When it comes to USA Hockey’s U18 team, coming off gold in Belarus, gold in Germany, gold in the Czech Republic, silver in Russia and then gold again in Finland, there is little the program accepts other than excellence at the U18 level.
It all begins with Auston Matthews, a 2016 draft-eligible prospect who has been nothing short of spectacular the whole winter, putting up 48 points in 24 USHL games along with a whopping 47 goals and 102 points in 53 USNDP contests. He also chipped in three points in five contests at the U20 WJC. Chances are Matthews would be a top 10 prospect this summer already, had he been eligible.
He’ll be joined on a line by Jack Roslovic, a 6’1”, 180-pound forward with a plethora of moves and strong offensive instincts. He put up 38 points in 27 USHL contests as well as 68 points in 58 USNDP games this past winter. Chances are that the future Miami University forward will hear his name called this summer before the 45th pick has been taken. He’s hard to move off the puck and plays bigger than his size, posing a frame that will be very impressive once he’s filled out.
Right-shooting Colin White is a stocky six-footer who brings a lot of bang to the table and has been about a point-per-game player throughout the winter. He’s also responsible in all three zones. The same can be said of 6’2”, 212-pound bruiser Christian Fischer, who can score as much as anybody while playing a hard-nosed, compact game. Both will be asked to keep opponents honest. Both are expected to be top-45 picks in this summer’s draft.
Players such as forwards Troy Terry, Brendan Warren, Tage Thompson, and Luke Kunin can play the game any way you like it and will be ready to keep opponents busy while preventing goals against. Thompson brings a physical edge as do lower liners Michael Floodstrand and the hulking 6’5”, 220-pound Jordan Greenway.
On defense, there’s a collection of players who predominantly do any and everything asked of them by the coaching staff. Fans will want to watch kids like Caleb Jones, the younger brother to future NHL stalwart Seth, and Casey Fitzgerald, whose father Tom had a long NHL career as a two-way center. Like Joseph Masonius, the rough and tumble Nicholas Boka, and long-time program defenseman Steven Ruggiero, both provide solid layman’s work.
The team will wear you down. It skates and skates and skates. It’ll do a lot of hitting and shooting during all that skating. It’s four lines deep and there’s not a player on the team who doesn’t have the requisite of skill that would make them first liners for half the teams at the tournament.
The idea will be the same as it has been, and what they’ve got going at the U.S. NTDP isn’t broke so opponents are aware that they won’t be fixing it. Tournament beasts, early tourney upsets, like the 4-2 loss against Switzerland to kick off the 2014 U18 WC, will do little to change the staff’s goals or the team’s psyche. They look forward to the next game with a winner’s mentality and will physically, defensively and offensively wear down their opponents with every opportunity.
Aside from that, the U.S. program likes puck control. It’s common for opponents to barely be able to muster 20 shots a game against the U.S. because the team places such emphasis on a puck possession game, maintaining possession in the offensive zone when many other programs would be asking their players to shoot, or retaining careful puck position in the defensive zone when other programs may be asking their players to just get the puck out of danger any way possible.
With strong-skating defensemen and defensively responsible forwards, no nation has been able to consistently bring such a cerebral game as the USA – and they’ll be doing it again this year.
He spent the whole winter with the team and it is felt that Lukas Opilka will be given the nod as the starting goalie heading into the tournament. One poor showing could change that though. The team needs someone to stop everything that needs to be stopped, especially in games where it allows few shots against and spends most of the game in the opponent’s zone. This will be his opportunity to do just that right in the first round against traditional powers Russia and Sweden.
Who the scouts will be watching
This team has been heavily scouted all winter long and NHL teams will have a good idea of what to expect from players eligible for this tournament. Of course, all eyes will continue to be on players such as Matthews, Roslovic, and White, but many more will be putting their mettle on display.
Little tyke Jeremy Bracco is only 5’9” and 172 pounds, but he delivers. Point after point, he just doesn’t stop generating. When it comes to players his size, what they do on the ‘big screen’ ultimately makes a big difference and that’s why it’ll be very interesting see what he brings to the table here, likely on the second line. After 32 points in 24 USHL games and another 81 points in 58 USNDP contests, he’ll be counted on – and expected to – produce.
Like Bracco, Clayton Keller is just a little fella, but is first eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft and has shown a keen ability to produce every step of the way. A skater who gets to wherever he wants to go, Keller is here to get a taste of things, but may find himself in a top-nine role if and when the team is hungry for offense.
U.S. NHL legend Keith Tkachuk will see his son Matthew Tkachuk is following in his national team footsteps at this tournament, where his eldest son could line up with Matthews and Roslovic to skate on the USA’s top line. He can be a feisty player and works incredibly hard in the corners, feeding his teammates with an ample supply of pucks. A top talent in his own right, he also put up 81 points for the program this winter as well as 33 points in 24 USHL contests. A player who rounds out a line, this will be Tkachuk’s biggest test yet.
Long Island native Charlie McAvoy has played a good bit in every situation for the team throughout the winter, putting up a combined 10 goals and 55 points in 79 games. Soon to attend Boston University, he’ll likely be on the ice whenever the team needs a goal or is trying to hold a lead. Strangely enough, he’s not currently ranked, but it’s hard to believe that a kid this complete who measures in at 6’1” 205 pounds won’t be taken at some point this summer.
That leaves the team’s most interesting prospect moving forward, defenseman Chad Krys. Also felt to likely be a top 5 NHL Draft pick in 2016, Krys is simply as complete as it gets. His ability to read the game, both with and without the puck, is something you are either born with or not. His anticipation and capability to nip opponent attacks in the bud before they even happen is something every NHL team craves. On top of it all, he’ll likely be the power play quarterback at this tournament, combining a deceptive shot with excellent distribution skills. Some feel Krys may even have what it takes to be the most solid defenseman at this tournament as an underager, maybe even more so than Noah Hanifin was last spring.
Boatloads of confidence and plenty of verifiable results back that up. In addition, as is an integral part of the program philosophy, these kids have been – for the most part – playing and schooling together, having been through lots of battles and plenty of hard-core practices both on and off the ice. It’s no wonder that they’ve got an understanding and chemistry for each other that no other team can bring to this U18 table. Throw in the 60 minutes of physically demanding and hard-skating play the U.S. brings and opponents must be prepared to leave everything on the ice if they expect to gain points.
On the individual player front, the aforementioned Matthews, although first being draft-eligible in 2016, may be the best all-around forward in the tournament. Already a WJC veteran and 2014 gold medalist last spring, Matthews is currently felt to be the top NHL prospect for next year’s draft. This would be the tournament where he can truly distance himself from the competition, especially in light of the fact that he only missed being eligible for the 2015 draft by a few days.
All in all, the U.S. is playing a lineup that will likely see every single skater drafted this or next summer. In addition, most are already scheduled to play for a top NCAA program this fall or next.
What the team doesn’t have is one single dominant offensive line such as the Milano-Eichel-Tuch trio last spring that saw upwards of 30 minutes of ice time per game. Offense may have to come more by committee here. And although it doesn’t have to be seen as a direct weakness, most pundits felt this team would be heading into play with Hanifin and Zach Werenski serving as the first pairing. Instead, the program is starting the tournament with neither of them. This will mean more responsibility, and opportunity, for other blueliners – at least until they’re possibly added to the roster.
What must be seen as a weakness until proven otherwise is that there isn’t a goaltender of note here who looks like the big name winner the team will surely need. Despite very respected profiles, neither Thatcher Demko nor Alex Nedeljkovic were more than average in obtaining the last two medals, with Demko being practically the sole reason the U.S. failed to win gold in 2013 despite outshooting Canada 35-12 in the gold medal game. In short, goaltending has been questionable in recent years and nothing has indicated that any of Opilka, Jake Oettinger – an absolute top prospect for the 2017 draft – or the Tri-City Americans’ Evan Sarthou are going to stand on their heads to win games, even if each could very well be capable of just that.
The team plays Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and Germany (who it just beat 8-3 in pre-tournament play) in the preliminary round, and even if a worst-case scenario would set in and the USA would experience losses against chief competitors Russia and Sweden, there’s no way this team isn’t making it into the playoff round. Once there, they would then faceoff with what are widely considered somewhat weaker opponents coming out of the group in Zug.
Once the playoffs begin, that’s when it’s usually lights out time if you’re playing against the U.S. at this tournament. When the money is on the line, this team just always finds a way to get to the gold medal game. There isn’t any reason to believe it won’t this year. For Coach Don Granato, the most important thing will be to somehow avert the same fate his team had in Sochi in 2013, where his team continually outshot opponents and maintained an extraordinary amount of puck possession, only to see too few goals scored while experiencing less than average goaltending.
Follow Chapin Landvogt’s work from the U18 World Championship at Hockey’s Future