What the Heck is Team USA Thinking?

Team USA has been shut out of the medals the last two years at the World Juniors since winning gold in 2013, and yesterday, they seemed to take the first steps to making it three straight years.

Last week, I wrote the first of what was supposed to be two posts about Winnipeg Jets’ prospects at the World Juniors.. Yesterday, Team USA released their selection camp roster and rendered that post moot by excluding both Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic. Given the strong numbers from both players, this can only be considered a surprise. As freshmen, both led their respective teams in scoring and were generally drawing rave reviews for their play.

Many in the media had considered both players to be locks for at least the selection camp, if not key cogs in the machine of the offense when the tournament started. Needless to say, given their high draft positions and impressive offensive production, these snubs (for to call them anything less would be inappropriate) have generated some surprised and at times outright angry reactions from the hockey world.

And lest you think the surprise surrounding these snubs was limited to the media in Winnipeg:

And once more, for good measure:

Suffice it to say, when a beat writer for the local paper, a head scout for one of Canada’s biggest and most respected TV networks, and an NHL writer for one of the largest sports networks in America (along with the usual crowd of internet onlookers, myself included) are all scratching their heads about your roster choices, it is just barely possible that you’ve made a mistake. The World Juniors haven’t even begun and Team USA is already digging itself a hole.

Other Snubs

If Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic were the only major omissions from the Team USA selection camp, I might put it down to an anti-Winnipeg Jets bias (as ridiculous as that would be). Yet there are other startling snubs from this camp roster as well. As Puck Daddy columnist Ryan Lambert pointed out, Connor and Roslovic may be the most confusing Team USA snubs, but they’re not the only ones.

That returning player Alex Tuch wasn’t even invited is a true shocker. I know Tuch starter out the year injured and hasn’t blown the doors off since his return, but you’d think his presence on last years team and some consideration for his early injury would at least earn him an invite to camp, even if he was a surprise cut in the end.

Perhaps most shocking of all was the refusal by Team USA to invite QMJHL scoring sensation Conor Garland. It’s true that Garland is on the small side at 5’8 and 163 lbs, but it’s worth noting that the last time Team USA won gold at the WJC in 2013, an undersized but talented winger, Johnny Gaudreau, was their best forward. They also got big contributions from even smaller Rocco Grimaldi, so it’s not like USA hockey has an inherent bias against the little guys.

Garland’s career junior stats are mind boggling. He put up 129 points last season, and seems destined to approach 150 this year, with 69 through just 28 games. There may be concerns about his defensive game, but as Craig Button points out, those are likely unfounded.

Another snub getting some media attention is Toronto pick Jeremy Bracco. Speculation seems to be that his omission from the camp roster was due to his leaving college for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. Whatever the reason, Team USA has decided not to allow another prolific scorer even the chance to show the coaching staff what he can do in a tryout.

I don’t wish to take anything away from the players who were invited. This is a special time for them and their families, and they’ve been given the wonderful opportunity to represent their country on the biggest stage junior hockey has to offer. To them I would only say congratulations, regardless of my feelings on whether some of them should have been given a spot over the likes of Connor and Roslovic, among others.

Team USA Repeats its Mistakes

This, sadly is not the first time Kyle Connor has been snubbed by his national team. He was never invited to the US National Team Development Program (NTDP), something that head coach Don Granato later admitted was a mistake. It was an error that came back to haunt the NTDP very directly, as Connor would twice be a 30-goal scorer in the USHL. He made sure he was at his best when he played the team that excluded him from their roster.

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Unless he applies for Canadian citizenship, Connor is not likely to have the same chance to make Team USA pay for snubbing him this time. That payback will come in a more subtle fashion when what promises to be a very young USA lineup goes into a tournament traditionally dominated by 19-year-olds. On the big ice surface, the soon-to-be 19 Connor and his blazing speed could have been dominant too.

Now, Team USA will never know, because Connor will be 20, and therefore ineligible, when next year’s tournament starts. In a way, the fact that this was to be Connor’s last chance makes the snub all the more upsetting.

With 16 points through 13 games, Connor has to be wondering what more he had to do to crack the selection camp shortlist. Equally confusing is the omission of Roslovic, who, as Craig Button pointed out above, had terrific chemistry with Auston Matthews and Mathew Tkachuk (both of whom were invited and are expected to make the team) last year. Given the way that line dominated the U18s, it would only make sense to bring the trio together once again. Or, so one would have thought.

In any case, Team USA has made a mistake leaving these players without even a chance to crack the roster. Personally, I can’t see what harm there could possibly be in adding a few extra spots to the selection camp roster for these two, when they so clearly deserve at least the chance to get cut honestly.

As for what harm there is in leaving them off? Team USA is going to find that out the hard way, going up against what promises to be a supremely skilled and mature Team Canada on Boxing Day. It doesn’t exactly become a Sunday stroll after that, as the upstart Swiss and always-deadly Sweden are in the Americans’ pool as well, and the Swedes will be getting William Nylander back from the AHL in time for the tournament.

It’s going to be hard for the Americans to come out of this dog-pile with a medal come January 5th, and with politics running rampant through their camp selections, it will be harder still for me to cheer for them.