2019 World Juniors: Team USA silver medal postmortem; Player-by-player analysis

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It’s a little later than I would have liked to get this story up, but a late-tournament illness knocked me out of commission and the recovery took a little longer than I expected. Finally back on my feet, with a little distance from the tournament and a couple re-watches of some of the games and now we can finally wrap a bow on this tournament.

WJC2019LogoThe silver medal always feels a little empty with it coming in defeat. You could tell by the looks on the U.S. players’ faces just how empty a feeling it was for them, falling just short of the gold medal thanks to a late goal from Finland after a valiant American comeback. However, the U.S. closed out the 2010s on an unprecedented four-year medal streak earning a gold, two bronzes and this year’s silver. Additionally, the Americans medaled in seven of the last 10 years, earning three golds, a silver and three bronze medals. It is a significant development in USA Hockey’s World Junior history, one that shouldn’t be overshadowed by the loss.

The tide has turned in the way the U.S. approaches this tournament and has dramatically turned in the expectations teams can enter it with. The U.S. has won 12 medals total at this event. Considering seven have come in the last 10 years, the shift is dramatic. It’s a credit to the improving and deepening player pool, to the standard set forth by the late Jim Johannson and the expectations the players have for themselves now.

While gold should basically be the expectation in any tournament the U.S. enters, I thought the 2019 version of Team USA overachieved thanks to strong goaltending, timely scoring and a really solid piece of coaching. This roster did not have the speed or the skill of some of the more recent U.S. entries at the World Juniors, but they managed to reach the final by dispatching a very, very talented Russian squad and fell just short against a Finnish team that found its game at the right time. The Americans were not the best or most talented team in the tournament, nor were the Finns, but that just goes to show you that nothing is a given in this tournament anymore. Everyone else is just good enough now to force each team to bring its best or suffer the fate of an early exit.

So with all of that as the setup, here’s a look at the 2019 U.S. National Junior Team with positional and player-by-player analysis. Continue reading

Posted in NCAA, NHL, NHL Draft, NTDP, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey, WJC, World Junior Championship | 1 Comment

2019 World Junior Championship: Assessing Team USA ahead of the quarterfinal

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VANCOUVER — The U.S. finished preliminary play with a 3-0-1-0 record, beating Slovakia, Kazakhstan and Finland, while dropping a thriller against Sweden.

WJC2019LogoThrough four games, it’s still hard to get a read on this U.S. team. They have only just begun starting to establish an identity. They look a lot like recent U.S. teams, but I’m not sure we’ve seen them play like any of the teams that contributed to USA’s unprecedented streak of medals in three consecutive years.

Part of the problem is that the team’s most skilled forward has played just one game as Jack Hughes has missed three consecutive games with an undisclosed injury. Not having a difference-maker like him in the lineup changes the complexion of the team and the potency of the offense. Additionally, the U.S. has been dealing with illness over the last few games. Whatever the ailment may be, it also felled Sweden who happens to be staying in the same hotel as the Americans in Victoria. USA defenseman K’Andre Miller missed the game against Finland and I’m told Oliver Wahlstrom was limited against Finland as he also was sick. He only took one shift in the third period before not returning.

So knowing all of that, it’s hard to say that we know what this U.S. team is or isn’t. We may have seen some glimpses of how they can play, however, in their 4-1 win over Finland to close out preliminary round play. It was not a dominant showing, but it was effective, efficient and the team did all of the things it needed to do to get the right result. Whether a similar effort will be enough against some of the tournament heavies remains to be seen, but the U.S. has done little to dissuade anyone from believing them to be a legitimate contender where not one team here has stepped out to stake a claim as the undisputed best team. Sweden is probably the only one that has come close to this point, even though Russia is the team with 12 of a possible 12 points coming out of preliminary play.

Now Team USA will take on the Czech Republic in a crossover quarterfinal. The Americans earned the right to stay in Victoria, getting a day of rest without traveling across to the B.C. mainland via ferry and bus. They’ll play at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET on NHL Network, squaring off against a team that has struggled to find its way. It will be a rematch of last year’s bronze medal game where the U.S. absolutely rolled, but it’s a new year with new teams and anything can happen at the World Juniors.

Before we get there, however, I wanted to assess where Team USA is at through four games at the World Juniors, specifically how the players have fared and how their roles have changed over time. So here’s a quick player-by-player breakdown, stats and a brief preview of Wednesday’s quarterfinal matchup. Continue reading

Posted in NCAA, NHL, NHL Draft, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey, WJC, World Junior Championship

2019 World Juniors: Recap and analysis of USA’s insane comeback, OT loss to Sweden

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It’s always a better end to the story when the team that makes the miraculous comeback also wins the game. That wasn’t meant to be for the U.S. that recovered from an astonishingly poor performance through the first 50 minutes to earn a point in a 5-4 overtime loss to Sweden. The Swedes now have won 47 straight preliminary round games with their last loss coming Dec. 31, 2006 when they lost in overtime to the U.S.

WJC2019LogoIf you turned off the game after Erik Brannstrom easily weaved through USA’s defense to make it 4-0 in the third period, no one would have blamed you. The U.S. was not getting anything going offensively as Sweden’s defensemen were exceptional at limiting chances and getting the puck out of their zone. As Quinn Hughes noted after the game, Sweden had the puck almost the entire first and second periods. Brannstrom was among the most dominant players on the ice, making plays with his feet or quick passes.

The U.S. looked like they were toast. Scoring chances were few and far between, sustained zone time was essentially non-existent. And then the U.S. got a power play when Josh Norris was interfered with by Filip Westerlund. The only other power play the U.S. had was not much better than hapless.

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2019 World Junior Championship: USA-Slovakia analysis; Day 1 thoughts

The first day of competition at the World Junior Championship came to a close after three tight matchups and one comical blowout.

WJC2019LogoThe U.S. National Junior Team avoided an early scare, using a third-period comeback to earn a 2-1 win over a Slovakia squad that got some spectacular goaltending. In other action, Sweden defeated Finland 2-1; the Czech Republic squeaked past Switzerland in overtime, 2-1; and Canada rolled over Denmark 14-0 (I am totally fine with Mr. Worldwide, but if I hear Pitbull’s ‘Don’t Stop The Party’ 14 times in the span of two hours again, my ears will start bleeding).

But we’ll focus on the U.S. first and I have a few other thoughts on the rest of the tournament that I’ll share a little later. Let’s get to it, shall we?

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2019 Team USA World Junior Championship Roster: Team set after six cuts

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The U.S. National Junior Team was finalized Sunday ahead of the 2019 World Junior Championship set to begin Dec. 26. The U.S. roster features 23 players — 13 forwards, seven defensemen and three goaltenders. All of the five returning players who were in camp made the roster, but the final list was not without a few minor surprises.

Logo_USA_hockeyHere’s a look at Team USA’s final list as well as some thoughts on potential lineup configurations and thoughts on team configuration.

First off, the players that made the team listed with some different positional possibilities. THIS IS NOT A LINE CHART. I included the ones they used in pretournament later in this post. This is just a positional depth chart.

FORWARDS

Joel Farabee (PHI) – Jack Hughes (2019) – Oliver Wahlstrom (NYI)
Noah Cates (PHI) – Ryan Poehling* (MTL) – Jason Robertson (DAL)
Logan Cockerill (NYI) – Josh Norris* (OTT) – Tyler Madden (VAN)
Evan Barratt* (CHI) – Sasha Chmelevski* (SJS) – Jack Drury* (CAR)
Jay O’Brien (PHI)

*-Denotes center that could play wing

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DEFENSE

Quinn Hughes (VAN) – Phil Kemp (EDM)
Dylan Samberg (WPG) – Mikey Anderson^ (LAK)
K’Andre Miller (NYR) – Jack St. Ivany (PHI)
Mattias Samuelsson (BUF)

^ – Denotes a left-shot D likely to play right side

GOALTENDERS

Kyle Keyser (BOS)
Cayden Primeau (MTL)
Spencer Knight (2019)

The final cuts:
D Joey Keane (NYR) D Michael Callahan (ARI), D Ty Emberson (ARI), RW Sean Dhooghe (2019), RW Cole Coskey (2019), Sammy Walker (TBL)

Analysis

The Cuts

We’ll get this one out of the way early because it’s usually the thing that gets the most attention, but this year there was very little in the way of controversy or surprise. That said, I fully expected Joey Keane to make the roster based on his season to date and strong performance at the summer evaluation camp. In the end, Keane was left off in favor of a right-shot defenseman that really came on strong and I think surprised USA Hockey’s brass a great deal. That would be Yale rearguard Jack St. Ivany, who had a very strong USHL season last year and is playing especially well for Yale as a freshman. While Keane is probably the better defender of the two, St. Ivany has size and is a little more sound when it comes to moving the puck up ice. In the end, I think he might be a better fit for the up-tempo style USA wants to play.

Outside of Keane, nothing really surprised me. Callahan, Walker, Coskey and Emberson were not part of the last summer camp and had an uphill battle to unseat players that had established themselves already. Obviously, St. Ivany and Tyler Madden, who each made Team USA were able to do that. It would have been hard for six different players to do that. Madden’s emergence as a potential top-six or at least top-nine winger pushed Dhooghe out of the picture, I think. I have a feeling that was one of the tougher cuts to make.

Dhooghe is a fan-favorite and the kind of player you love to root for as a true underdog who just continues proving people wrong. In the end, as good of a player and kid as Dhooghe is, they had some better options for the style they want to play. If Dhooghe was going to make it it would have probably been as a 13th forward, but I think that role will end up being played by Jay O’Brien who has a little more speed. Once I saw Dhooghe was scratched for last night’s game, that looked like the writing was on the wall. It’s unfortunate that he won’t get to test himself on this stage, but in the end, I can’t argue with the omission.

What is Team USA going to look like?

When the Americans play Slovakia to start the World Junior Championship on Boxing Day, it’s still a little unclear what they’re going to look like in terms of lineup and configuration. Here’s a look at the two lineups they went with in their 3-2 win over Russia and 6-2 win over the Czech Republic.

 

The first night, USA sat all of its returning players and started looking at different options of who could be on the wing and who could be down the middle. Sasha Chmelevski was used a lot on the wing during the summer camp in Kamloops, but had success down the middle in the pre-tournament. If that holds, the U.S. could put one of Ryan Poehling or Josh Norris on the wing to give the top two lines a little more offensive pop. Evan Barratt also reportedly had a strong game while put in an elevated role against Russia. That said, I still think he could be a benefit in a depth line to spread the scoring out a bit more.

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I think Jack Hughes is locked in as the No. 1 or No. 2 center for the team. The rest kind of fills out as it needs to. I can’t recall a year where the U.S. had this many good options to center lines. They’ve had better overall talent down the middle before, but the sheer volume of natural centers on this roster is a huge weapon when it comes to making adjustments and figuring out how things work as the tournament progresses.

Additionally, one of the more positive developments of the pretournament games was the resurgence of Oliver Wahlstrom. Playing alongside former NTDP linemate Jack Hughes, he scored three goals over the two games and they weren’t just tap-ins. He’s floundered a bit at Boston College, but he’s always been and will continue to be an elite finisher. He’s got some of the best possible set-up men on this team to allow him to showcase that skill.

Another thing that stands out about this roster is that there’s not a forward on here I would term as a defensive specialist per se. Sure, Jack Drury is a shot-blocking machine who is committed to strong play in his zone and on the PK, but he’s also been a producer in most of his stops. He can give you some production from a lower-lineup spot. Evan Barratt and Sasha Chmelevski can play a grinding style of hockey, but they’re also major producers in their respective leagues and have notable offensive tools.

This roster is not going to be defined by grit. It’s going to be defined by tempo and skill. Forwards will still have to fit into defined roles, but this roster is full of players who can do a lot of different things well. That’s a good position to be in.

Meanwhile on the blue line. My best guess at how they’ll lineup after the final cuts is probably at least similar to this:

Hughes-Kemp
Samberg-Anderson
Miller or Samuelsson-St. Ivany
Then Miller or Samuelsson as the No. 7.

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Coming into the tournament I felt like the U.S. might have a bit of a weak point on the D. Now I’m less certain of that. I think this blue line has good balance with Hughes possessing the ability to dominate the tournament just as he appeared to dominate at the summer camp and in his only pre-tournament game. Get ready for a show.

Having a D corps with some big bodies that can skate should go a long way. Samuelsson and Kemp are steady defenders. K’Andre Miller is one of the top scoring freshmen in all of college hockey from the blue line. Samberg and Anderson were with the team last year and also helped Minnesota Duluth win a national championship last spring. St. Ivany has showcased excellent two-way skills and confident puck-moving abilities. Meanwhile Hughes brings the dynamic element. I think this group should be pretty steady and versatile.

Lastly, based on the way Team USA used their goaltenders in pre-tournament, I’m led to believe that Kyle Keyser will be the go-to guy between the pipes for Team USA at least to start. The Bruins prospect played the full game against the Czech Republic, while Spencer Knight and Cayden Primeau split the game against Russia.

I don’t know that I’d pencil Keyser in as the No. 1 the whole way at this point, but I’d say he’s at least in the driver’s seat.

Overall I think the U.S. staff built the kind of team they set out to build in August. This group has good speed up and down the lineup, with enough skill to keep defenses on their heels. They don’t have a ton of natural finishers, but players like Oliver Wahlstrom and Jason Robertson should expect a lot of chances to put up some points given the talented playmakers that dot this roster.

Having such a big blue line with that mix of dynamism Quinn Hughes provides gives the Americans a more balanced, trustworthy D corps. The defense is such a huge factor in triggering the U.S. transition game and I think every single player on the roster is capable of making those good outlet passes under pressure, which can be a constant state against top opponents.

In net, I think the U.S. is at the very least comfortable. There isn’t experience, but they have three guys playing very strongly coming into the tournament and have options if their first choice falters.

The U.S. is not going to come into the tournament as favorites, but they’re the best team in their group on paper and arguably second best in the tournament as a whole. I’ve got Canada pegged as clear favorites heading into the WJC, but this American roster probably gets as close as any other team.

I think this will be an entertaining team with a lot of potential for what should be a very competitive, challenging group stage and an even tougher playoff round.

Next stop for me is Vancouver. So I won’t be on site for Team USA’s tournament opener, but I will be in Victoria for the last two USA games and probably wherever they end up in the quarterfinals and beyond. I hope to have a few updates from out there. Thanks for checking back with the old blog. It’s been fun to bring it back for a little bit seeing as this U.S. team should be a lot of fun to follow.

Posted in Junior Hockey, NCAA, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey, WJC, World Junior Championship

Team USA 2019 WJC Roster: Breaking down the camp invites

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Back for a limited time only, I’ll be providing some thoughts on Team USA in the build-up to the 2019 World Junior Championship starting today with the camp roster.

Team USA’s bid to improve on a bronze-medal finish and extend an unprecedented three-straight medals streak alive will start in Everett, Wash., with the start of training camp. USA Hockey announced the 29-player preliminary roster that will be whittled down to 23 before the World Juniors begin on Dec. 26 in Victoria and Vancouver, B.C.

Logo_USA_hockeyThis should be an interesting group for Team USA, with several available returnees from last year’s squad. As the Americans in this age group showed during the summer camp, they’re going to be a fast-paced team that can get involved physically and should have more than enough skill throughout the lineup.

That said, there is going to be a Brady Tkachuk-sized hole in the lineup as the Americans are not expecting to get the Ottawa Senators forward. He was a dominant force in last year’s tournament and is now having an incredible start to his NHL season. Team USA simply does not have an adequate replacement for a player with Tkachuk’s skill-set, but they’re going to be able to supplement with some decent depth.

So let’s take a look at the roster.

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USA beats Slovakia, advances to Quarterfinal: Recap, analysis, stray thoughts

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Every coach who has ever coached an international tournament as at one point or another told his team that it is all about getting better in every game you play. The U.S. can’t say they’ve gotten better each time out, but they can say they had their best game to date when it mattered most. The Americans beat Slovakia 5-1 in the qualification round to advance to Wednesday’s quarterfinal against the Czech Republic (The game will air Tuesday night at 10:10 p.m. ET.

The Americans played their most complete game from start to finish, making only a few errors and playing through maybe one or two lulls in play, which mostly came in the first period. Team USA was able to keep pressure on, got major contributions from their top line and Ryan Zapolski made some key saves early in the game. Special teams were better, too. A lot went right.

USACrestThe thing that went most right was that Team USA has Troy Terry and Ryan Donato and other teams don’t. Donato scored two of the goals, while Terry had three assists. Their center, Mark Arcobello, also scored a goal off of a slick feed from Terry. Team USA’s top line has become very difficult to contain and they were buzzing in a big way in this one, having contributed to four of the five goals scored.

Another thing that I think is really important to bring up is that it is really, really difficult to beat the same team twice in the same tournament. You can’t play the same game twice and expect to win, basically. USA didn’t. Craig Ramsay is a great coach and you had to figure he was going to make some adjustments. Slovakia actually carried play for a good portion of the first period, but they started making mistakes in the second and the U.S. capitalized. Then they dominated the rest of the way.

This is a huge confidence booster, but the U.S. still has just two wins in the tournament and both are against Slovakia. The Czech Republic, which finished with the second best record overall in the preliminary round is going to offer a bigger challenge in the quarterfinal. So as good as Team USA was against Slovakia, they’re going to have to be even better against the Czechs.

So, some stray thoughts…

Donato and Terry were ridiculous. Seems like we say it every time. The college guys have been so good in the tournament and these two were at their best. I thought Donato’s play — while mostly good — has been a little uneven in the Olympics. The effort is always top notch and he can make plays others don’t, but we’ve seen some youthful errors with some turnovers and trying to force things. Today, he made smart play after smart play and even when he wasn’t scoring, he was involved in the play. He’s become a player teams have to be aware of at all times. Meanwhile, Terry’s ability to make plays and use his speed have made him next to impossible to contain. A good example of how well they’ve been playing came on USA’s first goal.

You can’t see all of it develop in this clip, but Matt Gilroy won a puck battle to start the transition, the puck bounced to Terry who made a tremendous pass to spring Terry, whose speed got him past the D. The goalie makes a nice save on Terry, but Donato gets himself to a good spot on the ice, while Terry and Gilroy managed to get just enough of the puck to get it to an open Donato whose finish was perfection.

Also, the pass Terry made to Mark Arcobello for USA’s third goal was high-skill. His vision is off the charts. I can’t say enough about their games at this event. His four assists in the tournament lead Team USA.

Garrett Roe’s goal was huge for a few reasons. First, his line with Brian O’Neill and Broc Little has been buzzing throughout the tournament with little success on the score board. They deserved to be rewarded. O’Neill made it happen with his work along the boards and speed to the outside. He found Little with a drop pass and Little had the patience to get around a defender and send the puck to a wide-open Roe.

For one, it was a nice play from a line other than the Donato-Arcobello-Terry line. They need that line to help out a bit. Fact is, they’ve been a factor in games but Roe hadn’t really been, at least not offensively. His wings, Little and O’Neill had been doing most of the damage with their speed. They also did all the work to provide the golden opportunity for Roe, which he finished well. Maybe that goal is the spark they needed.

Bobby Sanguinetti had his best game of the Olympics. I have been a touch critical of the Sanguinetti and Ryan Gunderson pairing, but they were strong today. I thought Sanguinetti defended well and helped get the puck up ice a lot. He had more minutes than anyone with 20:37 of ice time. It was a great bounce back from a rough game against the Russians. He managed to be a factor in all zones.

Ryan Zapolski made some big stops. When The U.S. had to battle a bit, Zapolski was able to bail them out. He still looked a little shaky doing it, but the only goal that beat him was a laser through a screen on a power play. Everything else he managed to keep in front of him. The Jokerit netminder made 22 saves, some of which came after he got run into. It looked like he might have to come out and give way to Brandon Maxwell. After the game, Zapolski explained why he almost had to leave.

Yeah, that doesn’t sound good.

Before that happened, I thought Zapolski was fighting the puck a bit, as he has been for much of the tournament. That said, the players in front of him were protecting the net well to not allow second chances. He also was making the first stop, which hasn’t happened every game. Perhaps that will be a confidence booster for the goalie after the rough outing against OAR.

James Wisniewski came through on the power play. He is on the team for one reason and one reason only — to play on the power play. Wisniewski has not yet topped seven minutes of ice time in any game the U.S. has played, but he delivered in a big way against Slovakia. Wisniewski scored a power-play goal on an absolute bomb from the left faceoff circle. He also sprung Donato down the wing for the goal that made it 5-1. Wisniewski’s legs are pretty much toast, which is why he’s a power play only player right now, but he still has the puck skills and the mind geared for offense. I think there is plenty reason to be skeptical of giving roster spots to players who aren’t going to play a versatile role for you, but if Wisniewski can keep coming through like he did against Slovakia, then he proves USA’s brass right.

Bad penalties will be costlier against a better team. One area of the game where the U.S. wasn’t particularly strong was discipline. They only took three penalties, but two of them were fairly unnecessary. Both Brian Gionta and Jordan Greenway got slashing penalties. Greenway’s was the most poorly timed as it allowed the Slovaks some life with a late second-period power play that they scored on. What I liked, however, was that Greenway was put right back out there and had a great shift to close out the second alongside Gionta and Chris Bourque. That line has had its ups and downs throughout the tournament, but the good outweighed the bad in that particular game. Still, the U.S. can’t be taking careless penalties the rest of the way. The Czechs are better than the Slovakians at this tournament and if the U.S. wins that game, they’d likely play OAR again in the semifinal.

A win away from playing for a medal. Despite a 1-0-1-1 preliminary round, the U.S. is one win away from guaranteeing themselves a chance to play for a medal. This tournament has been wildly unpredictable. Only Sweden has a perfect record with three regulation wins and the Czechs have two regulation wins and one overtime win. Everyone else has lost at least one game. I don’t think any of use really knew what to expect with this tournament, but anything seems possible at this point. Having watched at least one game for most of the teams here, the U.S. certainly isn’t the best among them, but they have enough to compete. There’s no guarantee the U.S. will beat the Czechs, but I think it’s a good draw for them. If this team can play for a medal, even if it’s bronze, I think that’s a huge accomplishment. This is not an easy tournament for anyone.

Quick look ahead. The Czech Republic’s biggest win of the tournament was a shootout victory over Canada. The Czechs seem to like to play things slow. They managed to shut down the Canadians over the last two periods and won the shootout after Canada’s Maxime Noreau beat the goalie but not the post. In the Czechs’ first game, they narrowly beat host Korea, 2-1. All three goals in that game were scored in the first period. The Czech Republic closed out tournament play with a 4-1 win over a Swiss team that just lost to Germany in the qualification round. The Czechs can shut teams down and play a really boring game. The U.S. is going to have to jump on them early and try to dictate the pace of the game. It’s going to be a real tough one, especially with the Czechs getting some extra rest and USA playing games on back-to-back days.

The game is at 10:10 p.m. ET Tuesday night on CNBC.

Posted in Olympics, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey | 1 Comment