First off, Happy New Year, everybody! Thanks for making 2011 such a fun year on United States of Hockey. Hopefully it’ll be even better in 2012. Now let’s get to some analysis.
Maybe it’s a good thing 2011 is over for the U.S. National Junior Team, but it couldn’t have ended on a more sour note.
It was too little, too late for Team USA as it fell 3-2 to Canada, despite a third-period comeback bid. Turns out, that third period may have been Team USA’s best period of the tournament, but it came well after there was anything to play for.
In that third period, Team USA gave its fans a glimpse of what could have been. A furious forecheck, bodies in front of the net, creating chances in tight and a pair of goals showed what the team was capable of. It took 12 periods to get there.
The U.S. will now meet Latvia on Jan. 3 and Switzerland on Jan. 4 in the relegation round. Team USA can finish no higher than seventh place. To provide some context, the U.S. has finished lower than sixth place only four times since 1977 and not since 1999. There were far less talented teams that fared far better than this edition of the U.S. National Junior Team.
Coming up after the jump, a brief look at USA-Canada. Also, a look into why it is not yet time to panic for USA Hockey.
The U.S. fell behind early and never really recovered from its slow start. Jack Campbell, who ditched his Captain America mask in favor of his 2010 WJC lid, had his best game of the tournament. He was peppered early and I wouldn’t put any of Canada’s goals on the goaltender.
Once again it was either a turnover, a crucial mistake on D or a bad penalty that helped contribute to the goals. The first period was Team USA’s tournament defined. Sloppy, disimpassioned and devoid of offensive production. As the game wore on, the team got better, as did the effort.
Neither team scored in the second period, leaving Team USA with 20 minutes to show something. It took a little while to get going, but around the half-way point of the period, Team USA turned it up a notch. They finally found that gear that had been missing against Finland and the Czech Republic.
Charlie Coyle scored on a beauty of a snapper, and that gave the U.S. life. Then Jason Zucker scored one from below the goal line and it looked as though the comeback was on.
In the end, the U.S. couldn’t find the equalizer despite several good opportunities.
When the final buzzer sounded, the U.S. was left with its third consecutive loss and plenty of questions, but so few answers.
Quickly… some bright spots from the Canada game:
Jacob Trouba was named the U.S. Player of the Game, and from the first puck drop, the 17-year-old was overall outstanding. He was playing like a man out there. On one 15-second (or so) span in the first period, Trouba took a player off his feet on three separate occasions. There were many instances where Trouba put a Canadian player on his backside. His draft stock has to be on the rise after his performance. At times he showed his youth, but more times than not, he raised his game to a new level.
Campbell definitely had his best night of the tournament. He made 32 saves and didn’t give up any softies. He gave his team confidence and bailed them out at times as well.
I still don’t think there’s any point in hanging the previous losses on the goalies, even if they didn’t have their best games. They weren’t the only ones on the ice in those games. Plenty of blame to go around.
Jarred Tinordi took a costly penalty, but outside of that, provided solid defense. He was Team USA’s most reliable defenseman throughout the tournament and looked every bit as good as the first-round draft pick Montreal used on him in 2010.
Bill Arnold was quietly one of Team USA’s better forwards throughout the tournament. He is in a three-way tie for the U.S. point lead with five points (2-3). I never saw much of a letdown in his compete level.
Charlie Coyle, battling a flu bug, gave a gutsy performance against Canada. His goal was a beauty, and he certainly showed why he’s such a prized prospect. Knowing that he wasn’t at 100 percent for the Czech game explains a lot why Team USA’s offense was sputtering. It hasn’t been great all tourney, but it’s better when Coyle is at the top of his game. Ah, just another “What if?”
There may have been a few more bright spots, but overall, the U.S. comes out of the preliminary round 1-0-0-3. Just looking at those numbers in succession makes you think about what happened. The other thing you might notice? It’s four games.
There has been a lot of overreaction to what this means for USA Hockey, the NTDP, the development model overall. In the end, it is a bad week. The players didn’t perform in a tournament where the margin for error is so small that after three games your tournament can be over.
If USA Hockey were to base their entire developmental ideology on four games, the results would be laughably disastrous. That’s not to say this four-game period doesn’t require strong examination. It absolutely does, but to say this is a failure of the selection process or the development system is taking it too far.
It’s easy to say player X (most often Shane Prince comes up) would have helped the team, but how do you know? You just don’t. And we’ll never find out. You need 22 guys to win, and one player here or there was not going to save this team.
You have to think back to the 2005 team that disappointed in Grand Forks, or the 2009 team in Ottawa. There are always questions after the tournament, but if USA Hockey blew up the system after either of those years, perhaps there would have been no gold in 2010. What they did was make small tweaks.
After 2009, instead of picking the team without a pre-tournament camp as had been the norm, Tim Taylor and Jim Johannson figured that a camp leading into the tournament would give more credibility to the scouting system and give a much better idea of what the players could do at the World Junior level (a level far different from college and/or Major Junior). That tweak resulted in back-to-back medals in 2010 and 2011. However, with the same setup, it results in a seventh-place-or-lower finish. You just never know how it will play out.
This year, the team lost two defenseman they were counting on in a matter of days when Justin Faulk wasn’t released and Seth Jones got injured. Rocco Grimaldi suffered a serious injury weeks before the tournament, leaving him unavailable. Nick Bjugstad wasn’t at 100 percent. Charlie Coyle got sick. Connor Brickley got hurt and missed a game. Derek Forbort went down early in a key game.
These things happen. They’re not excuses, but they are contributors to what ends up being the most disappointing finish for the U.S. in a long, long time. Maybe ever.
Then you take into account the failures on the ice. The poor decisions that led to goals, the bad bounces, the bad penalties, the lack of effort in certain situations. It all adds up to what we saw.
The overreaction to what to make of this loss needs to be tempered. It’s an embarrassing setback. It is not the end of the world.
The U.S. has medals in two of the last three years at the World Junior Championship. Prior to 1996, it had medaled twice in 20 years. Three straight gold medals at the Under-18 level and eight consecutive medals overall. Top-three finishes at the U17 Challenge in each of the last five years. Three first-place finishes in the last four years at the World Junior A Challenge. That’s a high success rate at the international level.
That doesn’t even mention the dozens of American prospects making NHL debuts in the last five years. The players are developing through all avenues and making it to the game’s top level at a rate far higher than ever before.
Is it time to panic? No. Not in the least.
USA Hockey will have to go back to the drawing board, determine what went wrong this year and what to do better next. It won’t result in sweeping changes, but there will be tweaks. This is the type of result that demands action of some kind, and there will be action, guaranteed. It just won’t involve dynamite.