Team USA WJC Preview: Five Biggest Questions for U.S. to Answer

When the U.S. takes the ice against Germany Thursday, it will officially begin its quest for World Junior gold. However, this year, more than perhaps any in the last five or six years, there’s a lot of mixed opinions on whether or not this version of the U.S. National Junior Team has what it takes to compete for the top prize.

Logo_USA_hockeySome of that is due to the incredibly strong field, strengthened even more by the NHL lockout. A lot of it, however, is due to last year’s disappointing finish and the reminder that it doesn’t take much for things to go wrong. Though perhaps unfair to compare this year to last year, it’s all too recent to completely forget.

While the expectations may be lower on the outside, inside the locker room, USA Hockey feels it has a gold-medal contending team.

However, if the U.S. is to win a gold medal, it has very important questions to answer throughout the tournament. Questions that don’t seem to have clear answers before the puck drops.

Coming up after the jump, the five biggest questions for Team USA coming into the tournament.

How is this team different than 2012?

It’s going to happen. No matter that only three of the 23 U.S. players were on the team last year at the World Junior Championship, the seventh place finish will loom largely over the heads of this U.S. National Junior Team.

Last year’s borderline embarrassing result for USA Hockey is still too fresh in the collective minds of the hockey world. If last year proved anything, it was how easily things can go badly, and just how quickly they can spiral out of control.

So what is going to make this team different? How will they not only prevent a disastrous result like 2012’s, but compete for a medal?

Lower expectations and coming in as more of an unheralded team with an outside shot at gold is probably a good thing. That underdog mentality is one the U.S. tends to relish in.

Another key difference is the defense. Team USA is deeper on the back end this year than last. Both Connor Murphy and Seth Jones were not healthy enough for last year’s tournament, but will be there this time around. Jacob Trouba was one of the more consistent Dmen on last year’s team and he’s back. Then there’s the speed down the left side with Shayne Gostisbehere and Mike Reilly. Lastly, team captain Jake McCabe will offer a steady presence on the back end and presumably some solid leadership.

Even though this team is different, there’s still that concern that if going to the relegation round could happen to a team as talented as 2012’s seemed to be, what’s to prevent this team from suffering the same fate?

Though there isn’t much similar between this year’s U.S. National Junior Team and the last, 2012 will be in the back of everyone’s mind unless the U.S. can do some damage quickly.

Team USA has to assert itself early to prove it is one of the tournament’s elites. Last year’s club never got around to doing that, losing three of the four prelim-round games. Setting an early tone and staying consistent in the face of a tough schedule will be key.

Remembering the mistakes of the past without dwelling on them should help carry the U.S. into the medal round this year.

What kind of coach is Phil Housley?

Though one of the all-time greats among American players to lace ‘em up in the NHL, there’s not a lot of track record to go off of when it comes to Phil Housley behind the bench. Though Housley is a head coach at the Minnesota high school level and has been an assistant for U.S. National Teams, including the 2011 U.S. National Junior Team, that doesn’t tell us too much about what he can do in this particular role.

The one thing you can give USA Hockey credit for in tabbing Housley for this job is that it’s outside the box. For years, the U.S. had gone back to the NCAA well with mixed results. Having a coach who has a little more time to focus on this tournament, who can go into the World Juniors with a mostly clean slate for all of the players and who has been in their position before could be a recipe for success.

Housley’s long playing career and having played for guys like Scotty Bowman and Herb Brooks at various times certainly gives him some good examples of successful coaching. That can also give him a bit of credibility with the young players.

Housley’s style isn’t necessarily a secret now, based on the two pre-tournament games. The U.S. wants to play an up-tempo style, burn teams in transition and have good speed throughout the lineup.

What is less clear is what kind of decisions Housley will be able to make in games, in terms of strategies and making adjustments. Also, without being in the locker room, we don’t know his motivational styles and how he gets his teams prepared or how he is able to get the most out of his group.

All of that will become a bit more clear as the tournament rolls on, but it’s a major question mark heading in.

The U.S. also has a veteran WJC assistant in Mark Osiecki, who was on the bench in 2010 for the gold-medal team. So that’s a good guy to have on staff to give Housley a voice he can trust without question.

USA Hockey going outside the norm is a risk, but a calculated one. Housley has played in these types of tournaments, he has coached internationally. Now it’s time to see if he is ready for this jump to leading a team into the World Junior Championship.

Where will the scoring come from?

The top two lines have scoring punch, but this is a question that has to be asked annually. Last year, the U.S. had a multitude of offensive talent but only managed seven total goals in the four games that weren’t against Latvia or Denmark.

The U.S. will expect scoring out of guys like Alex Galchenyuk, J.T. Miller, Rocco Grimaldi, Mario Lucia and John Gaudreau, but it will need more.

If the U.S. sticks with Sean Kuraly, Tyler Biggs and one of Jim Vesey or Lucia, there has to be some sort of scoring punch out of that unit. Without it, the U.S. could be in some trouble.

There’s also the grind line of Cole Bardreau, Blake Pietila and Ryan Hartman. While that line has to focus on D primarily, getting a few goals here and there from that unit will make a big difference, especially in those tougher games against Canada and Russia.

The teams that have scoring from those bottom six, especially at 5-on-5, will have success in the tournament. Especially so if the top lines are successfully slowed down by the checking lines assigned to them.

The U.S. will also have to capitalize on power plays. Special teams is so important in tournaments like this one. Taking advantage of those opportunities will be a big part of Team USA’s drive to the medal round.

Can John Gibson put this team on his back?

John Gibson. (Photo: Dave Arnold)

John Gibson. (Photo: Dave Arnold)

Another question might be, “Will he have to?” Assuming that he does, however, Team USA’s goalie is likely the biggest key to success. It’s a role Gibson should be fairly comfortable with. If the scoring goes south and the U.S. is in need of keeping games close, it’s going to fall a lot on Gibson.

The defense also has quite a few guys that like to get up ice, so it may come down to Gibson bailing them out from time to time.

Any U.S. team that has had success internationally, it has been the goaltender stepping up and making those game-saving stops from time to time and standing on his head in others. We’ve seen what can happen when the goaltending isn’t up to snuff in too many recent tournaments.

Gibson will have to be up to the challenge as the last line of defense if the U.S. hopes to compete for a medal, let alone for gold.

Does this team have what it takes to win gold?

This is the most obvious and probably most important question that could at least be partially answered over the course of the preliminary round. It will be tough to tell against Germany on Thursday if the U.S. has a gold-medal contending team, but when it meets Russia and Canada, it should become evident pretty quickly.

This team has a terrific defense, a potentially all-world goalie when he’s on his A-game and some good skill up front. Does it have the depth of a Russia or Canada or even Finland? Is there enough scoring? Is there enough skill? Is there enough grit?

These are the important questions that can only be answered on the ice. This U.S. team appears to be among the elites in the tournament, on paper, but there’s still that sense of doubt.

While the doubt remains, there is certainly enough information one could gather to make a case for this team to be a gold-medal contender. From the good team speed, to the depth on defense to the underdog mentality, the stage is set for the U.S. to make a statement.

We start getting answers Thursday morning.

Coming soon on USofH, a full preview of Team USA’s tournament-opening game against Team Germany. Thursday’s game will air live on NHL Network and stream live on NHL.com in the United States starting at 9 a.m. ET.

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.
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