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Rangers Defensemen Leading Charge for USA Through First World Juniors Games

Zac Jones and K’Andre Miller have been two of the better players on the USA blueline so far.

United States v Russia: Semifinals - 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images

The U20 Men’s World Junior Championship is an exciting tournament, as it features (most of) the top teenage hockey players in the world. The Rangers have five players competing in the tournament, including Team USA, defensemen K’Andre Miller and Zac Jones, both of whom have featured for the US in two games thus far this tournament.

Jones, taken in the third round of the 2019 Draft, had been a bright spot for a USA team that lost its opener against Canada on Thursday grinding out a victory versus Germany Friday. The blueliner has shown off his puck poise and offensive efficiency through the two games while quarterbacking the power play and generating offense at even strength. He’s earned a goal and assist while putting a lot of pucks on net (wearing #6).

Jones’ offensive contributions are encouraging. That he is able to be so dynamic at the highest level of competition for teenagers affirms that he is a legitimate prospect. That’s expected to a degree, though, since that’s his game. More encouraging is how strong he’s been on the defensive side of the puck. He’s made no real errors of note and has actually done a superb job defending some of the top prospects in the world.

In just a few clips we can see so many of his best qualities. He maintains great gaps and knows when to jump in and pressure. He maintains inside positioning on the puck carrier and steers him out of danger. He anticipates passes and has the hand-eye coordination to break up plays and then immediately sends his team on transition. As long as Jones is in position to impact a play, he typically doesn’t spend a lot of time in his zone. He kills plays quickly.

Jones wasn’t really even on the radar for this tournament six months ago; he had never represented the US at a major tournament in prior years, though he did partake in the 2019 World Junior Summer Showcase, which is used to evaluate fringe players like Jones. However, his play at UMass this season forced USA Hockey’s hand, and I’d argue he’s been the team’s best defenseman so far.

Miller, meanwhile, has had two very different types of games. He was mostly quiet against Canada, which is neither good nor bad. Rather, the game just didn’t seem to find him very often. He did play a key part in Canada’s game-winning goal, which came soon after the USA tied it up in the third period. Miller turned the puck over to projected 2020 No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere, who punished the Americans.

I’m not going to try to convince you that Miller isn’t at fault here, because he is. It’s a poor decision in a crucial moment of the game.

Still, I’d consider him unlucky, as Lafreniere picks a puck off mid-air, immediately corrals it while it bounces out of reach, and then make a creative deke from in tight. He’s one of the few players in the world who possesses the hands and poise to pull that off so efficiently. In most cases, this doesn’t result in a goal and it’s a forgettable moment.

In both games, Miller displayed his strength, punishing puck carriers and knocking them off the puck.

He showed more of his offensive capabilities against Germany. In the first period, Miller made a perfect cross-ice feed to Jacob Pivonka, who should have buried it but instead whiffed on the shot. Later in the second period, Miller made a forceful zone entry with the puck, backing off Germany’s defense and creating space for the USA’s trailers. He dropped the puck to Trevor Zegras, who created a rebound goal for Shane Pinto.

The US has given up eight non-empty net goals through two games despite getting decent goaltending, meaning that they’ve been porous defensively. Jones and Miller have not been the biggest offenders, and Jones in particular doesn’t really have anything to answer for. On a fairly light defensive corps, the USA will need both Rangers’ prospects to play at a high level. They’ll have their next chance to do so on Sunday against Russia.

NOTE: This article previously misstated that Zac Jones had not participated at the World Junior Summer Showcase. Jones had, in fact, participated in the 2019 summer tournament.