MINNEAPOLIS -- The road to the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship is getting shorter by the day as Team USA gathered for the first portion of its training camp at the campus of the University of Minnesota this week. After three days of practices and one exhibition contest, the camp will now head to Sweden as Team USA prepares to defend its gold medal.
Jim Johannson, Team USA’s general manager, liked what he’s seen in camp so far, including how Team USA played in Tuesday night’s 3-2 overtime victory over Minnesota State in an exhibition tilt.
“I really liked Monday, two competitive practices and seeing how the guys reacted to the practices,” Johannson said. “Parts of last night’s game were part of the evaluation. It was an OK hockey game. [The players] always tend to grow.”
Johannson also thought the exhibition game allowed players to show their versatility and what kind of roles they could fill on the team.
Goaltender Jon Gillies, who made 11 saves while playing the first half of the game thought it gave the team a good test.
“It was a good game,” said Gillies, who normally tends the nets at Providence College and was part of last year’s gold-medal winning team. “We worked out the nerves and kinks in our game and got more comfortable with each other, so I thought it was good.”
Head coach Don Lucia also liked how things played out over the last few days on his home turf, but knows there’s plenty more work to do.
"We've only had a couple practices so there's obviously some things we need to spend time and work on,” Lucia said. “The special teams is always a big part of it so that's an area we have to finalize our team, finalize our groupings and how guys are going to play.”
With 29 players to start camp, Wednesday brought the first three cuts as the roster starts to get pared down to the 23 the U.S. is allowed to bring to Malmo.
The team lost center J.T. Compher to a lower-body injury, which was going to prevent him from being ready to play in Sweden. Defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and forward Ryan Fitzgerald were also sent home Wednesday morning.
“It’s hard,” Johannson said of making cuts. “The compliment to those players is that they’re here. But on a day like today, I know that’s pretty hollow.”
"I think it goes back to Lake Placid, it goes to their fall camp, and the game last night,” Lucia said of the evaluation process. “These are good players. We just felt we had some guys who can play that role with that team with the balance of getting some bigger, stronger guys.”
Team USA now has 15 forwards and eight defensemen in camp to go along with the three goaltenders who are essentially guaranteed spots on the final roster. That means there are three cuts left to make with one defenseman and two forwards that will need to be sent home.
Forward Nic Kerdiles, who could be a key player for Team USA at the World Juniors, said he is excited for the opportunity the team has in front of them, knowing that the U.S. has high expectations.
“You want to repeat because everyone talks about that, but this is a different team [from last year],” said the University of Wisconsin forward. “We look at it like a new tournament for us and go out there and play our game, play our system and we should be effective.”
“It’s going to be about keeping it simple,” Kerdiles said of the team’s plans going forward. “That’s how we’re going to be most effective and play USA hockey – play hard, skate hard -- and I think if we do that, we’ll be successful.”
Team USA’s management team is also pleased with what they’ve seen so far and the outlook for the remainder of camp.
“I still think we have good depth and that showed last night [against Minnesota State],” said Johannson. “The identity is going to continue to come.
“I thought we played with pretty good speed last night, but by nature of just getting together and working on communication, there’s going to be a little disjoint in play. Obviously there are areas that we’re going to grow into and guys are going to start to build their identity on this team.”
The U.S. team left for Sweden Wednesday afternoon and will hold a series of practices and play two pre-tournament games with one each against Sweden and Finland.
Johannson said he hopes to have the final roster decided by Dec. 23.
The U.S. opens play at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship on Dec. 26 against the Czech Republic. The game airs live on NHL Network at 11:30 a.m. ET, with live streaming on NHL.com.