In international hockey, a team will often only be as good as its goaltender and defensive group. Pretty much every team will have it’s fair share of high-end skill players, putting pressure on the defense. With the speed and skill of teams like Sweden, Russia, Canada and Finland, the defense has to be solid and limit mistakes, while the goaltender always has to be ready to make some big saves.
The U.S. has been developing top defensemen at an alarming rate. A look at last year’s crop from the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team and you can count two first-rounders and three defensemen selected in the second round. That’s off just one team. Other notable D-men to have passed through the tournament are Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson and Ryan Suter. This year’s group may not have the same pedigree as years previous, but is still a solid group with plenty of talent and international experience.
Once the Achilles heel for USA Hockey, goaltending has become a strength for U.S. National Teams. From the Olympic level, right on down to the U17s, the United States has a bevy of talented ‘tenders. Last season, Jack Campbell earned the directorate award as the best goaltender in the World Under-18 Championship and was between the pipes in each of Team USA’s last two U18 gold-medal games.
While Campbell has aged out, the U.S. has not one, but two elite netminders to rely on in this tournament.
Coming up after the jump an in-depth look at Team USA’s two goaltenders and seven defensemen.
Name – Hometown – College Commitment – CSS NA Mid-term Goalie Rank
Stat Line: GP – MIN – W-L-OTL – GAA – SV% – SO
John Gibson – Pittsburgh, Pa. – University of Michigan – CSS: 1
Stat Line: 32 GP – 1794:00 – 17-10-3 – 2.64 – .918 – 1
Gibson has the look of a pro goaltender already, standing in at 6-3, 200. He takes up a lot of net whether on his feet or on his knees. He’s athletic and technically sound all at the same time. Perhaps Gibson’s best attribute is his calm under pressure. He’s played in big games before, particularly at the World U17 Challenge when he held a shutout until the waning seconds of the game as Team USA beat Ontario for the title, 2-1. He’s also got a short memory. When he gives up a goal, it’s pretty quickly out of his mind. I truly wonder if it’s possible to rattle this goalie. There’s no doubt he’ll be a big factor in any success Team USA has.
Matt McNeely – Burnsville, Minn. – University of Minnesota Duluth – CSS: 5
Stat Line: 25 GP – 1350:00 – 9-12-1 – 3.82 – .893 – 0
McNeely may end up taking a bit of a back seat to Gibson at this tournament, but the U.S. can be very comfortable with their second option. Unbeaten in four international contests this season, McNeely can feel pretty confident against his own age group. Like Gibson, he’s extremely athletic and is capable of making that game-saving stop. He’s also got great size at 6-2, 204. When McNeely is confident, he’s as good as there is. Gibson’s got the pedigree, but at least the U.S. can depend on McNeely if needed. This goaltending tandem ranks up there with some of the best that have played at this tournament.
Players listed alphabetically
Player – Hometown – College Commitment – CSS NA Mid-term Skater Rank
Stat Line: GP — G-A-PTS — PIM
Seth Jones – Plano, Texas – Uncommitted – Draft Eligible in 2013
Stat Line: U17 – 37 GP – 4-17-21 — 24 PIM / U18 12 GP — 0-5-5 — 4 PIM
One of two under-agers on the blue line, Seth Jones is Team USA’s youngest player by a lot. He’s not even draft eligible until 2013, but there’s a really good chance he’ll be among the top three picks that year. At 6-3, 183, he’s tall and lanky, but skates wonderfully. His puck handling and passing are already at a high level and his hockey IQ is beyond his years. You have to see Jones live to believe him. His father is former NBA player Popeye Jones, so athleticism runs in the family and Seth is truly an athlete. He saw quality minutes when I saw the U18s in Dubuque and I expect him to see a lot of ice in Germany. With great offensive instincts and sound decision making ability, especially for someone his age, he’s going to be a big contributor to Team USA.
Barrett Kaib – Upper St. Clair, Pa. – Providence College -CSS Rank: 175
Stat Line: 44 GP — 0-7-7 — 40 PIM
While Kaib may lack size at 5-9, 182, he plays a really hard-nosed game. You don’t often think of defensemen under six feet bringing much physicality to the table, but Kaib does. As his numbers indicate, you shouldn’t expect a huge offensive output from Kaib, but he can hold his own getting pucks up to the forwards and getting pucks to the net. He’ll probably be one of Team USA’s grittier defensemen, so when the team needs some toughness (within the realm of reason, considering this is international hockey), Kaib can deliver it.
Jake McCabe – Eau Claire, Wis. – University of Wisconsin – Draft Eligible in 2012
Stat Line: 38 GP — 4-11-15 — 14 PIM
Coming into this season, McCabe was known more for his defensive prowess, but in an injury-shortened season, the Wisconsin native has shown some offense. At 6-0, 195, McCabe plays a solid, steady game. He’s not often going to make those costly errors that can bite a team in these short tournaments. He’s a strong kid too, so he should give opposing forwards fits when they’re battling him in the corners. He may not be draft eligible this year, but he can get a good head start for next with a solid showing. With his new-found offensive game and steady defensive play, he might not be a difference maker on D, but he’ll be a key cog for Ron Rolston’s squad.
Connor Murphy – Dublin, Ohio – Miami University – CSS: Limited Viewing
Stat Line: 14 GP — 3-3-6 — 6 PIM
Having Murphy available for this tournament is a bit of a blessing for Team USA. For the last few years, Murphy has battled injury and lost a ton of time. The amazing thing is despite all of that lost time, the kid’s skills have continually developed and he hasn’t appeared to be slowed down a bit. It helps that he has NHL bloodlines, with his father Gord being a long-time NHLer. Murphy also benefits from his great size at 6-3, 192. He’s not overly physical, but he uses his body well defensively and has a great defensive stick. Murphy is smart on the ice and just seems to know the game. Additionally, the big defenseman served as team captain as the U.S. Under-18 Selects went all the way to the championship game at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament in August. While he’s missed time, expect Ron Rolston to rely on Murphy heavily in all situations and watch his draft stock soar.
Michael Paliotta – Westport, Conn. – University of Vermont – CSS: 32
Stat Line: 52 GP — 1-12-13 — 71 PIM
I’ve thought Paliotta is probably Team USA’s most improved defenseman from his U17 season. He’s added an element of grit and toughness to his game, which is great to see, considering he’s 6-3, 196. He’s also been awfully durable for the U.S. squad despite playing big minutes against a variety of stiff competition. Having big guys like Paliotta, Murphy and Jones gives the U.S. a bit of an imposing defensive group. Central Scouting has been high on Paliotta all year, and for good reason. He’s got a lot of potential and will only continue to get better. He’ll be a guy that can play in a variety of situations comfortably, and that will be a big help to this U.S. squad.
Robbie Russo – Westmont, Ill. – University of Notre Dame – CSS Rank: 72
Stat Line: 52 GP — 3-19-22 — 23 PIM
Russo’s offensive numbers might be a little down this year, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a big factor offensively for the U.S. A smooth skater, with excellent vision and keen ability to distribute the puck, Russo once drew comparisons to former NTDP standout Cam Fowler. While his draft stock has tumbled a bit this year, he’s continued to be solid and play major minutes for Team USA. An alternate captain, he’s also a leader for this club. His versatility on the back end make Russo a key to this defensive group and he should be one of the standouts for this U.S. squad. I’d expect to see an up-tick in Russo’s draft standing as well.
Jacob Trouba – Rochester, Mich. – Uncommitted – Draft Eligible in 2012
Stat Line: U17 – 37 GP, 6-13-19 — 35 PIM / U18 – 13 GP — 1-5-6 — 18 PIM
The other under-ager on the blue line for Team USA, Trouba looks to be one of the bright spots for the U.S. come the 2012 Entry Draft. Based on his strength and offensive prowess, Trouba could easily be a top-10 or even top-five pick in June 2012. At 6-1, 183, he brings a physical presence to the U.S. blue line. He hits hard and often. Meanwhile, he possesses a bomb of a shot and as long as he gets it on net, it’s going to give goalies trouble. He’s been prone to getting caught up in the play and having to chase back, but he’s a gifted skater and recovers well in transition. He’ll have to stay smart and limit mistakes on the big ice sheets, but he has a chance to be a special player. I’d expect him to get eased into the tournament experience a little more, but once he’s locked in… look out.
Team USA’s defensemen and goaltenders are solid. Both positions should be a strength for the U.S. heading into tournament play. They’ll have to be if the U.S. wants to collect its unprecedented third consecutive gold medal.
For additional U18WC coverage, make sure to check out Kirk Luedeke’s take on Team USA’s 2011 Draft-eligible players over at the fantastic Bruins 2011 Draft Watch.
Stay close to the United States of Hockey as we’ll be providing full coverage of the 2011 IIHF World Under-18 Championship from start to finish. I should have some more details coming Friday.
Also, I’ll be doing a Blog Talk Radio spot about the World U18 Championship and NCAA Frozen Four, with friend of the blog Matt Gajtka (Give him a follow on Twitter.) Friday at 11 a.m. EST. So make sure to check that out live or catch it on demand later.