- Four nations converged on Plymouth, Mich., to put their best U20 hockey talent to the test at Team USA’s junior evaluation camp.
Last week, Team USA hosted its National Junior Evaluation Camp (NJEC) to start the selection process for the 2017 World Junior Championship. For part of the camp, the Canadian, Finnish and Swedish teams joined USA Hockey in Plymouth, Mich., to get a look at each nation’s best U20 players.
Canada came out of camp without a win, and each of the other teams went 2–1 through the last portion of scrimmages. Despite much gnashing of teeth by Canadian fans, wins and losses in August are essentially meaningless. Some of the best players were benched to get a look at others who were on the cusp, and many who could ultimately be on the roster were missing due to injury.
What we can take from the camp is an assessment of individual players who distinguished themselves as leaders and others who performed well enough to elevate themselves into serious consideration for the tournament, which kicks off in Toronto and Montreal on December 26.
Here are 16 players who rose above the fray in Plymouth.
Gabriel Carlsson (Blue Jackets), D, Sweden
Carlsson’s defensive game stood out. His gap control was good, and he was able to force turnovers and ignite transitions in the neutral zone. That’s in part due to the long reach of the 6' 4" defender, a 2015 first round pick by the Columbus. His offensive game wasn’t all that strong, and that’s not a new assessment with him. Nonetheless, for the purposes of the 2017 tournament, he should play a big role for Sweden. He could be on the go-to pairing for shut-down situations, though he’s probably not an every-situation kind of defender and isn’t likely to be a part of the power play.
Thomas Chabot (Senators), D, Canada
Chabot was a pillar against Finland when Canada was struggling. Particularly on its tepid power play, he was able to calm things down and get pucks to the net. The power play was a mess and the team scrambled badly in its own zone against Finland, one of two games he played in, but Chabot showed poise with the puck and was solid in his own zone amid some chaos.
Lawson Crouse (Panthers), LW, Canada
Crouse often gets lumped into discussions of Canada’s best forwards for the coming tournament. He’s there, but his offensive skill level isn’t in the same conversation as Toronto's Mitch Marner or Arizona's Dylan Strome. Nevertheless, he anticipates the game well. The 6' 4", 19-year-old uses his size to win 50/50 battles and his speed creates space to make plays, even if he’s not likely to do anything too flashy. He was used in all situations and should be depended on to play in all situations at this year’s tournament.
Joel Eriksson Ek (Wild), C, Sweden
Eriksson Ek, the 20th overall pick in the 2015 draft, was a dominant force for Sweden. He’s gotten so much stronger during the last year, putting on 15 pounds since last summer. The Swedish captain battled hard along the boards and showed himself to be the kind of intelligent playmaker many thought he could become. His defensive skill was similarly impressive. He plays well positionally and reads the play well enough to make up for any coverage lapses. He was one of the top players from any team at camp.
Erik Foley (Jets), LW, USA
If there was a hardest worker award at camp, Foley might be the guy to get it. The 2015 third-round pick was inconsistent in his first year at Providence College and didn’t make the final cut for World Juniors last year. Nonetheless, he was a terror in the offensive zone at this summer's camp. He’s not scared to scrap in the dirty areas and has enough skill to maneuver in those spaces. His two goals, four points and 18 shots through five total games (including two split-squad scrimmages) is even more impressive since he wasn’t seeing much for power play time.
Jordan Greenway (Wild), LW, USA
It’s easy to gush about Greenway’s camp. He’s not going to be an elite forward in the NHL, but for a 6' 6" power forward he has good speed and plenty of offensive skill. His ability to use his size to protect the puck and make plays are main reasons why he's a very effective player who has continued to improve since being drafted in the second round last years. He’s not a top-end defensive winger, but he wins board battles, backchecks hard and is quick to the point to block shots.
Travis Konecny (Flyers), C/RW, Canada
Though he only played one game, he was outstanding. It’s a little tough to be too excited about many of the Canadian players because they struggled throughout the scrimmages. Nonetheless, Konecny, the 24th pick in the 2015 draft, created opportunities, showcased high-level spatial awareness and was dangerous every time he had the puck. Even off the puck, he excelled with his tenacious play.
Jacob Larsson (Ducks), D, Sweden
Larsson was Sweden’s other standout defender. He wasn’t quite at Carlsson’s level defensively, but he could be the all-situation guy that his team leans on come December. the 27th pick in the 2015 draft, he’s a good puck-mover and reads the play in his own zone well.
Mitch Marner (Maple Leafs), RW and Dylan Strome (Coyotes), C, Canada
I’m lumping these two together because their strong play isn’t a surprise. They’re top five picks and among the older players at camp. It would have been notable if they didn’t play well. They’ve dominated in junior play and were simply a step above most of the players at camp. Though, at times, Marner held the puck too long instead of just making a play. Both have a shot at making their NHL squads out of training camp, so Canada must hope they’re loaned out for the tournament.
Charlie McAvoy (Bruins), D, USA
The Boston University defender, the 14th pick in this year's draft, was clearly one of the camp’s best defenseman. A force in the offensive zone, he was at his best in transition. He stopped an odd-man rush with the U.S. down 3–0 against Sweden, and turned the puck up ice, leading to a goal and the start of the USA's comeback for a 4–3 win. His defensive game has also shown a lot of improvement and made his physical presence known by absolutely leveling Crouse on Saturday.
Arttu Ruotsalainen (2017), C, Finland
His performance uneven, sometimes taking center stage and then disappearing for long periods of time. But when he was on, Ruotsalainen was stellar. He has great speed and hands and was at the center of some key moments for the Finns. The 5' 8" center may have a tough time succeeding in the NHL, but he looked good at camp and should be part of Finland’s top six when the World Junior Championship rolls around.
Felix Sandstrom (Flyers), G, Sweden
Sandstrom, a third round pick in 2015, didn’t play every game for Sweden, but he was outstanding against Canada, stopping 37 of 38 shots. He wasn’t flashy, but that’s largely because he was always well positioned to the shooter and didn’t give up many rebounds.
Tage Thompson (Blues), RW, USA
Thompson isn't the easiest player to figure out. He didn’t light up the NCAA during his freshman campaign with Connecticut, but with a highly desirable combination of size (6' 5", 185) and skill he has the tools to do it this year. The 26th pick in the 2016 draft had a particularly good camp, showing great playmaking ability and an admirable drive to get the puck on net. He was one of most impressive performers, especially early on when he scored five goals in the first two games. Through four, he put 24 pucks on net.
Eeli Tolvanen (2017), LW, Finland
The 2017 draft eligible forward had occasional lapses, but his skill is undeniable. He’s a smart player and with speed and good hands. In the likely absence of Patrik Laine (Jets) and Jesse Puljujarvi (Oilers), Tolvanen could be a key piece of the Finnish roster.
Veini Vehvilainen (2017), G, Finland
Vehvilainen, who has been passed over in two drafts, was the starter for Finland at the outset of last year’s tournament. He struggled and was eventually replaced by Kaapo Kahkonen, who led the Finns to the gold medal on home ice. But at camp, Vehvilainen was excellent. The Finnish team is not the same one that won gold in January and probably have a very tough time repeating as champions. But he helped keep the squad in every game and could actually be a difference-maker. It's quite possible he'll wind up being drafted in his third go-round next summer.