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U.S. defensemen key to World Junior fortunes

by Matt Kalman

BOSTON -- On the way to the 2013 gold medal, the United States World Junior Team set a standard by allowing nine goals in seven games.

In addition to goaltender John Gibson's performance, the United States benefited from a nearly perfect balance of all the elements of the game on its defense, led by current Nashville Predators defenseman Seth Jones and Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba.

One year after the United States lost in the 2014 quarterfinals to Russia and failed to bring home a medal, it's again in search of that perfect mix of defensemen who can suffocate the opposition's scoring and push the tempo to contribute to the offense.

Among the 10 defensemen competing at the USA Hockey evaluation camp at Walter Brown Arena on the campus of Boston University, the United States might have a batch who can match 2013. Seven or eight will make the cut and head to the 2015 World Junior Championship in Toronto and Montreal later this month.

Through two days of the camp, it's been difficult to discern a difference between the potential members of the defense.

"Everybody has something to offer here. Absolutely," 2015 NHL Draft-eligible defenseman Brandon Carlo said. "They wouldn't have invited us here if we didn't. I'm really impressed with all the other defensemen, watching them throughout practice and things like that."

Although Carlo (6-foot-5) has tried to join the attack more this season, and has 15 points in 33 games for the Tri City Americans of the Western Hockey League, he falls into the category of defensive defenseman along with Boston College's Ian McCoshen (Florida Panthers draftee) and Steven Santini (New Jersey Devils), and Minnesota's Ryan Collins (Columbus Blue Jackets), who all stand 6-2 or taller.

There are those who play both ways well, including Boston College's Noah Hanifin (2015 draft eligible), Michigan's Michael Downing (Florida Panthers) and Zach Werenski (2015 draft eligible), and Wisconsin's Jack Dougherty (Nashville Predators).

Then there are the offensive dynamos: 5-foot-10 Will Butcher of Denver (Colorado Avalanche) and 5-foot-11 Anthony DeAngelo of the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League (Tampa Bay Lightning). Butcher scored eight goals last season, and DeAngelo had 71 points in 51 games.

"The defense group to me is a very talented group that is really interesting from a coaching standpoint to how they will meld these 10 guys together because there's a lot of abilities back there and unique players that have some offensive abilities coupled with guys that are known for a little more steady defensive play," United States general manager Jim Johannson said. "So how it all interacts. We're going to be a high-energy team and going to skate. Puck-pressuring team, that's what the World Juniors is, yet you have to defend well in your zone. So the defensemen that can go, we're going to ask them to go when we need them to go but also be responsible in their own zone. And I know that will be a message that will be relayed loud and clear from the coaches."

Another message is that the players should be themselves. No one's asking them to change their games; just find a role and do it well.

"Yeah, and I think there's no point in bringing somebody in if you don't want to use what they can do for you," DeAngelo said. "So I think they know what they're doing. Obviously we've got a great group of guys selected to the team and all that kind of stuff. So you've just got to come in and do what they brought you in for. And if they have adjustments for you to make, you make them. And otherwise you just go out and play."

McCoshen, Butcher and Santini are the only returnees from the team that came up short last year. The defense might not have needed a major upgrade, but there could be some subtle differences in the group once the team is picked.

"Every team's different. I think we have similar styles," McCoshen said. "We wanted to transition the puck quick last year. But we just [got] caught off-guard with those two power-play goals for Russia. But other than that I think we play a pretty similar style. We've got bigger guys this year. That will allow us to be more physical in the D zone."

Complicating the staff's difficult decisions is Santini's wrist injury. He hasn't played since late October and has not been cleared for contact. He has participated in the drills in a yellow, no-contact jersey. If Santini is healthy, he'll be a big factor during play and a potential captain. But there's no telling if his healing will outrace the arrival of the tournament.

"I mean we're just right now, he's in a situation we're just trying to get him healthy. And when and if he can go full, we need to see that," coach Mark Osiecki said. "And you know what he brings to the table, and the thing that you can't teach is leadership skills. He's been awesome so far in the locker room and on the bench, on the ice. You just can't teach that stuff."

The final defense might not be picked based on individual skill. There are intangibles that Osiecki, as an assistant coach on three prior medal-winning United States teams, knows are almost as important as speed, shooting and defensive play.

"You're going to find chemistry. We have to find some chemistry," Osiecki said. "We can practice forever. But we do need to get into some game situations and be able to have that setting where it'll sort itself out a little bit. I look at the three prior teams that I was a part of; you always had some defensemen and/or forwards that some people are going to go, 'What the heck are they doing on the team?' And it is what it is. But if they can fit and be a part of the puzzle, it says a lot. And it could be character, could be leadership skills that might outweigh and might sway them having the opportunity to be on the team."

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