The goalies are set and the forwards are dangerous. Now, Team USA heads into camp in Michigan with a few overall questions, but a very good crop of kids who could very well contend for a gold medal at the 2021 world juniors in Edmonton.
The Americans have whittled their summer roster down to a sleek 29 players, meaning they will only have to cut four en route to Alberta. Given that the majority of the hopefuls play for NCAA teams in the midst of their seasons (as opposed to the OHL and WHL kids who are still waiting for their domestic campaigns to begin), this was a prudent decision made by USA Hockey – particularly in light of the quarantine debacle that has enveloped Team Canada’s camp in Red Deer right now.
Beginning with the netminders, The Americans are good to go with Spencer Knight (FLA), Dustin Wolf (CGY) and Drew Commesso (CHI). Knight is the superstar here and the returning starter from last year’s world junior squad. The Panthers pick will be one of the top goalies in the tournament (if not the top goalie) and will be ably backed up by Wolf, another returnee. Commesso will get to drink in the experience and as a 2002 birthday, he’ll be key to next year’s tournament once Knight and Wolf have aged out.
The defense corps is the most interesting and with nine candidates heading to Michigan, it will be interesting to see who gets cut, if we assume the squad goes with eight blueliners. The one player that didn’t play at the summer camp but is on the list of 29 is undrafted Cam McDonald. The 19-year-old plays for Team USA coach Nate Leaman at Providence College, so there is obviously a level of comfort there. I wonder if this is also a reflection of the team’s uncertainty on the back end: There are some obvious locks like Cam York (PHI) and Jake Sanderson (OTT), plus really strong summer performers Henry Thrun (ANA) and Alex Vlasic (CHI), but after that there was a drop-off. For me, the wild card is Ryan Johnson (BUF), the gifted skater from the University of Minnesota who had an up-and-down summer camp.
Also of note on the back end: the Americans only have two right-shot defensemen, Drew Helleson (COL) and Brock Faber (LA). Clearly the plethora of lefties didn’t bother the U.S. braintrust, but I wonder if it helps the cases of the two righties.
Up front, the Americans will be incredibly exciting and raring to go, especially after last season’s disappointing display. Cole Caufield (MTL) is the diamond and the University of Wisconsin sniper is already in mid-season form with the Badgers. I could see Caufield going on a WJC revenge tour after being held to just one goal and two points in five games last year.
Part of the reason for Caufield’s low totals? The American offense just couldn’t get on track last year, bombing out in the quarters to Finland in a 1-0 loss. With Leaman new behind the bench, perhaps a new strategy will pay off, because the Americans will have the talent. Trevor Zegras (ANA) returns after leading last year’s team in scoring, while Los Angeles Kings prospects Alex Turcotte and Arthur Kaliyev bring top-end talent back as well.
The most interesting player is left winger Nick Robertson, the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect who has been training in Canada during the pandemic. If the NHL returns on time and Toronto’s training camp begins in December, Robertson will not likely go to the world juniors. So keep that in mind.
Two other returning forwards to keep an eye on are Johnny Beecher (BOS) and Bobby Brink (PHI). Scoring should be no problem for the Americans and it will be interesting to see who gets the gritty jobs on the roster. Landon Slaggert (CHI), Patrick Moynihan (NJ) and John Farinacci (ARI) could all find their niches that way.
Finally, another interesting subplot about the camp will be how it impacts the college teams left behind, specifically Michigan and Minnesota. The Wolverines have five players and a coach heading to camp, while the Gophers lose three of their top four defensemen. The two Big Ten powers are scheduled to play a pivotal series on Dec. 8-9 and will obviously be shorthanded now. At least they’re both in the same boat.