PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- When the United States trimmed its roster for the final days of the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp, one of the more curious decisions was keeping 11 defensemen.
In previous years, the coaches liked to have eight or nine left to narrow the evaluation focus. But coach Bob Motzko had a simple reason for wanting to keep so many for the final three games of the camp, which concluded with a 5-1 win against Canada at USA Hockey Arena on Saturday.
"Probably the most wide open of the spots and the positions that we have," he said. "And it's the shortest discussion we had about how we've got to keep extra guys around. We've got to be around these guys. We've got to look under the hood more and see what's there."
What he and his staff have found is a unit short on experience but filled with promise for the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Leading the group are two returnees from the 2016 WJC, Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins) and Chad Krys (Chicago Blackhawks).
"I think this year I'm definitely trying to take on more of a leadership role as a returning guy," said McAvoy, who was a plus-5 in seven games to help the U.S. win the bronze medal last year. "From a pressure standpoint, I don't think it's more pressure. It's trying to be more of a leader this year than anything."
It didn't take long for McAvoy and Krys to set the tone among the defensemen.
"I definitely notice how calm they are," said defenseman Casey Fitzgerald (Buffalo Sabres). "Even though they played in it last year, they know they still have to compete for a spot. Guys like Charlie, who could be the captain, he still knows he's got to bring his A-game every day. … I've noticed that about them, they don't take days off. They bring it every day, and that's the way this team wants to be assembled."
Krys, who was a minus-1 in seven games at the 2016 WJC, feels because of his experience, it's imperative for him to take a leadership role. He said the most important thing is helping the rest of the group understand how the quickly the tournament moves; there's the potential to play seven games in 11 days.
"It's a fast game and a level I hadn't played at before," he said. "I think moving into this year, I know what to expect in terms of the pace of play and how to work through the tournament. It's a lot of games in a short amount of time. You have to be ready and rest, and make sure when it's game time, you're ready to go."
That message already has started filtering through to the rest of the group.
"Obviously it's a lot faster and the speed definitely is a little faster than what we're used to," said defenseman Adam Fox (Calgary Flames). "For us guys that are first-time here, we're trying to soak it all in and get an understanding of what we have to do to be able to play in this. Just really learn from the guys who have been through it."
Among the nine players aiming for their first WJC, the most impressive might be defenseman Caleb Jones (Edmonton Oilers). Motzko has seen some early chemistry in a paring of McAvoy and Jones.
"I really like them, I can tell you that," Motzko said. "Charlie bangs people around when he's got the chance and he's got poise. As he learns what his game's about, he's going to get better and better. And I had no feel for Caleb Jones coming in, but have been very impressed with him. Great feet, wants to jump up, wants to get involved in everything. Just needs to refine things a little bit. Two very promising young guys back on the blue line."
Jones, 19, is the younger brother of Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones. He had 55 points (10 goals, 45 assists) in 72 games with Portland of the Western Hockey League last season, and also got a taste of WJC camp. That supplied the motivation to use that small bit of experience to make his case for a spot on the 2017 team.
"I was at this camp last year and made the cut, so I was able to experience it last year," he said. "So coming in this year, I have a little bit of experience, which is nice, so I think I can be a little bit of a leader for the guys younger than me too, because I've been here before."
Other defensemen who have had standout moments include Fitzgerald, Ryan Lindgren (Bruins) and Luke Martin, a top prospect for the 2017 NHL Draft. Lindgren and Martin were partners the previous two seasons with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program. However, more could emerge going into the final day of camp, and into the first half of the 2016-17 season.
"I think we're seeing that group, and that group might be so tight, the variations with them are so little, that it's taking a little time," Motzko said. "You're watching to see who separates, who takes a step forward."