December 16, 2009 PRINT Bookmark and Share

U.S., Canada Prepare for World Juniors

Diminishing Number of NCAA Players on the Roster

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

This is the time of year when elite underclassmen go from their respective NCAA teams to U.S. and Canadian World Junior Leagues.

This year's tournament takes place Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Regina, Sask., as Team Canada has the home-ice advantage in seeking its sixth straight gold medal. NHL Network will air all of Team USA's games.

This is a situation college coaches embrace, for the most part, wanting their younger players to get that opportunity and experience — even though it wreaks havoc with rosters during a time of year when there are important games to be played.

Team Canada, of course, is a juggernaut, and the annual World Junior championships are as covered and watched in Canada as is the Super Bowl in the U.S. Typically, very few NCAA players make the Canadian junior, which some ascribe to an intentional bias against NCAA players by Team Canada's powers that be — although, no doubt, the large majority of top Canadian players of junior age are in the Canadian major junior system.

Whatever the case may be, this year's NCAA hopeful is Denver's Patrick Wiercioch, the ultra-talented sophomore defenseman and Ottawa Senators draft pick. Wiercioch was sent home, however, last week by Team Canada because they found a Grade 2 sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his knee.

This is not necessarily news to Denver fans, who knew that Wiercioch suffered a knee injury in November, and recently returned to the lineup. Apparently, that was not fully healed, or he re-injured it.

Denver coach George Gwozdecky was upset with Team Canada's decision, and felt bad for Wiercioch, but Canadians were more non-chalant.

"He may have had a Grade 2 a couple of weeks back, but he played on it," Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray told the Montreal Gazette. "The fortunate thing now is that he is not part of the junior team and has a couple of weeks before Denver starts again, so he should be 100-per-cent healthy then, but it's a huge setback for him because he desperately wanted a chance to play for Canada."

Two NCAA players were cut today in final moves made by Team Canada — Harvard's Louie Leblanc (who is in the middle of exams) and Minnesota-Duluth's Dylan Olsen.

Meanwhile, Team USA — with one gold medal in its history and always struggling for recognition — is selecting its team under the watchful eye of Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais. This year, as much as any other in recent memory, exemplifies a growing "problem," if you will, in college hockey right now. The roster has a lot of Canadian major junior players — i.e. U.S. born players who have bypassed the NCAA for Canada.

Because of changes the Canadian Hockey League (Canada's ruling body for junior hockey) made, major junior has become a more enticing route for top players — as the recent spate of defections and players reneging on college commitments shows.

It's Blais' job to juggle this, and it behooves him not to pull any reverse-bias here, and favor NCAA players.

The Team USA roster now stands at 30, and will be whittled down to 22 this week, during a three-day tournament in Grand Forks, N.D., from Dec. 17-19.

Taking a look at the current roster, it's like a who's who of players who left NCAA teams holding the bag.

Among the two goalies, Mike Lee is with St. Cloud State now, while Jack Campbell recently bailed on a commitment to Michigan to play in the OHL.

Among the 11 defensemen, just five are in the NCAA now, while Justin Faulk and Jon Merrill are both with the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP) in Ann Arbor, Mich. John Carlson, a 6-foot-3, 210-pounder from Natick, Mass., played in the USHL, was a first-round pick of the Washington Capitals, and went briefly to the OHL before heading straight to the pros. He's currently in Hershey of the AHL. That leaves Brian Lashoff, Cam Fowler and John Moore, playing in the OHL — all flat out turned down the NCAA, with Moore also bailing on a commitment to Michigan.

Finally, there are 17 forwards, of which only nine are in the NCAA, with 17-year old Jason Zucker, a native of Las Vegas, with the USNTDP. Of the other seven, two jump out that fit this pattern — Ryan Bourque, who was committed to New Hampshire before jumping ship before the start of this season, and Kenny Ryan, who was likewise committed to Boston College before taking off after already having played in two exhibition games with the Eagles.

Contrast all of this to the 2004 U.S. gold medal team, just six years ago. Just five of the 22 players on that roster were major junior players. The rest were all on NCAA rosters — including Zach Parise, Brett Stirling, Matt Carle, Al Montoya, Jimmy Howard, Ryan Suter, Patrick Eaves and Drew Stafford.

How much of this is really a "problem," we'll explore in the coming weeks. It should be remembered that, there was a time when the NCAA was a much more unattractive option for top players. But that also came at a time when there weren't as many top players that were U.S.-born. As the U.S. started producing many more high-level, high-draft-pick type of players, NCAA hockey also was becoming more and more a viable option for these players. So this became a symbiotic thing.

The defections, if you will, threaten to leave college hockey no worse off than it used to be — and in fact, still probably far better. These elite players going to Canada now, simply didn't exist 20 years ago — at least not in these numbers. So while frustrating, it remains to be seen the impact on the college game.

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