"The bottom line is we wanted to make this as competitive a process as possible this season and that's why we had the change in philosophy to have this camp (from Dec. 17-19)" -- Jim Johannson, general manager of the U.S. national junior team
That process begins Dec. 17 in Grand Forks, N.D., when the first U.S. World Junior Championship team training camp is staged. There, 29 national junior hopefuls get one last chance to prove they deserve a spot on the final 22-man roster expected to be released Dec. 23, following an exhibition game against the Czech Republic in Moose Jaw one day prior.
"The bottom line is we wanted to make this as competitive a process as possible this season and that's why we had the change in philosophy to have this camp (from Dec. 17-19)," said the general manager of the national junior team, Jim Johannson.
"We wanted to invite 29 players in order to have a more competitive atmosphere at the camp," he said. "We wanted to have guys literally earn their jobs or earn their opportunity to represent USA Hockey right out of camp with and against each other."
The training camp will be highlighted by an exhibition game against the University of North Dakota on Dec. 19. Blais won national championships as head coach at UND in 1997 and 2000. Blais is in his first season as the head coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Blais, who coached the 1994 U.S. junior national team to a sixth-place finish, is optimistic about his team's chances at the WJC in Saskatoon and Regina scheduled Dec. 26-Jan. 5.
"I'm looking forward to it and I think we have a realistic chance at a medal," Blais said. "I think we're a little bit young, but there's certainly enough talent there."
The coach hopes to field a team of aggressive and skilled skaters.
"At our first camp in Lake Placid (in August), we showed pretty good team speed," Blais said. "We wanted to play aggressive and forecheck and we were more successful on the power play and specialty teams. It'll help to have a few days together to see if we still have that speed or not. Certainly, speed kills, and that's something we're going to look for."
While Blais will need to pinpoint specific needs along the forward line and blue line -- he admitted the plan is to select the best overall players and then structure a system that benefits those players -- no such decision will be needed in goal. It's already been determined that Blais will go to battle with U.S. National Team Under-18 goalie Jack Campbell and St. Cloud State University starter Mike Lee in goal.
"From a player-personnel side of things, we felt these were the two guys that were going to be at the tournament and wanted to just use the time at the camp to work with them exclusively," Johannson said. "We basically told them, 'You're our guys' from Day One, and now we'll be able to work and prepare them right from the start of camp. After early evaluation, they were the clear-cut two guys to lead us in this tournament, so we didn't want to mull it over any more."
Lee posted a 26-15-4 record with a 2.40 goals-against average and .918 save percentage with Fargo in the United States Hockey League under the tutelage of Blais last season. He was named goaltender of the year in the USHL and was later drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in the third round of the 2009 Entry Draft.
"They were heads and tails better than the rest and I know that's blunt; but it's fact," Blais said.
Campbell, meanwhile, will likely be the first goalie selected at the 2010 Draft in Los Angeles on June 25-26. Through 14 games with NTDP U-18 team this season, Campbell is 8-5-2 with a 2.06 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
"I knew Jack's reputation coming into this season and he hasn't disappointed me one bit," said NTDP Under-18 coach Kurt Kleinendorst. "The one thing that has really impressed me is the fact I've never seen a goalie his age, even on the AHL level, who handles the puck as responsibly as he does. He just has a feel for the game. He's no Marty Brodeur, mind you, but he makes decisions with the puck that'll never hurt the team."
Last year, the Americans finished a disappointing fifth while the Canadians won their fifth-straight gold following a 5-1 victory against Sweden before a single-game World Junior Championships record crowd of 20,380 in Ottawa. The five-straight titles equaled a Canadian record for the tournament (1993-97).
"We play three games before our match with Canada on New Year's Eve and we'd like to be 3-0 going into that game," Blais said. "If we are, that means we've taken care of business. Canada has a great talent pool and a lot of tradition and playing on their home land is going to be tough, but if we have success in those first three games, we've put ourselves in pretty good position, win or lose, against Canada."
Three members from the 2009 WJC team were invited back -- forwards Tyler Johnson, Danny Kristo and Jordan Schroeder.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com