The U.S., following a 4-0 win over UMASS Amherst in an exhibition game, has cut four players from their World Junior Championship Selection Camp, USA Hockey announced on Saturday.
The cuts bring the full roster size down to 24 as the team heads to Europe to finish their exhibition schedule ahead of the December 26 launch of the tournament in Helsinki, Finland.
Among the cuts is London Knights goaltender Tyler Parsons, who was at camp, has been cut from the roster.
Luke Opilka isn’t on the roster at the USA Hockey site with today’s announcement and that could be another cut, but NHL.com’s Mike Morreale reports that the team hasn’t made a final decision about Opilka. He’s been out of camp with an illness, but has started to skate again. Morreale says that he’s “still on the radar to make [the] team.”
The U.S. team has the option of rostering three goaltenders in the tournament and had brought four to camp, but will proceed with just two. Alex Nedeljkovic, who seemed like a lock, and Brandon Halverson will battle for the starter title in the tournament.
No Massive Surprises
After the announcement of the selection camp roster was heavily criticized for leaving out a few players who were considered to be locks like Jeremy Bracco and Kyle Connor, there aren’t any massive surprises here.
17-year-old Kieffer Bellows — son of Minnesota North Stars legend Brian Bellows — was thought to have a good shot, despite his age. He’s been tearing it up for the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP), scoring eight goals and 16 points in eight USHL games and 24 goals with 40 points through 24 other games.
Bellows is a 2016 draft eligible who is currently ranked anywhere from 12-20 on scouting reports for the draft. With not much room on the team for forwards as it stands — and a lot of 2016 eligibles on the roster — it’s not surprising the Bellows was a cut. The team’s top line projects to be all 2016 eligibles with Auston Matthews centering Matthew Tkachuk and Alex DeBrincat.
Among the forwards battling for spots on the fourth line with Bellows were four 19-year-olds and Bellows’s USNTDP teammate Clayton Keller. With that Matthews line up top, they may have had an eye toward experience with depth pieces. Competing for spots on that line are likely Notre Dame’s Anders Bjork, Ryan Donato, Scott Eansor and Ryan Hitchcock as well.
On the blue line, the team has cut Boston College blue liner Casey Fitzgerald. The undrafted defenseman is off to a great start with the Eagles despite average about a penalty per game. He’s improved his defensive game some from playing with USNTDP, though he’s a true freshman and has some work to do.
He’s a player who has a good sense of the ice around him, reading the play well and can pilot a zone exit intelligently. He’s been putting up some solid production as a freshman for BC too, with two goals and 11 points through 16 games.
Where They Stand for the World Junior Championship
The team only has to cut one more player to get down to tournament size, though that rises to two if they team bring Opilka to the tournament. They’re likely to trim one forward and one defenseman either way, I’d guess.
The U.S. may have their work cut out for them. They’re a younger team, there are questions about them cutting guys like Bracco, Connor, Alex Tuch, Conor Garland and Jack Roslovic. Maybe it’s an endorsement of their depth, but since selection camps were announced many of the other contenders have gotten some great reinforcements from the NHL and AHL — Canada got Jake Virtanan, Sweden got William Nylander, Finland got Mikko Rantanen and Kasperi Kapanen, the Czech Republic may get David Pastrnak — meanwhile, the U.S. had their goaltender options cut short by illness to Opilka, Paul Bittner was ruled out due to injury and Carolina decided not to loan Noah Hanifin.
Nonetheless, the future is clearly bright for the U.S. at all levels with a line of 2016 eligibles likely to be their top unit and top draft picks coming through the NHL like Hanifin and Jack Eichel.
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