Team USA will be looking to medal at the IIHF Under-20 World Championship for the third consecutive time, which would be a first for the nation. They bring over a squad that doesn't quite match up with Canada's in terms of talent, but can still be considered a legit candidate for the Gold Medal.
Small disclaimer: [As of publishing date at ESPN Insider] USA's final roster has not been released yet, but I'm pretty sure these players will be on the team.
The following are notes on some of the top NHL prospects in Team USA's lineup based on my own observations of the players and from discussions I've had with scouts and front office executives:
Nick Bjugstad, C, Florida Panthers: Bjugstad has been nothing short of brilliant in his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota. With his tremendous physical tools, plus puck skills, shooting ability, and when you take account the improvement he's made to his skating and decision-making since last year, Bjugstad had emerged as one of the top prospects in all of hockey and should be the focal point for Team USA's offense. The bad news is that a recent shoulder injury may keep him off the ice for a few games, although recent news seems to suggest he could be ready for the first round-robin game.
Jack Campbell, G, Dallas Stars: Campbell is entering his third World Junior appearance and already has a long career of tremendous international success. On the other hand, he has been barely average at best in the OHL the last two years. Campbell is a very athletic goalie with great reflexes and advanced mental fortitude for an Under-20 goalie. His sample of poor play in the OHL the last two years is nearly five times greater than his brilliant international performances in the same timeframe, so I'm a bit skeptical about projecting him to again be the brick wall he has been in prior tournaments. Regardless he's still one of the better goalies in this event.
Adam Clendening, D, Chicago Blackhawks: Clendening entered the 2011 draft as a likely first round pick, but fell due to several concerns about his physical game, and his overly risky style of play. There is little doubt though in the industry about the tremendous upside Clendening has, as he truly possesses elite puck-moving ability and can be brilliant when he's on his game. Look for him to be the powerplay quarterback for the USA, but also provide a few headaches along the way.
Charlie Coyle, C, Minnesota Wild: Coyle who is a second year member of the WJC team, was an integral part of the trade that sent Brent Burns to the San Jose Sharks at the previous Entry Draft. He's a huge forward whose 6-foot-2 frame has filled out with muscle well before the average Under-20 player. Coyle is a huge pain to deal with in the physical game, and he can also show great puckhandling abilities. He still forces plays a little too much, but when he's on, he can be a real force.
Emerson Etem, RW, Anaheim Ducks: He wasn't a primary scoring option in this tournament last year, but that will change this time around. Etem has been among the top scorers in Major Junior all season. Etem is a truly elite skater who forces defensemen to back up when they see him barreling down on the rush and he's such an effective forechecker with his speed. In terms of offensive ability, there were originally question marks around Etem because he was seen as solely a shooter -- albeit a great one -- but the last year or so he has really developed his puck distribution game.
Derek Forbort, D, Los Angeles Kings: When Forbort was drafted 15th overall back in 2010, he was seen as a very toolsy defender who was a bit of a project and was going to take some time to develop. His skating, puck-handling and passing abilities are quite good and extremely good considering he's a 6-5 defenseman, but his hockey sense has long been a major issue for him. This year there has been notable improvement in that area, as he plays pretty solid defense and isn't turning the puck over as much. He can still be the victim of the odd major mental vacaction though. The second year World Junior attendee will be a top-four defender for the team at the tournament.
Jon Merrill, D, New Jersey Devils: Merrill has had a less-than-ideal season, as he has yet to play a game for the University of Michigan after being suspended for violating team rules. This latest incident only adds more evidence to the common concerns in the scouting industry about his character. When he's on the ice though he's a brilliant player who was Team USA's best defenseman last year at this tournament. He's a great puck-mover with high-end hockey sense and the kind of panic threshold that makes it look like he's half-asleep on the ice at times -- in a good way, that is.
Brandon Saad, LW, Chicago Blackawks: Saad went into the 2011 draft season as an expected top-10 pick, but slid to the second round after an average OHL campaign, especially considering he was a late birthday playing at 18 most of the year. However, whatever was dogging him last season has subsided, as the last six months Saad has looked like the Brandon Saad who got scouts drooling in the 2009-10 season. He should be a top-six asset for Team USA. He's a big-body forward who can skate at an above-average level and displays impressive hockey sense with how aware he is on the ice. His offensive skills aren't overly impressive, but he's a fine, good-at-everything, not-great-at-one-thing type of player outside of his hockey sense.
Jarred Tinordi, D, Montreal Canadiens: After being selected by Montreal in the first round last year, Tinordi struggled in his first OHL campaign during the 2010-11 season, with most scouts coming away unimpressed by his performance. This year though Tinordi has looked much more like the defensive rock that played for the U.S. National Team and Development Program in 2009-10. He's a huge man, measuring in a 6-7, who can move with the average pro, which is above average for a player his size. His defensive abilities are excellent, as he reads his assignment well, uses his body effectively and has a very good poke check. His offensive skills are replacement level at best, but his assets are in the defensive end, and expect him to be a primary shutdown defender for the U.S.
Jason Zucker, RW, Minnesota Wild: Zucker will be making his third appearance for the USA U-20 team. While in his first go-around back in 2009-10 he was seen as an energy player, this year he will be seen as a primary scorer. He's a high-end skater who simply zooms up and down the ice with great acceleration, not to mention when you account for his great work ethic his feet are always on the move and he moves pretty quickly. Aside from his shot, which is very impressive, he doesn't show any other offensive abilities that are beyond average, so don't expect him to carry the possession game, but rather be more of a finisher.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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