When you think of Alaska, you're probably thinking about cold weather. Luckily for parents (and players) heading to Anchorage for the 14U National Championships, temperatures approaching the 50's doesn't sound so bad.
Nor does the prospect of watching 16 of the best 14U (2001 age group) teams compete for a national title.
The tournament, which kicks off on March 31st, sees the 16 teams equally divided into four-team pools where the top-two teams in each division will eventually make it to the single-game elimination knock-out round; which features a quarter-final, semi-final, and championship game. Who will come out on top? Well that's an excellent question, so let's see about handicapping how some of the pools could play out. For reference, the team's MyHockeyRanking will be included in parenthesis.
Teams: (1) Shattuck-St. Mary's; (8) Compuware; (10) Colorado Thunderbirds; (36) Team Alaska
The Favourite: Shattuck comes into the tournament as the top-ranked team in the country - and for good reason - as they didn't even lose a game until a surprising 3-0 loss at the hands of the Toronto Marlboros in the Port Huron Silver Stick. Notre Dame commit Grant Sillanoff is one of the most dynamic players in the age group and is generally a legitimate scoring opportunity in-waiting every time he touches the ice. Partner-in-crime Robert Mastrosimone (Boston University) is more of the playmaking type with his creativity and natural puck skills both grading out as high-end. Cam York gives the team a bonafide #1 on defense and the roster features no shortage of talent in between, making Shattuck the easy-to-pick favourite to win the group.
The Contenders: The second playoff spot will likely come down to a head-to-head battle between Compuware and Colorado, with their opening game against each other on Thursday potentially dictating the fate of the group. Compuware doesn't have very much size up front but they are a very cohesive team that plays a strong possession game. Recent North Dakota commit Michael Mancinelli is a slick - albeit undersized - forward who drives a lot of their offense, but don't discount his wingman Mitchell Miller or budding power-forward Alex Trombley. In goal, Riley Nobel will be heavily counted on to give them an opportunity to win.
Colorado's team-strength lies up front as the team fields an impressive crop of forwards who are more than capable of finding the back of the net. Killian Kiecker-Olson is the biggest standout as a potential 1st round calibre WHL pick if he were to report to the league and really dominates with his sheer strength and straight-line rushes. The Sandoval twins have excellent chemistry together and create a high volume of chances despite lacking high-end tools. Brady Berlin is another intriguing talent on the wing who seems to compliment any line well and is also more than capable of finding the twine.
As for Team Alaska, they weren't on our watch-list this season so we really can't report on them. If nothing else, at least they'll be on home ice and won't have to worry about any plane-legs bogging them down.
Prediction: 1st - Shattuck-St. Mary's; 2nd - Colorado Thunderbirds; 3rd - Compuware; 4th - Team Alaska
Teams: (3) Little Caesar's; (6) Belle Tire; (11) Team Illinois; (28) Team North Dakota
The Favourites: While Belle Tire probably hasn't had the type of season you would have expected back in August, they're coming into Anchorage on a high-note after a state title against the very same Little Caesar's they'll face yet again in Alaska. That said, out of the four groups this is the one that has the most compelling argument to have co-favourites as you're really splitting hairs between the two Michigan squads.
Belle Tire is led by what is likely the best defensive core in the age group outside of the Mississauga Rebels. Davis Pennington and Andrew Perrott are both legitimate high-end players at that position and Marcus Gretz is a hulking physical player who is starting to really tap into some of that raw potential. Ryan Brow also a nice complimentary piece to round out the top-4 there. Up front, Ty Smilanic is one of the top '02-born players you'll find anywhere but goals have really been hard to come by for this team at times this year and it's cost them in games against teams they should beat. Will it be an issue in this tournament? That's definitely the storyline here.
On the other hand, Little Caesar's doesn't quite have as much high-end next-level talent but seem to function a bit better as a team. They've also shown they can rise to the occasion as they've played in a number of big games this season and to-date, have the most impressive win of the season with a Silver Stick championship in Port Huron over their HPHL rivals, the Chicago Mission. Evan Orr and Pat Guzzo are the top players on defense and forward, respectively, but underager Antonio Stranges is one of the straws that stirs the drink as he seems to find the scoresheet regularly despite underwhelming size and strength. The pizza's also boast a strong goaltending tandem with Nate Williams and Zach Allan.
The Contenders: Team Illinois will be no stranger to Little Caesar's as an HPHL counterpart and surprised in the league playoffs. Texas native Ryan Robinson is the biggest piece on their side as he notched a team best 14 goals during the regular season, which on its own, surpassed their next leading scorer's point total. Camden Thiesing is an undersized forward from Franklin, Tenn. who has some projectable upside as a quick skater who is capable of making some things happen off the rush. While they could be very competitive in the group, it's probably unlikely they have enough to usurp either of the two Michigan teams.
Like Team Alaska, we also didn't have a chance to see Team North Dakota this season.
Prediction: 1st - Belle Tire; 2nd - Little Caesar's; 3rd - Team Illinois; 4th - Team North Dakota
Teams: (4) New Jersey Colonials; (7) Boston Jr. Eagles; (13) Buffalo Jr. Sabres; (29) LA Jr. Kings
The Favourite: Despite lacking depth when it comes to a best-on-best format, New Jersey's high-end talent has shown to be more than enough for them to compete with the top teams in the age group from both Canada and the USA. Headlining the show is Harvard commit Marshall Warren and centre John Farinacci, who are both essentially at the cream of the crop at each of their respective positions. It doesn't end there, though, as Alexandros Gaffney is a dynamic underaged player who, despite being pint-sized, is one of the top skaters you'll come across and has a motor that really doesn't stop. While this team really will ride its top players if they want to have success, it's proven to be a formula that works.
The Contenders: We only got a brief look at the Boston Jr. Eagles at the Port Huron Silver Stick - as they're part of the QMJHL draft territory - but they look like a team that is more than capable of making some noise in this event and could very well give New Jersey a run for top billing in the group.
Buffalo is coming in after a state championship and has about as much top-to-bottom depth as you'll find with really no weakness at any position. Where they've had trouble this year is coming up with goals in games where it matters. While the team has no shortage of talent up front, their ability to actually create offense will probably determine their fate in this tournament. In goal, Robbie Nuchereno is emerging as one of the better netminders in the age group and he'll be tested heavily to show that's the case here.
We've only seen LA in a Tier 1 showcase but it's unlikely they'll factor in as much of a threat to advance here. Hunter Campbell is a decent-sized forward who is their most intriguing talent and would likely garner consideration as a top three-round type of player in the WHL Bantam Draft if he were to go that route. He's fairly cerebral in his approach to the game but his effort level and all-around skill-set make him a player that should project well to the next level in a second or third line type of role down the road.
Prediction: 1st - New Jersey Colonials; 2nd - Boston Jr. Eagles; 3rd - Buffalo Jr. Sabres; 4th - LA Jr. Kings
Teams: (2) Chicago Mission; (5) Mid-Fairfield Jr. Rangers; (23) Pittsburgh Penguins Elite; (26) Thunder AAA
The Favourite: Aside from Shattuck-St. Mary's, Mission comes into the tournament as probably the next biggest favourite to walk out of the group stage of the tournament as a #1 seed. While they do have 19 losses in their book this season, they've proven time and again that they're always going to be there in the games that matter at the end of the tournament and it's hard to see them not rising to the occasion with the type of field here. Leading the way for them is WHL draft-eligible Luke Toporowski who could shape up as a top-10 type of pick if he goes that route. Beyond that, they really have no shortage of quality at every position with Owen Lindmark, T.J Koufis and Johnny Johnson headling the forwards. Despite lacking size, Kyle Schroeder is also that pest-style of player who could be a real difference maker in this tournament.
On defense, Hunter Weiss already has the stature of a pro and is one of the most polished defensive-oriented players you'll come across. Alex Vlasic headlines as the top offensive option and underager Gerard Keane continues to impress with his all-around game and impressive hockey sense.
The Contenders: Mid-Fairfield boasts one of the most impressive goaltenders to come through the ranks in some time with Spencer Knight, who not only occupies a lot of net at 6-foot-5, but is also as technically polished and positionally sound as they come. If he's at his best, they'll have a chance to win against any team. OHL eligible Trevor Zegras doesn't have ideal size but his propensity to create offense is above reproach. Ryan Pineault is another undersized player - it's actually a recurring theme on the team - who is an impressive skater and does a great job setting up the transition game on the back-end, often by way of advancing the puck with his own rushing ability.
Similar to Buffalo, Pittsburgh is a team that has no shortage of depth across every position but just leaves you wanting a bit more. This is going to be their opportunity to show that as they are a legitimate threat to get out of the group stage. In order to do it, they need Austen Swankler and Aiden Edwards to be at their best, which should allow the rest of the team to function accordingly. Hunter Robbins is another intriguing goaltender who will be relied on heavily as well.
In a group that will feature no shortage of quality goaltending, Logan Stein (Thunder AAA) is making a case to be potentially the top OHL draft-eligible heading into the 16/17 season and will need to be at an MVP level if they stand to make it out of group play. While the team does have a few players that draw intrigue at both positions, Stein is really going to be the player who determines their fate. That said, their #2 in goal, Synjen Amende will also be someone to watch as his size will probably put even Spencer Knight's to shame and he's no slouch in goal himself.
Prediction: 1st - Chicago Mission; 2nd - Pittsburgh Penguins Elite; 3rd - Mid Fairfield Jr. Rangers; 4th - Thunder AAA