World Junior Rewind: Team USA’s Defensemen and Goalies

Team USA’s World Junior Championship triumph had a lot to do with the seven guys on the back end and a lot more to do with the guy between the pipes. The two expected strengths for the U.S. coming into the tournament were just that. With better-than-expected offensive firepower from the guys up front, Team USA surpassed expectations and claimed the gold medal.

Logo_USA_hockeyFor the defense, it was a bit of a weird ride to start the tournament with only six of them dressed for the first game while USA staff weighed its decision for who would be the final defenseman rostered. Just before against the Russia game, Patrick Sieloff was the final add and the rest, as they say, is history.

In goal, there was never any doubt. It was always going to be John Gibson’s net. The only concern was whether or not he’d be healthy after a hip flexor strain earlier in the month. Gibson was 100 percent and dominated as a result, claiming MVP honors and the directorate award as the tournament’s best goalie.

Team USA allowed just nine goals all tournament. That’s nine goals in seven games, or an average of 1.29 per game. Stifling.

Coming up after the jump, a look at Team USA’s stingy defense and goaltender(s).

Defense

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Shayne Gostisbehere (PHI) — 6 GP, 1-1–2, 25 PIM, +4

The speedy rearguard from Union College had a great start to the tournament playing on the same pairing as Jacob Trouba. For a lot of the tournament, that was Team USA’s most dangerous pairing, though surprisingly it was Trouba bringing the offense and not the highly-skilled Gostisbehere.

Even in the losses, Gostisbehere showed that he’s not all flash and dash. He showed good defensive awareness and played solidly in his own end. There were some mistakes here and there, but mostly Gostisbehere did his job at a high level. He was a solid contributor on the power play and a weapon in transition, with a good first pass or the ability to get the puck up ice himself.

Gostisbehere did have one of the lowlights of the tournament however when he speared Slovakian forward Matus Matis in what could be described as a sensitive area. For that, he got a five-minute major, a game misconduct and an overreaching one-game suspension. He missed the quartefinal against the Czech Republic and kind of lost his job for the next game.

When Gostisbehere returned, he was slotted as a seventh defenseman, but saw good shifts with Jacob Trouba again in the gold-medal game, utilizing his speed against the shifty Swedish attack.

The good thing about Gostisbehere is that he still has quite a bit of development ahead of him and strength to build. He’s got some tremendous raw tools right now, however. His speed, vision and puck skills are all at a fairly high level. Gostisbehere should be a fun prospect to watch.

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Seth Jones (2013) — 7 GP, 1-6–7, 4 PIM, +8

After a somewhat slow start to the tournament, Jones settled down in the latter half of the World Juniors and was one of the best defensemen the rest of the way. His high-end puck-moving and defensive capabilities were on display for much of the tournament and when he got paired up with Jake McCabe, he was able to take his game to its optimum level.

Jones was under a lot of scrutiny and pressure and early in the tournament, it may have showed a bit. He got burned on the game-winning goal for Russia and was on the ice for both Canadian goals against in the preliminary-round loss. After that however, he turned it up a notch.

Utilized in all situations and logging tons of minutes, Jones really shut things down the rest of the way. He kept things simple, which is something he wasn’t doing early on. When Jones stopped trying to force passes or get overzealous on the rush, he was as good as any defender in the tournament.

He did collect six assists, which was second on the team, and finished second among all defensemen with seven points. Jones showed that he can do a lot at both ends of the ice and displayed some of his underrated puck skills, too. Jones’ lone goal was an inconsequential one, but displayed his ability to jump into the offensive foray. Here’s the video…

Once he got back to playing his game, he got back too looking like a potential No. 1 overall pick. Jones is one of the elite prospects in the game and this tournament, while sluggish to start, did nothing to put any dents in his status.

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Jake McCabe (BUF) — 7 GP, 3-3–6, 16 PIM, +9

Team USA’s captain stepped up in a big way throughout the tournament. McCabe was named to the tournament all-star team after finishing third among all defensemen with six points and a team-best plus-9 rating. His play at both ends of the ice made him one of Team USA’s best players for the entirety of the World Junior Championship.

After starting on Team USA’s third defensive pairing with Connor Murphy, McCabe was moved up to the top pair with Seth Jones after the first period of the 2-1 loss to Canada. From that point on, you could make a very sound argument that he was Team USA’s best defenseman the rest of the tournament.

His play in the defensive zone was as good as you’ll see at the World Juniors. He played physically, showed a tremendous defensive stick and seemed to always make the right read. There was a key moment in the gold-medal game where he stepped up into a Swedish 2-on-1 and completely derailed it. He made many plays like that over the course of the tournament.

In the semi-final against Canada, McCabe set the tone early with a pair of first-period goals that put Canada on its heels and it never recovered. Though McCabe had the benefit of the screen, he still had to find the seam for the puck and on two occasions he did, including this, the first goal of the game.

McCabe was also lauded for his leadership capabilities, which can be so important in a short tournament in terms of helping the team build chemistry and getting everyone on the same page.

Top to bottom, start to finish, McCabe had an incredible tournament and it seems on a week-to-week basis he is setting a new ceiling for his potential. This tournament was just the latest data point in a series of many that he’s got a chance to be a very good player at the next level.

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Connor Murphy (PHX) — 7 GP, 0-1–1, 2 PIM, +5

The big concern about Murphy coming into the tournament was his health. He appeared to have been injured in a pre-tournament game and that may have caused the hold up on the seventh defenseman decision. The good news for Murphy and Team USA was that he played the whole tournament without any issues.

He also was solid as a bottom-pairing defenseman. Murphy is one of the smarter players out there. He doesn’t have great wheels, but he knows where to be and how to get there. He also has a great defensive stick and is so good at cutting off passing lanes and being tough to play against in front of his own net.

While his minutes were lower, he was no less effective. After McCabe got moved up off of his pairing and Mike Reilly came down, it was a seamless transition for Murphy. You always know what you’re going to get out of him no matter what and despite the change in pairing, he just played his game.

Murphy’s defensive responsibility actually freed up Mike Reilly to get more involved offensively, which is where his real value was for Team USA. That pairing was effective for the rest of the tournament and the U.S. never had to worry about them when they needed some key shifts.

It’s good to see Murphy healthy after years of injury trouble. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.

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Mike Reilly (CBJ) — 7 GP, 1-2–3, 4 PIM, +4

Reilly had a bit of an up-and-down tournament, but he finished in very strong fashion and had multiple opportunities to show just how dynamic he can be at times (check the video from McCabe’s goal to see how Reilly played a crucial role in making it happen).

After getting bumped off the top pairing for McCabe, Reilly had a big weight taken off of him. His skill set just wasn’t built for top pairing minutes at that tournament. He had Jones on the other side, but they didn’t really click in the first half of the tournament, most notably in the two prelim losses before getting split up.

Once Reilly got freed up and played some more manageable minutes against lines he’d match-up against better, his game really flourished. He was good on the power play and another weapon in transition. He could be the one-man breakout if he had to and he seemed to make a lot of terrific outlet passes and even had a few nifty stretch passes that helped create goals and/or chances.

The speed Reilly has is benefited by his puck skills. All he needs is one move to open up that crease and he’s gone. That’s what made him so effective on the big ice.

He struggled in his own zone at times, finding himself out of position or getting out-muscled along the walls, but he’s good with his stick and once he and Murphy teamed up, they were a tougher pair to get behind.

Like many of Team USA’s players, Reilly overcame his slow start and turned himself into a key asset. He got better as the tournament went on and as long as he gets a little stronger and his offensive game continues to progress, he could be an exciting player to watch in the future.

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Patrick Sieloff (CGY) — 6 GP, 0-1–1, 2 PIM, E

The last player added to the team, Sieloff was on an emotional rollercoaster prior to the tournament. He told me that it was the hardest thing he’s had to deal with in his young career, but he made the most of the opportunity he was given.

Playing as the seventh defenseman up until Shayne Gostisbehere’s suspension, he played effective minutes in those brief stints on the ice and played a solid defensive game. He’s a player that likes to be physical, but he kept it contained and focused more on making the best defensive play instead of the big hit and that helped a lot.

When his minutes increased, playing with Jacob Trouba in the quarterfinal and semifinal a lot, he was rock solid. Sieloff utilizes his physical strength well and makes good decisions defensively. He’s typically well positioned and never got caught over-pursuing. He also showed solid puck-moving skills when needed.

To come into the situation that he did and perform the way he did was pretty admirable. Sieloff is eligible to return next year and could play a substantial shutdown role in 2014.

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Jacob Trouba (WPG) — 7 GP, 4-5–9, 10 PIM, +2

The directorate award winner as the tournament’s best defenseman, Trouba had one of the great performances by an American in the WJC in a long time. His nine points tied for the team lead and led all defenseman and even when things went south in the two losses, he was Team USA’s best player.

Trouba was expected to contribute offensively, but not to this degree. His puck-moving, his shot and his skating all indicated that he has offensive potential, but for a while there it looked like he might have been Team USA’s best scoring threat. He was the only guy to score in each of the two losses including this one against Canada that gave the U.S. life when they looked dead.

It seemed like whenever Trouba was on the ice it was a man against boys, which is kind of how it’s always been for the big defenseman. He used his physicality when necessary and never got too hyped up in going for the big hit. He did that without losing that edge that makes him so tough to play against.

Trouba played a very controlled style defensively, with no panic in his game. He helped shut down top lines whether he was with Shayne Gostisbehere or Patrick Sieloff. He won battles along the boards and if he ever made a mistake, he was able to recover with his feet and make a play.

The crazy part about all this is that Trouba is only 18 and therefore eligible to return next year. The only question now is… Will he be available?

Goaltenders

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John Gibson (ANA) — 7 GP, 5-0-0-2, 193 SVS, 1.36 GAA, .955 SV%, 1 SO

The tournament MVP and directorate award winner had the greatest performance by an American goalie at the World Junior Championship in history. His .955 save percentage is a record for a U.S. goalie and his 1.36 goals-against average is close. From start-to-finish, he was Team USA’s best player and perhaps the single biggest reason the team won gold.

You can pinpoint several key saves throughout the tournament that made a huge difference, but the entire body of work is immaculate. Even in those 2-1 losses in the prelims, Gibson was far from blame. He gave his team a chance in both of those and didn’t get the scoring support.

Among those big saves was this, his biggest of the tournament via @cjzero.

He also had this nifty glove save in his 31-save shutout against the Czech Republic, also via @cjzero.

Gibson is one of the more mentally tough guys out there. He has confidence in his ability and a calmness to him that almost makes it seem like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Maybe he doesn’t.

That confidence is contagious and it gave the U.S. defensemen a lot of faith to take some chances up ice. Not only that, but when a team knows they have a goaltender, the whole approach to the game is different. The U.S. had a very high-energy, run-and-gun type offense that can be prone to turnovers and odd-man breaks. It happened on several occasions and every time, Gibson was there.

His performance in the tournament will go down as one of the greats not just by an American, but by any goalie from any country in any World Junior Championship. Without him, Team USA doesn’t win gold.

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Jon Gillies (CGY) — 0-0-0-0, 7 SVS, 0.00 GAA, 1.000 SV%, 0 SO

Though he only got 20 minutes of work, Jon Gillies got some valuable experience playing behind John Gibson. Eligible to return next year, the big goaltender had a front-row seat to a gold-medal victory for the U.S.

Even if he didn’t get a lot of reps between the pipes, he’ll be able to go into next year’s World Juniors with eyes open. Unfortunately for Gillies, though, is he’ll go into that tournament with a John Gibson-sized shadow casting over him. He has a whole year to prepare and a good model to follow.

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Garret Sparks (TOR) — DNP

As the third goalie on the roster, Sparks never dressed for a game at the WJC. As tough as that probably is for any competitor, it says something about how they handle it. Sparks was well-liked by teammates and having a good attitude in a bad situation is a good contribution for the team.

Now Sparks can return to Guelph and get back to being one of the top goalies in the OHL this year.

Coming soon…. The final wrap up of the World Juniors and what Team USA’s victory means for the big picture of American hockey.

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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