Coverage for the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship began on United States of Hockey in August. Almost a week after the U.S. National Junior Team claimed gold in Ufa, Russia, it has reached its conclusion.
The American victory in 2013 was an improbable one, due mostly to the fact that the competition was not depleted by the NHL as it so often is.
I’ve always found the excuse that a team’s lack of success due to their best players in the birth year being unavailable due to the NHL a bit nonsensical. The World Junior Championship has always featured the best players not currently in the NHL, which to me, is a level playing field.
There’s always going to be some reason players are unavailable, whether it’s due to the NHL or an injury or a suspension. That makes it a lot tougher to have a best-on-best, but it was close this year.
That makes Team USA’s win all the more meaningful in both the small and big pictures.
Coming up after the jump, a deeper look at what a win like this means for USA Hockey in the long term and a quick look ahead to 2014.
It’s very, very easy to make too much out of the World Juniors and in that case, a single game, but Team USA’s win against Canada was significant, but not necessarily the sweeping statement it was made out to be.
If the win over Canada was a one-goal squeaker that could go either way, it could easily be written off as a fluke, but a 5-1 drubbing is anything but a fluke. It was as total a team effort as you’ll see and for one game it showed that the best American players under-20 were better on that day than the best Canadian players under-20. Wins like that just don’t happen very often. As important as that win is, it is merely another data point for evaluation. What it says about the gap between the U.S. and Canada in terms of talent is still unclear, but it is yet another in a series of increasingly more that the gap is narrowing.
The gold medal, on its own, is not much more than the U.S. playing extremely well and winning a seven-game tournament.
Just to use an example as to why a single tournament doesn’t tell the whole story, last year’s seventh-place finish was met with cries to blow everything up, from how the team was picked to who was coaching to how USA Hockey develops its talent pool. A year later, the U.S. wins gold and the tune is vastly different.
One tournament doesn’t mean much, but expanding the focus and looking deeper reveals that perhaps there really is more than meets the eye to this gold-medal victory.
Prior to 2004, the United States had won a grand total of zero World Junior Championships. Since 2004, U.S. teams have won three golds and grabbed a pair of bronzes, too.
Widen the focus even more and it reveals that the United States has won the last four World Under-18 Championships and seven overall since 2002. At the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the U.S. has won it three times since 2001 and has played in the championship game at five of the last seven events.
The tide is shifting. When the U.S. puts its best teenagers on the ice, they stack up as well as or better than their Canadian and European counterparts. That wasn’t happening as recently as nine years ago.
The gold medal by itself means far less than what’s been bubbling beneath the surface over the last decade.
There are more kids playing hockey, and therefore a wider, deeper pool to choose from. USA Hockey’s grassroots programs, junior hockey entities and college programs are developing players more prolifically than ever before. That’s why these results are coming to fruition.
International success alone does not indicate where the United States stands in terms of hockey dominance. However, over that same span, more Americans are getting selected in the NHL Draft, usually accounting for 25-30 percent of the draft.
Those players are beginning to find their way to the NHL, some of which making a large impact for their teams. When the U.S. goes to pick its 2014 Olympic team, they will have a younger, more talented group to choose from than it did in 2010.
The high-end players are getting produced. Where the U.S. needs to be better is in the depth of talent. That’s still a sticking point. There’s also the key factor that the U.S. has never had a bona fide superstar player, as in a top-three or maybe even a top-five guy in the NHL. That’s another sticking point.
These are the things that still need work and why proclaiming the U.S. as a major threat to Canada’s hockey superiority is a tad premature.
That said, things are changing, and quickly. Gold medals are being won, more kids are being drafted, more are signing NHL contracts and more are having NHL success. As great as this victory was for USA Hockey and the players that worked hard for it, it is merely another step in the right direction.
I worked with a few folks at USA Hockey who saw this all before it happened. One colleague used to say “The train is coming” in regards to USA Hockey and American players in general. If nothing else, the 2013 World Junior gold medal proves that train is picking up steam.
A look ahead to 2014
Now that 2013 is all wrapped up with a nice little bow, the focus shifts to the 2014 World Junior Championship, to be held in Malmo, Sweden. Based on the results from the 2013, the U.S. will be in Group A. Its opponents will include Canada, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany, so it should be a group the U.S. has little trouble advancing through.
USA Hockey likely won’t wait terribly long to make its selection for the 2014 head coach. The big question will be whether or not they want to give Phil Housley another shot, or if he wants one. As of right now, Housley is still the coach of the Stillwater high school boys’ hockey team, but his success in Ufa could get him some attention from elsewhere. He could still be a viable option.
There’s also a good chance for USA Hockey to reward Mark Osiecki. He’s been an assistant coach at the World Juniors multiple times including for each of the last three American medal-winning entries (2010, 2013 and 2011 bronze). Osiecki is the head coach at Ohio State, he knows the player pool well and obviously has World Junior experience.
Another good option could be Danton Cole, currently running the U.S. National Under-17 Team at the NTDP. The 1994 birth years will be the 19-year-olds at this tournament. Cole led that team, which included now WJC gold-medalists Jacob Trouba, Seth Jones, Riley Barber, Ryan Hartman and Patrick Sieloff, to the gold medal at the World Under-18 Championship. So he’d know who he has to work with if he’s selected.
Then moving onto the player pool…
The U.S. has seven players eligible to return next year including Trouba, Jones, Barber, Hartman, Sieloff, Alex Galchenyuk and Jon Gillies, but three of those young men may not be available. Jones is likely to be selected within the first two picks at the NHL Draft and appears ticketed for the NHL next year. Trouba is still a freshman at Michigan, but his advancing development suggests he may be ready for the jump to the Winnipeg Jets. Then there’s Galchenyuk, who might make the Montreal roster this year for the truncated season.
Even without those three, the U.S. will have a good base to build around. Here’s a look at some of those options…
On D, the U.S. has a litany of potential candidates including the trio listed above. Additionally, Brady Skjei and Matt Grzelcyk, both late cuts for this team, look like sound options going forward. Both were close this year, so one more year of development should give them a leg up on the competion.
Among other 1994-born defensemen, Connor Carrick (Plymouth) and Dylan Blujus (Brampton) out of the OHL could be good options to bring to the summer camp and compete for spots.
There’s also some good options in the 1995 birth year including Waterloo Black Hawks defenseman Ian McCoshen, who is a likely first-round pick this June and headed to Boston College next year. There’s also Steven Santini, Will Butcher and Keaton Thompson all currently at the NTDP and headed to Boston College, Denver and North Dakota, respectively, next season. There’s also Mike Downing, currently playing in Dubuque, who could get a prolonged look for next season.
Having at least Barber and Hartman back will give the U.S. a good starting point at forward. Both could play established roles on next year’s team.
The U.S. also has some very good size and speed to choose from with this upcoming forward pool. Stefan Matteau was the last forward cut from the team this year and could play a huge role on next year’s squad with his power-forward mentality. Additionally, Nic Kerdiles, who just missed out on the camp this year could be a key contributor going forward into 2014.
Another 1994-born with size and familiarity with playing in Sweden is Henrik Samuelsson of the Edmonton Oil Kings. A dual U.S.-Swedish citizen, Samuelsson would give the U.S. a very good option at either center or right wing while bringing a good mix of grit and skill.
Boston University freshman Danny O’Regan has been coming into his own offensively this year and has a potential to be a solid top-six play-making center. He has some good skill and hockey sense to contribute.
Going down to the 1995 birth year, the U.S. can look to Adam Erne of the Quebec Remparts to be a potentially solid addition to the top six. He has natural scoring ability and has shown excellent vision as well in his draft-eligible season.
There’s also J.T. Compher, who could have gotten a longer look for this team had he not been injured much of the season. Compher is a strong two-way center who has some serious offensive pop. He plays the kind of style that brings success at the World Junior level. His U18 teammates Tyler Motte, Hudson Fasching, Tyler Kelleher and Anthony Louis should also receive strong consideration.
Going even further back, it might be a reach presently, but 1996-born Jack Eichel might have to goods to make this squad as an under-ager next year. Not even draft-eligible until 2015, he’s been lauded for his play with the U.S. National Under-17 Team and has all the makings of a very special player.
With Jon Gillies coming back next year, there’s a big question mark as to who should join him. The front-runners currently are Collin Olson of Ohio State and Anthony Stolarz who just left Nebraska-Omaha for the London Knights. That pair of 1994-borns should push Gillies, but as of right now the big netminder from Providence would be favored to start.
The U.S. is going to have some really strong options heading into next year where it will attempt to defend its World Junior title, something no American squad has done successfully yet.
There will be added expectations and therefore added pressure, so the selections will be made carefully. In case you’re wondering, the scouting for next year’s team is already underway and won’t stop until that final roster is picked.
I just wanted to quickly say thanks to everyone who dropped by the blog due to the World Juniors. Thanks to all of you, United States of Hockey shattered previous traffic records in the month of December and is already on a rapid pace in January.
This blog started in 2010, just ahead of the 2011 World Juniors. The tournament inspired me to start this site and now I’ve been able to expand its reach to other areas like college hockey, the NHL and the growth of the game over the last few years.
I am so glad to have covered the tournament in some way over the last three years and hope that you’ve enjoyed reading it. I’ve tried to cover it differently than you’ll find anywhere else and I hope you enjoyed your experience here and will come back again soon.
So again, THANK YOU!