PLYMOUTH, Mich. — It’s been a whirlwind last few days for the players at USA Hockey Arena auditioning to make the 2020 U.S. National Junior Team.
Each player is hoping to secure one of those 23 roster spots to represent the United States at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship, which runs from Dec. 26, 2019 to Jan. 5, 2020, in Ostrava and Trinec, Czech Republic.
With only five players returning from last year’s silver medal-winning squad, there are plenty of opportunities. Head coach Scott Sandelin (Hibbing, Minn.) has been pleased by the practices so far and knows how hard players are working to make the final roster.
“It was good to get them back together,” Sandelin said Tuesday. “The energy has been good, and the guys have been focused on what we are trying to do. They are in a better spot; it’s not summer hockey. There are a couple guys that had really good first halves, whether it is in college or junior hockey. That is exciting.
“We are looking for what certain guys can bring and how they fit into the team, such as how guys can move up and down the lineup. It’s an ongoing process and it’s something we have discussed since the summer camps.”
Following Tuesday’s practice, the initial roster of 29 players was whittled down to 26, with more tough decisions to come.
“We had a great few days of camp in Plymouth and were left with some very difficult decisions,” said team General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck (Detroit, Mich.). “We now know the 26 players we’re taking to Czech Republic and our focus over the next few days is finding the 23 that will give us the best chance to fulfill our ultimate goal, winning a gold medal.”
For netminder Spencer Knight (Darien, Conn.), who was a member of the silver-medal winning team last year, has been trying to soak everything in and focus on some lessons he learned last year as the third goalie.
“I’m trying to approach it by coming to the rink with a positive attitude and work to get better every day,” said Knight. “I know a lot of people here, so I have a good bond going. I’m trying to bring good energy to the rink.”
Meanwhile, defenseman Mattias Samuelsson (Voorhees, N.J.) found training camp an eye-opening experience at first, but once he settled in, he started to feel more comfortable on the ice.
“At first, you notice how talented everyone is,” said Samuelsson. “There are a lot of high picks and high-profile players. When we all come together on the ice, it’s pretty fun out there.”
Former USA Hockey National Team Development Program and current Wisconsin defenseman K’Andre Miller (Minnetonka, Minn.) is hoping to make the team for a second straight year. As a returnee, he has been trying to provide leadership to the younger players in camp.
“I think I’m more comfortable,” said Miller. “I didn’t see as many minutes because of how good our other D were. Stepping into this role this year, I’m hoping to play and show these younger guys how it is done. It’s a long tournament but I need to show others how to stay healthy and succeed. I will do whatever I can to help the team succeed.”
For first-time invitee Cole Caufield (Stevens Point, Wis.), it was an honor to be named to the preliminary roster. Playing at World Junior Championship is something that he dreamed about growing up. Even then, there were definitely some nerves for Caufield. He has been very surprised by how quickly the team is coming together.
“It’s how close our group of guys are,” said Caufield. “Everyone at some point or another has played together. We are close off the ice and that helps. Other countries don’t have that bond that we do. It’s pretty special that we get along with the guys so well.
“You can come into the camp nervous because it’s a big hockey experience that you are trying out for. It’s nice to have guys that you are comfortable around and not nervous at all. It’s nice to know some guys here and have those teammates here too. It’s pretty special.”
Finding that team success and bringing a group together is something that Sandelin is working towards. An assistant coach for Team USA in 2019, Sandelin also played for the U.S. in the 1984 World Junior Championship. He was the head coach in 2005 and an assistant coach in 2012.
“All those experiences really help,” he said. “I know how valuable it is to have good people around you. Every experience I have had, we have had good staff. That is a big reason why I wanted [assistant coaches] Steve [Miller], Jerry [Keefe] and David [Lassonde] back and have Brett [Larson] as a new guy. Last year was a lot of fun and it was nice to have continuity this year and that helps too. They are good at what they do. We are a product of each other and help each other out. That is a big part of it.”
Sandelin has some small takeaways from his experience that he hopes will lead to success.
"There are little things you learn as a coach, going through the tournament, whether it is the practice schedule or your rest days,” he said. “Trying to get these guys together quicker and help them become a family sooner. What I took from this summer, I really liked the direction the camp took, and I think the guys are excited to be here.”
Both Caufield and Samuelsson understand what it is going to take to make the final roster and ultimately, have success in the tournament.
“Keep being consistent,” said Caufield. “There a lot of different things that can be worked on all the time but the consistency of doing your job and making your plays, especially in the D zone. It’s big at this level.”
“Every day, you have to go out and prove that you should be here,” said Samuelsson. “Everyone here can make the team and participate in some way and give the team a chance to win. It is what I bring to the table.”
Additionally, for Miller, he understands just how important it will be to start the tournament strong. After a pair of exhibition games on Dec. 22 and Dec. 23, Team USA will hit the ground running by opening play against Canada on Dec. 26.
“Anytime you just come up short of your goals, you want to do everything you can to make it to that end goal,” said Miller. “We were so close last year but we missed a couple of bounces. That’s hockey. You can’t control that stuff. We have a great group of guys that I think will do great coming into this tournament. This team will succeed.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
|Date||Opponent||Location||TIME (LOCAL/ET)/RESULT||Broadcast||U.S. Player of the Game|
|Thurs., Dec. 26||Canada
|Ostravar Arena||L, 4-6||NHL Network||Shane Pinto|
|Fri., Dec. 27||Germany
|Ostravar Arena||W, 6-3||NHL Network||Trevor Zegras|
|Sun., Dec. 29||Russia
|Ostravar Arena||W, 3-1||NHL Network||Spencer Knight|
|Mon., Dec. 30||Czech Republic
|Ostravar Arena||OTW, 4-3||NHL Network||Cole Caufield|
|Thurs., Jan. 2||Finland
|Werk Arena||L, 0-1||NHL Network||Spencer Knight|