Man With the Golden Touch?

One would have to think USA Hockey had one man in mind when thinking about who to hire as the head coach for its 2012 U.S. National Junior Team. It was announced today that Dean Blais will return behind the bench for Team USA at the 2012 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, to be played in Calgary and Edmonton, Dec. 26, 2011-Jan. 5, 2012.

After skipping the 2011 tournament to focus on building his University of Nebraska Omaha program, Blais will look to recapture the magic of 2010. Having led the U.S. to the gold medal, snapping Canada’s streak of five consecutive titles, on Canadian soil, Blais seemed like the natural choice to try and do it again.

After a “disappointing” bronze-medal finish at the 2011 WJC, on home soil, the U.S. goes back to the hot hand. Blais will stand at the helm of the U.S. National Junior team for the third time. He was also recently named the WCHA’s Coach of the Year for his outstanding job with the UNO, which surprised a lot of people in its first year in what many consider the toughest conference in college hockey, top-to-bottom.

The reviews coming out of  the 2010 World Juniors were overwhelmingly positive in regards to the job Blais did, unsurprisingly. His players and team staff couldn’t have been more glowing in their evaluation of the head coach that brought home the second gold medal for Team USA at the World Juniors. In short tournaments like the WJC, its hard to bond, but somehow that team did. That’s a testament to Blais, the example he set, and the way he went about his business.

Perhaps this is the type of tournament that Dean Blais was made for. He’s had success everywhere he’s been, but the effort he got out of the 2010 edition of Team USA was nothing short of remarkable. It wasn’t a super-star laden team, though it had many very solid players. The game plans were spot on, he got a lot out of the players and he, along with the team, never wavered when met with adversity.

In today’s press conference, Blais said that the gold medal was probably the biggest accomplishment of his career, considering that Canada had won five straight championships and the tournament was played on Canadian soil. This comes from a man who led North Dakota to a Division I national championship and a state title as the head coach of Roseau High School in Minnesota. He understands the importance of the tournament and the importance of representing the United States..

One of the key things about Blais, that you can’t find in just any coach, is the versatility of experience. Having served as a head coach in high school, junior (Fargo Force, USHL), NCAA, and as a top assistant in the NHL, Blais has dealt with players of all ages and backgrounds. Combining that with knowing what it takes to win gold, in Canada no less, Blais makes about as perfect a fit for this squad as you can find.

The style of game the 2010 U.S. National Junior Team played, was fast-paced, high intensity and just darn exciting. Blais hopes to have a similar team in 2012. The quote that stood out to me from today’s press conference in St. Paul was that Blais expects his team to “play with emotion, play with confidence, play with discipline.”

Some coaches don’t like to get into the emotional side of the game. They want to keep it technical. The X’s and O’s are important, but Blais, in many regards, let the players play. Anyone who watched the 2010 U.S. team play, could see that they played the game with passion, played with pride and had an immense amount of guts in all areas of the ice. That led to a confident hockey team that, even after giving up a two-goal lead late, went into OT against Canada knowing that the game was theirs for the taking.

The organization also maintained the same management team that has helped put together the squad in the previous two years, with Jim Johannson serving as general manager and Tim Taylor as director of player personnel. It cannot be understated just how important these two men are to the process.

Blais will have to worry about both his UNO Mavericks throughout the course of the year, while also keeping Calgary and Edmonton on his mind. Johannson and Taylor bear the brunt of the leg work, though Blais will regularly be in contact with both and will be able to get a good look at a lot of the players at the summer camp and through video throughout the season. With these two on the job, there will be no stone left unturned and neither are afraid to take risks. Having had success with this mix in the past, there’s no reason it can’t happen again.

The management team is right. The head coach is right. Now all they have to do is get the players right. Lucky for them, the pool they have to select from is incredibly deep.

Looking ahead to 2012

With a coach in place and the scouting of players already underway, the U.S. can fully turn its focus to the players that will have a shot at playing for Team USA at the 2012 World Junior Championship.

The 1992 birth year is as deep as any class the U.S. has had over the last few years. There’s a lot of talent, and different types of talent, to choose from, which makes for an interesting selection process.

The 1993 birth class is more shallow, but the top talent in that class is certainly elite. Meanwhile, theres a very solid group of 1994 defensemen that may challenge for a spot on this team. The three classes combined offer up unprecedented depth.

Jack Campbell (Photo by Dave Arnold)

The strength of this team should be its defense. The 1992 defensive group is vastly talented and many bring different tools to the table. On top of that, Jack Campbell will be eligible to return for a third consecutive World Juniors. He was Team USA’s best player for much (all?) of  the 2011 World Junior Championship.

Having Campbell back would be a huge boost to Team USA. When that kid puts on the red, white and blue jersey, he’s a star. Having won gold three times (2009 U18, 2010 WJC, 2010 U18) and bronze once (2011 WJC), he’s had the success that would please any coach. Blais had enough confidence in Campbell as an 18-year-old to throw him in net in the middle of a gold-medal game. Knowing what Campbell can do, Blais has a horse to carry the load.

So who will back him up? Cornell’s Andy Iles, who served in that role in 2011 would be a viable option, but should receive a challenge from 1993-born and 2011 Draft eligible goalie John Gibson. Gibson is the top-rated netminder for the 2011 draft and is bound for Michigan next year. Those two guys probably have an inside track on the job.

Jon Merrill (Photo by Dave Arnold)

Returnees to the blue line include Jon Merrill, Justin Faulk and Derek Forbort (assuming none sign pro contracts). Those three, as long as all are available, give the U.S. a really solid starting point. Merrill and Faulk may have been two of the best freshmen defensemen in the entire country, while Forbort brings first-round pedigree and a solid 6-foot-4 frame.

Coming right on their heels should be players like Adam Clendening, of Boston University, and Northeastern’s Jamie Oleksiak (both 2011 Draft eligibles). Both were cut from the pre-tournament camp, but have done nothing but continue to improve throughout this hockey season.

Additionally, there are players like 2010 first-rounder Jarred Tinordi (London) and Stephen Johns (Notre Dame) who bring an element of grit that maybe last year’s U.S. team didn’t quite have enough of. Youngstown’s Scott Mayfield, a 2011 draft-eligible, will likely earn a look and don’t count out the NTDP’s Robbie Russo and Michael Paliotta. As I mentioned earlier, the youngsters from the 1994 birth year, Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba, could also challenge for a spot.

Jason Zucker (Photo by Dave Arnold)

At forward, the U.S. has a very large group to select from. Among the returnees, of which some could be lost to professional hockey, are Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Emerson Etem and Nick Bjugstad. Zucker and Coyle were each named Rookie of the Year in their respective NCAA conferences at the end of this season. All of the returnees, but Zucker (who, if available, will skate in his third WJC), were selected in the first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. So they come in with really solid track records.

I think both Etem and Bjugstad are better than they showed in 2011, though I wouldn’t call either a disappointment outright. Zucker missed a lot of time thanks to a Martin Marincin elbow to the chin and he was sorely missed while he was gone. Coyle was arguably Team USA’s best all-around forward. Having all four back would give Blais a nice core to rely on.

The U.S. had some offensive troubles during the tournament in 2011, so expect to see a premium put on scorers this time around. Rocco Grimaldi and Brandon Saad, late cuts from the 2011 team, should be able to help provide some spark to the lineup.

Team speed is of paramount importance to the style Blais expects his team to play. There are plenty of burners in the 1992 and 1993 birth groups. There’s also a good amount of grit and hear-and-soul type guys that will be available to help provide some balance.

It seems like all of the tools that Blais needs for the style of game he coaches are going to be available to him. There may be some late bloomers that emerge later in the game and some hyped up players that disappoint. That’s why it’s good to have eyes on the entire talent pool from now until December, when the team is officially named.

We’ll get our first look at what Team USA may look like Aug. 6-13, when 40-plus players convene in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the highly competitive and intense National Junior Evaluation Camp. Expect a very spirited camp with plenty of twists and turns along the way.

Until then, we’ll all just have to wait and see. One thing is for sure, bringing in Blais makes the waiting that much more difficult. With visions of the magical run in 2010, December 26, 2011, can’t come soon enough.

If you’re not quite in the spirit just yet, perhaps you remember this?

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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.
This entry was posted in American Prospects, Junior Hockey, NHL Draft, NTDP, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey, World Junior Championship. Bookmark the permalink.

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