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Player Evaluation Ramping Up as World Juniors Draw Closer

11/21/2017, 12:45pm EST
By Mike McMahon

Fall is a critical time for USA Hockey coaches and management

On the surface, there is a different vibe to this year’s International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship.

For starters, U.S. hockey fans will be able to see the tournament on home ice when the tournament gets underway at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. Fans will also be able to experience history in watching the U.S. and Canada play in the first-ever outdoor game in tournament history on Dec. 29 at New Era Field, home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

Then, there is the fact that the U.S. enter the tournament as defending gold medalists after claiming its fourth-ever gold medal a year ago with a thrilling 5-4 shootout victory over rival Canada.

But internally, the player evaluation process remains status quo under general manager Jim Johannson. Now in his ninth year at the helm, Johannson and his ‘process’ has seen the United States claim five medals, including three gold medals (2010, 2013, 2017), the most of any nation in that span.

The player evaluation process began this summer at the 2017 World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Michigan. There, the initial player pool was introduced to the coaching staff – all returnees from last year’s gold medal-winning U.S. team – where they were introduced not only to the type of hockey they’d play, but who their potential teammates would be. When it came time for everyone to go home and prepare for the upcoming season, Johannson delivered a simple message to the players.

“Go be the player and teammate you can be for your team,” he said. “If we were using you as a right defenseman, and your coach wants you to play left wing, go be the best left winger you can possibly be. Be a good team player.”

That tone was echoed by head coach Bob Motzko, who returns as head coach for the second consecutive year after leading Team USA to gold a year ago. To him, the recent U.S. success lies fully in “the process” Johannson has established.

“I think USA Hockey’s success over the last decade or so speaks for itself,” Motzko said. “We’re not a year-round team that is with one another every day. Jim has found an evaluation process that allows the U.S. to have contending teams in play every year.”

That process, while still relying largely on the team staff personally attending games, has become significantly easier for Johannson, Motzko and the remainder of the staff through the technological advances today.

“Let’s say there’s one player I want to watch, in most cases he’s playing 18 to 20 minutes a night,” Johannson said. “In the past, if I wasn’t going to the game in-person, I was grabbing game film and watching two hours of film just to see those 18 minutes’ worth of shifts for the one player I wanted to watch. Now, those shifts can be pulled out and I can watch 18 minutes’ worth of shifts in 20 or 25 minutes. It makes us far more efficient with our time. Plus it's in HD. The overall quality of the game film is incredible."

Despite the technological advances, Motzko added that old-fashioned communication still remains a crucial component to the evaluation process.

“We talk to everyone,” Motzko said. “We’ll talk to their coaches, NHL scouts, coaches of teams they’ve played against. We want to know how they’re playing, but even more importantly, I want to know how they’re being used. What roles are they playing? That’s such an important part.”

Communication is perhaps most critical when discussions amongst the team staff generates towards identifying the team’s depth. Team USA experienced its need for team depth first-hand a year ago when injuries took a toll on the U.S. roster in both the semifinal and gold medal game. Because of its depth, Motzko and his staff were able to make personnel adjustments without sacrificing the team’s overall style of play.

"You can't just take the best forwards," Motzko said. "Everyone has a role. If a guy goes down, you can't be stuck without a center. There's a lot that goes into it. It's not about taking the best players, we're looking for the right players. Roles are important."

A factor in identifying depth comes from Johannson’s belief that the player selection isn't about taking the 23 best players available. What he and USA Hockey try to assemble is a hockey team that can play in all situations.

"It doesn’t matter what tournament it is — the Olympics, the world championships, the world juniors or even the Deutschland Cup that we just finished — about 30 percent of the game is going to be spent on special teams," Johannson said. "That is how the game of hockey is played. It’s a third of the game and our team’s need to be prepared for that. It's absolutely critical to have players capable of playing in those circumstances.”

The penalty kill is perhaps the most important piece to special teams, especially considering that most of the top-end skill players on the roster will have plenty of power-play experience.

"Players love the power play and you’re going to have enough guys with enough skill to play the power play," said Motzko. "I'm interested in who is killing penalties for their team. It's not fair for us to take a kid who hasn't been on the penalty kill for half a season, and then they come to us and we ask them to kill penalties for us. It's about finding that balance.”

Added Johannson, "We need elite penalty killers. Every team needs elite scorers, but a team also needs elite penalty killers. It's such a big part of the game."

With the U.S. National Junior Team’s preliminary roster expected to be unveiled in early December and its players and staff set to convene in Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 15, conversations surrounding who will represent Team USA in this year’s IIHF World Junior Championship is nearing its most critical stage.

“You have to remember that identifying who to invite isn’t the last step in the process,” Motzko said. “If the summer camp is the first step, selecting which players to invite is really only the second step. Then, it’s about us getting together, being face-to-face as a staff and a team, and really having those difficult conversations about who will give us our best chance. Like I said, it’s a process that’s worked in the past, it helped us win gold a year ago, and we’re hopeful it’ll help us win on home ice this year.”

Team USA will play pre-tournament games against Belarus on Dec. 20 in Jamestown, New York and then against Sweden on Dec. 22 in Erie, Pennsylvania. Tournament play will begin Dec. 26 when the U.S. faces off with Denmark.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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U.S. Schedule

Date Opponent Location Time (ET) Tickets
Wed., Dec. 20 Belarus
Pre-Tournament Game
Northwest Arena
Jamestown, N.Y.
7 p.m. Buy Tickets
Fri., Dec. 22 Sweden
Pre-Tournament Game
Erie Insurance Arena
Erie, Pa.
7 p.m. Buy Tickets
Tues., Dec. 26 Denmark
Preliminary Round
KeyBank Center
Buffalo, N.Y.
8:00 p.m. Buy Tickets
Thurs., Dec. 28 Slovakia
Preliminary Round
KeyBank Center
Buffalo, N.Y.
8:00 p.m. Buy Tickets
Fri., Dec. 29 Canada
Preliminary Round
New Era Field
Orchard Park, N.Y.
3:00 p.m. Buy Tickets
Sun., Dec. 31 Finland
Preliminary Round
KeyBank Center
Buffalo, N.Y.
4:00 p.m. Buy Tickets
Tues., Jan. 2 Quarterfinals KeyBank Center
Buffalo, N.Y.
8:00 p.m. Buy Tickets
Thurs., Jan. 4 Semifinals KeyBank Center
Buffalo, N.Y.
4:00 p.m. Buy Tickets
Fri., Jan. 5 Bronze-Medal Game KeyBank Center
Buffalo, N.Y.
4:00 p.m. Buy Tickets
Gold-Medal Game KeyBank Center
Buffalo, N.Y.
8:00 p.m. Buy Tickets

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