Hockey Sense Roundup: Projecting USA's World Junior roster; Hlinka-Gretzky Cup notes
Plus: Emptying the WJSS notebook; Olympics news and more
Is it really August? Does anyone know what day it is even? The 2020-21 hockey season has officially transitioned to the 2021-22 season over the last week and there really wasn’t any such thing as an offseason. We’ve had the NHL Draft, NHL free agency, the World Junior Summer Showcase and now the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup all just flowing one right into the other. It’s a dizzying pace that won’t stop until next summer. So there’s a lot more to come right here on Hockey Sense, which means it’s time for another massive roundup covering a bunch of different topics to at least scratch the surface of what’s been happening lately.
Also, I wanted to share this with all of the great folks who have signed up for the free emails because a lot of what I’ve done lately has been on the premium side. The last two weeks have been massive for growth of the Hockey Sense subscriber base and I can’t thank you enough for signing on, free or otherwise, to see what it is we’ve got cooking over here. And remember, you can upgrade at any time, cancel at any time or just hang out for as long as you like. There’s so much more coming this summer including my system rankings, top prospects and a ton of pre-Olympic coverage.
Projecting Team USA’s roster for the 2022 World Junior Championship
After doing a deep dive on all 94 players that competed at the World Junior Summer Showcase Monday (which premium subscribers can read here), I wanted to bring the focus back to Team USA and take a look at what the roster might look like for the World Juniors slated for December in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta.
Matthew Knies (TOR) - Matty Beniers (SEA) - Matt Coronato (CGY)
Logan Cooley (2022) - Thomas Bordeleau (SJS) - Mackie Samoskevich (FLA)
Brett Berard (NYR) - Landon Slaggert (CHI) - Chaz Lucius (WPG)
Red Savage (DET) - Chase Yoder (PIT) - Carter Mazur (DET)
Charlie Stramel (2023)
Bubble: Tristan Broz (PIT), Luke Tuch (MTL), Tyler Boucher (OTT)
Wild cards: Isaac Howard (2022), Ty Smilanic (FLA), Sasha Pastujov (ANA)
This forward group more mirrors the USA Blue roster that finished the camp, but I think there are probably going to be some other players that work their way into the mix as the season progresses. Since I can’t predict the future, this is the best I could come up with based on what I saw in camp.
One thing that stands out right away is that they have decen scoring potential, but as we also saw at the World Junior Summer Showcase, there’s not a ton of candidates in this mix that can just take a game over when you need them to. Thomas Bordeleau looks like the best candidate for such a role. He is so skilled and makes plays so many others cannot. He would have been on the team last year if not for COVID protocols in WJC pre-tournament camp.
Two of the real standouts from the WJSS were Matthew Knies and Logan Cooley. Knies has power forward potential and he can score in a lot of different ways. He’s strong on the puck and then has this unique combination of very quick puck skills that you don’t expect from him. Cooley was one of the youngest, but one of fastest players in camp and is so slippery in the neutral and offensive zones.
Additionally, this lineup has a lit of grind, but guys that can also play with enough skill to boost scoring depth. Brett Berard, Landon Slaggert, Red Savage, Chase Yoder and Carter Mazur can all bring similar elements. I think there has to be a genuine discussion about if there’s enough goal scoring in the bottom of the lineup as I’ve structured it. I think there is, but you might want to swap out someone like a Savage or Yoder for a bit more offensive upside. Tristan Broz or Luke Tuch could be one of the options in that instance, while both still bring some edge with them. Or maybe Ty Smilanic with his speed and scoring could be a fit.
The forward group really looks like it could have one or two players come out of nowhere to seize some spots. I think the top nine players listed are all essentially locks if healthy. Stramel, who is not draft eligible until 2023, looks like as close to a lock as he can get preseason, too, as he’ll bring a size element with speed that the U.S. will need. He also has the versatility to play anywhere in the lineup, which is why I listed him as the 13th F. Beyond that, I think there’s still a lot of competition to be had and the staff will keep their options open.
I also would not rule out USA dressing eight defensemen and 12 forwards due to the tremendous depth they have on the back end compared to what’s available up front.
Jake Sanderson (OTT) - Luke Hughes (NJD)
Tyler Kleven (OTT) - Brock Faber (LAK)
Wyatt Kaiser (CHI) - Connor Kelley (CHI)
Scott Morrow (CAR)
Bubble: Eamon Powell (TBL), Ian Moore (ANA)
Wild cards: Lane Hutson (2022), Ryan Chesley (2022), Shai Buium (DET), Jacob Truscott (VAN)
This is the strength of the team. Jake Sanderson is going to play big minutes and anchor this blue line, possibly serve as the captain, too. He was so far ahead of everyone in camp it made me wonder if he would have a change of heart and sign with the Senators, but I think he’s still making the sound developmental decision by going back to North Dakota. But holy smokes was he dominant in camp. His second half of the season in college, I thought he was one of the best players in the nation and now he’ll have a chance to play a leading role on a blue line that lost some significant experience at North Dakota.
USA doesn’t have many high-end right-shot options, but the ones they do have available are pretty strong. Left-shot Luke Hughes played on his off-hand side almost all of camp and did very well there. Leaman also said he liked the way Sanderson and Hughes looked together early in camp. Faber is one of the best defensemen in the age group and a natural right-shot, as is Scott Morrow was one of the biggest surprises in camp. If Morrow can handle the transition to college hockey well, I think there’s very little doubt he’s on the roster.
Wyatt Kaiser didn’t have an amazing camp for USA, but his body of work is such that I can’t see him being left off. Connor Kelley, who is a more defensive-minded player who skates very well, could be another right-shot option and if he and Kaiser see time together at Minnesota Duluth, that might make sense to just bring that pairing over to the WJC, too.
The one concern I have with this blue line is that I think it could use a more dynamic element yet. Both Hughes and Morrow are supremely skilled, with Sanderson’s offensive game really growing over the last year to the point where I think he can take shifts over if need be. That might be enough, but Nate Leaman also talked about wanting to make sure he had a D corps that can handle the forecheck. I think the group I listed is probably most adept at that. They move pucks well enough, have good size and most of that D corps can really skate.
Among the bubble guys, I could see Powell making the strongest case for inclusion. He had a shortened camp due to injury, but the skill and puck-moving ability he has from the back end would make him a solid choice for eighth defenseman if USA chooses to dress eight. He is a natural right-shot who I thought played very well in the NCAA last year.
The wild cards are two U18 defensemen who probably are going to be down on the list, but if the U.S. is desperate for a more dynamic element on their back end, they will find no more dynamic a talent than Lane Hutson. They also might not find a smaller defenseman, either, as he checks in at maybe a hair under 5-foot-7. If you’ve ever seen Hutson play, though, you’d know there’s at least a case for him. It is highly unlikely, but he might have something they could use a little more of in a power play, low-minutes specialist kind of role if they’re going to dress eight defensemen. Fellow U18 Ryan Chesley is also a highly-productive right-shot defenseman who has some good international experience as part of last year’s U.S. team at U18 Worlds, alongside Hutson.
Generally, though, this is going to be Jake Sanderson’s D corps and I think he gives the U.S. coaching staff a lot of confidence.
Drew Commesso (CHI)
Wild Cards: Tucker Tynan, Noah Grannan, Remington Koeppel
I think Drew Commesso can be a good No. 1 goalie for the U.S. The question is will the U.S. have any other option to put in to make sure Commesso doesn’t have to play seven games in 11 days? After camp, that is still unanswered.
Aidan Campbell didn’t play at all last season, but he’s a big, rangy goalie that can get a little wild in the crease, but has some good potential. I think his timing was off early in camp, but he settled in and got better as time went on. He’ll need a solid first half with Erie in the OHL to give himself a chance to be the No. 2, but USA still needs a goalie that might be able to take a little pressure off of Commesso.
Then there’s Kaidan Mbereko who is 5-foot-11 and lightning-quick, but still prone to the big period where he loses his net a little bit and all the sudden the game gets away from him. I think he’s got some real big-save ability because he’s got to be so fast to make up for his size. Drafted by the Lincoln Stars, he is expected to play in the USHL this season. It does help that Kris Mayotte, a former goalie coach and current head coach at Colorado College where Mbereko is committed, is on the staff and will know if the player can handle the WJC. In the end, it’s most likely as a No. 3 goalie, but the U.S. still has an open competition behind Commesso.
This is the position of least depth in both the 2002 and 2003 birth years in the U.S., so there’s a lot of work to do to see if there are any good options out there. Commesso has to stay healthy and stay ready to potentially carry the mail for USA the whole way.
Emptying the notebook from the World Junior Summer Showcase
I spent the last week in Plymouth working for HockeyTV to cover the World Junior Summer Showcase and thought I’d empty the notebook on things I saw and learned over the course of the week that wasn’t included in yesterday’s rundown of player evals.
Aatu Räty’s (NYI) 14-point performance over the six games was stunning. It’s the best he’s look in more than a year and as I alluded to in Monday’s full breakdown, I don’t know if there was a player more engaged. He just flat-out competed and showed a lot of fire on the ice. I thought he played pissed off and it worked. It can really go the other way for players, but I think he took his draft slide personally and was on a mission to prove people wrong immediately. Now he has to do that in Liiga, where he just never found a groove last season and at times looked disengaged. This performance really could be a springboard for him.
I didn’t mention much about Finland and Sweden’s team performances in Monday’s breakdown, but Finland lost just one game of the six they played in. It was a pretty incredible performance from their team as a whole. They have depth and their defense played poise. On top of that, goalies Joel Blomqvist (PIT) and Leevi Meriläinen (OTT) were excellent. Finland found ways to close games better than any other team at the summer showcase. Even though there was no hardware on the line, Finland competed as if there was and it showed. That bodes very well as they build towards the tournament.
Sweden, on the other hand, did not win a game until its last one in the summer showcase when they played the weaker of two USA teams on the final weekend. Sweden’s roster was without William Eklund (SJS), Simon Edvinsson (DET) and Jesper Wallstedt (MIN), but there are some significant holes on the team. Defense was a real concern as they didn’t have many, if any players really step up. Calle Clang (PIT) was mostly pretty good in net and Carl Lindbom (VGK) held his own. Up front, they just didn’t have much scoring. Their weak spot is down the middle, which was well known coming into the camp. Eklund may have to play center, which is not ideal as he is so good on the wing, but it could be a necessity. There’s a lot left to figure out about this roster, but I could see some younger players filling holes that are noticeable.
Nate Leaman, head coach of Team USA, managed to bring back the entire staff from last year’s gold medal team. Assistant coaches Steve Miller, Kris Mayotte and Ted Donato, along with video coach Theresa Feaster, will be guiding USA again. They’re going to have a very different group of players than the one that took gold a year ago. As Leaman noted in camp, there are a lot more spots up for grabs this year. Either way, the staff continuity could be very helpful. The last time the U.S. brought back largely the same staff was 2018, where Team USA managed to win bronze a year after winning gold under the Bob Motzko-led staff. No U.S. team has ever gone back-to-back gold at the World Junior Championship.
2021 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup Notes
The Hlinka-Gretzky Cup is the first major event on the NHL Draft calendar. Even without Canada competing this year, there’s a lot to see. The U.S. sends a roster of players composed of U18s outside of the NTDP, giving a look at the American class beyond those in Plymouth. Meanwhile, the rest of the countries competing brought their top U18s to Piestany and Breclav.
Preliminary play ended Wednesday with Slovakia and Russia each finishing with perfect records. Slovakia beat the U.S., Germany and Sweden to top their group and set a date with Finland in the semifinals set for Friday. Russia rolled through Switzerland, Finland and the Czech Republic to draw Sweden in the semifinals.
Here’s a look at some of the notes from the tournament so far:
The U.S. went 1-2 in pool play, having to settle for playing the Czechs in the fifth-place game Friday. The Americans got off to a slow start against Slovakia and never were able to recover, but showed promise against a very talented Swedish club, jumping out to a 3-1 lead after one period. The Swedes stormed back, however, after goalie Hugo Hävelid settled in to shut the door the rest of the way, earning a 5-3 win that sealed the Americans’ fate. Despite the disappointment, the U.S. U18 Selects rebounded to close out pool play with a 10-0 win over Germany. Cam Lund had five points, all against Germany, to finish the preliminary round as USA’s scoring leader.
The real story of the tournament has been the performance of the co-host Slovakians, which is icing what has to be its best U18 team in a decade. Led by 2022 NHL Draft top prospects Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec, the Slovakians dominated the Americans, rolled over the Germans and then pulled out a close win over Sweden to finish first in group play. After watching all three games on video, this might be the best Slovakian team I’ve ever seen at this age level. They currently have seven players averaging two points per game or better through group play. Even though that’s boosted a bit by their rout of Germany, this team is so dialed in and playing well enough to contend for the title. They’re having fun, too.
Dalibor Dvorsky, a 2005-born 2023 NHL Draft eligible, has stolen the show for the Slovakians. He posted 11 points, which includes a tournament-best seven goals, over the first three games and leads the tournament in scoring. No player under 17 has ever scored that many points and he still has two games left to add to the total. Dvorsky is a name to know for 2023. Last season, he became the youngest player ever to score a goal in the Slovakian pro league, breaking the record previously set by Marian Gaborik in 1998. He currently plays in AIK’s system in Sweden, which is where he was prior to COVID shutting down Sweden’s U18 and U20 leagues opening up the chance to play professionally in his home country. He is slated to return to AIK next year where he should play in Sweden’s U20 circuit.
Matvei Michkov is at it again. The 2023 NHL Draft-eligible and Russian goal-scoring sensation continues to fill the net. He is second behind Dvorsky with six goals over three games. Michkov scored the first goal of all three games and continues to be the most dangerous player when given time and space. Considering he he had 12 goals in the U18 World Championship, Michkov is up to 18 goals in 10 games of major international competition at the U18 level. His numbers don’t seem real, but he is as good as they suggest. I don’t know if there’s a player in the world that has his net sense. It’s just automatic. Connor Bedard is the harder shooter between the two 2023 wunderkinds, but Michkov is the most accurate.
Simon Nemec is currently the top-scoring defenseman in the tournament with a goal and five assists through three games. He’s building a very strong case for being the top defenseman in the 2022 NHL Draft class. His maturity is beyond his years and he’s a force at both ends of the ice. Mattias Hävelid of Sweden is second among defensemen with five points, which includes two very nice goals from the point. He is also 2022 NHL Draft eligible and is the twin brother of Sweden’s goalie Hugo Hävelid. Yes, there are more Swedish twins on the way. Mattias in particular could end up having a very big season as he is very much in the mix to be part of Sweden’s World Junior roster as they have some holes on the blue line.
Russian goaltender Sergei Ivanov stopped 63 of 68 shots over his two starts to lead all goaltenders with multiple appearances in the tournament with a .927 save percentage. He’s a 5-foot-11 goaltender, but has been solid for Russia in two U18 events so far, the first being the World U18 Championship last spring in Frisco, Texas. I think he’s going to be one of those rare undersized goalies who gets drafted, though I don’t think it will be particularly high. I think he plays so soundly and has explosiveness in his game, too. It’s hard for guys under 6-foot-2 to get picked anymore, but Juuse Saros is reminding people that smaller goaltenders can make a positive impact on their clubs yet.
News and notes from around the hockey world
Hockey Canada held its Program of Excellence Summer Showcase which featured the top U20 and U18 players. The U20s are essentially in camp to compete for spots on the World Junior roster, while the U18s were there as a replacement for not going to the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. Columbus Blue Jackets prospects Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger put on a show to close out the final game of camp, where Hockey Canada mixed in U18s and U20s together. Sillinger had four goals in a 9-8 overtime loss, while Kent Johnson contributed two goals and three assists for the winning side. The OT game-winner was scored by Corson Ceulemans, who was the last of the three first-round picks Columbus made at the draft, assisted by Johnson. I think I heard the Jarmo Kekalainen and John Davidson high five from my house. Here are the highlights from that game:
Tuesday brought fairly surprising news that Andy Murray was stepping down as Western Michigan’s head coach after a 10-year run that saw the Broncos place several players in the NHL and 167 wins. Murray said this in a statement released by WMU’s athletics department: “The last 10 years at WMU have been as rewarding as anything I have done in my life. I am in great health and full of energy, so this is not a retirement. I still have a number of things on my bucket list and now is the time to pursue those.”
Murray came to Western Michigan with a pretty impressive pedigree, arriving on campus with experience as an NHL coach over parts of 10 seasons. He replaced Jeff Blashill, who had made the jump to pro hockey after bringing Western to unprecedented levels of success. Murray took over and kept Western headed in the right direction. The good news for the Broncos is that the transition should be remarkably easy.
Pat Ferschweiler, a Western grad who returned ahead of the 2019-20 season for his second stint as an assistant coach at his alma mater, will replace Murray at the helm of the program. Ferschweiler spent six seasons on the Western bench, which sandwiched five seasons in professional hockey as an assistant coach in the Detroit Red Wings organization including four on the NHL bench as an assistant to Blashill.
I couldn’t think of a better option to take over the program, given the experience Ferschweiler has had in his career. His fingerprints are all over the resurgence of the program as an expert recruiter and now he’ll have a chance to make the program his own. I think the best is yet to come in Kalamazoo.
ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski reported that the NHL, IIHF and IOC were unable to come to an expanded media rights agreement that would allow the NHL to use Olympics footage on their own platforms. It’s something the NHL has been trying to get from the IOC for years, but once again will be denied for 2022. This is by no means a deal breaker as the players want to go and the NHL’s owners will begrudgingly let them as part of their most recent CBA negotiations. To say the situation is set in stone, however, would not be accurate. Sources have indicated to me that governing bodies are keeping contingency plans at the ready in the event that the ever-evolving COVID-19 situation triggers an opt out from NHL participation in Beijing in 2022. Wyshynski also reported that the NHL and NHLPA retain full authority not to participate if the COVID situation worsens. It would be a worst-case scenario, but it’s worth monitoring because Plan B will not be easy to put together.
Speaking of ESPN, the network announced Wednesday that John Tortorella will be joining their broadcasts as a studio analyst, which drew a mixed reaction. Some of my colleagues in the media don’t like that people that have had an adversarial relationship with journalists get rewarded by being welcomed into the media fold. I personally don’t have a problem with it, especially since I don’t need politeness with my sports commentary. On top of that, you can call Torts many things — abrasive, blunt, or even rude — but he is also undoubtedly entertaining. Conflict can be a very, very good thing in sports TV when employed properly. On top of that, Tortorella has prior TV experience and actually did pretty well at TSN and NHL Network in his brief stints in front of the camera. ESPN has built a very unique pool of analysts, but I like the idea of adding a potential disrupter to the fold with Torts on the team. We’re all going to watch anyway. Might as well try to make it fun between periods.
Lastly, the large outpouring of support for the Motzko family in memory of the late Mack Motzko, who tragically died in a car accident last week, has been inspiring in a lot of ways. You wish it wasn’t necessary, but the hockey family always rallies around each other in times like these. Tributes have poured in from around the hockey world and on Monday thousands gathered in St. Cloud for a celebration of life of the former St. Cloud Cathedral captain. Almost all of those in the Cathedral gym were clad in “Sunday red” shirts at the suggestion of his family in honor of Mack’s love for golf and Tiger Woods. Based on the words shared at the service, Mack Motzko was a very special individual.
Mack was only 20 years old, but you can see how many people in his life he made a positive impact on. I was particularly touched by the poignant words of Brian Schoenborn, Mack’s godfather, who said this at the service (via the Star-Trib):
"He didn't have a lot of time but he made the most of it," Schoenborn said. "Don't waste time. Love like Mack. Live like Mack."
May we all aspire to leave a legacy as powerful as the one Mack managed to in just 20 years. My thoughts remain with the entire Motzko family.