Joe Cecconi is a sophomore at the University of Michigan. ©2016, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Youngstown’s Joe Cecconi competing for spot on Team USA

BUFFALO – A few years ago, as Youngstown’s Joe Cecconi began developing into a notable defense prospect, the youngster possessed some offensive flair in his game.

Then the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Cecconi started evolving. Sure, he moves well and has a strong shot. But the University of Michigan sophomore understands he’s at his best utilizing his big frame and smarts.

That means he has morphed into a defensive defenseman.

“We love the size, and we know we need some size back there,” said Bob Motzko, Team USA’s coach for the upcoming World Junior Championship. “He seems very dependable. … We need some dependable insurance back there. That’s what got him to be there.”

Right now, Cecconi is one of 27 players – 16 forwards, eight defensemen and three goalies – competing for a coveted spot on the squad, a collection of the best under-20 hockey talent in the country.

“I bring a more defensive, penalty-killing element to the team,” Cecconi said Monday. “We have a lot of very skilled players, as you can tell watching. I bring more of a defensive, physical style to my game.”

The team just finished a five-day training camp at HarborCenter and will play an exhibition game tonight against Switzerland in Oshawa, Ontario. Three players will be cut before the Americans start the tournament next Monday against Latvia in Toronto.

“It would be awesome to put on the USA jersey and represent our country,” Cecconi said.

Cecconi’s puck-moving ability and decision-making impressed Motzko, who coaches St. Cloud State University, during the team’s first scrimmage.

Cecconi showcases the same style at Michigan, where he has compiled zero goals and eight assists in 54 games.

That elusive first goal, Cecconi said, will “come this year.”

Cecconi is happy with the Wolverines. Years ago, his grandfather told him he had to play NCAA hockey to get an education.

“Academic-wise, going to Michigan, it’s a great institution,” said Cecconi, who hasn’t declared a major yet. “I’m taking good classes and things like that. Hockey-wise, we get to play against older competition with stronger guys. …

“Development-wise … that was the best decision, and it’s paying off already.”

Cecconi said he played about 10 games as a freshman beside Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zack Werenski, one of the NHL’s top rookies this season.

“It’s not shocking at all,” Cecconi said of Werenski’s exploits. “I saw it every day in practice last year, where he was probably the best player on the ice. Obviously, it’s showing now in Columbus.”

Werenski left for the NHL after his sophomore year. Cecconi, a fifth-round pick, 133rd overall, by the Dallas Stars in 2015, will likely stay in school longer.

“I … just keep working hard and that can be (me) someday,” Cecconi said.

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