LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- For USA Hockey, it simply was a matter of being able to divide quality ice time among 31 players easier than it was to split it among 44.
That's why 13 players were released Tuesday from the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp -- to give the coaching staff a smaller number of players to work with, and with it the ability to easier implement the chosen style of play.
"The reality is for the camp, what we need to do is as quality an evaluation as we can, and with three games left, it's hard to have 44 players in camp and still get guys into the flow and the mix," said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations and the general manager of the 2014 United States national junior team. "We cut down to the 31 players remaining [Tuesday] to play the next three games and give us more of an opportunity to put players in situations we want to see them in."
That started with the smaller group's first practice Tuesday afternoon, a spirited, up-tempo session that mostly focused on special-teams play. However, coach Don Lucia said he was able for the first time to really emphasize the concepts and style of play he wants to use.
"We got a lot accomplished," Lucia said. "We had good tempo with our group. We tried to do some concepts with our guys, the way we want to try to play. It was the first time we've had the opportunity to do that. … We had an opportunity to work on our neutral-zone concepts, attack patterns, little forechecks in smaller areas, 3-on-2 and then a full forecheck, which was a little chaotic at times. The key was getting our guys lots of reps in neutral-zone defense, specialty-team work. With one hour and that many players, we got a lot done."
It also marked the start of the team finding its identity. With players like Michael McCarron (6-foot-5, 228 pounds), Hudson Fasching (6-2, 213), Adam Erne (6-1, 210) and Stefan Matteau (6-1, 215), it's obvious the U.S. wants to be a big, nasty team that will be hard to play against, especially on the forecheck.
"You've got a group of really big, strong guys that in the end of the tournament, it's going to be big, strong guys on the ice and you try to get as much skill and scoring around those guys that you can," Johannson said.
However, the skill and scoring remain a question mark at this point.
"What we're still searching for is who's going to put pucks in the net for us right now," Lucia said. "The good thing is our defensemen have scored quite a few goals in the camp. Now we're looking to see who's going to create the offense for us."
Johansson agreed: "Up front it's pretty clear to us it's going to have to be by-committee scoring. We have some guys that we'll expect to score, but I also think as a team we're going to have to count on depth up front rather than a 'big line' to carry things offensively."
Two remaining players who could chip in with some offense are Riley Barber and Henrik Samuelsson. Barber, who had three goals in seven games as part of the gold medal effort with the 2013 WJC team, has been part of the best scoring line so far in camp, playing right wing on a line with center Daniel O'Regan and left wing Nicolas Kerdiles.
"Obviously the year he had last year, being a returner, he's somebody we're going to have to count on," Lucia said.
Samuelsson, who had 33 goals and 80 points last season with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League, was cut from last year's camp after arriving in less-than-ideal physical condition. He's made a big improvement this year.
"He's a little more confident player that he was a year ago, that was evident," said Lucia, who was an observer at last year's camp. "He's someone we want to count on to score. Last year that didn't happen. … If he's going to contribute on this team it'll have to be more from an offensive standpoint."
In goal, the decision was made to keep Jon Gillies -- the backup on last year's WJC team -- Anthony Stolarz and Thatcher Demko, one of the top goalies eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft. The only goaltender dismissed from the team was Collin Olson.
"We want to put a couple goaltenders in position and see how they react here," Johansson said. "Jon Gillies, fantastic here last year, was a big part of our team last year. Not playing minutes-wise, but he was around the room and was a good teammate and was a guy that was prepared to play. I think in Stolarz you're still seeing a raw, athletic guy that everyone is intrigued by. It's a matter of putting him in more international competition to see if the consistency is there. Thatcher had a great year for us last year [with the United States National Team Development Program], and this is the next step for him, so we want to see what he does with the next step."
With three games in four days starting Wednesday, Lucia would not identify a goalie rotation, or even say if each of the three goaltenders would play one full game.
"I don't know if we'll go that route," he said. "If you asked me today, I'd lean toward one and a half [games], one, and a half."
Among the group of 10 defensemen remaining on the roster, Johansson said he liked the mix of players that were gifted offensively and others that were more defensive oriented.
"We were impressed by the depth of the defensemen here," he said. "It does look like a group that will have a lot of attributes as far as some offensive guys that can move and jump into the play, and some guys that can skate really well and defend well. … I think we like the mix of those players now and how they'll fit in together."
"He's always been a really good player," Johansson said. "Last year we let a really good player go in Connor Carrick. If you look at the defense corps we ended up with last year, that group spoke for itself. Connor was in a situation where there were a lot of very good players competing for a spot. He's grown as a player, he's physically stronger as a player, his puck decisions and savvy on the ice has matured a little bit. All that comes with more repetition of the play he's getting in Plymouth [Ontario Hockey League] and developing more as a player."
Among the six defensemen trimmed from the roster was Anthony DeAngelo, a top prospect for the 2014 NHL Draft. Last season with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League, DeAngelo was third among OHL blueliners with 58 points in 62 games. Also sent home were Gage Ausmus (San Jose Sharks), Dylan Blujus (Tampa Bay Lightning), Nick Ebert (Los Angeles Kings), Keaton Thompson (Anaheim Ducks) and Thomas Vannelli (St. Louis Blues).
The five forwards sent home were Justin Bailey (Buffalo Sabres), John Hayden (Chicago Blackhawks), Vincent Hinostroza (Chicago Blackhawks), Matthew Lane (2014 draft eligible), and Brady Vail (Montreal Canadiens).
While the 13 players were disappointed to leave, Johansson was quick to emphasize that just because a player isn't part of the group attempting to make the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship team today doesn't mean they won't be there tomorrow.
"A lot of good players were released [Tuesday] and they'll be looked at across the start of their seasons and evaluated with this pool of players that will be here," he said. "As we told the players, this is really just one part of the process in evaluation."
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
Thatcher Demko, Boston College, HE (2014 eligible)
Jon Gillies, Providence, HE, (Calgary)
Anthony Stolarz, London, OHL (Philadelphia)
Michael Brodzinski, Minnesota, BIG 10 (San Jose)
Will Butcher, Denver, NCHC (Colorado)
Connor Carrick, Plymouth, OHL (Washington)
Connor Clifton, Quinnipiac, ECAC (Phoenix)
Matthew Grzelcyk, Boston University, HE (Boston)
Ian McCoshen, Boston College, HE (Florida)
Brett Pesce, New Hampshire, HE (Carolina)
Steven Santini, Boston College, HE (New Jersey)
Patrick Sieloff, Windsor, OHL (Calgary)
Brady Skjei, Minnesota, BIG 10 (N.Y. Rangers)
Riley Barber, Miami, NCHC (Washington)
Taylor Cammarata, Minnesota, BIG 10 (N.Y. Islanders)
J.T. Compher, Michigan, BIG 10 (Buffalo)
Andrew Copp, Michigan, BIG 10 (Winnipeg)
Thomas Di Pauli, Notre Dame, HE (Washington)
Adam Erne, Quebec, QMJHL (Tampa Bay)
Hudson Fasching, Minnesota, BIG 10 (Los Angeles)
Jake Guentzel, Nebraska-Omaha, NCHC (Pittsburgh)
Nicolas Kerdiles, Wisconsin, BIG 10 (Anaheim)
Stefan Matteau, Rimouski, QMJHL (New Jersey)
Michael McCarron, London, OHL (Montreal)
Tyler Motte, Michigan, BIG 10 (Chicago)
Boo Nieves, Michigan, BIG 10 (N.Y. Rangers)
Daniel O'Regan, Boston University, HE (San Jose)
Henrik Samuelsson, Edmonton, WHL (Phoenix)
Quentin Shore, Denver, NCHC (Ottawa)
Zach Stepan, Minnesota State, WCHA (Nashville)
Dominic Toninato, Minnesota-Duluth, NCHC (Toronto)
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