With the World Junior Championship set to open December 26th in Vancouver and Victoria, Team USA’s full squad—plus a few more players that won’t make the final roster—were on display this past weekend in Everett, where they began their pre-tournament Training Camp before heading north. The preliminary roster—16 forwards, ten defensemen, and three goaltenders—is comprised entirely of players born in 1999 or 2000… except for two.
The first 2001-born player to earn an invitation is Jack Hughes, who has become well known as the consensus number one overall pick in the upcoming NHL entry draft. The skill of Hughes is immediately obvious when you watch him, even considering that in Everett, he was skating mostly with elite players one and two years his senior.
The other 17-year-old to don the USA crest is a lesser known goaltending prospect that people don’t seem to be talking about yet, though they probably should. Spencer Knight, a 17-year-old netminder from Darien, Connecticut, is angling to make this U20 squad and to backstop Team USA in the upcoming star-studded tournament.
On last week’s Sound of Hockey podcast, we had a really fun and informative interview with Chris Peters, NHL Draft and Prospect Analyst for ESPN. Peters tipped us off to Knight, mentioning that he’s ironically becoming known as the best USA goaltending prospect since Jonathan Quick. The irony of that moniker is that Quick wound up being a third-round draft pick—so even he wasn’t exactly blue chip at the time—and other than playing the same position, Knight’s game is nothing like that of Quick’s.
While Quick has made a career of sliding all around his goalcrease, Knight is the rare combination of size, athleticism, and calmness in the net that NHL scouts drool over. Listed at 6’3”, 197 pounds, Knight has the ability to play deep in his crease, while still taking away most of the angles shooters would see on a smaller netminder. Knight is explosive from side to side when he needs to be, but he definitely tries to minimize his movements and remain under control. On developing that calmness, Knight said, “Especially in practice, being a goalie, you have to really focus on getting better at what you want to get better at, because it’s very easy on odd-man rushes—you don’t think about it, but you’re facing a majority of grade A shots—but in a game, you don’t really face all grade A shots. So [in practice] you need to work on just holding your feet and staying collected.”
It’s highly likely that Knight will hear his name called in the first couple of rounds in the upcoming NHL entry draft, a rare feat for a netminder, and hope remains that he’ll even go as high as the opening round. Getting selected in the first round has only happened to ten US-born netminders in the past, so Knight would be in elite company if that happens.
Another uncommon feat is for a 17-year-old goalie to even get a chance at making the WJC roster. Competing in Training Camp with 19-year-olds Kyle Keyser (Oshawa Generals, Boston Bruins prospect) and Cayden Primeau (Northeastern University, Montreal Canadiens prospect), Knight is one of just three goalies to get the call. That’s a good sign for his chances at making the final roster, considering it has become the norm in the last several years for USA to carry three goalies, though the team did only take two in 2016. On whether or not he sees the age difference between himself and the other goalies as an uphill battle, Knight downplayed the challenge on Saturday, saying, “It’s just playing hockey, you know, and I’m out here for a reason. I just have to do what I do.”
Though Team USA has yet to confirm how many goalies it will carry into the tournament and has remained coy on how it will deploy them, GM John Vanbiesbrouck did call it “highly likely” that the team keeps all three. When asked his thoughts on the goalie situation, Vanbiesbrouck, a Hall of Fame netminder in his own right, said with a smirk, “I have lots of thoughts on goalies.” He expanded to say that ironing out how USA will use its backstops in the lead-up to the WJC is, “A work in process, because you can plan, but then a game goes a certain way, and you’ve got to be able to react or respond and have a sub-plan to it. If somebody’s going really well, do you want to keep them in there and see how they finish the game? Because you can start a game and play well, but it’s all how you finish a game. In tournament play, closing out games is really hard.”
Whether or not Knight can be the starter remains to be seen, though USA Coach Mike Hastings had good things to say about him in Everett on Sunday. “Everybody that’s here has earned the opportunity to be here. So from that standpoint, he’s one of three. In my mind, he’s not the 17-year-old. We’re not in that business right now. We’re trying to put together the best team we can to represent our country, so the guys that are here have earned it, and he’s one of them.”
Knight has been in the US National Team Development Program since the beginning of the ’17-’18 season, currently playing on the program’s U18 team alongside Hughes and other rising American stars. He said on Saturday that although the guys in WJC Camp that come from college or major junior teams seem to be used to a slightly faster pace, at the NTDP, they do a great job of training and practicing to prepare themselves for the pace of play that comes with this premiere tournament.
Knight has committed to playing collegiately at Boston College starting next season, but for now he’s focused on the upcoming WJC. And to the little kid watching at home, hoping to be Team USA’s next 17-year-old goalie phenom, Knight says, “Just keep practicing, have fun in the games, but also work hard. Keep going at it, show up every day and get better, and you should be in a good place.”
Oh, and although Knight didn’t mention this, if you can grow to 6’3” and be super athletic and calm, that helps as well.
Thanks to USA Hockey for providing the header photo for this story, as well as availability to the team.