Don Lucia got a first-hand look at how USA Hockey runs its national junior evaluation camp last summer. This year, he'll go from passenger to the driver's seat.
The camp, which will be held Aug. 3-10 at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., is the first step in picking the team that will play in the 2014 World Junior Championship, scheduled for Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2014, in Malmo, Sweden. The United States is the defending champion.
The week in Lake Placid will feature practices and exhibition games against teams from Canada, Finland and Sweden.
"I had a chance to go through it last year to see how it all worked, which was beneficial heading into this year," Lucia told NHL.com. "I enjoyed it a lot, being there and being in that type of hockey environment."
Last year's camp saw coach Phil Housley begin to implement the style of play he wanted his team to use, and it worked well enough that the United States came home from the 2013 WJC in Ufa, Russia, with the country's second gold medal four years.
Lucia, the longtime coach at the University of Minnesota, said his team won't play much differently than Housley's.
"Looking at how Phil coached and his systems, I don't think the way I like to play is a whole lot different from how the team played last year," Lucia said. "We want to be aggressive, we want to recruit players that can skate and take away time and space. Hopefully you have good goaltending and specialty teams, because we all know how important that is in a short tournament."
Goaltending is a question mark for the United States heading into camp. Last year there was no question the WJC starter would be John Gibson, and he wound up as the tournament's best goaltender and most valuable player.
Four players will compete to replace him, a group headed by Jon Gillies, a Calgary Flames prospect who was Gibson's backup at last year's tournament and played one period in seven games. As a freshman at Providence College last season, the 6-foot-5, 216-pound goalie had a 2.08 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in 35 games.
"Gillies was there as a backup for a reason last year," Lucia said. "He earned that spot. He had a great year at Providence. But goaltending can change from year to year. He's somebody that we're looking at strongly to be the guy, but you have to earn it, like anything else."
Competing with Gillies will be Anthony Stolarz, who took part in last year's camp; Collin Olson; and Thatcher Demko, one of the top goalie prospects for the 2014 NHL Draft. Demko (6-foot-3.75, 182 pounds) had a 2.06 GAA and .911 save percentage in 45 games with the United States National Team Development Program's under-18 team last season, and a 2.24 GAA and .894 save percentage in seven games to help the U.S. win the silver medal at the 2013 World Under-18 Championship.
Gillies is one of three players returning from last year's gold-medal team, along with forward Riley Barber and defenseman Patrick Sieloff. Barber had three goals and three assists in seven games, and Sieloff had one assist in six games and was the team's most physical player on the blue line.
Another player from last year's team who likely will be in the running for a spot on this year's squad, forward Ryan Hartman, will not be at the camp; he is rehabilitating a shoulder injury.
Three players from last year's team have junior eligibility remaining, but it's unlikely forward Alex Galchenyuk or defensemen Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones will be made available for the tournament by their NHL teams; they were not invited to the camp.
"We'll see how they do when the year begins," Lucia said of Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens), Trouba (Winnipeg Jets) and Jones (Nashville Predators). "It would be a lot easier to add one than to count on one and not have him."
Lucia said he'll instead rely on players from last year who have a real chance of being on the team he takes to Sweden.
"I think it's invaluable to have guys that have gone through the process and see what it takes to win at that level and win in a short tournament," he said.
Lucia said he'll have an open mind regarding the rest of the roster, which includes two players entering their first year of NHL draft eligibility: Demko, who will be a freshman at Boston College in the fall; and Sarnia Sting defenseman Anthony DeAngelo, who was third among Ontario Hockey League defensemen last season with 58 points in 62 games.
The camp will have 44 players split into two teams for the first three days, with practices and exhibition games against Finland and Sweden. Lucia and his staff, which includes assistant coaches Bob Motzko and Greg Brown, will meet with USA Hockey officials and trim the roster for the final few days of the camp, which will include more practice time and games against Canada, Finland and Sweden.
"We have to give everybody a good look," Lucia said. "We'll have two teams and then we'll pare down again, and what the number is you pare down to, that's the question. Do you keep six lines? Do you keep 10, 12 defensemen? Three goaltenders? What do we want to do? If anything we'll err on the side of keeping too many than too few because that's our chance to look at the guys, and we want to give everybody an opportunity.
"But if there's clear-cut lines of kids that deserve to be there versus maybe some young kids that are a year away, we won't be afraid to make that decision. More than anything else, the players will dictate a lot of what we do based on how they play."
That will continue after the camp. Lucia said how players perform in the first half of their respective seasons will go a long way toward determining the final makeup of the roster, as will a camp in Minnesota in December. But first impressions go a long way, and the players will have the chance to make those this week in Lake Placid.
"You try to do the best job of getting the players that you hope are candidates and for the most part will be there," Lucia said. "And you come out with a little bit of a skeleton, a little bit of a rough draft of an idea of what you think the team may look like. And then it's up to the players to continue to perform during the course of the fall. The players play themselves into a spot or play themselves out of a spot."
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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