PLYMOUTH USA – Summer might be a time of rest for many, but for the world’s best junior hockey players it is a time to meet and greet and showcase your talent.
That is what is happening at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan as the junior teams of the United States, Canada, Finland, and Sweden take part in rigorous practices and a series of round-robin exhibition games. These are not to be taken lightly, and a quick look in the stands reveals dozens of scouts and interested parties.
“We’ve had a long history with Finland and Sweden in the under-20 program as a whole,” started Jim Johannson, general manager of the 2017 U.S. team preparing to compete in Toronto and Montreal this December. “Overall, they’re been consistent participants. Russia came once a few years ago. We’ve changed our structure a little bit by not keeping kids in camp the entire time. We were looking to cut back on the wear and tear on the players. For Canada, it was trying to figure out what made sense for both of us.
The rosters for the four teams are radically different. The hosts boast an incredible six players from the first round of the recent 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Canada has some top stars destined for the NHL right away and rookies looking to gain a little international experience. Finland is almost entirely 2017 draft-eligible players while the Swedes have a balanced lineup of youth and experience.
“I think it’s cyclical for all of us,” Johannson explained of the variety. “In general, Finland and Sweden have done a great job of having most of their top players here. We all strive to do that, but there are some situations beyond our control—injuries, where players are at in their NHL career. Our goal is to produce the best possible competition because it benefits everyone. We all understand that and strive to do that.”
Although the most obvious question is, why have an event like this in the summer?, when the teens could use the rest, “JJ” is quick with a good answer.
“This is a really important part of our evaluation,” he explained. “We don’t have a system that gets our players together in season. There is no international break. It’s a critical time for our coach to get to know the player pool. Often he’s coming in and meeting players for the first time. And for the players, although a lot of them know each other, it gives them a chance to catch up to where everyone is right now.”
That being said, there seems little chance this mini-tournament will explode into anything more.
“Right now, four is a good number of teams,” Johannson continued. “Programing-wise for the four that are here, we’re getting the games that we want, the breaks. It’s working. But we also want to be good international partners, so we’re open to looking at things, but to create a mini-World Juniors just doesn’t work. That’s not what we hope to get out of this week.”
JJ likes the look of his team here in Plymouth and is optimistic about the real thing at the end of the year. “We have a lot of depth and a lot of options up front,” he enthused. “We have a great blend of size and skill, scoring ability, physical presence. Even to go from 24 to 20 to 17 players here was a difficult process. We have a ton of options up front. On defence, the fun part for me is we have 11 or 12 guys who can play at this level. Now it’s a question of how do you pair them, how do they play together. We like to ask, ‘Who’s going to put their hand up? Who’s going to show consistency? How they can fit into our group of seven.’”
But this optimism is reined in by recent results. For the hosts, the last three U20s have been odd. In 2014, under rookie coach Phil Housley, the team was strong but surely not a gold-medal favourite. Yet, a remarkable gold it was. In the next two years, the team boasted powerful rosters but finished a disappointing fifth both times. What gives?
“You have to win the big games, and you have to be resilient,” Johannson rationalized. “You have to get better throughout the tournament. Little things can make a big difference. In 2014, twice we found a way to get down 5-on-3. We put ourselves in that situation and that was the difference in the game. Last year’s game with Russia in the semi-finals, we put ourselves in a bad situation again and got tired, and that affected our performance. We have to take better control of our game.”
Control is what this evaluation is all about. By learning as much as possible, and giving the players goals, these four nations hope to gain some traction on the podium on January 5, 2017, in Montreal. Evaluation, rosters, resilence, performance. It all begins in Plymouth. Now.