I have decided to break this up into two parts. The first part will focus on the returning players from last year’s World Junior Championship. I think it’s fair to be able to evaluate them differently. There are elements that veterans need to bring to this tournament. Also, since there are 13 forwards, this is to save you a marathon post. It’s long enough as it is. PART I also includes my overall evaluation of the forwards, as a unit.
If there was one problem with the American team, it was being able to generate consistent offense. It looked like the problem was solved midway through the tournament, then Team USA put two goals up on Switzerland and just one against Canada, before they broke out for four against Sweden in the bronze-medal game.
On paper, this group should have been dynamic. While some were very good, others left much to be desired. However, I won’t put it all on Team USA. Credit is due to each of the teams (except Slovakia) for playing very good defensively against the U.S. Finland was more physical and closed gaps incredibly well, while also getting tremendous goaltending from Joni Ortio. Germany actually only giving up four goals is a huge accomplishment against a team as skilled as the Americans. Switzerland had arguably one of the best goalies in the tournament in Benjamin Conz. Canada dominated defensively, right? Yeah.
So the U.S. had many obstacles to scoring goals. Let’s keep in mind, though, that Team USA won five of six games. So they did enough in every game, but one. The wrong one.
In judging the forwards as a whole, I always felt that there was something missing with this U.S. team in almost every game it played. NHL Network color guy Dave Starman continually pointed out how many U.S. goals were “first-shot goals.” He was right. There weren’t many of those dirty, in tight, off a rebound type goals. That was disconcerting. The lack of a net-front presence was noticeable in a few of the games. If you can’t win the battles in front, you can’t score those garbage goals. Not having that one guy in front of the net, making life hell for defensement and goalies was a big element in the U.S. not being hard enough to play against.
As I mentioned, I’m evaluating the returnees on a different kind of scale. These are the guys that should have really brought it in the tournament. Some did. Some didn’t. Still, these six players have done something no other Americans have. They won back-to-back medals at the World Junior Championship. So even though some of the evaluations are negative, I have all the respect in the world for these players for what they’ve accomplished. All, but one, will have aged out by next year. They can be proud to have two medals to show for their efforts during a solid two-year WJC career.
Here are the individual reviews, in alphabetical order:
Ryan Bourque — 6 GP, 0-3–3, 4 PIM, -1 — I thought Bourque brought everything to the table he normally does, except scoring. His line never really seemed to get it going offensively, though he did finish with three assists. I was not at all disappointed in the way Bourque played, because despite the lack of goals, his line always seemed to produce chances. Bourque, himself, took 20 shots in the tournament, tied for second most on the team. To say I’m surprised that none of those went in would be an understatement. My favorite part of Bourque’s game, he brought. Energy. I can forgive the lack of goals when he was out there battling on every shift. Instead of getting frustrated, he just kept working. There’s a lot to be said for that. He’ll be missed next year.
Jerry D’Amigo — 6 GP, 1-1–2, 2 PIM, +1 — Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare this year’s WJC to last year’s for Jerry D’Amigo. He was one of the best players on the ice for Team USA last year, and had U.S. MVP and current New York Ranger Derek Stepan as his linemate. Still… you can’t go from scoring 12 points in World Juniors to two this year. Unacceptable. This was a guy Team USA needed the most to be better. He had a very rough pre-tournament camp and some thought he might even be a surprise cut. Still, he was able to draw on last year and his AHL experience, which certainly kept him alive. I don’t even know if I can tell you whether or not he had a good tournament, because he was really hard to notice out there. I feel bad for writing that, because I have the utmost respect for Jerry as a player and a person, but this just didn’t cut it. He’ll have plenty of time to grow with the Toronto Marlies, and may even see some time with the Maple Leafs this year. He’s a good hockey player, he just had a bad few weeks.
Chris Kreider — 6 GP, 4-2–6, 0 PIM, E — Of the returning players, Kreider was probably the most consistent. There was only one game where he was hard to notice, bet you can guess which one. Yeah, the Canadians neutralized his speed and skill well in that game, so that hurt, but I am looking past that game, just this once. I gushed over Kreider in my bronze-medal recap. He played with a lot of fire in that game and it was good to see. I have had my doubts about Kreider as a player, but now more than ever, I am convinced he’s going to be something special. I still think he can gain some strength and gain some better defensive awareness, but offensively he has a chance to be dynamic. He was Team USA’s leading goal scorer, with four (no one else had more than two), three of which came on the power play. For much of the tournament, Kreider, Charlie Coyle and Kyle Palmieri were THE best line for the U.S. by a mile. He didn’t have a perfect tournament, but he was very good and I will forever remember the way he spoke after the Canadian game and came out and backed up his words in the bronze game. I feel he’s got MAYBE one more year at BC and then he’ll be ready to go for the NHL.
Jeremy Morin — 4 GP, 0-1–1, 0 PIM, +1 — I am grading Jeremy Morin on a curve. He was injured in Team USA’s first game and was out for a pair of contests. So his point production is pretty low, considering. In the game against Finland, I thought Morin was brilliant. He looked like he was going to be a go-to guy for the U.S. Then he got injured and just didn’t look to be at full strength the rest of the way. I think he showed signs of improvement against Sweden in the bronze-game, but clearly he wasn’t full-go against Canada. I don’t think there is any way to really knock his game, or the way he played. I only wish we could have seen more of him healthy at this tournament. If not for that injury, he could have had a special year, I think. He’ll go back to the Blackhawks organization, and if healthy, likely will get another call up to the NHL in the not so distant future.
Kyle Palmieri — 6 GP, 2-4–6, 0 PIM, +2 — Palmieri started out hot for Team USA. He looked as though he was going to be the best player on the ice for the team through the first two games. I thought he was going to break out. Then his production kind of hit a wall, particularly in the goal scoring department. He was part of that Coyle-Kreider line, and the three of them were so good. I wonder if Palmieri kind of lost his way, maybe tried to be a little unselfish, which at times can be a bad thing. He made some great plays. The last few games though, I didn’t really notice him and it was a bit frustrating. I think he’s a special player and has such a high ceiling, that maybe I’m being unfair. He was great in the first half, but faded. If you’re a veteran on a team that needs you to perform, you have to be consistent. Still, his six points tied him with Coyle and Kreider for the team lead. So again, maybe I’m just being a bit unfair. Palmieri can go back to Syracuse in the AHL and I’m sure the Ducks will want to give him another look at the NHL level this season. He’s got loads of talent.
Jason Zucker — 4 GP, 1-0–1, 0 PIM, E — I am also grading Zucker on the same curve as Morin. Zucker was injured in the Slovakia game on a viscous elbow from Martin Marincin. The Slovakian defensemen was suspended for four games, and rightfully so. Unfortunately for Zucker, and Team USA, I don’t think he was at full-go either when he returned. Anyone remember his goal against Finland? GOOD. GOD. That was something special. He’s an energy forward and I thought he played admirably when he returned from injury, but a player like Zucker is most effective when he’s able to play with some reckless abandon. With his injury (which we can only speculate was a head injury), he really couldn’t get it revved up like normal. Had Morin and Zucker been healthy throughout, maybe we wouldn’t have to be so hard on these veterans. Losing two guys like that really hurts. Still, I think Zucker is going to surprise a lot of people over the next two years. I wouldn’t fault the Minnesota Wild if they wanted to get him a contract within a year or two (probably two). It’s unfortunate that this World Junior Championship wasn’t the breakout I thought it would be for Zucker. If he’s not signed to a pro-contract, you better believe he will be on this team next year and will be one of the leaders. There’s a lot more left for him to accomplish.
That’s the end for now. I think this veteran leadership was under a lot of pressure put on by themselves, by the staff, and to a much lesser extent, the media. They performed well, when available. Just one game is all that really went wrong for Team USA. A shame it had to come at such an inopportune time. I think you’ll see all six of these players (some you already have) in the NHL very soon.
Coming up tomorrow morning: WJC Aftermath: Evaluating the Forwards PART II (The Rookies).