Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column looking at Hockey’s Future Stars. Over the next week or so, we will be previewing the 2014 World Junior Championships, a tournament that will be played in Toronto and Montreal from December 26, 2014 to January 5, 2015. As always, you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
Today we take an early look at Team USA and predict the forwards who will be on the team. It should be noted that Canucks prospect Cole Cassels is an interesting case here. He is eligible for both the US and Canadian Squads. While he played for Team Ontario at the U17 level, and for the OHL in the Canada/Russia Super Series, those are not IIHF sanctioned events, and so while they may indicate that he is leaning towards playing for Canada in the future, they aren’t determinative. On the other hand, Cassels accepted an invite to the United States National Junior Team Evaluation Camp last summer, before illness forced him to bow out, so at the very least he is considering playing for the Americans. To top it all off Cassels recently received a ten-game suspension from the OHL, and will only be able to serve eight of the ten games prior to the tournament. Since the IIHF respects the CHL suspensions, he would miss the first two games of the tournament. For that reason I am going to assume that Cassels will not be on the American squad when I make my picks.
With 22 players eligible for the roster, I am going to pick four lines and a 13th forward today and give my goaltenders and defense tomorrow. Note players must be born on January 1st, 1995 or later to be eligible for the tournament. 1994 birthdates are not eligible.
Early Look: 2015 World Juniors Team USA Forwards
Sonny Milano – Jack Eichel – Alex Tuch
It’s rare that we would see three players with 1996 birthdates playing together on the top line for a contending team. However, when it comes to this line, I’m going to go with the philosophy that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Milano, Eichel and Tuch have dominated the international stage at the Under 17 and Under 18 level over the past two years, and so I keep them together for this tournament.
Jack Eichel has been playing very well for Boston University in the NCAA. Eichel has a long and quick skating stride that gives him great speed, power, balance, and acceleration. He has the ability to blow by defenders whether it is walking out of the corner or taking them wide on the rush, once he gets a step on them, they are in trouble. Add to this top-notch stickhandling, outstanding hockey sense, great vision and passing skill, and a hard wrist shot with a lightning-quick release and you have a future top-line centre in the NHL. Last year’s tourney was Eichel’s coming out party in a supporting role, and this year he will be the main man on the U.S. squad.
Sonny Milano has good top-end speed, but his quickness is outstanding. He has a tremendous first step, great acceleration, and can change direction on a dime. He can get by defenders as the moment he sees an opening, he flies through. Milano has great hands and can make plays with the puck at top speed. He loves to shoot the puck, using a great wrist shot and release. He also has a very dangerous backhand. Milano is relentless, chasing down loose pucks with reckless abandon. He wins puck battles via determination, positioning and leverage, but can sometimes be overpowered. He is a tremendous playmaker with great vision, and the ability to thread the needle and put the puck on a teammate’s tape. He is dangerous off the half-wall on the powerplay, as he can take advantage of extra time and space to create chances with a shot or pass.
Alex Tuch is built like a truck and plays like a power forward. His skating stride seems unconventional but doesn’t hold him back as he generates decent speed. While he’s not a speedster, its good enough to keep up with the play and he is very strong on his skates. Tuch wins board battles using balance, leverage and size. He fights through checks and gets to dirty areas of the ice in order to put up points. Tuch also effectively establishes a position in front of the net. He is a strong forechecker and uses his body to get the puck, but is not likely to throw big hits. He is good at controlling the puck on the cycle and driving the net when an opening appears. If an opening doesn’t appear, he has been known bowl right over a defender. Tuch has soft hands to tip-in pucks, pounce on rebounds, and score in tight. He also has both an outstanding wrist shot and a cannon of a slap shot. His hockey sense is very good, as Tuch seems to almost always make the smart play with the puck, and is able to find openings in the defence without it.
J.T. Compher (C) – Dylan Larkin – Adam Erne
Dylan Larkin is an outstanding two-way centre who can be matched against the other team’s top line. He will centre this line which can provide offence to the U.S. squad and also be used in the matchup game. Larkin is a very strong skater, with good top-end speed, acceleration, and a great first step. He is effective on the forecheck and in the cycle. Larkin is more of a shooter than a passer, as he has a good wrist shot and strong release. He is also effective at finding open areas for one-timers. Larkin creates offense through straight-ahead simple plays, more than from being overly fancy and creative. He makes the smart play and is willing to go to the net hard. Larkin is extremely advanced defensively for a young player. Larkin is more than willing to put his body on the line and block shots. While we don’t have face-off stats, observation shows that he has been good in the circle and wins a lot of draws.
J.T. Compher is a talented agitator. He is always yapping in an opponent’s face after the whistle. Compher gets opponents off their game and draws penalties. He has a nose for trouble, finding himself in the middle of any scrum. He is not afraid to go to dirty areas of the ice, and wins board battles and establishes position in front of the net. He drives the net hard and has been known to take a goalie interference penalty or two for his efforts. He has the skills to back up his chirping and agitation as he has the vision and passing ability to be an effective playmaker. Compher has very good stickhandling protects the puck well and controls the playoff the cycle. He combines this with a very good shot and release and knows how to put the puck in the net. He also has the hockey sense to always find himself in the right place at the right time.
Erne was part of the U.S. team last year, but struggled in the tournament. With 17 goals and 38 points in 22 games with the Quebec Remparts this year, he’s much improved at the junior level, and the U.S. hopes that this improvement goes over to the international game. Erne is another power forward who plays a very physical game. He loves to get in on the forecheck and throw big hits. He just loves to win battles on the boards and to fight for position in front of the net. Erne is at his best when he drives the net and uses his soft hands to beat the goalie in close. He can take defenders wide off the rush, or in the cycle game by fighting through checks and barreling his way to the crease. His vision and playmaking ability have vastly improved as well.
Nick Schmaltz – Auston Matthews – Hudson Fasching (A)
Auston Matthews is just a few days short of being eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, and instead is looking like a possible top pick in 2016. The United States has never been afraid to bring an underage player to this tournament, and with 35 points in 21 games for the US NTDP U18 squad this year, Matthews has proven his worth to be part of this squad. He is an exceptional skater, who has the stickhandling ability to make plays at top speed and the vision and passing ability to be a dynamic playmaker. Add in good hockey sense and a decent shot, and this tournament will be a coming out party for the youngster, just like last year’s was for Eichel.
Nick Schmaltz’s best assets are his hockey sense and ability to read the play. He can seem to be a step ahead of other players on the ice. Couple this with great vision and playmaking skills in the offensive zone and he is a top notch playmaker. Schmaltz is very hard to knock off the puck and controls the game in the cycle waiting for teammates to get open and thread those great passes onto their tape. His quick hands and good stickhandling also help him to protect the puck. Schmaltz is willing to take the puck to the net himself if he sees an opening but is much more of a playmaker than goal scorer. He’s not afraid to fight for pucks along the boards and to play in traffic, but can sometimes be overpowered. Schmaltz has a very good wrist shot and one-timer, but he just doesn’t use these assets enough.
Hudson Fasching returns to the team from the 2014 squad and is yet another big and physical forward. He takes the puck to the net, and can score goals in tight, or via a good wrist shot and snapshot with a quick release. He gets to the front of the net, where he uses his big body to establish position, and his soft hands to bang in rebounds or make deflections. Fasching is a load to handle in the corners and loves to play a strong, physical game, with plenty of hits on the forecheck. He has also shown good vision and passing skill off the wing. Fasching is a powerful skater with a long stride. His power and size allows him to fight off checks, and to bulldoze defencemen off the rush or in the cycle. Fasching is also a valuable two way player, playing important penalty killing minutes for the University of Minnesota. He shows his aggressive physical side in the defensive zone, pressuring the puck carrier and not being afraid to mix things up along the boards.
Connor Hurley – Michael McCarron – Justin Bailey
Full disclosure here, I’ve been as hard on Michael McCarron as anyone over the last three years. However, the big forward has shown big improvements in his game with London this year. He’s lost some weight, slimming down to 225 pounds (from 240), and it shows in increased quickness out on the ice. Whats rare, is that he also seems to have increased his physical strength, while slimming down and shows better balance and strength on his feet. McCarron has also benefited from a move to centre with the London Knights, where he’s playing more of a two-hundred foot game and using his physical attributes in all areas of the ice, as well as showing off better vision and passing skills. In this tournament, he will be asked to lead this energy line to play a crash and bang style and wear down opponents. McCarron has always had a strong wrist shot and can score with it if given the opportunity.
Connor Hurley has the whole package of size and speed. He has very good vision, and can thread passes through the tiniest of openings. His stickhandling as well as his puck protection are very good, and he can be quite the handful in the cycle game, buying time to make those passes. He drives the net, and has the soft hands necessary to finish plays in tight, but can also score from further away with an accurate wrister and good release. Hurley does get involved in board battles, and he isn’t afraid to mix it up, but doesn’t throw big hits on the forecheck preferring to try and get the puck. Hurley has good defensive instincts. He uses his stick to cut down passing lanes and his great anticipation causes turnovers which he is quickly able to capitalize on in the transition game. Hurley is a strong backchecker who works hard in his own end and doesn’t neglect assignments. Unlike on the forecheck, he is more likely to initiate contact in the defensive zone. However he needs to pick his spots better as he can sometimes get himself caught out of position looking for the big hit.
Bailey, like McCarron, had a tough year in the OHL last season. He’s really improved this year though with 14 goals and 29 points in 23 games. The big winger has a tremendous arsenal of shots. His snap shot and wrist shot are both lethal and feature the type of hair trigger release that drives goalies nuts. His slapshot and one-timer are accurate and powerful. He has all the makings of a sniper. Bailey is also strong on the puck, and his good puck protection, balance, and ability to win board battles makes him good on the cycle game. This coupled with his good passing skill make him a good playmaker. He is a willing battler along the boards and forechecks well. Bailey skates well, with good agility and edgework. He also has very good top end speed.
Chase De Leo
Many will knock Chase De Leo’s size as he is listed at just 5’10 and 175 lbs. He does have the type of skill set that one usually sees in the type of player who succeeds despite size concerns. De Leo is a very good skater. He doesn’t have blazing top end speed, but is still above average. He’s more quick than fast though, showing a great first step, excellent acceleration, and the ability to quickly change speeds. He also has extremely good edgework and agility. This allows him to get to a lot of loose pucks, and to avoid defenders. Offensively, De Leo has very good hands and is able to get past defenders or score goals in tight. He protects the puck well and is able to extend plays to find an opening to unleash a strong wrist shot, or snapshot, and has a good release on both. De Leo has excellent vision, good passing skills and high end hockey sense, which helps him to be a strong playmaker. He is gritty and willing to battle in all areas of the ice, but his size and strength can be concerns. De Leo is also a strong two-way player. He is good in the face-off circle, has good positioning in all three zones. He is a relentless checker who supports well on the backcheck and supports defenders down low. This versatility makes him an ideal 13th forward.
HMs: Tyler Motte, John Hayden, Kyle Connor, Dominic Turgeon, Taylor Cammarata,
Check back tomorrow where I will take a look at the American Defense and Goaltending.
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Main Photo via Bruce Bennett/Getty Images.