Even though Hunter Brzustewicz is having a phenomenal season in the OHL, he won't be representing his country at the 2024 World Junior Championship.
Ten defencemen were named to Team USA's preliminary roster on Monday morning. Brzustewicz wasn't one of them despite piling up points in the OHL this season.
That's a significant snub for Brzustewicz to not even be on the team's preliminary roster but, in fairness to Team USA, Brzustewicz snubbed them first.
Brzustewicz was in the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP) for two years, though one of those years was largely wiped out by an injury. Frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of playing time and feeling he needed to make a change for the sake of his long-term prospects of playing in the NHL, Brzustewicz left the USNTDP for his draft year, heading to the OHL to play for the Kitchener Rangers.
That meant ending his eligibility to play college hockey in the NCAA but he felt it was a necessary step.
“Growing up as a Michigan kid, I was the biggest [University of] Michigan fan, always wanting to go there,” said Brzustewicz. “But after not playing the first year at the program, and not really getting the biggest catch-up in the second year at the program, I needed to play. That's what I needed to do to get to the next level and even if that crushed my dreams of going to Michigan, that's what I had to do.
“I’m very glad I did it.”
Brzustewicz put up 57 points in 68 games for the Rangers in his draft year, catching the attention of the Canucks, who drafted him in the third round of the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, 75th overall.
Since then, Brzustewicz's offensive game has exploded, to the point that he was leading the OHL in scoring as a defenceman while still just 18 years old. Brzustewicz now has 46 points in 28 games this season, tied with his teammate Matthew Sop for second in the OHL in points.
Brzustewicz is on pace for 112 points, which would be the seventh most by an OHL defenceman all-time and he would be the first OHL defenceman to score 100 points since Ryan Ellis did so in the 2010-11 season.
Those historically great numbers weren't enough for Team USA to forgive Brzustewicz for leaving the USNTDP, however. To be fair, Team USA has some fantastic offensive defencemen who would likely still land ahead of Brzustewicz on the depth chart, like Lane Hutson, Seamus Casey, and Zeev Buium, all three of whom went through the USNTDP and are currently playing NCAA hockey.
Still, to not even receive an invite after his outstanding start to the season is an insult, though perhaps one that will fuel Brzustewicz for the rest of the OHL season. It feels like the worst of US Hockey politics to snub Brzustewicz because he felt the USNTDP and the NCAA wasn't the right path for him to get to the NHL.
Having turned 19 at the end of November, this is Brzustewicz's last chance to play at the World Junior Championship and represent his country.