Team USA Faces Tough Road at World Juniors
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
For Team USA, this year's World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia, will be about proving that last year's seventh-place finish was a fluke. It will be about proving that USA Hockey really is at the point where competing for a medal should be the expectation every year.
Going into last year, that was exactly where the Americans were. They had made it to the final four in eight of the previous nine tournaments and had won gold in 2004 and 2010. But then they went 1-3 in group play last year and were forced into the relegation round for the first time since 1999.
Due in part to that disappointing finish, Team USA's road back to the
podium is about as difficult as it could possibly be. They're in the
same group as Canada — a team that's even more loaded than usual
thanks to the NHL lockout (hello, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) — and host
Russia — a squad with high-end talent and arguably the best
goaltending in the tournament. At least on paper, the U.S. is much
better than the final two teams in their group — Slovakia and Germany
— but the Slovaks certainly have the capability to play a competitive
game, as they proved on Wednesday when they took Russia to overtime.
The Americans open with Germany on Thursday, but it's those next two games against Russia on Friday and Canada on Sunday that everyone should have circled. If they don't win one of those games, they'll likely be looking at a showdown with either Sweden (the defending gold medalists) or Finland (who just pasted the U.S. in an exhibition game) in the quarterfinals. Beat Russia or Canada, and the Americans put themselves in pretty good position to get a bit of an easier matchup in the round of six. Win both, and they get a bye to the semifinals.
But all of those scenarios are a few days away. Before the Americans worry about seedings or quarterfinal matchups, they need to worry about becoming a team and playing up to their abilities, something last year's team didn't do until the relegation round, when all of their hopes and dreams were already out of reach.
The Americans' biggest strength this year should be their defense. Led by Seth Jones (Portland, WHL) and Michigan freshman Jacob Trouba, this is a group that should be strong in its own end while also being able to contribute offensively. Jones, who missed last year's WJC with an injury, does everything well and is projected to be a top two or three pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Trouba, the ninth overall pick in the 2012 draft, is one of just three returnees from last year's squad. He emerged from that tournament as a star and was arguably Team USA's best player from start to finish. He is an extremely hard hitter who can also chip in on offense, as evidenced by his five goals and 11 points with the Wolverines.
Wisconsin sophomore Jake McCabe and 2011 first-round pick Connor Murphy (Sarnia, OHL) are both defense-first players who can also help out on offense if needed. McCabe, a second-round pick over the summer, will serve as the team's captain, joining Derek Stepan and John Ramage as the third Badger in the last four years to do so. The 6-foot-5 Murphy reportedly suffered an injury over the weekend that left his status in question, but he has since been cleared to play.
Union sophomore Shayne Gostisbehere and Minnesota freshman Mike Reilly give the U.S. a pair of offensively gifted blue- liners. Both are great skaters and great passers who can start breakouts and jump into rushes without neglecting their defensive responsibilities. Gostisbehere has 13 points this season after registering 22 last year, while Reilly has 10 in his rookie campaign. Expect both guys to see plenty of power-play time.
Boston University freshman Matt Grzelcyk, who has posted 12 points so far this season, would give Team USA a third player in that mold should they add him to the roster. He and bruiser Patrick Sieloff (Windsor, OHL) both traveled to Ufa, but as of Wednesday, the U.S. has yet to decide which one will fill the team's final roster spot.
In goal, John Gibson is expected to be the starter for Team USA. The Anaheim Ducks prospect backed up Jack Campbell last year and stopped 23 of 27 shots in his lone start, a 4-1 loss to Finland. Gibson currently ranks fourth in the Ontario Hockey League with a .929 save percentage for the Kitchener Rangers.
Should he falter, Providence freshman Jon Gillies and Garret Sparks (Guelph, OHL) will be there to step in. The 6-foot-5 Gillies had started every game for the Friars before heading to WJC camp, and he currently ranks third in Hockey East with a .928 save percentage.
The biggest question for the Americans will be whether or not they can score enough against the top teams. Last year's squad had plenty of firepower on paper, but managed to score just five goals in its three group stage losses to Finland, the Czech Republic and Canada as some of its biggest stars went silent.
The U.S. can't afford to have its offensive stars struggle again this year. The biggest star is Alex Galchenyuk, who went third overall to the Montreal Canadiens in this summer's draft. The Wisconsin native is currently second in the OHL in points (61) and tied for first in goals (27).
Others who will be relied on heavily are J.T. Miller, Vince Trocheck and Boston College sophomore Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau ranks second in the NCAA with 1.64 points per game and has to be considered the Hobey Baker favorite at this point. He can create scoring chances for himself and his teammates and is perfectly comfortable being either the setup man or the finisher.
Trocheck, who is tied for fifth in the OHL in scoring, is an impact player in all three zones who will serve as one of the team's top two centers. Miller is the only returning forward from last year and the only player on the team currently playing in the American Hockey League. The 2011 first-round pick has 14 points in 26 games with the Connecticut Whale.
To fill out the rest of the top-six scoring roles, coach Phil Housley will likely turn to a trio of collegians. Miami freshman Riley Barber has been playing on a line with Galchenyuk and Trocheck. He leads all NCAA rookies with 22 points, and his playmaking abilities could certainly fit well on a line with two high-end goal scorers.
North Dakota freshman Rocco Grimaldi has also found himself playing in the top six, as he's been skating with Gaudreau and Miller. The speedster has 16 points this season, including nine in his last seven games. Notre Dame freshman Mario Lucia could challenge for a top-six role, too. He missed the first month and a half of the season with a broken leg, but has posted five goals and 10 points in nine games since returning. Stefan Noesen was also in this group entering camp, but he was ruled ineligible due to a 10-game OHL suspension.
In the bottom six, Michigan Tech sophomore Blake Pietila and Cornell sophomore Cole Bardreau are expected to team up with Ryan Hartman (Plymouth, OHL) on the team's shutdown checking line. They played together all camp and looked very good in two exhibition games. They certainly have the ability to chip in on offense, too — Pietila has 10 goals for the Huskies and Hartman is nearly a point-per-game player in the OHL.
The remaining three forwards are all two-way players who will be expected to contribute at both ends of the ice. Miami freshman Sean Kuraly was the leading scorer at Team USA's summer camp, but he mustered just four points in a tough first semester with the RedHawks. He played a good game against Finland on Saturday, though, and his faceoff dominance (he's won 61 percent of his draws this season) should be a big plus.
Harvard freshman Jimmy Vesey, who leads the Crimson in goals (5) and points (8), was a scratch against Finland and appeared to be the odd man out up front, but he wound up making the team over the more physical Stefan Matteau, who struggled against Finland. Tyler Biggs, who posted 17 points at Miami last year before jumping to the OHL this season, is probably the most physical forward on the team, and he does a good job in the corners and along the boards.
The U.S. certainly has a solid, balanced team. If they find some chemistry, there's no reason to think they won't be able to compete with Canada, Russia, Sweden and Finland. Winning gold in 2010 proved how magical this tournament can be for the Americans when they jell and play up to their potential. Finishing seventh last year proved how disastrous it can be when they don't. We'll know in a week where this team stands.
(all games will be live on NHL Network and NHL.com)
Thursday, Dec. 27 - USA vs. Germany, 9 a.m. ET
Friday, Dec. 28 - USA vs. Russia, 9 a.m. ET
Sunday, Dec. 30 - USA vs. Canada, 4:30 a.m. ET
Monday, Dec. 31 - USA vs. Slovakia, 5 a.m. ET
Wednesday, Jan. 2 - Quarterfinals — 4/8 a.m.
Thursday Jan. 3 - Semifinals 4/8 a.m. ET
Saturday, Jan. 5 - Bronze Medal Game, 4 a.m. ET / Gold Medal Game, 8 a.m. ET