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World Junior Summer Showcase: K’Andre Miller Displays Defensive Prowess ; Lundkvist Injured

Miller solidifies his spot as the USA’s top defenseman, while Lundkvist suffers a injury that could impact his season.

NHL: JUN 29 Rangers Prospect Development Camp Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The World Junior Summer Showcase is an oasis during the otherwise dead period of the hockey offseason. Some of the top countries put together rosters (in the USA’s case, two rosters) and play games in late July/Early August. Though the tournament doesn’t really matter insofar as winning and losing, it’s a competitive environment that serves as an important evaluation period for December’s World Junior Championship.

The Rangers have five prospects participating. They are:

  • K’Andre Miller (USA White)
  • Zac Jones (USA White)
  • Nils Lundkvist (Sweden)
  • Karl Henriksson (Sweden)
  • Olof Lindbom (Sweden)

Unsurprisingly, Miller has been the best of the bunch. In fact, he may be the best defenseman in the tournament’s four games so far. Something I noted about Miller in the 2019 Prospect Rankings is that, as good as he was offensively for Wisconsin last season, I think defense is going to be his strong suit long-term. At the WJSS, Miller has been a beast when the opposition has the puck, using his long wingspan to break up rushes and shooting opportunities. Here is an absurdly long video showing many examples from just two games (plus one from a short pre-tournament scrimmage). Look for #11.

In some cases, you can see Miller not only break up the play but immediately push the play forward to create offense for his team.

Miller entered the showcase as the top USA defenseman, and nothing has changed yet. To be fair, this does partially speak to a weak group of defenseman, but in any case Miller projects as the anchor of Team USA at the 2020 World Junior Championship.

In contrast, the WJSS has not been favorable to Nils Lundkvist. Through two periods against USA Blue in the first game, Lundkvist had some troublesome moments with the puck in which he made poor decisions. He did not look like the smart, efficient player from last season. Of course, it was only two periods of a summer tournament. He hadn’t played an organized game in over three months. This is not particularly concerning.

What is concerning is that Lundkvist injured his leg on a non-contact play while skating in his own zone. Lundkvist was visibly limping for the remainder of the shift and did not suit up in Sweden’s second game. In fact, he won’t play for the remainder of the tournament.

Believe it or not, the Swedish hockey season is quickly approaching. Lundkvist’s team, Lulea, begin exhibition games in a little over two weeks and start competitive play in a month. This is an important season for Lundkvist and he’s in a fight for playing time. Any injury longer than a couple of weeks is going to really impact the start of his season.

Zac Jones, the other Rangers defenseman on USA White, has been solid. Unfortunately, the play hasn’t seemed to really find him. He’s had plenty of touches on the puck in the defensive zone, where he has done well to make plays and start zone exits. In the offensive zone, however, he hasn’t really had many opportunities to direct play. On one of his chances, though, he did well to get a low shot through traffic and create a rebound goal.

I think I may have underestimated concerns with Jones’ skating in the prospect rankings. I don’t blame the following goal on him because this is a shot that any decent goaltender needs to stop.

Still, a quicker defenseman closes that gap much sooner. Jones is an extremely smart player who can out-think his physical deficiencies often, but there are limits to that. Especially against high levels of competition. He’s going to have a long time at Umass-Amherst to work on this.

USA combines their two teams into one today, and Jones (as well as Miller) survived cuts. He will be one of the 10 defenseman for USA in their final four games of the tournament.

Karl Henriksson, drafted 58th overall in June, has been quiet through two games. He’s featured on Sweden’s fourth line in both games and hasn’t received many opportunities on the power play. David Gustafsson and Jacob Olofsson are almost certainly going to be Sweden’s 1-2 punch down the middle this year, so Henriksson’s limited opportunity is not unexpected. He’s going to have to wait his turn. Still, I’d expect him to get at least one game in a bigger role before the showcase ends.

In the prospect rankings, I noted that Henriksson’s inconsistent defensive effort was a concern. In his two games so far, he’s been diligent in that regard. Here is one example (#22 in yellow) where he disrupts possession on the forecheck and then breaks up play on the backcheck, dispossessing and incredibly talented puck carrier in Trevor Zegras.

Finally, goaltender Olof Lindbom has not played yet. That’s not particularly noteworthy given that Sweden has three capable goaltenders and has only played two games. The final few games of the tournament are more competitive, and I’d expect Lindbom to get his chance. It’s the beginning of a long battle between Lindbom, Erik Portillo, and Jesper Eliasson, all of whom are vying for Sweden’s starting job.