LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- J.T. Compher almost certainly has skated his last shift during the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp this week due to an injury to his left hand sustained Wednesday blocking a shot against Sweden.
But there was no chance Compher was leaving town. Playing or not, the Buffalo Sabres prospect is too important to the process of building the team that will play for the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"With the guys that are here now, you're trying to build more and more identity in the locker room and let [the players] do that," said Jim Johansson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey and the general manager of the United States WJC team. "He's got a pretty long history with a lot of guys in that room of being a leader on and off the ice. It's important for him to be here."
United States coach Mark Osiecki said one of his goals at the camp was to establish a leadership group that he and the staff could depend on. While a few players have stepped up, it's obvious Compher has emerged as the frontrunner to be captain of the team.
"He's done a really nice job," Osiecki said. "There's a group of those kids that are similar, but you talk to any of the support staff, the trainers, the equipment personnel, and they say he's very vocal and takes charge of the group. We have to start that now and develop that relationship between him and the coaching staff."
Leadership is something that comes easily for Compher. He captained a number of his minor hockey teams growing up in the Chicago suburbs, and in 2012-13 he was captain of the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team.
"I think being one of the older guys and going through the process helps with putting myself in a leadership role," Compher said. "I know a bunch of these guys, whether they've played major junior or they're younger than me or a lot of guys played on my [USNTDP] team. So it makes it easier when I'm a familiar face. I've been through it. Everywhere I've gone I've tried to take a leadership role, whether I wear a letter or not. Right now it's anything I can do to help the team. Coach Osiecki has put some good words of confidence in me that I can be a leadership guy on this team."
Compher will have a leadership role on at least one team this season. When he returns this fall for his sophomore season at the University of Michigan, the 19-year-old will be an alternate captain.
"It feels good that they have that confidence in me that I can lead them even though I might be younger than some of the guys," Compher said. "I think that whether you wear a letter or not everyone needs to be a leader and be the right way, but the guys with the letters do have to lead the way and play the right way on and off the ice."
Compher's way of playing on the ice is to blend a skill level that saw him finish with 11 goals and 31 points in 35 games as a college freshman with an agitating, grinding style.
"He's a pest to play against," Sabres general manager Tim Murray told NHL.com. "He likes to get under the other team's skin. He feels that's his niche and that's nothing but positive. I like the fact that he's involved in every scrum. I like the fact that guys get [angry] at him, guys are chasing him around the ice a little bit because of the way he treats them on the ice and the way he plays."
Compher embraces being the hated pest, but he's smart enough to know that there's a fine line to playing and excelling in that role; he said Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan, who drew 1.1 penalties per game while being whistled for 0.4 per game last season according to Extraskater.ca, is a role model.
"I just like playing hard, competing," Compher said. "It's my work ethic, trying to get the puck back as quickly as possible. That does agitate other teams. I try not to do too much after the whistle. I do play with an edge, play on that line and try not to cross it. ... You have to be careful of how far you take it when you're playing against top guys. You want to get in their head but you don't want to take it too far. It's a learning process as you go but so far I've done a good job of being hard to play against."
But Compher can do more than stir things up. Even with the U.S. up big late in its win Wednesday, he still drove to the net offensively to create chances and was laying out to block shots as the lone forward during a late 3-on-5 penalty kill. It was during that time that he sustained the hand injury.
Those are the kind of plays that rub off on teammates.
"I've been lucky to sit next to him in the locker room and watch him, how he conducts himself during a game, in between periods," forward Alex Tuch said. "He's a huge leader. That 5-on-3, he blocked two, three shots. That was huge."
Jack Eichel, expected to be a top-two pick at the 2015 NHL Draft, said Compher sets the work ethic bar for the team in camp.
"He does everything on the ice so well," Eichel, a teammate on the USNTDP U-18 team in 2012-13. "He's a guy that you can just try to model your game after. He just so good wherever he is, in the faceoff circle, in the [defensive] zone, he's great killing penalties, great on the power play. He's a role model to me and I really look up to him. He's a great kid and a great leader. He works so hard everywhere. Everyone else tries to match him. A guy like that on your team, it's really good. Everyone tries to work as hard as him, and if everyone works as hard as J.T., you know you have a good team."
Compher said the talk of him being a role model and potentially the WJC captain is flattering, but he's not spending a lot of time focusing on that. First he has to get healthy and then he has to make the team, both of which are far from givens. He learned that the hard way last year; at the final evaluation camp for the 2014 WJC in December, he injured his foot blocking a shot and had to miss the tournament.
For now it's about making the team; everything else can come after that.
"It's an honor just to be on the team, just to make the team and be able to play in this tournament," Compher said. "Right now I'm not focused on who gets a letter and whatnot. I would love to be in a leadership position. It's something I've done throughout my career so far. I think anytime you can be a letter on a USA team, a national team, it's something special. But overall it's not about who wears a letter or who gets an individual awards, it's about what we're going to do as a team in December and January."