On Monday, USA Hockey announced their preliminary roster for the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championships in Alberta. 29 players are on the preliminary roster, and by December 22, they will be trimmed to a final 22. There are eight players returning from 2011's team, but it's some of the newer players that could be the biggest surprises. Here are five new guys on Team USA to watch in this year's tournament.
1. John Gibson, Goaltender
Last year, Jack Campbell and Andy Iles shared goaltending duties on the roster, but Campbell was the main man in net, as Iles spent just over nine minutes on the ice in total. Campbell's high draft selection (11th overall by the Dallas Stars in 2010) could be attributed to his impressive first appearance on the international stage, playing for USA in 2010's tournament. He followed it up with another amazing performance in 2011, hence Iles' limited ice time.
But if there's anyone that could challenge Campbell for the primary spot in the net for the tournament, it's John Gibson. A second round (39th overall) selection by the Anaheim Ducks in 2011, Gibson cut his teeth with the U.S. National Development Team starting in 2009. This fall, he headed to Kitchener, Ontario to become the starting goaltender for the Kitchener Rangers. Through 19 games played with the Rangers, he has 12 wins, a 2.58 goals against average, and .931 save percentage -- better statistics than Campbell.
The Pittsburgh native also has international experience. He was the starting goaltender for Team USA in the 2010 World U-17 Hockey Challenge, and recorded the best GAA and save percentage of any goaltender in the tournament. Though Gibson admits he didn't even know the World Juniors tournament existed until last year, any opportunity to represent the USA is something he takes seriously. "It's important to me," Gibson told The Record (Kitchener). "Any time I can represent my country, I want to do that."
Kitchener coach Steve Spott agrees that Gibson could very well end up the starter come tournament time. "I believe he’ll push Jack Campbell for the starting position," Spott said. "I believe he's going to give USA Hockey's coaching staff a lot to think about. He's just a money goaltender and will be a tremendous asset for them in that tournament."
2. Seth Jones, Defenseman
The youngest player on the preliminary roster (born Oct. 3, 1994), Jones comes from pro athlete stock. His father is "Popeye" Jones, who played in the NBA for 12 years and now serves as the assistant coach for the New Jersey Nets. Seth was born in Texas during Jones' three-season stint with the Dallas Mavericks. Seth definitely takes after his father in terms of size -- at 17 years old, he is 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds.
Jones, a two-way defenseman who spent last season playing with the U.S. National Development Team, caught the eye of Team USA general manager Jim Johannson in the team's summer evaluation camp. At the time, Jones was just 16 years old, and was already drawing comparisons to NHL All-Stars. "He reminds of me of Erik Johnson to a degree," Johannson said. "He is just an all-around solid player. He's the real deal. Good instincts in all areas and he plays the game in all zones."
Jones isn't even eligible for the NHL Draft until 2013, but he could earn himself a spot on the final roster for Team USA. NHL general managers are already champing at the bit to get Jones drafted to their team, and if he survives the cuts, his play in the tournament could catapult him to the top of the rankings for the 2013 draft.
3. Jarred Tinordi, Defenseman
Though two years older, Tinordi is much like Jones in several personal aspects. He is another product of the U.S. National Development Team, and his father too was a professional athlete. But hockey insiders are much more familiar with Tinordi's father -- former NHL tough guy Mark Tinordi. Like his father, Tinordi is a gritty, physical -- and huge (6-foot-7) -- defenseman.
Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round (22nd overall) of the 2010 draft, Tinordi had originally committed to play at Notre Dame, but opted to go the junior route and signed with the London Knights. Last season with the Knights, he had 14 points and 140 penalty minutes.
Tinordi was part of Team USA in the 2010 Under-18 World Juniors, and won a gold medal in the tournament with the team. In addition to his skill, his leadership qualities are highly-touted. He captained the USA U-18 team, and currently serves as captain of the Knights. His size and work ethic could make him a valuable presence on the blue line.
4. Brandon Saad, Left Wing
Chicago Blackhawks fans are already very familiar with Saad's name -- the 2011 second-round (43rd overall) pick was a pleasant surprise in this fall's training camp, earning him the opportunity to play in two regular season games with the Blackhawks in October. After his two game appearances, he was sent back to his junior team (Saginaw Spirit), but he had already made a big impression on USA general manager Jim Johannson.
Because of the draft and commitments with the Blackhawks, Saad was not able to attend the summer's World Juniors evaluation camp, but Johannson had no issue with including him on the preliminary roster. "The bottom line with him is being able to show us that he wanted to be a part of the program and that his level of play was going to be what we were looking for," Johannson said. "He got off to a great start with Chicago and played a couple games with the 'Hawks. But more importantly for us, when he went (back) to Saginaw, he performed well, he's competing in all aspects of the game that we saw in him as a younger player and what he needed to improve on. He's shown that."
Since returning to Saginaw, Saad has 19 points in 11 games. Though he and Tinordi are rivals in the Ontario Hockey League, they were teammates on the American U-18 team that won gold in 2010.
5. Austin Watson, Center
Watson is one of the rarer players on the preliminary roster that have never been involved in the U.S. National Development Team, but don't count him out based on that. He made a name for himself in his first season in the Ontario Hockey League as a member of the 2009 Memorial Cup-winning Windsor Spitfires. Watson began his sophomore season with the Spitfires, and could have won a second Memorial Cup, but he was traded to the Peterborough Petes to close out the 2009-2010 OHL season.
Watson was drafted in the first round (18th overall) of the 2010 draft by the Nashville Predators. He's praised by scouts for his offensive ability while being able to play a grinder-style role, blocking shots and sacrificing his body to make plays. So far this season with the Petes, Watson has 28 points in 28 games.
In this deep pool of possible players, Watson could be a long shot to make the final roster, but his positive, team-first attitude may be his X factor.