Amid the craziness that was the Harbaugh hiring, the holiday season, and the new College Football playoff, there was a major hockey tournament happening north of the border: he IIHF World Junior Championships, held annually in different countries around the globe.
Every year, players are loaned from various leagues, including teams from the Canadian junior ranks, the NCAA, and even the NHL. For the 2015 tournament, Michigan sent several players, ultimately having defenseman Zach Werenski and forwards JT Compher, Dylan Larkin, and Tyler Motte make Team USA.
The United States entered the tournament with high expectations as always, but faltered once it hit the medal round. After finishing with eight points in pool play, Team USA fell to Russia yesterday in a 3-2 loss. With the exception of a 2013 gold medal win, the United States has now failed to medal in three of the last four years, and the problems are rooted in roster selection and under performing big guns.
Jack Eichel (Boston University) served as team captain and is widely considered to be the second overall pick in this year's NHL Entry Draft. He finished the tournament with only one goal and three points in five games. That's not bad, but not exactly superstar-caliber on an international stage.
Even if Team USA underwhelmed, a couple of Michigan players put on noteworthy performances.
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It's hard to find any holes in Zach Werenski's game, considering just how young and therefore vulnerable he should be. Nevertheless, he was absolutely outstanding playing alongside Noah Hanifin (Boston College) and Anthony DeAngelo (Sarnia Sting - OHL). That being said Werenski is downright depressing to watch in his own zone and it's more disappointing than keeping a list of stores to make returns to after the holiday season.
Viewers were treated to the best of Werenski yesterday when he snapped a puck from the point to cut the USA deficit to one goal. Werenski has been a savior to the Wolverines all season in every situation, but he has been masterful from just inside the blue line adrift slightly to the right from the goaltender's point of view. The goal was signature Werenski, and he's turning out to be exactly what Michigan needs in an improving defensive corps.
GIF: Zach Werenski scores on a wrister from the point, brings USA to within one http://t.co/xHDOuWNqbW— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 2, 2015
The singular game where he could have been better (as in where he really didn't do anything right) was the New Year's Eve round robin game against Canada. Werenski was too often trying to force shots through a clogged lane, and visibly was seen making too many errant cross-ice passes. In short, Werenski was trying to force the issue quite a bit.
The pitfall of that evening came when Werenksi was trying to defend Connor McDavid (Erie Otters - OHL) on the controversial goal by Curtis Lazar (Ottawa Senators - NHL). If Werenski took a shorter route to McDavid by skating a bit behind the play to cut him off, he would be able to use his body and ride him off of the puck. McDavid, for as masterful as he is, is not an extraordinarily strong player and would easily give against a strong-bodied Werenski. Rather than riding McDavid off of the puck, Werenski was forced to go for a low-percentage poke check after McDavid essentially blew by him. He'll learn in time.
There's a major cliché about how much of a wonderful learning experience a tournament like this provides, though like any tired adage, it's true. Zach Werenski is a special defenseman who is going to wind up being a top-ten draft pick this June. He meshed with every partner he played with, but unfortunately looked no better than the average seventeen year-old defenseman playing in any high school hockey game around the country. It was a far cry from what the audience is typically used to seeing from this kid.
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It goes without saying that the Detroit Red Wings know how to pick 'em, but Michigan is incredibly lucky to have Dylan Larkin on its roster. Larkin put up 7 points and was the offensive leader for the United States, putting up astounding goals and creating quite the highlight package in the process. He was named one of Team USA's three players of the tournament, and he was unquestionably the best player on the ice for the United States other than goaltender Thatcher Demko (Boston College).
GIF: Dylan Larkin makes it 2-0 USA on a shot from behind the goal line http://t.co/Lf6ZK3Ttn9— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) December 29, 2014
Larkin was strong on the puck the entire tournament and really picked apart almost every defense thrown at him, at times even going coast-to-coast. Larkin has been exceptional at creating space and knowing when to make a pass versus when to just do the work himself. He's an extremely mature player for the stage that he's currently in, and it's refreshing to see him break out on an occasion as grand as the World Juniors.
He is wonderful in that he plays well with just about anybody who is put next to him, and his bouts with Sonny Milano (Plymouth Whalers - OHL), Hudson Fasching (University of Minnesota),
There have been flashes of brilliance in Larkin's game all year long, and at the rate he is playing, it might not be unrealistic to see him blow college hockey out of the water. Hopefully, he'll get some more responsibility on the ice when he returns to Ann Arbor.
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We've all come to know who JT Compher is and what he does on the ice at Michigan, but I really expected to see more from him in this tournament, albeit he was given very selective minutes and a dutiful role as the team's fourth-line center. He saw far too little ice time and he really should have been worked higher in the lineup if four lines weren't being rolled out. He's won far too many Big 10 honors to be relegated to a grinding role.
The JT Compher that Michigan fans are used to seeing pull off Evgeni Malkin carries and centering passes was completely absent, replaced by a grinder who blocked minimal shots and served as nothing more than a hitter. While that is usually what is to be expected on a typical hockey roster, international competition is supposed to have four lines of what is typically top-six caliber. International hockey is a speed and skill game. While this year's tournaments are being played on narrower ice (allowing for more physicality), every other capable country is built from top to bottom with adept talent rather than grinders.
If fingers are to be pointed at a roster that was assembled to be "hard to play against," and it's painful to say this, but it should be all eyes on Compher making the team over a scorer like Justin Bailey who is currently with the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL. Compher is certainly deserving of a spot on this roster, but if USA Hockey was so paranoid about his rough times on the wing at Michigan or that they didn't want him centering a line higher in the lineup, then he shouldn't have been on the roster. Bailey is comfortable at both positions and is playing the game in the OHL more suited for the type of hockey played in this tournament, all while putting up stellar numbers in the process.
All of this is the coach's and the executive's onus, not Compher's. If you're going to take a Ferrari and fill it with diesel, you've picked the wrong car.
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Tyler Motte actually wasn't that bad considering his numbers. He was in the middle of the play quite often and fit right into the mold that coach Mark Osiecki fit for him. As a winger, he spent most of his games centered by Larkin, and a few shifts on the ice with Eichel. He should have scored a lot more, but he never really got too many clean looks with the puck.
Motte for the most part has always been that agitating and greasy player who can put up a few points in spurts, but he relies on quality line mates to be visible. He had an under-performing Eichel and a Larkin who was putting up points at times unassisted, while at other moments with the exclusive services of Fasching.
If Motte gets a chance to shoot the puck more, he's covered the bases. Two more points in any fashion would have equated to an excellent tournament for Motte, but like Compher, he leaves a lot to be desired.