U18WC: Evaluating Team USA’s Defensemen and Goalies

The U.S. got inspired play out of it’s defensemen and goaltenders throughout the 2011 IIHF World Men’s Under-18 Championship. The defensive group was a big strength for Team USA, contributing offensively, but playing strong in their own end. Obviously the goaltending was a big strength with John Gibson carrying the load. Without him, it could have been different.

Let’s take a look at each goaltender and defenseman for the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team, 2011 IIHF World Under-18 Champion:

GOALTENDERS

John Gibson — 6 GP, 6-0-0, 2.34 GAA, .926 SV%

John Gibson (USAHockey.com)

Gibson was named the tournament’s best goaltender and one of Team USA’s three best players of the tournament. Must have been a pretty easy choice. Gibson was a big factor in Team USA’s success throughout the tournament. The U.S. won four one-goal games over the course of the tournament and Gibson came up big in all four of those games.

Gibson gave the U.S. confidence. His size and ability, as well as his cool-as-a-cucumber personality, allowed the U.S. to play the game with a certain calm. Defensemen could take a few chances offensively, knowing that they have a pretty solid safety net in Gibson if something went awry.

The big goaltender didn’t have to make those spectacular game-saving stops too much, because he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. His rebound control was unlike any other goaltender in the tournament. Very few times did the puck jump off his pads to the slot. It’d either end up in his glove or in either corner.

When a team has a goaltender like John Gibson, they’re usually going to have a good chance to win. Team USA felt that in every game, it had the best goalie on the ice. That’s a pretty nice feeling to have.

Matt McNeely — 1 GP, 0-0-0-0, 5.17 GAA, .800 SV%

McNeely only ended up playing just over 11 minutes in the entire tournament. It’s not a knock on him, so much as it is a credit to Gibson that he was going to be the No. 1. McNeely’s numbers are a result of an unfortunate bounce on a fluky goal against Slovakia. So it’s unfortunate that his record will look that way.

However, what isn’t unfortunate is the way McNeely carried himself throughout the tournament. Of course he wanted to play, but he knew his role on the team. Had Gibson ever gone down, he would have been ready. Still, the future UMD Bulldog was nothing but a good teammate who never wore his emotions. It’s important to have a guy that if he’s not playing, he’s not being a problem. McNeely, like Andy Iles last year, was resigned to taking the back seat and just let it ride out. Sometimes, that’s a harder thing to do than playing in the games.

He’s no slouch between the pipes and should end up getting drafted in June. His body of work is good enough that some NHL team is going to give him a look.

DEFENSEMEN

Seth Jones — 6 GP, 0-3–3, 0 PIM, +3

Seth Jones (USAHockey.com)

The youngest player on the team looked anything but. The big defenseman has garnered a lot of hype in his last few years playing hockey and all he has done is lived up to it, perhaps even surpassing it at times. Coming in as an under-age defenseman is no easy feat. There are older guys who have more international experience that are going to get the majority of the ice time.

At least, that’s how the tournament started. Jones played regularly, but wasn’t getting the Top 4 minutes in the first few games. Then, he had his breakout against Russia, playing solid D, making smart plays and just being a solid, steady guy on the back end. Throughout the tournament, Jones started seeing the ice more and more and was looking more like a No. 2 guy… as a young 16-year-old.

He plays a mature game already, and while he lacks strength, he’s just continually wowing you with the way he skates and sees the ice. Since the first time I saw him play, he looked like a first-overall type player. All he did in Germany was solidify that thought for me. Come 2013, if he continues on this current trend and builds a little more strength, he’ll be the first player called at the Draft.

Barrett Kaib — 6 GP, 0-2–2, 0 PIM, +7

Kaib may have been the surprise of the tournament for me. The way he played was incredibly impressive. What made it so surprising is that he was definitely one of the players on the bubble to even make the team. He had to beat out a few fellow U18 teammates for that spot on the squad.

He certainly made it count. He was one of Team USA’s best penalty-killing defenseman and made life difficult for opposing forwards in the USA zone. Despite coming in at 5-foot-9, Kaib is strong and mean. He plays physically, but I saw him harness his aggression a little bit and just make the right plays. He didn’t take a single penalty.

Getting a big tournament out of Kaib meant that Ron Rolston could keep his bench long. He didn’t have to throw out the same defensemen every other shift. That’s a huge boost to a team in these short tournaments with six games in 10 days. Providence College may have gotten a bit of a steal in landing Kaib.

Jake McCabe — 6 GP, 0-1–1, 0 PIM, +1

McCabe isn’t draft eligible until 2012, but I’m sure his stock is going to be high coming out of this tournament. He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s strong and steady. He provided good defense for Team USA throughout.

Additionally, McCabe has shown improved offensive instincts. He’s getting the puck up ice easily with a good first past. He jumped into a few plays and created some chances in different parts of the tournament.

McCabe accelerated his schooling so he could attend the University of Wisconsin next year, and I don’t doubt he’ll make an impact as a freshman. Like Kaib, he gave Team USA a chance to keep the bench long. He was on the ice in many different situations and provided a versatile option for Ron Rolston off the bench.

Connor Murphy — 6 GP, 3-1–4, 2 PIM, +7

When Central Scouting ranked Murphy at No. 25 on its final ranking, I think a few people were scratching their heads. That’s only because Murphy has barely played over the last two and a half seasons due to a range of injuries.

However, despite all that missed time, Murphy looked like a first-round prospect. Considering that just prior to the tournament, he only played in a dozen or so games, his performance was astounding. How could a player miss all those games and show no signs of rust?

I think the big thing with Murphy is he knows the game as well as any kid I’ve seen at his age. His hockey IQ is incredible. He makes the smart decisions and the right passes. Additionally, his defensive stick was incredible all tournament long. He was breaking up passes, tipping shots out of play, taking away lanes. It was just a lot of fun to watch.

He’s big, but needs to build strength, which he should have plenty of time for at Miami University. His injury troubles kept him out of the weight room. The scary thing is, if Murphy is this good with all that time off and lack of lifting… imagine what he’ll be like when he’s got a full season under his belt. Woah.

You can’t talk about Murphy without mentioning the fact that he scored two goals in the gold-medal game. He’s not much of an offensive defenseman, but due to that high IQ, he knew when to jump into the play. Both of his goals were top-corner wrist shots that were just under the bar. So the kid can shoot, too. It might be worth it for a team to take a shot at him late in the first or very, very early in the second.

Mike Paliotta — 6 GP, 0-1–1, 2 PIM, -1

You might look at Paliotta’s stat line and say he had a disappointing tournament and you’d probably be wrong. Paliotta was another guy that provided depth and solid play throughout. He’d find himself going up against just about anybody the other team could throw at him.

The one thing I’d like to see out of Paliotta is poise with the puck and making confident decisions. I think he’s supremely confident in those games against some opponents Team USA should have confidence against, but in those tighter games he could do more.

The thing about Paliotta is his size and ability is right where it needs to be and it’s getting better. He played more physically than I remember seeing out of him before and he was making himself pretty tough to play against. His long reach and good strength are going to serve him well over the years. He’s a guy that I think has a long way to go before he reaches his ceiling, but there’s no doubt he will in the not so distant future.

Robbie Russo — 6 GP, 1-7–8, 4 PIM, +5

Robbie Russo (USAHockey.com)

Russo was named one of Team USA’s three best players and he probably would have been an honorable mention for the directorate award for the tournament’s best defenseman (it went to Canada’s Ryan Murphy, deservedly). Russo took control of games. His calm presence on the blue line just seemed to make the game slow down for him. 

His decision making was spot on, his skating was as good as ever and his poise was off the charts. He was among the tournament’s leading defensemen with eight points. Russo spent a lot of time quarterbacking Team USA’s solid power play and was looked to as a leader on the team. The amount of praise I could heap on Russo would probably fill up about two blog posts.

Russo’s draft stock has been up and down all year, but after the way he played in Germany, I can’t see how he falls past the second round. He may not be Cam Fowler, but he’s a Cam Fowler-type. Having seen Fowler at the U18s in Fargo, Russo’s performance reminded me a lot of the former’s. That’s about as high a praise as I can give. The kid can absolutely play.

Jacob Trouba – 6 GP, 1-0–1, 0 PIM, +2

Trouba was Team USA’s other under-age defenseman and I thought he acquitted himself well. If you’ve read this blog, you know I’m a big believer in Trouba and really enjoy watching him play.

He scored a big goal for Team USA with a trademark, rocket one-timer with just eight seconds to go in the first period against Sweden in the gold-medal game. The kid can really shoot. The thing I really liked about the shot against Sweden was that he made sure that thing hit the net. Trouba likes to let if fly, but sometimes he gets a little wild with his shot. He looked in control of that one and it was the highlight of the tournament for Trouba.

I think his athletic gifts are elite. The one thing I’d like to see out of Trouba going forward is making better decisions and trying to improve the way he thinks the game. There were a few instances where Trouba would jump into a play unnecessarily or step up on an oncoming forward just a little too early. The mistakes he made were what we’d probably call “rookie mistakes”. Best thing about those is that they’re easier to learn from. I’m sure he will.

His size, strength and offensive abilities are all there. If he can get his brain to catch up with his body, he will be an absolute star. It’s just one of those things that I think comes with age and experience. The more he learns, the better he’ll get. Once it happens, he’s going to be a scary good player.

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The U.S. can be pleased with the way it’s goaltenders and defensemen played. There’s a lot of talent in this group, most of which still has plenty of development ahead of them. That’s probably what I like most about this group as a whole. There’s still so much more to find out about these players. Seems like the sky’s the limit for them.

For some more concise thoughts on some of Team USA’s players, I did a Q&A with Kirk Luedeke of Bruins 2011 Draft Watch Blog.

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Continuing this marathon post, here’s a look at some of the other top talents at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship:

Ryan Murphy – Canada – Well, the Kitchener Ranger lived up to the hype. He’s an elite offensive defenseman who can take over games. Canada’s forward corps was only OK, but having Murphy to contribute offensively gave that team an added boost. He led the team and set a Canadian U18 record with 14 points. Despite his elite offensive skills, he didn’t really do anything for me defensively. He’s best when he has the puck.

Nikita Kucherov - Russia –  I’d encourage you to head over to the NHL Draft Video blog to watch some of the highlights of Kucherov (and many other U18 goals as well). This kid can score. Kucherov was an absolute threat offensively throughout the entire tournament. He led the tournament with 21 points… that’s 21 points in seven games. 11 goals, 10 assists, dozens of highlights. He’s all offense, but when you score that much, who cares? Signability might hold him back in the draft, but whoever gets him will have a potential scoring sensation.

Mikhail Grigorenko – Russia – For my money, Grigorenko was one of the best forwards going the whole tournament and he’s only a 1994-born. Goodness. He posted 14 assists, mostly on Kucherov goals, and with his size and skill level he just scares me… in the best possible way. I can only imagine what kind of talent this kid is going to develop into.

Nail Yakupov – Russia – Weird. Another Russian. Yakupov’s talent is evident. The Sarnia star can score with the best of them, skates like the wind and plays pretty hard. I was unimpressed with him prior to the USA game, but he kept looking better. He probably had his worst night in the semifinal though and that cost Russia as it lost to Sweden. Still, he’s an elite offensive talent. I just wonder if there’s more to him than meets the eye.

Mika Zibanejad – Sweden – I only got to see Zibanejad play twice, but he’s certainly a noticeable player. He’s got good size and skates really well. I like his skill set. However, I couldn’t help but think that there was something missing. I have yet to figure out what that is. There’s just something about him that I don’t really get. He was held in check in the USA game and didn’t really jump out at me as much as he did against Russia. I have a feeling he’s going to be a bit of a risky pick if he goes early. Still can’t figure out why though. Gut feeling, I guess.

Victor Rask – Sweden – The big centerman has so much skill and great size. The one problem? He can’t finish. He lacks that killer instinct. He had a chance to bury Russia early with a back-breaking goal, wide open in the high slot, easy shot. He put it right in the goalies pads. I don’t get it. I understand why his stock has dropped, but I wonder if that’s something he can develop. Clearly, he’s got elite tools.

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Don’t forget, coming up tomorrow I’ll have Team USA’s forwards.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in American Prospects, Junior Hockey, NCAA, NHL Draft, NTDP, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey, World U18 Championship. Bookmark the permalink.

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