Rangers prospects Brady Skjei and Boo Nieves cleared the first hurdle of trying to make the United States team that will take part in the 2014 World Junior Championships this week, and now both players will attempt to further their own cases the rest of the week before heading back to college.
Both Skjei and Nieves survived Tuesday's cuts at the National Junior Evaluation Camp, which is being held in Lake Placid, NY. Team USA reduced its roster from 44 players to 31, and those remaining players will take part in games the rest of the week against teams from Sweden, Finland, and Canada.
"For us this week is really good for our evaluation purposes," explained Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton. "The higher level these kids can play at, the sooner we can get them playing in the NHL. We want our kids playing at the highest level, pushing themselves, being challenged; and if Brady and Boo can play in the World Junior Championships it will be a great test, a great experience."
This is Skjei's second turn at the National Junior Evaluation Camp, and his second crack at trying to lock down a spot on Team USA. Last year Skjei was invited back to the December pre-tournament camp held at the MSG Training Center and was among the final cuts before the team left for Russia where it eventually captured the gold medal.
Bigger, stronger, and in Gorton's estimation "much more confident", Skjei has had an excellent camp by all accounts so far this week, and seems quite determined to represent his country later this winter.
"We would expect Brady to do real well at this camp," Gorton said of the Rangers top pick in the 2012 draft. "He came in wide-eyed last year, but now his confidence is up. It's a year later, he's a year older and more experienced. And you always want to see how people respond to adversity, and in this case being cut at the very end which was a difficult thing for Brady. I think from the moment he got cut to right now he's done all the right things---he's worked extremely hard and is motivated to make this team."
Skjei will return to the University of Minnesota this fall for his sophomore year of college. As a freshman Skjei played in 34 games for the Gophers, notching a goal and totaling three points and 14 penalty minutes, while doing a solid job in his own end of the ice. This season Skjei will look to advance his offensive game, and hopefully play for Team USA in the WJC.
As for Nieves, the skilled center is taking part in his first National Junior Evaluation Camp, and surviving the initial cut is a major hurdle cleared. A solid performance in the three games remaining is the next step, to be followed by a strong sophomore campaign at the University of Michigan, and Boo should be right in the mix for a spot on Team USA come December.
"The United States obviously won gold last year and have a big turnover on their roster this year, and they are looking for some skill up front and some size," explained Gorton. "So it's good opportunity for Boo to get his feet wet at the Lake Placid camp, see where he fits in. He came out of high schoo last year and right into Michigan and responded well. And now this is another test, another level to see where he's at. It's another big opportunity for him."
A 29-point scorer in 41 games as a Wolverine freshman last year, Nieves is working hard on his defensive game, as well as improving his skilled offensive game. Gorton said that Nieves was a "bit raw' coming out of high school a year ago, and has made great strides as a player. Whether or not he has shown enough to play for Team USA will not be known until December.
"We have had great success with our prospects taking part in the U.S. program," said Gorton. "(Derek) Stepan, J.T. (Miller), (Chris) Kreider are just some of the guys who have come through it and had great experiences. We would love for that to be the case for both Brady and Boo."