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Team USA thinks big at World Junior Championship

by Mike G. Morreale
In addition to experience, the one thing that really stands out about the collection of players called upon to represent the U.S. National Junior Team at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship next week is size.
In particular, that seven-man defensive corps that averages 6-foot-2.
U.S. general manager Jim Johannson and coach Dean Blais took some time to discuss that topic with the media on Thursday evening during a media teleconference announcing the 22-man roster.
The defense returns Derek Forbort of the University of North Dakota and Jon Merrill of the University of Michigan. The smallest player along the blue line is Boston University's Adam Clendening, who's 5-foot-11, and the tallest is 6-foot-7 Jarred Tinordi of the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights.
Johannson was asked if the plan all along was to bring a big, mobile, defensive group into Edmonton and Calgary for this year's WJC.
"This is a tournament of attrition to a degree, playing six or seven games in 11 nights," Johannson said. "In the end for us, these players all ended up being big guys. They all move very well and have the capability of moving the puck to some pretty fast forwards.
"It's been an odd year, so to speak, in the size differential of where guys fit into our mix and it just so happens several guys are defensemen and are big guys who move well and can play the international style of hockey. For us, it made the right sense and I'm sure, since they have some size, we'll use that to our advantage in the times we can."
In addition to Forbort, Merrill, Clendening and Tinordi, Blais has high hopes for Kevin Gravel (6-4) of St. Cloud State University, Stephen Johns (6-4) of the University of Notre Dame and 2012 draft prospect Jacob Trouba (6-2) of the U.S. National Under-18 Team.
"Trouba was a 1994 birthdate, and you never know with a young player if he can make the transition and play at this level," Blais said. "But Jake has surprised and earned his way onto this team. He's strong and moves the puck very well, is physical and is an honest hockey player. He's quick and smart with the puck."
The U.S. will look to earn its third straight medal after capturing the bronze at the 2011 WJC in Buffalo, N.Y., and the gold at the 2010 WJC in Saskatoon, Sask.
"Even though these players are from all over the United States, we have one common theme and that's getting better as the tourney goes on," Blais said. "There's no question the NTDP program has a major role in the development of players here, right now. But there are also skilled players not coming through NTDP program who are excelling too."
It's interesting to note that Team USA's winning percentage at the WJC prior to the NTDP's establishment was .410. Since its inception in 1996, the Team USA has a .650 winning percentage at the WJC, including two gold medals.
When asked about his smallest defenseman on the roster, Clendening, Blais pulled no punches.
"He's proven to be a solid defenseman," he said. "He might be small, but he has puck-moving ability, can make decisions with the puck and defends well. He's quick and gets the job done."
Blais also wanted to make certain his team had plenty of leaders in the locker room. The coach said this year's captain and alternates will likely be released on Friday.
"Every year, you hope to have the leadership … we have seven returning players with [goalie] Jack Campbell the most important in my eyes," Blais said. "Leadership is important and without it, you don't have a chance. Certainly leadership starts with the coaches, but you need the guys in the dressing room to straighten things out too."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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