5 Gopher Hockey Players Named to USA World Junior Evaluation Camp

Bruce Bennett

Sophomore Brady Skjei will be joined at the camp by four Gopher recruits as this year's coach Don Lucia (perhaps you've heard of him), picks his squad to defend Team USA's World Juniors gold medal this winter in Sweden.

Five Gophers, and eight Minnesotans, have been selected to participate in the US World Junior team evaluation camp later this summer. Sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei (from Lakeville), along with recruits defensemen Tommy Vannelli (who played the past season with the USNDT in Ann Arbor and is from Minnetonka) and Mike Brodzinski (Muskegon Lumber Jacks- Ham Lake), and forwards Taylor Cammarata (Waterloo- Plymouth) and Hudson Fasching (USNDT- Burnsville) will try out for a team coached by University of Minnesota head coach Don Lucia.

Last year's squad won gold over in Russia, but only two players from that team- forward Riley Barber of Miami OH and defenseman Patrick Sieloff of the OHL's London Knights- are eligible to return. Skjei is one of only six other players who tried out last season and didn't make the final cut but who have been invited to return. It's a very young and experienced group playing at the World Juniors level, but most of these kids have played plenty of international hockey already, and they are certainly not short on talent.

Skjei, with USNDT experience AND as a member of the head coach's own team, would seem to be a shoo-in for a spot, yet I think that's far from set in stone. He has all-world physical tools, especially his skating, yet he got cut from last year's team, and had a pretty subpar season with Minnesota as a freshman finishing with just 3 points in 36 games. The only guys on the entire roster who scored less than him last year were the goalie Adam Wilcox, and two freshmen forwards who played in a combined 12 games. That's not to say he can't play up to expectations, it's just that he seems to have a ways to go to be a leader for this team- or the Gophers, for that matter.

The four Gopher recruits all have big-time potential, and while they might have a tougher time making this year's squad, as '95 birth years (boy does that make me feel old) they'll be eligible for next year's team too. Cammarata destroyed the USHL this past season, and figures to jump into Minnesota's top 6 forwards from the get-go this fall. A strong start to his season and he could definitely play his way onto the team, much like Kyle Rau did two years ago. Fasching has been making headlines since he was a ninth grader in Burnsville, but his stock has slipped a he looked like a sure-fire top 10 pick in this June's draft a few years ago, had a mid-season draft ranking amongt the top 40 North American skaters, but in the final ranking is 70th among North American skaters. At 6'2 with good speed and hands, he too can play his way onto Team USA with a strong fall with the Gophers, and like Cammarata should get plenty of ice time at The U to do it. He'll likely battle former top recruit Seth Ambroz as the "top 6 power forward" as I don't see there being room for Ambroz and Fasching on the top 2 lines. The Gophers will be young but loaded up front as Rau, Condon, Boyd, Isackson, and Ambroz are the top returning scorers, Connor Riley returns from a knee injury, and but former Mr Hockey Justin Kloos joins this fall as well, and all he did last season was play on the same team as Cammarata where the pair led the league in scoring.

On defense there aren't many locks returning, so there should be plenty of competition for the open spots, which obviously helps the Skjei, Vannelli and Brodzinski. Vannelli is actually the highest ranked current Gopher on the NHL Central Scouting list for the upcoming draft ranking 44th among NA skaters, and should be in Minnesota's top 2 D pairings the minute he steps on campus (when that will be still hasn't been decided, per Roman). He's tall, mobile, and pretty smart in his own end, and while Vannelli isn't quite the skater Skjei is, he's still been awfully impressive, prompting one writer to say Vannelli's development is already ahead of Skjei's at this point last year. If his development continues like this, he's got a great chance to be representing Team USA in Malmo in December, just as he did for the U-18 team a few months ago when USA won silver in Russia at the Ivan Hlinka tourney.

Brodzinski is the least heralded of the four Gopher recruits, but was solid with Muskegeon of the USHL last year and should compete for playing time in Minnesota's top six this fall. The other three traiterous Minnesotans invited to camp who are not going to be Gophers are fowards Jake Guentzel (committed to UNO and is the son of Gopher asst coach Mike), Zach Stepan (born in Hastings, committed to Mankato after originally committing to Ohio State), and Dominic Toninato (played at Duluth East and not surprisingly committed to UMD).

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