While the U20 World Junior Championship (WJC) generally features a much heavier dose of NHL-drafted prospects, each year’s tournament also has a smaller group of players eligible for the coming NHL Draft.
This year’s WJC is no exception, of course, nor is it an exception for Team USA’s entry for the 2016 edition of this top international prospect showcase. The U.S. squad entered their pre-tournament camp with seven late ’97/’98-born players on the camp roster, players that are competing in their initial draft campaign.
Presiding over the U.S. talent assembled in Boston, MA this week is former NHL head coach Ron Wilson, who will fill that role for Team USA in Helsinki, Finland when the tournament gets underway on December 26th.
While Wilson has been somewhat reluctant to comment on all of the 2016 prospects that have competed at this week’s camp, which is taking place primarily on the Boston University campus, he has nevertheless offered up his thoughts on three of Team USA’s draft-eligible forwards, one of whom is considered the top player available for the 2016 NHL Draft.
That player is forward Auston Matthews, who came up through the USA Hockey program before heading to Switzerland this season to compete for the ZSC Lions in that country’s top professional league. Matthews has returned to North America to take part in this week’s camp, giving Wilson the chance to compare the pre-Switzerland Matthews with the prospect that is now playing with and against men several years older than Matthews.
“It’s pretty much the same guy,” Wilson said when asked if he had seen a change in Matthews’ game. “He was very impressive this summer. I was really impressed, and he’s very mature for his age, that’s what surprised me then. He hasn’t changed a bit, but he plays with men now, so he has matured a little bit, and that’s a good thing.
“That’s a good thing for us – it’s a bad thing for every other team.”
Matthews has been lined up this week with another 2016 prospect who has impressed Wilson, Erie Otters right wing Alex DeBrincat. The Farmington Hills, MI native currently leads the OHL in goals with 33 in 30 games, and he is fourth overall in scoring with 56 points.
DeBrincat is a player that was not on Wilson’s radar – he was not a part of Team USA’s Evaluation Camp in August – but his performance so far in the 2015-16 season has been hard to ignore.
“The first time I saw him,” recounted Wilson, “I watched him and I’m saying “What the heck is this guy doing?”, because I checked the scoring list, and he was like almost 10 goals [ahead] at that time, and I think he still has a big lead, and I was going “What the heck is this guy doing?” And I didn’t think he played that well, but he had three points at the end of the night, and they won 3-2. So, I said “He’s doing something right.”
DeBrincat and Matthews, along with fellow 2016 prospect Matthew Tkachuk, have formed what would likely be the USA’s top forward unit at this year’s WJC. The Matthews/DeBrincat duo will be be held out of the USA’s exhibition game against UMass-Amherst on Friday since they are locks to make the team, a testament to how much they have impressed their head coach.
“I think [DeBrincat is] the perfect guy to play with Auston because Auston’s a little bit bigger, and he plays really hard all the time,” said Wilson of his dynamic duo. “So, DeBrincat seems to be a guy who hides in the weeds a little bit and slows the play down, but he’s very effective, and he’s a very smart player so I think he’s going to be a good linemate for Auston Matthews.”
A third player that has caught the eye of Wilson is U.S. NTDP forward Clayton Keller. The Swansea, IL native currently leads the NTDP’s U18 squad with 55 points (17G, 38A) in 27 games, and is generally considered to be among the top 20 players available for this year’s draft.
“I knew he was good from what [USA assistant coach] Danton Cole had told me, but I didn’t know he was this good until I saw him,” said Wilson of Keller. “The first two days, I didn’t really have him on a line that you could say really gives him a chance, and he was our best player on the ice on the first day. So, I’ve been trying to break him in and play him with some other lines. And tomorrow night, he’s going to have a real opportunity because we’re not playing two of our better guys tomorrow, for sure.”
Wilson is impressed with the overall talent at his disposal for this year’s World Juniors, a situation that he chalks up to the widening appeal of the game in the U.S.
“We’ve got players from everywhere, and you think the best player in this coming draft [Matthews] is gonna be from Arizona,” Wilson said of the growing talent base available to the U.S. program. “You wouldn’t say that 10 years ago, you wouldn’t have anybody from Arizona. And now, the players that we can pick from are from everywhere in the country, so that’s saying a lot for how much U.S. hockey has expanded, but also that the NHL – the fruits of all the expansion have really paid off now.”
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