After watching Team USA’s game against the Czech Republic last night, I couldn’t help but notice a bit of a flat performance. There didn’t seem to be anyone battling for a roster spot out there, like I thought there would be. That said, I’m glad that the coaches and staff for Team USA have spent countless hours analyzing these players over the last few months to make the decisions they did. I’m not going to second guess any of it. I’ll leave that to the Canadian media and other blogs. I can see the reason for every decision made, and I know USA Hockey is hungry for this gold medal.
First thoughts about this team. The defense has a very good balance to it. I had mentioned in my previews last week that Team USA had to decide how much offense they wanted or needed from their blue line, because of so many offensively gifted Dmen in camp.
You’ve got your offensive defensemen in Faulk and Leddy, your two-way guys like Merrill and to a lesser degree Forbort and Dumoulin, and you’ve got a pair of good shutdown guys in Ramage and Wey. That’s the reason you don’t see Clendening’s name. He would have shifted the balance towards offense, which when you have gifted forwards, you really don’t need.
One thing that concerns me a little bit is that I think Team USA is a little thin down the middle. I think the centers are all fine players, but none of them jump out at me as a guy I’d see matching up against top offensive units. Maybe you don’t need a shutdown forward line with D pairings that good, but I’m guessing Keith Allain is going to charge one of these four big centers to do some work in the D zone. All of them are going to have to be able to play both ways in this tournament. The skill level of each team will be high. I think Team USA will have to see the centers step up in a big way.
An observation: None of Team USA’s first-year NHL Draft eligible invites made the team. Not one. Brandon Saad might be a top-five pick, but he was sent packing after generating next to no offense in either of the exhibitions. That said, he’s still a very gifted player who still has top-five potential. We already covered Clendening, but to be fair, I think he was under a lot of personal pressure to make this team, hopefully he responds well when he returns to BU. Rocco Grimaldi didn’t quite look like himself out there, but I don’t think that should hurt his draft status, though pundits will probably say otherwise. Matthew Nieto didn’t really get it going offensively. His biggest asset is his speed, and Team USA already had a lot of that. Jamie Oleksiak was always a long shot, but a player worth taking to camp. His size alone should put him on more NHL scouts radars if it hadn’t already.
I don’t think this played into the decision, much, but, there may be a few perks to not having draft-eligible players on the team. Players with the draft on their mind might push a little too hard or try and be too fancy. The worry of improving or degrading one’s draft status might be unavoidable and could negatively effect focus. It takes a mentally tough player to put the draft out of his head. I think most of these guys could have done that, but its one less worry for the coaching staff. Every player on the roster has been drafted. There shouldn’t be any distracting them from their goal. The Gold Medal.
Goaltending is going to be a factor. Luckily for Team USA, they have a big-game goaltender. I’ve heard a lot of talk about Jack Campbell’s slow start this year, however, when the lights are brighter, he’s better. He is your quintessential primetime goalie. He’s the type of kid that can push himself to be better. As long as he doesn’t push himself too far, he’s going to be the Jack Campbell we all know and love. When he wears the USA crest, his game goes to a new level. Get ready for it.
The players I’m most excited to watch:
Emerson Etem ranks very high on this list. Etem’s a guy they couldn’t afford to leave off. He’s going to score goals in this tournament. He’s going to make plays. This guy will have a big audience to show why the Anaheim Ducks used one of their two first-round picks on him. Since he’s been in the Dub, I haven’t had a chance to see him as much, but I think his style of play is made for a tournament like this. He’ll be a lot of fun to watch.
I’ve praised the goal-scoring ability of Jeremy Morin, but one thing that I may have forgotten is his toughness. He’s already got an NHL scrap under his belt, which is nice. It’s not the fighting though, its the hard-nosed play. He has no fear out there. He reminds me in a lot of ways of a young Jeremy Roenick (with a little less speed). Maybe that’s why the Hawks gave Morin No. 27. Still he offers more than goal scoring. He brings an edge to his game. That will come in handy for him and his teammates… but the goal scoring prowess doesn’t hurt either.
Jon Merrill is another guy I can’t wait to see at this level. He dropped to the second round in last year’s draft, however, he was the New Jersey Devils first pick. The talk out of the combine was that he interviewed poorly, though the Devs said otherwise. He’s a first-round talent who can elevate his game to the level necessary to be successful. This kid could be a Devil by next year… And let’s face it, they could probably use him now.
Jason Zucker was an underager at last year’s tournament. This year he’s got the confidence you can only get by never finishing second. In three IIHF World Championships, Zucker, along with Jack Campbell, has won gold each time (2009 U18, 2010 WJC, 2010 U18). He’s a pest out there too. You can find him beaking his opponents and backing it up with his speed, strength and skill. I don’t know how long the University of Denver is going to have him at their disposal. I think the Minnesota Wild may have gotten the steal of the draft when they took him late in the second round.
Lastly, there is a lot of talk about Team USA being the favorites, though some of it has cooled after a bit of a disappointing pair of exhibitions. When you put together a new team and a partly new coaching staff, everything changes. Yes, Team USA has eight returning players. Yes, they have four players with pro experience. Yes, they are on home soil. However, at the end of the day, the World Junior Championship is far too unpredictable. I don’t think you can tab any one team as the favorite.
U.S. teams in this tournament don’t often find themselves in that position, so maybe its a little exciting. I just hope the players don’t buy into it too much. Canada, Sweden and Russia all bring teams that have the capability of winning gold. Team USA’s own group in tournament play includes the always hard-to-play-against Finland, a spirited and talented Swiss team, and a feisty Slovakian team. Germany has beaten Team USA in this tournament before, as well. It’s no cake walk, and shouldn’t be treated as such. I know the coaches aren’t going to allow thinking like that in the locker room.
So my final thought for this post is that USA fans better be ready for a very fun and interesting ride. Anything less than the gold medal would be a disappointment, but one should never expect the road will be easy.
Programming note: USA Hockey has a teleconference with Keith Allain and Jim Johannson scheduled later today and I’ll give you some of the highlights from that. Also, if you have any questions you think I might be able to answer, ask me on Twitter, or leave some in the comments and I will try to answer them later today. So check back later this afternoon for more news, notes and links.