The 2012 effort put forth by Team USA at the World Juniors raised a lot of eyebrows and even more questions, chief among them being, “What the hell happened?” A team which went in hailed as a lock for a medal flopped violently and finished seventh — a part of the standings entirely vacant for moral victories. Having escaped relegation (actually) the revamped Americans find themselves in a very strong group occupied by rivals Canada and host Russia, and will look to place the failings of 2012 squarely in the rearview mirror.
If you have three fingers you can count the number of Americans in this lineup who remain draft eligible. You cannot, however, count the number of Americans in this lineup who were first round draft picks. They have high end talent, and they are deep.
In goal, John Gibson (Anaheim) figures to see the brunt of the minutes in goal as the senior member of the goaltending battery. He’ll be backed up by either Garrett Sparks (Toronto) or the massive Jon Gillies (Calgary), though the likelihood of either seeing meaningful minutes is small barring injury to Gibson.
Defensively, the USA have a strong, reliable group. With three first rounders in Connor Murphy (Phoenix), Brady Skjei (NY Rangers) and Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg) as well as Seth Jones who figures to challenge Canadian Nathan MacKinnon for the first overall pick in 2013, the Americans are capable of not only locking down top opponents, but bringing offensive flair from the blueline with good puck skills and booming shots. There will not be any soft pairings on this blueline.
Up front is a good mix of size, toughness and skill, though those traits are not necessarily distributed evenly. The Americans will look to (very) small players in Rocco Grimaldi (Florida) and Jon Gaudreau (Calgary) to test opponents with their speed and hands, despite neither player standing over 5-foot-10 or weighing over 170 pounds. More in line with the North American style of play are big bruising types like Tyler Biggs (Toronto), Stefan Matteau (New Jersey) and Nic Kerdiles (Anaheim) who will bring ample physicality and push opposing defensive pairings to their brink.
The USA’s total package player and potential tournament star will be Montreal’s 2012 first round pick Alex Galchenyuk who has 53 points in 31 games with the Sarnia Sting — the team for which he serves as captain. Should the USA go on a run, Galchenyuk will need to play a big role against elite opponents.
After a recent string of success — particularly against Canada in Canada — a myth was formed among Canadian World Juniors pundits: That the USA is a World Junior Championship powerhouse. This is wholly false.
Historically, the USA have only captured seven medals — two gold, one silver and four bronze — giving them half of the medal total of Finland, who lay claim to 14. Among those who have won medals, the only countries with less medals than the United States are Switzerland and Slovakia who each have a lone bronze. While the USA are growing power in the world of hockey with improved coaching, growing enrolment, buckets of money and a recent string of success, they are far from a legacy of dominance in the U20 ranks that some would have you believe is the reality.
Despite their lack of historical success, the USA have hit a level of talent on their roster which demands a medal. On the 2013 edition of their roster, 19 of their players were taken within the first three rounds of the NHL draft. Numbers like that are far from a fluke. Given that so many of these players have also passed through the US NTDP simultaneously, there should be a familiarity amongst the roster which many countries cannot lay claim to.
The challenge for the USA will be emerging from their group with a favourable matchup. Ideally they’ll win out and earn a straight bye to the semifinal round, though a group with a host Russian team and strong Canadian side don’t lend themselves well to any team playing their way to an undefeated record.
If we are to project wins and losses squarely on talent level, the USA are more than capable of winning this tournament. However, they will need to put themselves in the right position with crucial wins and a little bit of good fortune. Their opposition will be some of the toughest this tournament has ever seen, and they’re all in the same group to kick things off.
While I’ve pointed out the historical ineffectiveness of American teams at this tournament and, further to that point, the USA are coming off one of their most disappointing efforts in program history, this team has to be shortlisted for a gold medal berth.
USA Hockey has grown their development program to a point where they can now compete with the Canadas and Russias of the world stage, and anything short of championship expectations does a disservice to the work they’ve done. While they quickly fell out of relevance one year ago, the Americans entered the dance as a favorite. Disappointments happen. It’s the nature of the tournament format.
Perhaps this starts an American run analogous to Canada’s during the late 1990s and early 2000s. After an 8th place finish in 1998 — coming off of a gold medal no less — Canada went on a run of six consecutive years on the lower two steps of the podium before knocking out five consecutive gold medals. That’s not to say the Americans are doomed to lose out on gold for the next half decade, rather that such a low finish doesn’t condemn a program to failure for the future.
Though, there is of course the much more positive possibility for this team. The one wherein they win in 2013 against exceedingly difficult odds and usher in a new era of World Juniors dominance for the USA.
That may be more likely than you think.