JOE GRAVELLESE, BC INTERRUPTION:
The 2017 World Junior Hockey Championship starts on Monday, with the USA taking on Latvia at 3:30 PM on the NHL Network.
Steve Mears and Dave Starman, the play by play and color commentary team for US games on the NHL Network, were nice enough to join us to preview the tournament - especially the BC/Hockey East angle.
For BC fans, we’re especially interested in seeing what kind of role Colin White, Joe Woll and Casey Fitzgerald will play on this year’s US team. I know the expectation is that Woll is likely to be a backup this year, but how big of a factor might the BC guys be for the Americans in this tournament?
Let’s start with Colin White. He’s one of the more unique talents in the NCAA for a couple different reasons. #1 is he’s an incredible passer, and #2 is he’s got deceptive speed. He looks like he’s not going to be a threat on a certain play, and then all of a sudden he’s through two defensemen and making something happen. I love the way that he can change gears.
What he does for this team is epitomizes what Bob Motzko wants - the ability for players to go straight ahead, take the puck to the net, and use give-and-gos, move pucks to good areas, let the puck do the hard work, and continuing to move forward.
The other thing White gives you - he’s really good on the power play because of his hockey sense and his passing ability. He’s a really good penalty killer, because of his speed, because of his ability to close down on defenders, and because he’s fearless, in terms of physical confrontation. He’s also one of those rare guys that can make his linemates better and make his peers better because of the demeanor he has on the bench.
Colin had a great tournament last year and I’m looking forward to seeing the progression. That’s one of the great things about this tournament. We saw it with JAck Eichel; we saw it last year with Zach Werenski; I expect the same kind of progression with Colin White.
One thing that stood out, talking to all 3 BC players in Buffalo - they’re three great personalities. White was making everyone laugh - a really nice guy. Casey Fitzgerald had a lot of great stories to share about growing up in a hockey family. Joe Woll had some great stories about being in the Maple Leafs organization - he was really gregarious, really kind, and he really appreciated the opportunity. That stands out with all three of those guys.
Adding on Casey Fitzgerald, in terms of the role he’s going to play — I thought last year, he should have made this team. I said it publicly on numerous occasions. That being said, from last year to this year he has simplified his game to make his game more effective.
If you look at the elite defensemen in the NHL, they don’t handle the puck a ton. They get a good first pass out, and they join the play. They puck up a puck in the neutral zone, fire it forward and get in the play.
If you look at the way Casey’s played this year, he’s not taking the puck, getting on his horse and going - he’s taking the puck and making plays. His level of hockey maturity and sophistication has taken a massive jump. With his ability to anchor a power play, and his ability to get pucks out of the zone quickly, he’s going to be a major factor in having a good power play and keeping a clean slot.
Part of the reason for that, I think, is that he’s been forced in to a veteran role on the BC blue line even though he’s just a sophomore. He was a very good player last year, but has improved all around this season.
Outside of the BC guys, there’s a huge Hockey East flavor to this team. So many players from BU; Tage Thompson from UConn; overall - which Hockey East players are going to be key to the US?
I think Tage Thompson is going to play a big role. This kid is something really unique. He’s a big man, with great hands and good speed, and an uncanny ability to take the puck in to traffic and come out with it.
When you watch him with the puck on his stick - man, can he shoot it. If you talk to coaches and scouts, they’ll tell you that if he becomes more of a middle drive guy, rather than someone who comes from the sides or the flanks, he might double his goal production. He can play a major role from a physical standpoint and a scoring standpoint in terms of establishing what Bob Motzko likes to call a “Ground game” softening up the D, and from a finesse and scoring standpoint - he can do a lot of things in the minutes he’s going to give him.
Seeing that shot in camp, I heard about it and to see it firsthand, he really worked on that and is going to have that shot on display every game.
One other forward I’m intrigued by is Erik Foley from Providence College. The progression of Foley - he’s really opened a lot of eyes. There was the perception that he was a grinder, but he worked his way up and if there’s one player who is on the rise, it’s this guy - he’s going to be a premier offensive winger for team USA.
For the first time in a while, BC has an interest in another country’s team - Finland. Julius and Jesper Mattila both made the Finland team, as did Eeli Tolvanen, a huge BC recruit for next year. What can we expect to see out of the Finnish connection?
Let me start off with a great story about the Mattila brothers. BC didn’t think they were going to lose as many players as they did coming in to this year, so they were a little short on players. They saw the Mattila brothers at a summer camp and got interested in them, made a call to Matti Kaltaianen who’s in Finland now, did their homework and got the brothers over here.
Their English is getting better, and one of the funny things was, right around Thanksgiving, Coach York asked them where they were going for Thanksgiving, and they said “the white house.” And Coach York got really excited and said the White House, really, are you flying down? He thought they must have had some diplomatic connection, and asked “how did you get invited to go to the White House?” and they said “well, we know Colin” - meaning Colin White. They were going to the Whites’ house for Thanksgiving.
I think with these two guys, they’ve got skill. They’re going to continue to progress playing in Jerry’s system with the way they develop players. They’re typical BC players - a little undersized, but they play with a ton of speed and a ton of pace. At times they’ve looked a little overwhelmed, but there are other times that they’ve seemed comfortable with the role they’re playing.
For Finland, you can expect these guys to be good support players for a team that always plays hard. Finland is a team that knows how to play in this tournament, and they know how to turn it on in the medal rounds. From these guys, and all the Finns, you’ll see a lot of grit and a lot of grind; the ability of these two guys to skate and move pucks should help that team.
Not too many people are high on Finland because they don’t have their big guns- they’re missing their entire top line to the NHL. But they’ve won two golds in the last three years, but their structure is so strong. Don’t forget about the Finns. They’ve got a lot of names that are having good starts to their careers - never count out the Finns.
It seems like this tournament has a wide open field, since a lot of the elite under 20 players in this age group are in the NHL. Who might be a dark horse to win this? And what are the US’ chances of winning the Gold?
This tournament has a consistent “Big five” - US, Canada, Finland, Sweden and Russia. We haven’t seen enough from the other countries; Switzerland had its run to the final four, but we haven’t seen any of the countries be consistently deep enough to threaten the big five. So is there a dark horse, probably not. If there’s a dark horse, it could be the Finns among the big five.
What it shakes down to - three of the big five are in one pool, two in the other - the US, Canada and Russia are in one group. Meaning one of them is going to get the Swedes or the Finns to open up the playoff round, and you don’t want that. It’s key in the US/Canada/Russia pool to finish in the top 2, because if not you’re asking for your road to be really bumpy to get to the final.
It comes down to goaltending. For some of those lesser teams, goalies can stand on their head and put together an upset or two and get a medal. Denmark had a surprisingly good tournament last year and almost stunned everyone in the quarterfinals. You have to put together an incredibly good, tight defensive game and have your goalie stand on his head if you’re one of those lesser teams, but it has happened - that’s the beauty if this tournament. These are young players, there are ebbs and flows, and no lead is safe - it’s unlike any hockey you see all year long.
Quick college hockey thing before we let you go -are we going to have to dust off the Gaudreau for Hobey shirts for Matt now?
The one thing I said about Matt (for the Sports Illustrated article) - some guys got on to teams because their brother was a star, but Matt reminded me of Shawn Hunwick at Michigan, who came in on the coattails of his brother. But Hunwick ended up being one of the great college hockey stories, taking Michigan to within an OT winner of the national title against Minnesota Duluth in 2011.
Matt hasn’t had as dramatic of a story maybe, but he’s had a great one, because he’s really stuck with it. With the amount of underclassmen departing, he wound up in a huge role. If you look at the four year progression, each year he’s been more responsible than the year before.
Matt is great on his edges, he’s such a good skater, he’s got Johnny’s hockey sense and sees the ice well, and he’s got a pretty good shot.
A key of course is that he’s had time on the big line, and he’s had Colin White on his line playing center. Colin White’s got this wonderful ability to make everyone on his line better because he can put the puck to either side with equal proficiency, so to have a skill guy like Gaudreau with him is a good combination.
You’re on the NCHC beat a lot, and we know how good the top teams are with Duluth, Denver and North Dakota - is there a dark horse out of the NCHC that could be a Frozen Four team?
Number one is Miami - Ryan Larkin has really woken himself up. They don’t have a great record in the first half but they’re gaining steam and getting healthy. Don’t rule them out yet - they’re a big, strong team and could be a dark horse.
Then there’s Western Michigan. They’re in third place in the conference, how are they a dark horse? Nobody expected them to be anywhere near this good. You’ve got Matty Iacopelli who’s really emerged as a big scorer for them, the Chicago pick, and then there’s undrafted free agent Griffen Molino who’s playing for a contract. Between those two guys and their stability in goal, they have made Western Michigan a tough out.
They always play hard. Whenever you go in to Kalamazoo you know it’s going to be six periods of hell to get out of there. Now not only are they tenacious, they can score. They’re going to take somebody by surprise and knock them out.
Excellent. Thanks guys.
Starting Monday, you can watch all of the USA games, plus some of Canada’s and the medal rounds on the NHL Network. Definitely make sure to watch USA-Canada on New Year’s Eve at 3:30 PM - it’s always a classic. Thank you again to Dave Starman and Steve Mears for joining us - catch them on the call of all the US’s games on NHL Network.