Team USA has often left the World Junior Championships with a bitter taste in its mouth having only medaled four times in the tournament’s 30-year history, but this US team travels to Scandinavia with high hopes.
“Last year obviously we had a lot to prove as a team, we didn’t do as well as we thought we would,” forward Jack Skille told the media during a USA Hockey conference call. “It wasn’t embarrassing for us last year, but I believe we should’ve done better.”
Skille is one of eight players returning from the 2006 team that was left off the podium in British Columbia after Finland defeated them 4-2 in the bronze medal game. US Head Coach Ron Rolston selected an internationally experienced roster for Sweden—a group that includes seven first-round NHL draft picks and six second-round picks. Rolston, who is in his third season with the National Team Development Program, also chose 15 players who played for him in the USNTDP, many of whom played key roles in back-to-back IIHF World U-18 gold medals.
“We wanted the players that we have here on board because their history has shown they are good teammates and they add to the chemistry of this hockey team,” said Rolston. “Whatever happens in the tournament we’re certainly going to battle for each other and everybody is going to be on board.”
Opening the tournament against Germany on Dec. 26, the US team will boost imposing size, averaging a height of 6’1 and weight 194 lbs, and an experienced defensive corps led by Erik Johnson and Jack Johnson. The US won their two pre-tournament exhibitions with a 6-3 win over the Czech Republic and a 5-3 win over Switzerland.
Jeff Frazee (NJ)
Frazee returns to the WJC after only playing in one game against Finland during the 2006 tournament. A second round pick of NJ, Frazee lost 20 lbs during the offseason after being challenged to improve his fitness and regain his focus. The sophomore has played nine games for the top-ranked University of Minnesota Gophers this season and is an athletic goaltender who has won at every level, including backstopping a gold medal U-18 team. The goaltending job for this year’s tournament appears to be up for grabs. Rolston says Frazee brings an ability to get hot and make a lot of saves goalies have no business making.
Jeff Zatkoff (LA)
Zatkoff has seen a lot of action during his two seasons playing for the Miami Redhawks and the third-round draft pick has put up very consistent numbers while playing in the CCHA. Zatkoff has good size, 6’1, and put up save percentages of .928 over 20 starts in his first year and .919 throughout his 12 starts this season. The Michigan native is one of the eight players who did not play in the NTDP, goaltending for Victory Honda (Mich.) AAA and then Sioux City in the USHL. Rolston feels Zatkoff is a sound positional goalie who will make the saves he needs to make.
Erik Johnson (STL)
The No. 1 overall selection in last year’s NHL Draft may already have the size and ability to play at the next level, but decided to attend Minnesota for at least the 2006-07 season. He has played heavy minutes for the Gophers and has 14 assists in 19 games. Last year Johnson led the USNTDP defensemen in goals, assists, and scoring and was selected to the all-tournament team. The 6’4 222 lbs blueliner possesses tremendous vision, and plays a physical game. He will lead the defense.
Taylor Chorney (EDM)
North Dakota (WCHA)
The sophomore at North Dakota is a reliable defender who logs a lot of minutes for the Fighting Sioux and is a veteran of international play. The 5’11 194 lbs defenseman is not the flashiest player on the roster, but is one of the character players emphasized by Rolston having been named a captain on the US U-17 and US-18 national teams. The second-round pick of Edmonton in 2005, Chorney has 10 assists in 18 games with North Dakota.
Jack Johnson (LA)
Johnson is enjoying another fine season at Michigan after spurning Carolina’s desire for him to leave school early. The 2005 third overall pick was traded to Los Angeles, but returned to Ann Arbor for his sophomore season and leads the Wolverine defensemen in scoring with 6 goals and 7 assists in 16 games. The 6’1 215-pounder is another returning blueliner to the roster who is not only skilled with and without the puck, but can grab an opponent’s attention with his physical play.
Kyle Lawson (CAR)
Notre Dame (CCHA)
Notre Dame has been the surprise of the college hockey season so far, and a big reason for their success has been the performance of their defensive corps, of which Lawson has been a crucial piece. Lawson has twice been named rookie of the week in the CCHA and is likely to be paired with fellow CCHA’er Jack Johnson for the tournament. The 5’11 205-pound seventh-round pick is making his first appearance in the WJC, but played for Rolston with the USNTDP in 2004-05 and was a part of the 2005 U-18 gold medal team in Plzen, Czech Republic.
Brian Lee (OTT)
North Dakota (WCHA)
Lee is making his third appearance in the WJC and while coach Rolston indicates the 2005 ninth overall selection may have been over his head the first time around, he’s progressed each year, and has continued to play a bigger role with the U-20 team. The 6’3 205 lbs is one of numerous talented sophomores at North Dakota and is the Fighting Sioux’s leading scorer from the blue line with 13 assists in 18 games. Lee is a superb skater, who can play in all situations, and can really move the puck up the ice.
Sean Zimmerman (NJ)
The only major junior defenseman on Rolston’s roster has taken a unique development path compared to other players headed to Sweden. Zimmerman is playing his fourth season with Spokane in the WHL, and the sixth-round Devils selection played six games with the Albany River Rats last season after signing an amateur tryout contract. Zimmerman is not known for his offensive talents, but has good size, 6’2 201 lbs and is a hard working player that Rolston hopes will contribute to the chemistry necessary for the three-week tournament.
Jamie McBain (CAR)
McBain appears to have been the seventh defenseman during the U-20’s first two exhibition games, but the freshman Badger still has the potential to contribute should Rolston desire some additional offense. The second-round pick was named the top defenseman at the 2006 U-18 World Championship in Angelholm, Sweden and could be considered Wisconsin top defenseman so far this season. The 6’1 186 lbs blueliner is an adapt moving the puck up the ice, in the offensive zone defenseman, and is the fourth-leading scorer for the Badgers at the break, with 2 goals and 8 assists in 18 games.
Kyle Okposo (NYI)
Okposo, leading the top ranked Gophers in scoring with 15 goals and 8 assists, has jumped out as potentially the top freshman in college hockey. The seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft appears to be playing Rolston’s top line with former Des Moines teammate Trevor Lewis and current teammate Ryan Stoa. Okposo provides the team with player who can win one-on-one battles all over the ice, create scoring opportunities, and play physically when necessary.
Trevor Lewis (LA)
Owen Sound (OHL)
One of three Los Angeles Kings prospects on the U-20 team, Lewis moved on to a new challenge by playing for the Owen Sound in the OHL this season after being named the USHL Player of the Year in 2005-06. Despite the new challenges of the OHL, the 17th overall pick in the 2006 draft has averaged over a point per game for the Attack scoring 17 goals and 27 assists. Rolston notes that Lewis is one of his many multi-dimensional forwards who can kill penalties, contribute on the power play, create offense during five-on-five play, and has a lot of pride to his game.
Ryan Stoa (COL)
Stoa is one of the many two-way players Rolston selected for Sweden. Stoa is not one of the top point scorers at Minnesota, but he plays all 200 by 100 feet of the rink and has a high neutral zone IQ. The 6’3 220-pound second-round pick can protect the puck, create traffic in front of the net, and find the open man when moving up ice.
Patrick Kane (NHL 2007)
The 5’10 winger has been a scorer at every level he’s been at, breaking Phil Kessel’s single season point scoring marks with the USNTDP tallying 52 goals and 50 assists in 2005-06 and currently leads the OHL in scoring with 26 goals and 41 assists in 32 games. Rolston commented that Kane is extremely gifted, can snipe, set-up plays, and control the flow of the game when he has the puck on his stick. As the US’s leading scorer from the 2006 U-18 World Championship in Angelholm, Sweden, Kane will be one of the most watched players from the US team.
Peter Mueller (PHO)
The eighth overall pick from the 2006 draft returns to the WJC as one of the forwards Rolston will count on to win one-on-one battles for his smaller linemates Kane and Gerbe. The 6’2 194-pound center has seemingly played hockey at almost every developmental option, starting out playing high school hockey for Breck as an 8th grader, then joining the USNTDP for two season, and is currently playing his second season with Everett in the WHL. The 2005-06 WHL Rookie of the Year has continued his success as a playmaker for the Silvertips scoring 8 goals and 37 assists in 26 games this season.
Nate Gerbe (BUF)
Boston College (Hockey East)
Gerbe may be the smallest player on the US roster at 5’5, but the US coach doesn’t want anybody to bring that up. Rolston says he didn’t dismiss the diminutive winger because of his size, since the Boston College sophomore is always creating things offensively, is constantly around the puck, is a competitor that wants to win every night and is fearless about getting to the areas he needs to be. Gerbe has gotten off to a quick start with the squad scoring three goals and two assists during the pre-tournament exhibition games against the Czech Republic and Switzerland.
Jack Skille (CHI)
Perhaps the epitome of Rolston’s roster selection philosophy, Skille is a two-way forward with good size, 6’1 202 lbs, and a nice touch around the net. The seventh overall pick from the 2005 draft brings an ability to contribute in every situation throughout the game and can provide a spark at both ends of the ice. One of 11 players from the WCHA selected to the roster, Skille will be counted on to work for his linemates each shift.
Justin Abdelkader (DET)
Michigan State (CCHA)
Abdelkader will be making his first appearance on the international stage in the 2007 WJC. The center is another one of Rolston’s big, 6’1 195 lbs, two-way forwards who is a known as good character guy who will work for his teammates. Abdelkader was a leader for a Cedar Rapids club that won the USHL Clark Cup in 2004-05 scoring 27 goals and 25 assists in 60 games.
James vanRiemsdyk (2007)
Rolston considers vanRiemsdyk to be a player with a bright future ahead of him. The youngest player on the roster brings with him an NHL shot, a 6’3 190-pound frame, and solid puck skills. NHL scouts will be eager to see how vanRiemsdyk performs in Sweden as he is the USNTDP’s current leading scorer with 25 goals and 18 assists in 30 games, was named to the all-tournament at the 2006 World U-17 Hockey Challenge, and helped the US to a gold medal at the 2006 U-18 World Championship in Angelholm, Sweden.
Bill Sweatt (2007)
Colorado College (WCHA)
Sweatt was perhaps one of the surprise selections to the team that Rolston has taken to Sweden, but the coach likes the forward because of Sweatt’s ability to change the momentum of a game with his speed. The 6’ 187 lbs winger was named the top forward at the 2006 U-18 World Championship in Angelholm, Sweden and has scored some key goals on the international stage. The Elburn, Ill. native has also earned a gold medal and bronze medal playing with the US Inline National Team.
Mike Carman (COL)
One of five players selected from Minnesota, Carman has a knack for playing a gritty two-way game. Gopher Head Coach Don Lucia has relied on the 6’ 183 lbs freshman to play center and the 2006 third round pick has responded by playing an aggressive style of hockey. While familiar playing on the Olympic size ice sheet at Mariucci Arena, Carman is also good on the puck and can make plays in tight spaces.
Blake Geoffrion (NSH)
A second-round selection in 2006, Geoffrion is another one of Rolston’s players from the USNDTP who is known for being a 200-foot player. The 6’1 192 lbs wing has one goal and three assists in 17 games with the Badgers, but he wasn’t taken to Sweden to score goals. The grandson of Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion and great grandson of Howie Morenz was selected to the team because of his skill on the penalty kill and his willingness to work hard for his linemates.
Jim Fraser (FA)
Likely the 13th forward on Rolston’s roster, Fraser adds another multi-dimension forward to the lineup who can play all three forwards spots, take draws, and kill penalties. While Fraser is the only undrafted free agent on the roster, he’s a veteran of the USNTDP and international competitions. Rolston feels that the 5’11 191 lbs forward is a great locker room guy who loves being a part of a winner and exudes that attitude to his teammates.
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