One of the goals set by the USA Hockey staff entering the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., was to find some forward lines and defense pairings that could carry into the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.
After a week that started slowly and finished with a 3-0 win against the Czech Republic on Saturday, the belief is they might have met some of those goals.
"I think the whole key was trying to find some chemistry and I think we found it with some of the forward lines," United States national junior team coach Mark Osiecki said. "That's a nice thing to come out of here with, having a good gauge with where some of the chemistry is."
The most offensively talented line was top 2015 NHL Draft prospect Jack Eichel centering Alex Tuch (Minnesota Wild) and Tyler Motte (Chicago Blackhawks). In a 7-1 win against Sweden on Wednesday, Tuch had a hat trick and Eichel had three assists. In a 9-1 defeat of Finland on Thursday, Eichel had one goal and four assists, and Motte had a hat trick.
Another trio that was solid when put together was Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings) between Sonny Milano (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres). They brought a heavy, grinding style that created offense off a physical forecheck.
In their final three games of the week the U.S. outscored its opposition 19-2, with 15 of the goals coming from forwards.
"They [the coaches] liked the way that the flow of the lines are going and the way they're playing together," said Jim Johannson, the assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey and the general manager of the U.S. team for the WJC. "I think they like the chemistry, the makeup of the players that we have and how we can put older, responsible-type players around the guys that we're expecting offense from and they seem to be blending well."
Eichel didn't play Saturday, but there's wasn't a whole lot left for him to prove as far as his value to the WJC team after he had eight points in the games against Sweden and Finland.
"It's just the continued growth and development of his game," Johannson said. "It's fun to watch him play hockey. But he's also got that inner drive and he's got that, 'I want to be better, I want my team to do well.' He's continuing to grow. When he has the puck it's incredible how the game focuses on him yet there's nothing a defender can do. It's fun to watch him play hockey."
The same could be said for 16-year-old Auston Matthews, who had four assists in the final three games. The 6-foot, 199-pound forward, who isn't NHL Draft-eligible until 2016, never looked out of place against competition as much as three years older.
"He was real impressive," Johannson said. "But I think the most impressive part is he's been a real complete player. He's a 200-foot player. He's a very sturdy guy. To me he's a guy that has not worn down or tailed off at all this whole time. It's hard hockey for nine days here and he's done a great job. He's the thing coaches love because he's a guy that can play all situations, competes really hard, the skating, the agility that make him a real challenge to play against for anybody."
Though the offense was clearly the strong point for the Americans, the makeup of the defense remains far less defined.
"On the blue line it's a little bit cloudy," Osiecki said. "I think it's a work in progress. I think that we're going to have to continue ... take what we learned here and then watch at the start of the season and go from there. It's a long process and it is a work in progress."
Part of the work at camp was finding some chemistry with two pairs that received significant time playing together during the latter stages of camp, Michael Downing (Florida Panthers) and Steven Santini (New Jersey Devils), and Will Butcher (Colorado Avalanche) and Ryan Collins (Columbus Blue Jackets).
"There was a lot more cohesiveness and a lot more talk," Johannson said of the defense group. "In fairness to the defensemen, there's so much more communication that has to go on between defensemen, especially on things like breakouts and handling forechecks, things like that. Other than goaltending it shows up more when it doesn't quite click. And so I do think that they've gained ... I don't know if confidence is the right word, but they've gained some cohesiveness, and also some comfort level with knowing what we're doing as a team and what they're doing as [defense] partners."
In goal, Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks) closed the camp in the same place he started, as the expected No. 1 goaltender heading into the 2015 WJC. After allowing eight goals on 27 shots while playing parts of three games early in the week, he rebounded to stop 26 of 27 shots against Sweden and all nine shots he faced in one period Saturday against the Czechs.
Brandon Halverson (New York Rangers) stopped 16 of 17 shots against Finland, and Brendan Burke (Arizona Coyotes) stopped all six shots he saw against the Czechs. Evan Cowley (Florida Panthers) stopped 35 of 40 shots in parts of three games early in the week.
"Love the size and athleticism of them," Johannson said. "With goaltenders it's hard to throw them into real hockey. They take shots but it's pickup hockey. And now all of a sudden they're playing real hockey. I think like everything you want to have a good base to build with, and they all have good bases. I think they're big, they're athletic and have the capabilities of playing at this level."
The parting message sent to the players was to go out and play their best with their teams. Watching them through the first half of their seasons will be Osiecki and his coaching staff, along with Johannson and his management group, and it will lead to a final evaluation camp in Boston in the middle of December.
"It's in their hands now," Osiecki said. "They have to go back to their clubs and find a way to get a little better. They're in an evaluation process."
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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