo Sabres) is a late birthday and recent 4th round selection of the Buffalo Sabres, a selection that’s looking like a shrewd one with his impressive freshman production at St. Cloud State University (18GP-0G-9A-9P). At 6-foot-2, Borgen is a strong physical defender who’s tough to play against but his early production with the Huskies has been a pleasant surprise and is capable of chipping in his share.
Brandon Carlo (Boston Bruins) is one of the returnees from last year’s Team USA and his defensive presence will be front and centre in all key defensive situations. He’s a strong penalty killer and is carving out a role as a reliable defender. He’s playing his fourth season with the Tri-City Americans of the WHL and is offensively clipping along well with two goals and 14 points (22 points). He is not a puck rusher by any means but he’s capable of hitting his outlets precisely and kickstarting the rush with smart passing decisions.
Brandon Fortunato (2016 NHL Draft) has been part of USA Hockey internationally at every level and will be one of the team’s go-to offensive options on the blueline. In his second season with Boston University, Fortunato has established himself as an offensive threat contributing near point-per-game numbers (15 points in 17 games). He is not a very big guy and is still developing his defensive game but this Undrafted puck mover should earn minutes with the man advantage due to his skill with the puck.
Chad Krys (2016 NHL Draft) is one of two first time draft eligible defenders and is a treat to watch. Excellent mobility and a real confident possession game allows Krys to navigate the rink with ease. The Boston University commit has the opportunity to showcase to NHL scouts his mobility and strong vision but will need to really prove that he can handle the rigors of defending against players two years older. It will be interesting to see how Krys is utilized and whether Ron Wilson decides to shelter him.
Charlie McAvoy (2016 NHL Draft) is one of the most intriguing defenders in this draft class. Unlike Krys, McAvoy has showed that he excels in all areas of the rink and that should help him earn key minutes in all situations. He’s a cerebral defender who thinks the game quickly allowing him to dissect the opposition with ease. Good feet, crisp passing ability and smart decisions in and out of possession make him a prime candidate to break out on the international stage. The Boston University defender is a sure-fire 1st round selection next June and has registered eight points in 17 first-year NCAA games.
Zach Werenski (Columbus Blue Jackets) was recently named Team USA’s captain and will be the strong two-way defender that Ron Wilson taps on the shoulder in all situations. Playing in his second season with the Michigan Wolverines, Werenski has become one of the nation's best complete defenders and he’ll be logging as many minutes as he can handle. Werenski is a smart puck mover and possesses good offensive tools that are backed by his four goals and 12 points in 15 games this season.
Alex Nedeljkovic (Carolina Hurricanes) returns to the crease for Team USA and will be joined by fellow 2015 WJC crease-mate Brandon Halverson, two OHL puck stoppers with big game experience. Nedeljkovic was unable to get into action during last year’s tournament but it's expected that he will be USA’s go-to netminder this time around. He’s had a great OHL career and after recently being traded from Flint to Niagara, Nedeljkovic has an opportunity to contend for an OHL Championship. He’s not very big but rather relies on outstanding athleticism and mental focus to track pucks and quickly end scoring chances.
Brandon Halverson (New York Rangers) played sparingly last year with Team USA and with his up-and-down season with the Soo Greyhounds, it’s expected that he will slot in as the permanent backup in Helsinki – barring a complete meltdown by Nedeljkovic. He’s a big goaltender who has performed well at times in important games but his consistency is very sporadic.
TEAM USA WORLD JUNIOR OUTLOOK
Every year it seems controversy surrounds Team USA and their roster selection. The 2016 WJC decisions were no different but in the end, USA Hockey staff assembled what they deem the best possible squad. It appears that the team has identified particular players to play important roles and picked their team based on that which caused them to leave a lot of skill at home – Kyle Connor, Jeremy Bracco, Clayton Keller, and so on.
After USA’s elimination in the quarterfinals, the country will be hungry to finish the tournament with much more favourable results – a task that shouldn’t be too hard given their quick exit last year. In a tough Group A division against Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark, USA Hockey will have some tough games but it’s expected that they will battle with Canada and Sweden for spots one through three. It will be interesting to see if USA’s decision to run with specialized roster spots will pay off against the high skill level that Canada and Sweden will be icing. USA isn’t short on skill by any means and they’ve opted for older players with valuable NCAA experience and that’s unmeasurable.
Team USA finished 3rd in Group A
Star Players to Watch:
Potential Breakout Players: