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World Juniors

What we learned at junior evaluation camp

U.S. facing tough decisions on defense heading toward 2017 WJC

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / Deputy Managing Editor

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- After a week-long stay at USA Hockey Arena for the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp, the United States, Canada, Finland and Sweden made their first steps toward picking the players that will skate at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5. 

"This is a big part of the process," U.S. coach Bob Motzko said Saturday. "You can't hide from it."

No roster spots were clinched or lost with any certainty based on a week of August hockey.

"It's a long process," Canada coach Dominique Ducharme said. "We're building something long-term, not for one week in August."

Here's a look at a few things the four teams learned during their time in Michigan:

Can Canada score goals? 

Canada lost all three games in Michigan and scored one goal in each. What could be their top line at the 2017 WJC, Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes), Mitchell Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Tyson Jost (Colorado Avalanche), combined for 118 goals and 331 points with their junior teams last season but was held without a point in two games together. 

Ducharme blamed the lack of scoring on the rust that comes with summertime hockey.

"I think we have enough skills and the team that we're going to have at Christmas, we're going to have enough skills to score goals," he said. "Again, at that time of the year, in August, execution is not quite there because it's pretty quick turnaround for them training and playing shinny and then playing those kind of games. It's much faster. So it's all about execution and finishing and confidence, and for an offensive player that comes from execution."

Canada also was missing three proven scorers in Nicholas Merkley (Coyotes), Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders) and Nolan Patrick (2017 NHL Draft eligible), who were injured. 

More was expected of a forward group that included 10 first-round NHL draft picks including Lawson Crouse (Florida Panthers), who is trying to make his third WJC team. 

"We gathered here and in Toronto before we came [to Michigan] to put in something in place to evaluate, to see how guys react, and put in the foundation," Ducharme said. "I thought those things guys really understood, and I think it showed from one game to the other. We were not consistent doing it over the three games and for 60 minutes. But they know and they understand what the expectations are going to be when they come back at Christmastime, and we'll build it from there."

Finland's young stars shined brightest

One of the most impressive players at the camp was Finland forward Eeli Tolvanen, a top prospect for the 2017 draft. He had three goals and three assists in five games, including back-to-back two-point games to close the camp.

"He's a good scorer but he's playing both ways well," Finland coach Jukka Rautakorpi said. "He understands hockey well and he has that effort, and he has that sense and a good future I think."

For the final game against Sweden on Saturday, Tolvanen was moved to first-line right wing and responded with two assists in Finland's 3-2 shootout loss. 

"I get a little extra for my game," Tolvanen said of being moved to the top line. "First line lets me show what I got."

Kristian Vesalainen, another top prospect for the 2017 draft, didn't have a point at the camp but impressed with his size (6-foot-2, 202 pounds) and skating ability. 

"He's a big guy and he's not afraid of anything," said linemate Kasper Bjorkqvist (Pittsburgh Penguins). "Playing in Sweden [Frolunda], you can see he plays that Swedish hockey game. He wants to play with the puck and keep the puck. He skates really good. It's a pretty high-paced game with him."

Finland was missing a number of experienced players, among them forwards Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets), Jesse Puljujarvi (Edmonton Oilers) and Henrik Borgstrom (Panthers), and defensemen Olli Juolevi (Vancouver Canucks) and Markus Niemelainen (Oilers). After allowing 16 goals in their first two games, Finland won two of its final three, and limited Canada and United States to one goal each in victories. 

The results in Michigan, combined with the return of some older players who won gold at the 2016 World Junior, could bode well for the WJC.

"The exhibition games we were playing on Sunday and Monday were many things happening so fast against our team," Rautakorpi said. "But we told the boys when we practiced, think about how we have to play here. I asked for commitment and good discipline, and you saw that."

Sweden set in goal

One of the toughest decisions facing Sweden coach Tomas Monten could be deciding between goaltenders Felix Sandstrom (Philadelphia Flyers) and Filip Gustavsson (Pittsburgh Penguins). 

Sandstrom allowed four goals on 85 shots in three games. Gustavsson allowed six goals on 71 shots but had stretches of strong play in his two games, especially a 48-save effort in a 4-3 loss to the U.S. Monten also had praise for Adam Werner (Colorado Avalanche), who allowed five goals on 51 shots in his only game at the camp. Monten said Werner will see more time at an upcoming tournament.

"For sure Felix was really good, and Filip, this were his first two games at the under-20 [level] and he was good as well," Monten said.

Sandstrom has WJC experience, playing three games in 2016, and that could be enough to give him the edge. But Gustavsson was named the best goaltender at the 2016 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.

"All three are really good," Monten said. "Filip had a great under-18s and that's why he's here. … We always bring three goalies to the World Juniors and we want to bring the best three goalies. Now Filip is best-three right now. But of course Felix was in the group last year. It's a positive thing if you have one goalie that can return."

What did the U.S. find 'under the hood?' 

When the U.S. opted to keep 11 defensemen for the final five days of camp, Motzko said the decision was made because, "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." 

So what did they find? Outside of Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins), the USA Hockey staff is going to have a tough time picking from a group that's short on WJC experience but solid in puck-moving talent. 

Chad Krys (Chicago Blackhawks), like McAvoy, played at the 2016 WJC and had a good camp, and Caleb Jones (Oilers) earned high praise from Motzko. Casey Fitzgerald (Buffalo Sabres) and Ryan Lindgren (Bruins) also had strong moments. 

"You keep on hoping guys are going to separate themselves," U.S. general manager Jim Johansson said. "We try to tell the players that ultimately you guys select the team. I know we have to make those decisions, but we hope the players make part of that easy with not only their play here but their play at the start of the season."

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