Last year, Team USA won gold at the world juniors in Edmonton thanks to a strong cast that included a draft-eligible center with great wheels in Matty Beniers. With the tournament coming back to Alberta this year, the Americans are aiming for back-to-back titles and could once again have a draft-eligible pivot who can move in Logan Cooley.
Beniers, the University of Michigan star who was taken second overall by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL draft, is back for another round of international duty and there's a strong chance Cooley, the 2022 draft prospect, could join him.
As the youngest player at Team USA's final camp, Cooley has been embraced by some of the veterans on the squad including Beniers and returnees such as Landon Slaggert (CHI) and Jake Sanderson (OTT). And if he needs advice, those guys are there for him.
"He's a great kid," Beniers said. "Really nice, funny once you get to know him a bit and he's an awesome player, too. I would just tell him not to worry too much about the tournament and to play his game. Don't defer to older players; that was something someone told me last year and it was pretty important advice: play your game, don't give up the puck too fast. You know how you play the game and you're here for a reason, not just to defer to older guys. And enjoy it. I think he'll be just fine."
The fact Cooley comes from USA Hockey's National Team Development Program helps, too. The majority of players at camp are NTDP alumni and Cooley himself is the star of the current under-18 squad, which plays out of USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan - also home to Team USA's world junior camp. So he's coming in to a warm environment, despite the high stakes.
"Even just being in our home rink; it's a familiar thing," Cooley said. "Being able to start conversations with guys, talking about memories they had here at The Program definitely helps a lot."
And as Cooley continues to grow his own game, he can look to a fellow center such as Beniers and pick up tips on the ice.
"It's just the way he thinks the game and the way he plays," Cooley said. "His 200-foot game is so good. That's something I want to put into my game. It's really important to have that as you keep moving up, so that's definitely the most important thing I'd take from him."
It would be easy to compare Cooley and Beniers based on their profiles, but they're not precisely the same player: Beniers had more strength and physicality at the same age and Cooley still has a lot of upside based on the muscle and bulk he can still add to his frame. What Cooley does have is amazing potential thanks to what he has shown already.
"He's a great skater and once he gets more strength he'll pop," said one NHL scout. "Great edges, great speed, just not a lot of strength in his lower half yet. The upside is huge when you're talking about a center; he's an elite skater. His skill set is great because he makes guys around him better and he's smooth."
Cooley currently sits third in NTDP scoring with 30 points in 20 games, but he's first in points per game, having missed a handful of contests for various reasons (including leaving for WJC camp). While he may be the youngest in camp, Cooley's stature as a natural center could give him a leg up in the competition for a final roster spot, especially now that Michigan's Thomas Bordeleau (SJ) has been ruled out of the tourney due to Covid. Beniers made an impact in his first world junior tournament with Team USA last year; can Cooley do the same this time out?