With three days remaining until the IIHF World Junior Championships begin in Ufa, Russia, Team USA has chosen defenseman Jake McCabe as their captain, according to a tweet from USA Today's Kevin Allen. In addition, USA Hockey announced today that head coach Phil Housley has sent first-round draft picks Brady Skjei and Stefan Matteau packing and is preparing to make one more final cut before heading to Russia.
McCabe is somewhat of a surprise choice to wear the "C" for the Americans, as WJC veteran J.T. Miller was the early favorite. Miller was named one of four alternate captains along with Jacob Trouba, Cole Bardreau and Seth Jones.
Selected in the second round of the 2012 draft by the Buffalo Sabres, McCabe is a balanced and mature defenseman. The Wisconsin Badgers sophomore was very impressive at Team USA's brief training camp in Tarrytown, New York and has played strongly in warm-up games against Sweden and Finland. McCabe has been part of World Championship squads at the U-17 (2010) and U-18 (2011) levels and will look to claim a third consecutive gold medal in Russia.
Team USA was expected to finalize its roster after yesterday's warm-up tilt against Finland. Entering the game with 26 players, they needed to cut two defensemen and one forward to get down to 23 men.
A disappointing 5-1 loss to the Fins seemingly gave Housley second thoughts as he delayed his cuts until 3 a.m. ET Sunday. As of now, Team USA still has one cut to make and will announce the decision following the assessment of an undisclosed injury.
The release of winger Stefan Matteau comes as somewhat of a surprise, after a hard-fought battle among the forwards. The powerful winger was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the 2012 draft and looked set to play on the team's third line along with Tyler Biggs and Sean Kuraly.
Perhaps the decision to release Matteau reflects concerns about penalties, after two exhibitions featuring well stocked sin bins. Harvard freshman Jim Vesey, who will likely see an expanded role, plays a far less physical style but rarely runs afoul of the referees. Vesey also may have earned his way off the bubble with a player of the game performance in a win against Sweden on Dec. 20.
The exit of defenseman Brady Skjei was hardly surprising. The New York Rangers' first rounder has struggled this fall despite possessing immense talent. He has contributed only two points in 15 games as a freshman at the University of Minnesota and he did little to help his case in camp.
One more defenseman will be cut in the next few days. Who that player will be is anyone's guess. All eight remaining blue-liners have made strong cases to be featured in Russia. As a result, the unidentified injured player is most likely to head home.
Team USA begins the World Junior Championships on December 27 against Germany. They will face an uphill battle sharing Group B with tournament favorites Canada and Russia, but they have the talent necessary to challenge for a medal. Now is the time to see how far Captain Jake McCabe can lead them.