It was pretty well established that the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team would have to rely on steady defense to have success. However, no one could have predicted just how dominant this defensive group would be. Combine that with stellar goaltending from the tandem of Collin Olson and Jared Rutledge and the U.S. was flat out all-world. Allowing just four goals over six games is nuts. So nuts, in fact, that it was the lowest goals-against in the 13-year history of the event.
To think that goaltending was considered a concern for this team seems laughable now. No one could have expected such a dominant performance, however. Clearly, the defense played a significant role in the lack of goals against, but the blueliners were not mistake free. That’s when goaltending came up big.
The first period in the gold-medal game could have gone a lot differently if Olson had not saved his best performance for last. He was also extremely sound in Team USA’s 2-1 win over Canada in the semis, the toughest test of the tournament for the squad.
The defense, however, was the story for much of the tournament, limiting opponents to just 133 shots. By comparison, Canada, which boasted Matt Dumba, directorate award winner for defenseman of the tournament allowed 210 shots (playing just one more game than the U.S.). There may never be a more dominant defensive performance in the history of this event. It’s going to take something extra special to top it.
I’ll have more numbers from this historic performance in an upcoming issue of USA Hockey Magazine, but for now here’s an in-depth look at each of Team USA’s seven defensemen and two goaltenders.
Editor’s note: All players 2012 NHL Draft eligible unless otherwise noted.
Collin Olson — The numbers pretty much speak for themselves. A 5-0-0-0 record, 0.80 goals-against average, .965 save percentage, three shutouts. Olson had one of the greatest goaltending performances in the history of the tournament. His three shutouts tied Jack Campbell’s tournament record, while his 0.80 GAA matches Campbell’s career mark at the tournament. Olson also became the third consecutive American to win the directorate award as the tournament’s top goaltender, joining Campbell and John Gibson in that class. The fact of the matter was, Olson was good when he needed to be and always gave his team the best chance to win. He showed pretty good rebound control and positioning. He’ll still need work over the next few years, but likely gets a good shot at the NHL Draft now. It was a simply magnificent performance all the way around, good defense or not. Committed to The Ohio State University.
Jared Rutledge — Though he only appeared in one game, Rutledge made his one start count. With a 17-save shutout against Denmark, Rutledge performed extremely well in a game that was actually closer than it should have been. He bailed out his D a few times with big saves against the Danes. There’s also something to be said for being graceful in a backup role. Having split time all season with Olson, Rutledge was likely disappointed to only get one start, but you’d never know. Being a good teammate in that situation speaks volumes about a player’s character. Rutledge will be a solid netminder going forward. Committed to the University of Michigan.
Will Butcher — The lone under-age player on Team USA’s D corps handled himself very well in the tournament. Despite seeing limited ice in the closer games, Butcher was good when he was out there. A gifted puck-mover and skater, Butcher showed flashes of what’s to come over what should be a bright career. He has good speed and vision and showed sound decision making. He had the benefit of playing with a gifted group, but he never once looked out of place. The valuable experience gained at this tournament should help Butcher step into his official Under-18 season with a lot of confidence. Draft eligible in 2013. Committed to the University of Denver.
Connor Carrick — Playing a strong game at both ends of the ice allowed Carrick to have a lot of success. The offensive-minded defenseman posted four points including a pair of goals. Carrick has good speed and some creativity with the puck. He also has pretty good strength along the walls, which makes up for his lack of height. Carrick also has a good feel for when to jump into plays and often makes good decisions when pinching. If Carrick ever got into trouble, he was able to recover with his feet. There should be a few teams that will be looking to pick up Carrick in the later rounds of the Draft. Committed to the University of Michigan.
Matthew Grzelcyk — This tournament provided Grzelcyk to show that he can hack it at a high level. It was a very strong event for the somewhat under-sized defenseman. Though he posted just one goal, Grzelcyk showed off his tremendous hockey sense and ability to make smart, calm decisions with the puck. He absorbs pressure well and can get away from traffic with good foot work and puck handling. The offensive tools are there for Grzelcyk to be a point-producer, too. His lone goal came on the power play against Canada in the prelims. It was a well-placed heavy slap shot, showing that he can really hammer it. His size never really appeared to be an issue despite seeing a lot of time against bigger, stronger forwards. Committed to Boston University.
Seth Jones — I have seen a lot of great defensemen, American or otherwise, at the World U18 Championship over the last four years. I have never seen one as dominant as Seth Jones was in the Czech Republic, and it’s not even close. Jones proved that perhaps we shouldn’t all just pencil in Nathan MacKinnon as the No. 1 overall pick for 2013. Some of the things Jones was able to do in this tournament would make your head spin. He has terrific size, but is such a nimble skater and puck handler for a big man. He was a one-man breakout when he needed to be, always making the right decision to either take it up ice or find the open man. He posted eight points in the tournament, with each of his three goals carrying significance, none more than his third-period goal against Canada in the preliminary round. Jones has a heavy shot, slick puck-handling abilities and speed. I wonder if the Oilers wish he was available in this year’s draft, because they’d have to consider taking him. One NHL scout I spoke with in Brno said Jones could play in the NHL tomorrow, qualifying it with “if he put on a little more weight.” It looks like Jones could be the total package. In addition to his great hockey skills, coaches marveled at the job he did as team captain. This is one special player. Draft eligible in 2013. Uncommitted.
Patrick Sieloff — A true defensive-defenseman, Sieloff thrived in a shutdown role. Best known for his teeth-chattering hits, Sieloff played a much more calculated game in Brno. He was still physical, but better picked his spots and was rarely caught out of position. Team USA’s defense was so good at stepping up immediately at its own blue line, and Sieloff was particularly good at this. Whether with his body or his stick, he always seemed to find a way to separate the puck from the player. Sieloff looked like a seasoned veteran out there. He likely cemented himself into an early-second-round draft position. Committed to Miami University.
Brady Skjei — Though overshadowed by Jones and Jacob Trouba, Brady Skjei put together an incredibly effective tournament for the U.S. He posted just one assist, but Skjei shut down just about everybody he faced. Defensively, he was a rock. Skjei has tremendous skating ability, but has also shown improved decision-making and high level of defensive awareness. If he ever made a mistake, he was able to make up for it with speed and physicality. He led the team with a plus-10 rating at the tournament. Skjei might not have the talent of a Jones or Trouba presently, but he has a tremendous amount of upside. Whichever team gets him won’t likely see immediate results, but as Skjei’s game grows, he could turn into something pretty special. Committed to the University of Minnesota.
Jacob Trouba — It is plainly clear why Trouba is getting a lot of Top-10 buzz. He can do a little bit of everything. His pro-ready size and strength are going to be attractive to a lot of teams. He also plays with an edge and had several bone-crushing hits in the tournament. What people often forget is that Trouba is a tremendous skater. He has speed, sure, but there’s more to it than that. He’s able to find seems and turn it up ice quickly. Then there’s his cannon from the point. Trouba’s one goal at the tournament came off a stunning one-timer that required video review because it came right off the back bar in the net so quickly. He posted three points total. Knocks on his offensive upside are overblown, I feel. There are clearly many tools at this defenseman’s disposal. He should go early on Day 1. Committed to the University of Michigan.
Coming soon on USofH, a look at some of the standouts from the other teams at the World Under-18 Championship.