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Prospects Look Good for U.S. National Junior Team

By Mike McMahon - Special to USAHockey.com, 12/26/14, 7:30AM EST

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The team includes five NHL first-round picks and five more projected as first rounders.

Members of this year’s U.S. National Junior Team could soon be coming to a National Hockey League arena near you.

When Team USA takes the ice against Finland at 3 p.m. Friday in Montreal to open the 2015 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, it will feature five NHL first-round draft picks and five more players who are projected by many to be selected in the first round of either the 2015 or 2016 NHL Entry Drafts.

Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin are viewed by many as two of the top three picks in this June’s draft, and 2016 prospect Auston Matthews is believed to be an early favorite for one of the top spots, if not the first overall pick, in his draft year.

Current first-round picks from 2014 include Dylan Larkin (No. 15), Sonny Milano (No. 16), Alex Tuch (No. 18), Anthony DeAngelo (No. 19) and Nick Schmaltz (No. 20). Along with Eichel and Hanifin, Zach Werenski (top-20) and Jeremy Bracco (top-20) are both projected to be top picks in this summer's draft.

That’s not to mention the nine other second or third-round selections on the U.S. roster, including all three goaltenders selected in the second round of last summer’s draft.

U.S. general manager Jim Johannson has compared the team to the group that went to Vancouver for the 2006 tournament. That team included now regular NHLers Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, T.J. Oshie, Phil Kessel, Bobby Ryan, Blake Wheeler and goaltender Cory Schneider, among others.

“I think, from the talent standpoint, this is right up there with our group that we took to Vancouver that was loaded with guys,” Johannson said. “We had a lot of guys in mixed stages then, like now, where they were either drafted high or going to be drafted. There are some similarities to that, but I think overall, this group is even deeper than the one we had there. Remember, there are a bunch of NHL superstars that were on that team for us, and I think this team has more depth.”

The biggest name on this roster is Eichel, who will go head-to-head with Canada’s Connor McDavid on New Year’s Eve in a matchup of the two top prospects for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.

Eichel, who was named captain of Team USA, leads all of college hockey in scoring at the holiday break, with 27 points (8 goals, 19 assists) in just 16 games. McDavid has 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists) in 18 games with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League.

“Eichel is a guy you come to the rink saying to yourself, ‘I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do today,’ ” Johansson said. “It’s a great thing for the sport. He’s a quality player, and even more a quality person.”

The big stage is nothing new to Eichel, who was on last year’s U.S. National Junior Team and also represented USA Hockey on the national Under-18 and Under-17 teams in international competition.

But the spotlight wasn’t as bright then as it will be at this tournament, hosted just north of the border in Montreal and Toronto and with so much focus on the Eichel and this unprecedented U.S. roster coming off the disappointment of last year’s loss to Russia in the quarterfinals.

“I never really thought about us as a group of kids and how good we were going to be when I was growing up,” Eichel said of his peers. “It’s tough when you’re younger to know how you’re all going to end up. I know we were all just huge fans of the World Juniors, and personally I never thought I’d play in it. It’s a dream come true for me, and all of these guys are in the same situation.”

For Hudson Fasching, so much talent — and youth — has thrust the Los Angeles Kings’ fourth-round selection into a new role as a returning leader.

“This is one of the deepest teams I’ve ever played on,” Fasching said. “It’s also one of the youngest teams, which is kind of a surprise. I feel like the old-timer for the first time in a long time. I walked in the locker room and it was like, ‘Whoa, this is different,’ but we’re a really deep team and that’s definitely a strength for us.”

While a good problem to face, it didn’t make cuts any easier on U.S. coach Mark Osiecki and his staff.

It’s been just as difficult to find line combinations. Not that there isn’t enough talent to go around, but with so much on the roster, it can be hard to resist the urge to tinker with combinations in search of the perfect match.

“That’s what we used Lake Placid for, and it’s what made that camp so important,” Osiecki said. “We said to our guys that this is a great luxury for USA Hockey, to have this depth, but it’s also a tough situation for them because it means there will be a lot of quality hockey players who are let go. We told them, if that happens, that’s not the end of their career. Every guy we brought in has a bright future in pro hockey, it’s just a great situation for USA Hockey to have this kind of depth.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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