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5 Team USA Players to Watch at World Championships

NHL: FEB 28 Coyotes at Bruins

The IIHF Men’s Ice Hockey World Championships don’t hold quite the same lustre that the Women’s Worlds of the World Juniors hold. It isn’t a matchup of the NHL’s next biggest stars, and it doesn’t seem to hold the same fierce level of competitiveness that the women’s international tournaments always do. It’s not the World Cup of Hockey, and it’s not the Olympics — with the NHL playoffs happening simultaneously, it’s hard to get too excited.

One surprising benefit of having the World Championships coincide with the NHL playoffs, though, is that it provides some of the lesser-watched players an opportunity to stand out on the international stage.

Team Canada, of course, boasts a formidable roster already. Players on teams that missed the postseason — such as Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall, Brent Burns, and Jason Spezza — who would just as easily make the Olympic team will skate out in Prague to represent their nation. Swedish defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes is heading to Prague, as well — and he looked like a Norris Trophy candidate throughout the regular season.

For Team USA, though, a different mix of players is being offered. There’s a smattering of top six NHL talent, but there’s also plenty of underrated skill heading to the Czech Republic on May 1st. From undrafted players looking to find a place among the league’s best to NCAA stars, the United States roster might as well be an audition for a number of the skaters listed on it.

 

1. Jimmy Vesey (F, Harvard University)

The first Harvard University Hobey Hat Trick finalist in a decade, Jimmy Vesey is headed back to the Ivy League campus for one more year this fall — but not before he gets a chance to show whether he and Nashville’s recently signed free agent Steve Moses might have some chemistry together.

He’s already drafted, so it may seem a moot point to add Vesey to the list of ‘must-watch’ players at the World Championships — but Harvard isn’t traditionally an NHL hotbed, so this is the tall forward’s opportunity to show whether he’s got the chops to make it big. He managed to push his way through the depth charts on the 2013 gold medal-winning World Juniors squad. He, along with NHL defenseman Connor Murphy and NCAA blue line standout Mike Reilly, are returning from that roster to see if they can’t translate the success they saw in the U20 bracket against older competition.

The shortened schedule of an NCAA season and the somewhat lower QoC it’s perceived to have when in comparison with the CHL make players like Vesey — who, as a WJC standout, should be a highly-heralded prospect — have to work a bit harder to earn national praise. Nashville Predators fans and the Hockey East community find it hard to believe that this may be Vesey’s NHL audition, but a strong showing at Worlds could earn him a closer look at Nashville’s training camp. The Team USA roster has plenty of underrated talent, but it’s also got an almost overabundance of diminutive skaters — standing at 6 foot 1, Vesey will be expected to contribute as a bigger body on the ice with players like Moses, Arcobello, Smith, and even blue liner Torey Krug.

While he had some size in center J.T. Miller to help him balance out the child-sized frame of Calgary Flames standout Johnny Gaudreau on the top line at the 2013 World Juniors, Vesey is more likely to see ice time as the power forward with whomever he’s deployed on a line — and while he was heralded as a potential power skater at the NHL level in the past, he hasn’t had a real shot to test that out until now. Team Canada and Team Sweden, the two strongest NHL-caliber rosters so far named in the competition, are in the other bracket for the tournament — but Russia, Finland, and Denmark could pose a problem for Vesey and the rest of the Team USA.

 

2. Steve Moses (F, Jokerit Helinski – signed with Nashville Predators for 2015)

Steve Moses was all the rage when he broke the KHL scoring record this season, and the Nashville Predators are the team that finally inked him to a deal heading down the final stretch.

As an undersized forward, the Leominster, Massachusetts native went undrafted following three seasons with the Boston Jr. Bruins — but upon graduating from the University of New Hampshire, the New York Rangers brought him on for an amateur tryout with the Connecticut Whale of the AHL. He put up two goals in eight games, but ultimately ended up getting cut from the roster — which, at the time, included future Rangers stars like Mats Zuccarello and Carl Hagelin — and forced to explore other options for playing pro hockey.

He signed with Jokerit Helinski in the fall of 2012, which was a strange year for European hockey — with the extended 2012 NHL lockout, a slew of players who didn’t choose to skate with AHL clubs went searching for contracts overseas. Moses spent his first full season with Jokerit on a roster overflowing with future NHL talent; in addition to current Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson, Moses spent the bulk of the 2012-2013 season with Teemu Pulkkinen of the Detroit Red Wings (who likely would have made the transition to North American hockey that season), Valtteri Filppula of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and future Chicago Blackhawks forward Teuvo Teravainen. Although his club was eliminated from the postseason that spring in the first round, he stood out enough to stick around for another two seasons.

Although Moses has been a prolific scorer in Europe — both when Jokerit was a part of SM-liiga and when they made the move to the KHL at the start of the 2014-2015 season — the biggest knock against him has been that he doesn’t have what it takes to score well on a North American rink against the same competition. He’s made a bad habit of using the larger rink space overseas as a crutch to hide his smaller stature — he tends to play up the wing and skirt around plays — so while he won’t necessarily be given a full test in Prague, it should be interesting to see how he measures up against his competition. How he plays either alongside Mark Arcobello or in comparison to the Arizona forward could be a good gauge for how each of the two former NCAA standouts either stand above one another or play a similar game.

A number of the players on the Team USA roster boast impressive accolades. Dylan Larkin is a first round pick by the Detroit Red Wings at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, while Trevor Lewis of the Los Angeles Kings is just one year removed from his second Stanley Cup Championship in three seasons. Defenseman Justin Faulk is a former 2014 Team USA Olympian, while defenseman Jake Gardiner and forward Jeremy Morin led Team USA to gold at the 2010 World Juniors and blue liners Connor Murphy and Mike Reilly are both members of the gold medal 2013 World Juniors team, as is forward Jimmy Vesey.

Moses, though, is one of a handful of players who struggled to stand out beyond the NCAA level in North America — and if there was ever an early chance for him to make his case among NHLers, this is it.

 

3. Mark Arcobello (F, Arizona Coyotes)

Like Steve Moses and Dan Sexton, Mark Arcobello is an undersized forward who boasted strong numbers at the NCAA level, but had trouble breaking out once he hit the pros.

While Moses and Sexton both have experience overseas, though, Arcobello has only played in North America. He was signed to the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL in 2010 following his fourth and final season with the Yale Bulldogs, but was quickly moved up to the Oklahoma City Barons of the AHL — and within two seasons, he’d made his NHL debut. A one-game trip to the Edmonton Oilers roster didn’t see the Connecticut native record any points, but his even possession stats and impressive two-way play in that single game debut stuck with the Oilers. If the undrafted AHL call-up could hold his own for nearly 19:00 TOI, what could he do with a longer look?

After four goals and fourteen assists in forty-one games the following season, Arcobello began the 2014-2015 campaign as a regular roster member for the rebuilding Oilers. The team quickly spiraled out of control, though, and the five foot nine center — despite having put up seven goals and five assists in the first thirty-six games of the season — was dealt to the Nashville Predators for a more established veteran center in Derek Roy.

What came next, of course, has become somewhat of a sensational tale around the NHL. Arcobello spent just four games on the Predators before he was placed on waivers, then claimed by the Pittsburgh Penguins — who placed him on waivers themselves after just ten more games. His last stop of the season was with the Arizona Coyotes, who won his second and final waiver claim, but the stats he cranked out in the desert — nine goals and seven assists in just twenty-seven games on the offensively stagnant Coyotes roster — are what really caught the league’s attention. He became just the second player ever to score on four separate NHL franchises in a single season, and finished the year with seventeen goals — had he scored them all with Arizona, he would have led all Coyotes forwards in goals for the year.

Although his offense has proven to be consistent enough over his first two seasons in the league to make him a valuable middle six forward, though, there are still plenty who aren’t convinced he’s worth giving another look. At 26 — and having hit the century mark in NHL games played this season — Arcobello’s negotiating rights belong to the Coyotes the moment they extend him a qualifying offer. As an RFA, he’s unable to really explore the open market if the Coyotes show interest; as an undersized, undrafted player who’s spent the bulk of his career with the Oilers and the Coyotes, a lack of interest from the 29th place Pacific Division franchise could be too much of a red flag for other teams in the event he’s released into free agency following the entry draft.

His rights expire too close to the draft for him to be a truly valuable trading piece in Florida — and although he told the Arizona Republic’s Sarah McLellan that he likes what he sees from the rebuilding Coyotes, he may be forced overseas without a deal in the NHL.

His defensive game is far from perfect, but he’s played on teams with enough lack of blue line assistance to give him an extra edge against bigger competition. He’s also getting the opportunity to play alongside at least two other members of the Arizona roster on Team USA — defensemen John Moore (also a pending RFA with Arcobello) and Connor Murphy have been named to the team headed to Prague. If he’s able to shine against some of the more well-renowned competition offered at the games, there’s a chance the Coyotes — who have general manager Don Maloney heading over to watch the six Desert Dogs currently named to their respective national rosters — may be willing to offer him another good look next season.

 

4. Dan Sexton (F, Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik)

Dan Sexton‘s professional hockey career is what Mark Arcobello‘s could quickly become this summer. Following a stint with the Anaheim Ducks, Sexton — who was still having trouble sticking on the permanent roster at the Honda Center — was dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline.

He was a depth pickup, finishing out the 2012-2013 season in Syracuse with the AHL Crunch. As a player with over 80 NHL games — the minimum requirement to hit restricted free agency instead of simply being allowed to walk — who was under 27 (another RFA qualification), Sexton was limited in his options for the 2013-2014 season when Tampa Bay extended the forward a qualifying offer. Trapped in a depth chart full of young, promising forwards, Sexton would have been making a fraction the salary he wanted on a two-way deal that almost certainly cast him in a role as an AHL mainstay; with the CBA limiting his North American options, the undersized forward signed in Finland that summer.

Aside from the delightful nickname that Sexton earned in Anaheim as a fan favorite, he was likely destined to a role as a depth forward long term — and with the money a bigger lure for fast, accurate-shooting journeymen in the modern pro hockey era, Sexton seems to be settling in quite nicely overseas. After spending the bulk of the 2013-2014 season with TPS Turku in Finland, he finished out the year with Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik of the KHL. This season, he’s back in Nizhnekamsk, Tatarstan, where he made quick work establishing himself as the team’s leading scorer. His 47P (19G, 28A) in 49 GP put him ahead of even early-season teammate Tim Stapleton, who was a mainstay on Paul Stastny‘s line during the 2013 Worlds.

Although there’s little hope of an NHL club seeing Sexton and being so impressed with his skill that he’s brought back to North America as a UFA, he should serve as a contrast for both Moses and Arcobello. He’s also got experience playing international hockey, so he could provide balance for the skaters who don’t boast the same accolades (such as Matt Hendricks, who’s making his first international hockey appearance, and both Arcobello and goalie Alex Lyon, Yale alumni with no previous US representation to their names).

 

5. Ben Smith (F, San Jose Sharks)

Ben Smith was dealt from the Chicago Blackhawks to the San Jose Sharks at the trade deadline in a seemingly lateral move, but it could have been the deal that kills Smith’s NHL career before it really ever begins.

The native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina works hard and has been heralded in the past as a two-way forward — but he’s struggled to maintain a ‘star presence’ at the NHL level, and had trouble maintaining a top line persona even at the NCAA level with Boston College. He’s easy to like, but Chicago fans got frustrated when the charismatic depth forward didn’t morph into a prolific scorer like so many ‘Cinderella-story’ bottom six players end up doing — and when he was dealt to San Jose for veteran depth forward Andrew Desjardins, he took his uncertainty regarding longevity in pro hockey with him.

He’s floated between the AHL and the NHL, slotting in somewhere between undersized and average — but he’s got a low center of gravity and provides solid defense on the front end, even if his scoring may lack the consistency of some of the other Team USA nominees.

Over 175 NHL games, Smith has 25 goals — although fourteen of them alone came in one season — and he’s a more solidly built forward than any of the other ‘shorter’ players being offered. He may struggle on a bigger rink — particularly as he’s not exactly known as a speedy skater — but his willingness to play wherever and however he’s needed make him the glue that holds together a pretty piecemeal lineup.

For San Jose, this is a final chance to take a look at the player they dealt for at the deadline. The Sharks missed the postseason for the first time in a decade, although it’s surprising that Smith is the only player from their roster that has been named to Team USA — with defenseman Brent Burns already announced for Team Canada, it seems a bit surprising that the Sharks aren’t sending California-born forward Matt Nieto with Smith to the championships. It could be that the team is waiting for confirmation of Nieto’s addition to the team, but if the Americans are only able to use Smith, this is his opportunity to make a case for himself as a bottom six mainstay moving forward in Northern California.

Of course, though, things could swing the opposite way.

Smith has one year left on the two-year extension he signed with the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer, when he and netminder Antti Raanta inked deals with matching term alongside Columbus Blue Jackets forward Jeremy Morin (also on the Team USA roster). Morin could use his existing chemistry from time in Rockford with Smith to help the Connecticut native impress San Jose management at the Worlds, but if he lags behind he could find himself a healthy scratch and eventually a waiver wire player. With San Jose’s desperation to move forward after their disastrous 2014-2015 season, Smith will need to make a case for himself as someone they want around moving forward.

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