The World Junior Championships aren’t until late December, but teams got their preparations underway with development camps both in Edmonton for Team Canada and in Lake Placid, NY for Team Finland, Team Sweden, and Team USA. I spent Thursday in Lake Placid to check out Team USA’s game against Team Finland to see how the team was looking. Team USA wraps up their camp today with a game against Sweden.
Team USA is bringing back a lot of talent from last year’s team and those more experienced players played strong against Finland. Panthers prospects Nick Bjugstad and Rocco Grimaldi looked good. Grimaldi’s speed and tenacity allows him to keep up with anyone and his ability to move with the puck is unparalleled. Bjugstad is a big kid and can be imposing when lining up at center. Team USA coach Dean Blais has moved him from center to wing and back to see where they can get him going in camp, but he looked good against Finland.
Another forward who looked good was 2011 New York Rangers first round pick J.T. Miller. Miller had a thunderous first period controlling play, forcing the issue offensively and pressuring Finnish defenders on the forecheck. While Miller did pick up a pair of penalties, one that Blais described as a “momentum killer” his abilities as one of the new guys on the team will help make Team USA a better squad in Edmonton at this year’s championships.
Minnesota wild prospects Charlie Coyle (obtained in the Devin Setoguchi-Brent Burns trade) and Jason Zucker had solid games as well. Zucker was able to make up for a poor early penalty against Finland by setting up Bjugstad for a goal. Zucker’s abilities last year in the World Junior Championships showed he has loads of talent but perhaps some bad luck as he hit a lot of posts. The same happened against Finland, but his abilities on the ice are special and he’s set to be one of the big time leaders of this year’s team.
Team USA’s strengths over the years in the WJCs has come from their defense and goaltending and that’s no different this time around. Team USA is able to roll out there with a host of guys that can play different roles on the blue line. Hurricanes prospect Justin Faulk is a smooth puck handler and an offensive threat, especially on the power play. With guys like Jarred Tinordi and Stephen Johns, the U.S. can handle things physically and defend strong as well.
The guy to keep an eye on for the next few years, however, is Seth Jones. At 6’3″ 198 pounds and just 16 years-old, Jones is going to be a hotly watched prospect when he’s eligible for the NHL Draft in 2013. Seeing Jones get to play against Finland he’s raw, but there’s huge promise there. Blais says that Jones has some work to do yet though.
“He makes mistakes too but he makes them out of trying to do something, ” Blais says. “He’s got to communicate a little bit more. He’s so young that he doesn’t want to talk too much but he has to. He’s got to communicate when he’s open and get the puck. But certainly he’s pretty reliable and pretty impressive so far in the tryouts.”
While Jones may not make the final cut for this year’s WJC team, he’s showing that he’ll be a guy worth watching develop over the next few years.
When it comes to goaltending, the U.S. has a wealth of riches. Dallas Stars 2010 first round pick Jack Campbell is set to be the man in goal again but 2011 Ducks second round pick John Gibson and 2012 draft eligible Cornell sophomore Andy Iles are there waiting in the wings. Iles plays a very aggressive style and Blais loves the way he plays goal.
“Andy’s been real good. Andy’s going to push Jack Campbell a lot,” says Blais. “I don’t know how his tean’s [Cornell] going to be if he’s the goalie or not, I’m not sure but for us he’s certainly impressed us. He’s going to challenge, in my mind, Jack.”
With a seeming wealth of riches in goal, Team USA would seem likely to not have too many problems finding a way to win even if Campbell struggles. Having more than one goalie to bank on worked great for Blais when he coached the 2010 Team USA WJC team that won gold as he had both Jack Campbell and Mike Lee to rotate in and out of goal as needed.
As for Finland, there was one player to take note of in Buffalo Sabres 2011 first round pick Joel Armia. Armia scored a beautiful goal in the first period to get Finland ahead early after capitalizing on a Justin Faulk blue line turnover. Good thing for Armia that he played well in an otherwise tepid game for the Finns as Sabres top brass spent the week in Lake Placid watching him including head coach Lindy Ruff and owner Terry Pegula.
Usually when you think of an NHL owner, you think of a guy in a suit and being rather super executive like. Not Terry Pegula as he was there looking like just another fan checking out the action in shorts, sneakers, and a Sabres fleece. Yes, owners are real people too.
Team USA’s chances to win gold at this year’s World Junior Championships are strong again and while Canada is by far the favorite, it’ll be up to the United States to find that motivation and extra gear to be able to win it all. Playing it this year in Edmonton and Calgary will make the atmosphere even more intense to deal with, but that didn’t stop Blais and Team USA in 2010 from winning it all in Canada, and they’ll hope to find that magic once again.