U.S. coach Mark Osiecki walked into the room to meet with the media on the first day of the U.S. National Junior Team Camp at Boston University with a shirt that read “EARN IT” emblazoned in bold, blue letters across his chest.
That message is this team’s motto, players say, and it hasn’t been lost on his defensive corps as they prepare for the 2015 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Montreal and Toronto.
Team USA’s depth is particularly on display with its defensemen, where there are 10 in camp, including three players — Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski and Anthony DeAngelo — who were not at the evaluation camp in Lake Placid, New York, this summer.
Of the 10 defensemen, there are two (Hanifin and Werenski) who are projected as first-round picks in June’s National Hockey League Entry Draft and another (Brandon Carlo) who most project as a first or second-round selection. They'll join the five first- or second-round picks already skating on Team USA’s blue line.
In other words, it’s a talented group, and the margin for error when it comes to players’ performance this week in Boston is slim.
“It's hard to compare with past years,” Osiecki said. “I somewhat compare this to the Saskatoon group [in 2010]. Going into Lake Placid, we didn't really know what we had. It evolved, and that's similar to this, especially when you throw in guys like Werenski, Hanifin and DeAngelo. They weren't in Lake Placid, and now they’re here. How will this group evolve? It’s a work in progress, but there’s a lot of talent.”
Team USA’s staff will not evaluate that talent in a silo this week in Boston. Management and the coaching staff are looking for the right players to fit the desired style on the blue line. According to several players in camp, the coaches have stressed physical play in the defensive zone while also using the team’s speed in the transition game.
The depth is a good problem to have, but it also makes player evaluations, and especially cuts, extremely difficult.
“Without a doubt, there are guys on D who will get cut, who in others years would have made the team and probably played significant minutes,” said Team USA general manager Jim Johannson. “From a coaching standpoint, the coaches are excited to have the talent they have back there. Right now it’s about melding that group together, and it is a combination of things.
“We need to have the players melding together, but just as importantly, we need those players to understand what we want to do, and the guys we're looking for are the guys who play within that framework. So we’re looking for a number of different things when evaluating that group.”
The physicality shouldn’t be a problem; seven of the 10 defensemen in the camp measure 6-foot-2 or larger. Team USA’s defense hasn’t been shy about knocking around it’s highly-skilled teammates up front in drills this week.
The speed isn’t an issue either, not for this group.
“The style they want to propose to us is speed,” Hanifin said. “Our speed is something our team can really work with. We have a lot of great skaters here. We want to play a fast game and control the puck a lot. One of the first things I noticed when we got out there was how all of the defensemen are great skaters. We want to use that.”
Not only will the staff use the camp in Boston to evaluate the group, but exhibitions against Boston University on Friday, as well as Germany and Sweden next week, will be vital.
“It’s important to see them in game situations,” Johannson said. “You can only get so much competition by playing yourself. There are particular things we’re looking for when it comes to our D, and how we want them to play, and we’re really looking to see which players fit into that framework the best.”
Perhaps one of the best in the group, Boston College sophomore Steve Santini, has yet to take a shot and deliver a pass in camp. In fact, he hasn’t played in almost two months after suffering a wrist injury against the University of Massachusetts in October.
Evaluating him this week will be difficult, but after making the team last season, he still has a chance for a spot on the roster as long as he’s healthy and cleared to play.
Santini is scheduled to have the cast removed from his wrist on Monday. He’s been skating with his American teammates this week in a yellow no-contact jersey.
“I’m really thankful for Mr. Johannson and USA Hockey giving me the opportunity to be here,” Santini said. “They didn’t have to do that. I haven’t played in two months.
“I’ve been focusing a lot on just strengthening [my wrist]. There’s not much else I’ve been able to do. I can’t shoot or pass yet, but I’ve been working on getting the range of motion back.”
Added Johannson, “He’s here, and we think highly of him as a player.”
Santini said he understands that even when the cast comes off and he’s cleared to play, he won’t feel 100 percent. But he also plans on doing anything he can to earn a spot on the roster.
“[The doctors] told me I’ll have a lot of atrophy in my wrist,” he said. “I’ll feel kind of weak, but I’ll be cleared to play. So, just tape it up, go out there and play. That’s all I can do. Hopefully I can earn a spot.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.