|James vanRiemsdyk is among a crop of young players that is among the strongest in recent memory for Team USA.|
For that reason, it should not be a shock that all seven Entry Draft-eligible players invited to the 2008 United States National Junior Evaluation Camp remain here as the week-long camp enters it home stretch. Other older players have been sent home for various reasons, but all of the youngsters are still going strong.
By contrast, Team Canada had just two draft-eligible players on its evaluation camp roster last week. Team Finland did not bring a draft-eligible player to Lake Placid and Sweden brought just one under-age player, defenseman Victor Hedman, who could be the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft.
So why are the Americans going with such a youth movement? The answer is two-fold, it appears. Ron Rolston, who will coach the World Junior Championship team this December in Ottawa, says it is about scouting future stars.
“We have some younger kids we think are going to be future players for us and we want to get them involved and see how they do in the camp,” Rolston said. “It allows more players to have the experience and really gives us the opportunity to look at a wider variety of players. There are a lot of players that we may not have a lot of information on that we would like to see at that level.”
Jimmy Johannson, the assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey, says it is also about competition. He argues that the Americans have a crop of young players that is among the strongest in recent memory.
“It’s always intriguing to see how (younger players) play here when they are quote-unquote ‘playing up,’ ” Johannson said. “What we have found is that most players, if you put them in a setting and give them an opportunity, they are going to excel. Now, this is pretty stiff competition and so many capable players, but certainly, these guys are all deserving of being here.”
Each has rewarded that faith with their performance in this camp.
Jeremy Morin is playing first-line minutes, sharing the ice with veterans James vanRiemsdyk and Mitch Wahl on Team White.
Kyle Palmieri has generated several scoring chances as a second-line right wing for Team White. He has displayed world-class speed against both the Finns and Swedes.
Goalie Brandon Maxwell allowed just one goal in Wednesday night’s Team White win against Finland. He also had a shutout in the intra-squad scrimmages earlier in this camp.
Ryan Bourque had two goals in Tuesday’s Team Blue win against Finland and added an assist Wednesday against Sweden.
Those four players will play for the United States National Team Developmental Program.
Jordan Schroeder, a NTDP grad now at the University of Minnesota, played as an under-age player at the 2008 World Junior Championship and has been dominant this week as the top-line center on Team Blue. He had two beautiful goals Wednesday night.
Goalie Mike Lee, who will play for Fargo in the United States Hockey League this fall after a great high-school career in Minnesota, has not played in any of the tournament games here, but has impressed the staff with his work ethic and fundamentals.
All six of those players are eligible for the 2009 Entry Draft this June in Montreal.
Then, there is defenseman Cam Fowler, who will play for the NTDP U-17 team. He is not eligible for the draft until 2010, but has played like he has already been drafted.
This youth movement has been exciting to watch for Team USA officials and the scouts that have crammed every nook of the cramped USA Rink. It has also been an eye-opening experience for the players, who all have learned that they can compete with any of the more established players on the team.
Bourque admits to being surprised at some of the success he has had here in his first go-round at the evaluation camp.
The confidence that has come for acing this rigorous test will only help the players, even if they aren’t on the final roster for the World Junior Championship this December.
“To be honest with you, that was one of the funnest games I have ever played,” Fowler said after Tuesday’s loss to Sweden. “You have to go as hard as you can every shift. It was an incredible experience and definitely something I will learn from.”
Learned lessons aside, though, these are competitive hockey players that want to play at the highest possible level. They want to make this team, even if all but a few believe they are too young to handle the pressure inherent in a big-time international event.
They have seen players like Schroeder and vanRiemsdyk make a mark as under-agers. Now, after earning passing grades throughout camp, each of these players believes it is their time to shine.
“I can’t say that I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t make the team this year,” Fowler said. “But, there is no way that I would look down on myself because of all the guys that you have here – it’s tough to beat those guys out. It’s first-round draft picks I am playing with here.”