Team USA summer roster out; look for an experienced world junior squad

Noah Hanifin of Boston College (Tom Sorensen/USA Hockey)

Team USA was almost shockingly young at the world juniors in 2015, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the Americans lost to Russia in the quarterfinal, mainly due to a rash of unnecessary penalties. But the wound of that loss could become vital scar tissue for the 2016 squad.

Because USA Hockey just released its preliminary summer camp roster and it is heavy on experience.

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Teuvo Teravainen will help the Chicago Blackhawks stay on top

Teuvo Teravainen (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Today, there is no salary cap in Chicago – just a lot of elated, exhausted Hawks trying to wring champagne out of their beards. Teuvo Teravainen won’t have that problem, since he was too young to grow a facebush en route to the 2015 title and that’s great news for a franchise that expects to contend for the Stanley Cup again next season. Because the cap will be of great concern to GM Stan Bowman right after the Hawks hold their latest victory parade.

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Ryan Kennedy’s Prospect of the Year for all 30 NHL teams

Nikolaj Ehlers (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Prospects are the lifeblood of the NHL, especially in an era where free agency is dying thanks to talent retention of top stars. But who really stood out this season? Welcome to the first-ever Prospect of the Year awards.

To qualify, a player must still have Calder Trophy eligibility for next season, so excellent youngsters like Detroit’s Teemu Pulkkinen or Boston’s David Pastrnak don’t count. The winners below have impressed me with what they accomplished at their particular level of development – otherwise, it would just be a list of older prospects from the AHL who are on the cusp of NHL jobs.

Let’s do this:

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Ending junior on a high note, Max Domi prepares for the NHL

Max Domi (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The lasting image of Max Domi’s 2014-15 campaign was either his tour-de-force performance at the world juniors, or his arching pop-shot goal against Sarnia, if you’re more London Knights-centric. But the sturdy and dynamic left winger made just as much of an impact off the ice this season, taking on the captaincy in London and dedicating his spare time to children with diabetes, an affliction he also has to manage himself.

To that end, Domi was recognized with the OHL’s Mickey Renaud Captain’s Trophy, named in honor of the former Windsor Spitfires leader who passed away well before his time.

“I’ve been lucky to be a part of four unbelievable hockey teams and you take things from different players every year,” Domi said. “This year we had a younger team and leading by example was my No. 1 thing.”

The Arizona Coyotes first-rounder would meet with diabetic kids after games and respond to their letters – many of which came after he helped Canada to gold at the world juniors in Toronto.

It’s another side to a player best known for goal-scoring and physical play and the attitude he displayed this year will surely help when he tries to crack his first NHL roster in the fall.

Last season, Domi was cut from the Coyotes, even if more than a few pundits thought he was ready for duty. But the Desert Dogs had rushed prospects in the past and been burned, particularly during the Wayne Gretzky coaching era. So Domi went back to London and put in the work.

“Max had a terrific season and his development was exactly what he had hoped for,” said Coyotes GM Don Maloney. “He went back to junior with a great attitude, became captain of his team and obviously had a terrific world junior experience. And the icing on the cake was being named captain of the league.”

Even earning the ‘C’ in London was gratifying for Domi, especially since it came from his teammates, via a vote.

“No one likes to talk about themselves,” Domi said. “But when your best buddies acknowledge you like that…it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever felt.”

While Arizona still isn’t gifting youngsters with roster spots, there will be jobs available on a team that is in the midst of a rebuild. Along with Domi, there’s speedster Anthony Duclair, who played 18 games for the New York Rangers before returning to junior. He was then sent to Arizona in the Keith Yandle trade. Henrik Samuelsson, a bullish power forward with skill and nastiness, was great for AHL Portland in the playoffs and will also get a long look.

With Antoine Vermette dealt at the deadline to Chicago and the forwards corps not exactly deep to begin with, players such as Domi and Duclair could easily see top-six minutes befitting of their skills, if they show well in camp.

“We need to introduce some younger players into our lineup and I fully expect Max to be one of those players, provided his performance is there,” Maloney said. “We’re looking forward to seeing him in the fall, seeing him in a Coyote uniform and helping us get better.”

For Domi, who helped the Knights win one OHL title and host a Memorial Cup the next year, he really did it all during his time in London. Now it’s time for the left winger to make an even bigger leap into the best league in the world.

“It’s really exciting,” he said. “It was pretty emotional finishing off my junior career, but I have a big summer ahead.”

Will Lightning be forced to go from a (Ben) Bishop to a rook(ie)?

Andrei Vasilevskiy (left) and Braydon Coburn  (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

TAMPA – Going into Game 2 of the Stanley Cup, all the chatter about the untested rookies surrounded Teuvo Teravainen and Jonathan Drouin. After a stunning turn of events, that narrative may shift directly to Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The 20-year-old is clearly Tampa’s goaltender of the future. But, depending upon the status of starter Ben Bishop for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final Monday night, that future might come upon us a lot sooner than anyone thought. The cone of silence surrounding injuries in the playoffs was quickly enforced by the Lightning after the game, but it sure looks as though Bishop is dealing with a groin issue.

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NHL draft combine: the question mark kids

Team USA's Jeremy Bracco (Photo courtesy of Tom Sorensen/USHL)

BUFFALO – For Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the draft combine is a mere formality. Sure, they want to make a good impression – McDavid even said his goal was “not to embarrass” himself (spoiler alert: he didn’t) in the physical testing – but at the end of the day they’re going 1-2 in Florida later this month.

But the combine can be very important for some of the other prospects; players who aren’t blessed with franchise-altering skills. The interview process, which most of the combine week is dedicated to, gives kids with question marks in their games a chance to tell their side of the story one more time. And since two of last year’s most controversial players – Anthony DeAngelo and Josh Ho-Sang – ended up going in the first round – setting the record straight can clearly pay off.

“That’s why you have the interviews,” said Arizona Coyotes GM Don Maloney. “If there are rumblings, rumors, teammates, on-ice situations, off-ice, usage, sitting out, coaching – it will all come out in the interviews. Just to get clarity.”

Portland’s Paul Bittner, for example, has been knocked for inconsistency and heard a lot about it during his interviews. Playing on a Winterhawks super-line with Winnipeg prospect Nic Petan and Columbus pick, the affable power forward admitted that some nights he felt like he didn’t need to do much in order for his team to win, but now sees that at the pro level that won’t fly.

Another WHLer, Regina’s Jesse Gabrielle, likes to play the game with an edge. And while that’s all well and good, some scouts believe he’s too focused on the rough stuff. Hence the importance of this week.

“There were concerns about my personality and character,” Gabrielle said. “I wanted to show them that I am a character guy off the ice. The way that I play kinda brings up questions, maybe some discipline problems and a concern that how I play on ice reflects off-ice. But I made sure to re-assure them that’s not the case whatsoever.”

Gabrielle interviewed with six teams in Buffalo, so interest in him at this point is niche. It only takes one team to believe in him, however, and there is definitely the possibility that another franchise that chose not to speak with him at the combine will step up at the actual draft.

“I think there’s more player there, but you don’t know if there’s more player there right now,” said another GM. “We’ve got time for him, it’s just a question of where. He’s a gritty guy and you love those other things, but at the end of the day, you still have to be able to play the game.”

Gifted winger Jeremy Bracco of the U.S. National Team Development Program is another interesting case. A little undersized, his stock dipped this season even after setting an NTDP record for assists. Scouts I talked to didn’t like the way Bracco reacted to being cut from Team USA’s world junior squad and the Boston College commit ended up hearing about it in his combine interviews.

“I obviously thought I should have been on that team,” Bracco said. “I thought I brought intangibles that others on the roster didn’t have. It was definitely disappointing, but I learned a lot. A lot of teams brought it up. For the first four or five games after I didn’t play as well as I should have; I was really focused on it. So I kinda hurt my team that way, but it was a learning experience and I have to deal with adversity better.”

Luckily for Bracco, there’s no question about the offensive arsenal he would bring to a team. And the fact that these kids are just at beginnings of their careers tends to get them some slack for minor missteps.

“You have to remember, these are 17-year-old kids,” said the anonymous GM. “For us, it’s for sure something to pay attention to, but you have to put it in the proper context. As they grow and mature, is that part of their DNA in regards to adversity? Is it ‘I’ll show you,’ or head down, ‘woe is me?’ ”

These are the questions franchises must answer for themselves as the draft nears at the end of the month. Because once those players are picked up or passed on, history has been made for better or worse.

 

Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin: friends to foes and back again

Noah Hanifin (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

BUFFALO – Because Jack Eichel went the college route and Connor McDavid played major junior, the rivalry between the top two prospects in the 2015 draft has been a little abstract this season. Sure, the pair met once at the world juniors, but that was it.

Eichel and Noah Hanifin, on the other hand, have a much richer history together – sometimes as teammates and sometimes as arch-rivals.

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Can Ron Wilson lead Team USA to world junior gold in Helsinki?

Coach Ron Wilson (Photo by Robert Beck /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Judging Team USA on its recent finishes at the world juniors is a tricky thing. Sure, the Americans have landed fifth in the past two outings, but in both cases they fell to the rival Russians in the quarterfinal; they also could have won it all had fate bounced their way.

That is the challenge now accepted by former NHL coach Ron Wilson. Last seen behind the bench with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2012, Wilson has been announced as Team USA’s coach for the 2016 world juniors in Finland and despite his professional hiatus, I can see him being very successful in the role.

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