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December 12, 2006 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

World Junior Breakdown

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

The United States will enter the World Junior tournament at the end of this month in Sweden as a contender for some kind of medal, but a gold medal has only come once in its history, in 2004 when coached by Mike Eaves.

The last two years, Team USA has finished a disappointing fourth. Despite having teams that have done very well internationally at the younger levels, it has not translated to the World Juniors.

Last year's squad, perhaps the most talented the U.S. has ever assembled, featuring numerous high first-round NHL picks, was a major disappointment. It also highlighted what seemed to be a problem in the program itself, which was talk of dissension and lack of team unity.

The National Team Development Program began in 1996 as a way to solve past U.S. woes in the tournament, among other things. It brought together 40 of the best junior age players in the U.S. to one spot in Ann Arbor, Mich., with the promise of high-end, year-round training — then under Jeff Jackson, who left Lake Superior State to take the job.

The downside to the program, in some people's eyes, has been that it promotes weeding out potential high-end players at much too young an age. If you're not in that group of 40, many feel that you get overlooked later on. The other concern is a potential strong sense of entitlement that is fostered among the players in the program ... and this issue is what was most heightened last year, according to many observers.

Whether it was just that group that didn't bring the lunchpail mentality, or whether it's a systemic issue, is something that will be sorted out in future tournaments, including this one.

The tournament is, specifically, being held in Mora and Leksand, Sweden, Dec 26-Jan 5. The U.S. coach is Ron Rolston, who has been coaching the U.S. Under-18 team out of Ann Arbor the last three years, and won a gold medal in the World Under-18 tournament, with many of the same group on this year's World Junior team, two years ago.

Here is a breakdown of the roster:

Goaltenders

This has been a sore spot in recent tournaments. Two years ago, coming off a gold medal the year before, Al Montoya was shaky. Last year, BC's Cory Schneider was the No. 1 guy, and performed well, but not outstanding.

This season, Minnesota's Jeff Frazee returns from last year's team. But the other spot went to Miami's Jeff Zatkoff, and there should be no contest between the two as to who should be No. 1 — it should be Zatkoff. Zatkoff has been the better and more consistent goaltender in his two years of college than Frazee.

The only other realistic contenders for the second spot, Yale's Alec Richards and Minnesota-Duluth's Alex Stalock, are nowhere near the class of the other two yet. Even farther away were the two younger players invited to August's camp in Lake Placid — Boston University's Brett Bennett, who hasn't played a college game yet, and Ohio State's Joe Palmer, who has been below average for the Buckeyes.

Defensemen

On defense, NHL second-rounder Taylor Chorney (North Dakota); 2006 No. 1 overall NHL pick Erik Johnson (Minnesota); 2004 No. 3 overall NHL pick Jack Johnson (Michigan); and first-rounder Brian Lee (North Dakota) all return from last year's team. These are relative no-brainers. Lee was taken as a seventh defenseman as a 17-year old on the 2005 squad. The Johnsons have been dominant on the ice this year in college hockey, though Jack Johnson has recently been sidelined with a shoulder injury. He was an agitator last year when the tournament was in Vancouver, and drew the wrath of Canadian fans. He should be fine for the tournament.

Lee and Chorney have been inconsistent for the Fighting Sioux this year, as the whole team has struggled. But it was hard to leave them off. There was another contender for a spot, though, who was left off — North Dakota teammate Zach Jones. Three Sioux defenseman from a sub-.500 team would have been hard to justify.

Likewise, a returner who was not selected — perhaps a little bit surprisingly — was Michigan sophomore Mark Mitera, a first-round draft pick. Although perhaps it's not that surprising if you've seen Michigan play. Michigan's defense has struggled mightily this season, and Mitera was a minus-4 in his only game on Olympic-sized ice this season, the 8-2 butt-whooping at the hands of Minnesota. Of course, Jack Johnson was also a minus-4 that night, but he's been so dominant otherwise, his selection is a no-brainer.

Kyle Lawson gets the rewards of being a key player on Notre Dame, a team that's quickly establishing itself under Jeff Jackson as a legitimate NCAA threat. He played for Rolston on the Under-18 team, and assuredly got a strong endorsement from Jackson. Likewise, Wisconsin freshman Jamie McBain has thrived under Mike Eaves' tutelage, even though the Badgers have struggled in the first half of the season.

Mitera probably lost out to Major Junior player Sean Zimmerman, who plays for Spokane in the Western Hockey League. Team USA nearly by-passed Zimmerman when it originally left him off the invite list to the August camp, but lucked out, in a sense, when neither Jack nor Erik Johnson decided to attend, and so Zimmerman went. Zimmerman is a stay-at-home physical presence that has been lacking from the American teams in recent years, and his selection is a sight for sore eyes.

Forwards

There were not a lot of surprises among the 13 forwards, what with Justin Abdelkader (Michigan State), Nate Gerbe (Boston College), Jack Skille (Wisconsin), Ryan Stoa (Minnesota), Mike Carman (Minnesota), Bill Sweatt (Colorado College) and Kyle Okposo (Minnesota) among the current NCAA players. Also, top-flight Major Junior talent like Patrick Kane (London, OHL), Trevor Lewis (Owen Sound, OHL) and Peter Mueller (Everett, WHL) are here, to no one's surprise.

Left off, however, were No. 1 NHL Draft picks, Bobby Ryan (Owen Sound) and and Nick Foligno (Sudbury, OHL). Colorado College's Chad Rau, having a good season and a good two-way player, was also surprisingly by-passed.

Instead, Team USA went with highly-touted James vanRiemsdyk from the Under-18 team, as well as Harvard's Jimmy Fraser, a bit of a surprise over a player like Rau, who is strong on draws and has won a medal with Rolston in international play.

Another pleasant surprise was the inclusion of Wisconsin's Blake Geoffrion. He's not putting up great numbers for Wisconsin at the moment, but he will be a valuable fourth-line plugger kind of player on this team, which, again, is something Team USA has sorely lacked. It looks like the powers that be have finally decided to pick a "team" rather than slap together a collection of talent.

Along those lines, Phil Kessel is not on this team. Of course Kessel has starred for Team USA, but he was taken No. 5 overall in last year's draft, and signed with Boston, and the Bruins weren't about to let him out to go to the tournament. This is probably all well and good, since Kessel, in the eyes of many, is a major culprit for Team USA's lack of cohesion last year.

That's as much as we'll say on that topic, since there's no need to pile on a guy who — as it turns out — would not have been available anyway. Monday, it was revealed Kessel has left the Bruins for medical treatment of an undisclosed illness — reportedly testicular cancer — and his absence is indefinite.

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