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Adaptability a necessity for U.S. WJC hopefuls

by Mike G. Morreale
Now that USA Hockey has identified the group of players that will battle for spots on the U.S. National Junior Team that will participate at the 2012 World Junior Championship later this month, how will the managerial team determine a final roster?

Team USA General Manager Jim Johannson and coach Dean Blais shed some light on the subject during a media teleconference Tuesday.

"The biggest thing we stress is that you have to be a versatile player," Johannson said. "There are guys here that play certain roles within their current NCAA team or junior team that will need to come here to play a role that will fit this type of talent and this type of team … sometimes that's a change from what is asked of them in college or juniors."

One such player who has exemplified that quality the past two years has been forward Jason Zucker. Despite the fact Zucker was tied for first in scoring at the University of Denver as a freshman last season with 45 points, including 23 goals, he reveled in his role as a ferocious checker and versatile role player for the bronze medal-winning U.S. team. Zucker played a similar role under Blais during the team's gold medal-winning run at the 2010 WJC.

"The biggest thing we stress is that you have to be a versatile player. There are guys here that play certain roles within their current NCAA team or junior team that will need to come here to play a role that will fit this type of talent and this type of team … sometimes that's a change from what is asked of them in college or juniors." -- Team USA General Manager Jim Johannson

"Jason Zucker just accepted his role in Saskatoon (in 2010)," Blais said. "He did whatever we asked him to do and that'll be a big deal for us this year, as well."

The 2012 WJC will be held Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2012, in Edmonton and Calgary. The U.S. will play in Group B, with Denmark, Finland, the Czech Republic and Canada. Group A will consist of defending champion Russia along with Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia and Latvia.

"I think when you come down to the final evaluation of it, Dean's the one who stands behind the bench and needs to be comfortable with what he'll get out of the player," Johannson said. "The kid better know that he's got to compete and he better know he's got to be a versatile player who does what is asked of him."

Blais said his final 22-man roster, likely to be determined Dec. 22, will consist of two goalies, seven defensemen and 13 forwards. Zucker and goalie Jack Campbell are the only players invited to the camp with an opportunity to represent their country at the WJC for a third straight year. Six others were on the team for last year's tournament in Buffalo. (Emergency goalie Andy Iles also was on last year's team, but will not attend camp.)

"There are certain advantages to being a returning player, but don't think you're automatically on the team," Blais said. "You know what it takes to play in the intense environment on Canadian soil, for sure. I think that was part of our success in Saskatoon … guys accepted the roles to be a fourth liner. That means you might not be on the power play or the penalty kill.

"If it comes down to two guys relatively close in ability, then it gets down to who we think has the best attitude and who will be a big team guy because we need players who just accept their role."


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While experience is good, it certainly isn't the prerequisite in earning a roster spot. Take 17-year-old defenseman Seth Jones of the U.S. National Team Development Program under-18 team. Jones might be the youngest player invited to the camp, but one never would realize it after a brief conversation with Johannson.

"During our development camp in Lake Placid (in August), Seth played so well in every aspect," Johannson said. "This is a young kid who has versatility even at the Under-20 level. My biggest compliment is I don't even look at him as a young player; he looks like a guy who has been playing at that level and is totally comfortable.

"We're going into this camp with pretty high expectations of him. The body of work that Seth has had in a short time with us has raised our expectation on how we feel he'll perform at the tournament. He's a grounded guy, regardless of whether the situation is good or bad."

This is the third time Blais, the coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, will be behind the bench for Team USA at the WJC. In addition to winning gold in 2010, his team in 1994 finished sixth. The U.S. pre-tournament camp in Camrose, Alta., will run Dec. 17-23. He anticipates having a team with speed and feistiness.

"What I liked about our team in 2010 was the speed of the players picked to represent our country and the character and grittiness that we had when we played," Blais said. "I think all the fans in Saskatoon appreciated that our players could make plays like they always have, but we were as quick as anyone in the tournament and made plays at that top speed. Also, those little things … blocking shots and finishing checks, anything that would give you a chance to win a game is what we did."

Johannson said he anticipates defenseman Jonathon Merrill, who was suspended for the first 12 games of the season by the University of Michigan for a violation of team rules, to be "ready to go." Merrill, who was a key cog in Team USA's defense corps last year, hasn't played a game for the Wolverines this season.

Additionally, Johannson remains in close contact with the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes with regard to the availability of defenseman Justin Faulk, also a member of the 2011 WJC squad.

"We've been in good communication with Carolina and we don't have a set-in-stone date, so to speak, as far as when that decision will be made," Johannson said. "We have stated that we would want him as part of our camp and that's known by all parties. To a degree, it's a win-win. It's always exciting to have a young player in the NHL that has developed in many of our programs and certainly we would be excited for the opportunity to have Justin join us and feel that he could greatly benefit as a player and the role he would play on this team, the level of competition at WJC, and how that could possibly springboard him to the second half of his professional season."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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