NCAA Hockey: The key NCAA defensmen to keep the puck away from America’s net

Team USA boasts one of the best defensive groups of all the teams participating in the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championship.

Consisting of top NHL prospects and notable college standouts, the Americans have a perfect combination of youth and experience on the blueline. With most defenseman standing well over six-foot-three, the Americans have already established their defensive agenda; play physical. In the second installment of this series, 49 Sports takes a look at who you can expect to see leading the charge on the American blueline. Click here to read the first part of the series.

Making the trip to the Czech Republic are many nineteen year-olds making their international debut with Team USA. Among the players on the preliminary roster are Ty Emberson, an Arizona Coyotes draft pick, and Jordan Harris, who was selected by the Montreal Canadiens. Both taken in the third round during the 2018 NHL Draft, these two will look to move up the depth chart with an impressive performance during the World Juniors. Knowing that scouts from both Arizona and Montreal will be keeping a close eye on the tournament (as both teams released rookies to play (Barret Hayton, CAN / Cole Caufield, USA) will give yet another incentive for these two to showcase their talent. Another defensive standout looking to carry his success and confidence to international play is London Knights’ star Alec Regula. In his third year in the OHL, Regula has enjoyed a breakout season, scoring at a point-per-game pace while leading the London Knights in a very competitive Western Conference. Standing at six-foot-four, the Chicago Blackhawks prospect will look to set an example on defense with his size and offensive prowess.

The Key Three

The search for leadership on the American back end is not a hard one as the top choices are more than likely going to feature the two returning players from last year’s silver medal winning team.

K’Andre Miller, of the University of Wisconsin, and Mattias Samuelsson, from Western Michigan University, were both on the team when the Americans fell to Finland in Vancouver’s gold medal matchup.

Since the heartbreaking loss on Canadian soil, both players have drastically improved their mentality and hockey sense overall. Electing to stay at college for another season has made an increasingly positive impact on both their games. This will go a long way in mentoring American rookie and Philadelphia Flyers prospect, Cam York. The youngest defenseman on the team.

Cam York, University of Michigan

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York at Philadelphia Flyer’s prospects camp (NHL)

The American defense is full of youth and players who haven’t suited up internationally. However, don’t expect the rookies to miss a step when tournament opens up. One of the names that you can expect to hear is Cam York, a Philadelphia Flyers’ prospect continuing his college career with the University of Michigan.

York’s presence will certainly inject the Americans with speed and offensive ability. Torching the U-18 World Championships with eleven points in seven games as a defenseman, the former fourteenth overall selection will look to lead his teammates by maintaining control in the offensive zone. A legitimate power-play option, York’s ability to create space in the offensive zone as well as move the puck with precision are just some of the reasons that he’s the only eighteen year-old defenseman on the team.

Scouted by ESPN’s Chris Peters as being able to “pick teams apart from the blueline”, it’s evident that York will be a big factor in supporting the US offense. Being the highest drafted defenseman on the team, there will definitely be increased expectations. However, while York has not yet had a chance to showcase his potential, his elite hockey sense and offensive ability will undoubtedly give him that shot when he takes the ice on boxing day.

K’Andre Miller, University of Wisconsin

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Miller after being selected by the New York Rangers (NHL)

Yet another Wisconsin product, K’Andre Miller surprised many by electing to return to Wisconsin for his sophomore year. After an impressive training camp with the New York Rangers, playing alongside the likes of Kappo Kakko, the former twenty-second overall pick made the decision to not turn pro and instead, continue his college hockey career

A decision that is paying major dividends according to the Rangers front office.

In a June interview with the NHL, Miller gives credit to his “amazing coaching staff” and his desire to win a national championship as the two major influences in his decision.
Standing at six-foot-four, Miller’s return to college brings an imposing presence on the defensive end. Seen as a well-rounded, physical player, Miller has handled the pressure as being seen as a leader during his time at Wisconsin.

“You don’t see many freshmen that go in and become a leader like he was,” said Rangers amateur scout Larry Bernard. “This year it’s going to be expected of him even more, on the ice and off the ice.” Registering thirteen points in nineteen games while notching a whopping forty-nine shots this season, Miller has been a staple on both Wisconsin’s power play and penalty kill. Becoming a leader can be one of the most challenging things a hockey player can face in their career however, it seems as though leadership is something that comes naturally to the Minnesota native. Establishing his voice and presence in the dressing room ever since his freshman season, Miller has consistently shown that he is not an everyday player.

Keep K’Andre Miller on the radar as the Wisconsin product seeks redemption at the 2020 World Junior Championships.

Mattias Samuelsson, Western Michigan University

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Samuelsson battles for the puck against University of Michigan (Western Michigan Athletics)

Yet another intimidating defensive presence is Western Michigan University’s, Mattias Samuelsson. Scouted as a much more defensive minded player, the Buffalo Sabres’ prospect will look to elevate his leadership skills while improving on his offensive game at the upcoming tournament. Another six-foot-four frame weighing in at well over two hundred pounds, it’s no surprise that Samuelsson will be on the ice when the Americans need to lock down the defensive zone.

It’s his ability to close gaps in the defensive end as well as his ability to use his size as a strength that makes Samuelsson such a force on the American blueline. Maintaining his mobility despite his size has been a pleasant surprise during his time with the National Team Development Program. Taken in the second round during the 2018 NHL Draft, it’s no surprise that Samuelsson continues to be an imposing presence with Western Michigan University. At just nineteen years of age, Samuelsson has plenty of time to polish his offensive game before cracking an NHL roster.

During his time at Western Michigan, Samuelsson has been consistently playing big minutes. “[Samuelsson is] going to be a top-three defenceman on some NHL team for the next 15-plus years. He’s going to eat minutes” said Seth Appert, a coach with the US National Team Development Program. “He’s a physical player, he’s hard to play against”. Projected to be taken in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft, Samuelsson slipped to thirty-ninth overall, where the Buffalo picked him up. Playing alongside the likes of other young defensive stars in Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen will only benefit his offensive game.

Expect Samuelsson to join Miller in leading a defensive corps that’s full of youth when the Americans open the tournament against Canada.

With these top defensive prospects poised for roster spots on the team, expect all three to log big minutes throughout the tournament. It’ll be interesting to see what final roster changes are made ahead of Boxing Day but if everything goes according to plan, the United States will have a very mobile and offensively inclined defensive squad.

Cover Photo: Getty Images

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