The IIHF World Championship has not often been kind to the United States. With just two medals in the last 20 years, both bronze (1996, 2004) and no gold since 1933, it’s been a largely forgettable event for American hockey fans. That is, if they even knew it was going on to begin with.
However, with national TV exposure on NBC Sports Network and an overall added awareness of international hockey since the 2010 Olympics, there’s reasons for the American entry to put out a concerted effort to shoot for a medal.
The tournament begins May 4 and runs through May 20 in Helsinki, Finland, and Stockholm, Sweden. All, but one of Team USA’s games will be carried live on NBC Sports Network (full schedule below).
Despite an eighth-place finish in 2011, there is reason for optimism in 2012. Three 2010 Olympians have signed on for national team duty, while a host of several up-and-coming stars will also join the club in Helsinki, Finland. It is still going to be an uphill battle for the U.S. to medal, but this year’s team looks well positioned to at least make a run.
Coming up after the jump, an in-depth look at the U.S. roster for the 2012 IIHF Men’s World Championship.
The overwhelming difference from this year’s team to the last several is going to be between the pipes for Team USA. Detroit’s loss was quite literally USA Hockey’s gain. After the Red Wings got bounced in the first round, Jimmy Howard became available. For once, the U.S. gets a bona fide No. 1 goaltender to handle the bulk of the load.
The U.S. also has Dallas’ Richard Bachman and former NHLer John Curry (Hamburg-DEL) on the goaltending depth chart.
Howard should have a little added motivation at this year’s event as he will certainly be a candidate for the 2014 Olympic Team (assuming NHLers go). Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick may be written on the roster in ink right now, but Howard will have a good chance at making a case for that third spot. A good showing at the Worlds, in addition to actually agreeing to play for Team USA after a long season and a disappointing ouster in the playoffs, will not be forgotten come decision time.
With a talented, but young defensive corps and offense always unpredictable in these short tournaments, good goaltending will be paramount if the U.S. has any hopes at stepping on a podium. Howard should get all the big games, with Bachman and Curry potentially mixing in a start somewhere. Having a strong and experienced netminder to keep things settled on the back end could go a long way.
The defense, as mentioned before, is young, but that’s probably a good thing. The young core will be anchored by Olympian and World Championship staple Jack Johnson. The player that never says no should see a whole mess of ice time as the most experienced Dman on this squad when it comes to international competition.
Alex Goligoski, at 26 years old, is the oldest defenseman on the squad. He also has 271 games of NHL experience, second only to Johnson’s 364. Goligoski should see a lot of ice time as well for this U.S. squad with his gifted puck-moving ability. He’s also never been a minus player in the NHL. This will be his first World Championship, though he did appear in the 2005 World Junior Championship.
Cam Fowler may be coming off a rocky sophomore campaign, but he was a strong defender for the U.S. in last year’s World Championship and has excelled on the international stage in the past. With World Junior and World Under-18 gold medals to his name, Fowler has won wearing the USA crest. That helps, even in this very different event. Expect Fowler to see some work on special teams and get utilized in a variety of situations.
Justin Faulk might be the most intriguing addition to this U.S. Men’s National Team, coming off of a rather brilliant rookie campaign with Carolina. He improved as the season went on and is accustomed to playing big minutes in all situations. Faulk has a bomb from the point and should see significant action on the power play. He won a U18 gold just two years ago and bronze at the 2011 World Juniors. Faulk’s youth and close proximity to his days at the National Team Development Program should make him a pretty hungry individual. Faulk spoke about the pride of putting on the USA jersey and one should not expect a let down from this youngster. He’ll play hard for the duration of the tournament.
Edmonton’s Jeff Petry is Team USA’s biggest defenseman and quietly put up some pretty solid numbers in his first full-time NHL season. He’s yet another good puck mover, but with so many offensive defensemen, may have to focus more on things in his own end.
Justin Braun and Chris Butler should both be able to help in that regard as well. Both of those guys should provide a little bit of physicality and strong defensive minutes. Butler blocks a lot of shots and isn’t afraid to lay the body. Braun meanwhile likely slots into the seventh defenseman role and should be a stable presence when out there.
The forward group definitely has a little more star power this year than last. With some established scorers dotting the forward lineup, offense shouldn’t be a huge concern for Team USA.
Bobby Ryan and Paul Stastny are the 2010 Olympians that will be part of this forward corps and should be relied on heavily for production.
Statny is Team USA’s best center by far and brings with him a pretty solid resume. Coming off a decent, if unspectacular season, Stastny’s international experience should be invaluable. In his lone previous World Championship, Stastny posted eight points in seven games including four goals. The scoring was hard to come by at last year’s World Championship. If Stastny brings scoring and some leadership to this club, he could be an offensive catalyst.
Most eyes will be on Bobby Ryan when it comes to big time production however. In his first four full-time seasons in the NHL, Ryan hasn’t scored less than 31 goals a year. That’s all well and good over the course of a long season, but this tournament will require Ryan to get hot at the right time to be a major contributor. He only posted two points at the Olympics in 2010, but Ryan was not the featured forward on that squad. He will be in Helsinki. With a lot of the offensive responsibility resting on his shoulders, Ryan will have to answer the call.
Perhaps Max Pacioretty can be one of the guys to relieve some of the pressure on Ryan to produce. Coming off a stunning career year with the Montreal Canadiens, there’s plenty of reason to believe Pacioretty can be an impact player on this team. The biggest forward for the U.S., Pacioretty should see significant minutes. After posting 33 goals and 65 points in Montreal, the big forward could be in for a huge tournament.
Kyle Okposo will also grant the U.S. a little more goal scoring depth than it’s used to seeing at this tournament. Coming off a 24-goal season for the Islanders, Okposo also has strong international experience. This will be his first twirl at the Men’s World Championship, to go along with a pair of World Junior Championship appearances. With that valuable experience, Okposo could be looked to as a leader on this young team.
Beyond those four guys, and this shouldn’t be a complaint, as the U.S. often doesn’t have that many high-end offensive weapons at this tournament, Team USA’s offensive potential drops off a bit.
Ryan Lasch, who spent last season playing in Finland with the Lahti Pelicans, could be a bit of a wildcard up front. Having played the last two seasons in Europe, he should see some familiar competition at this event and won’t need much time to adjust to the international game. He was over a point-per-game player for the Pelicans, posting 24 goals and 38 assists. Lasch also had a pretty strong college career for St. Cloud State. If there’s going to be a surprise for Team USA, Lasch could be it.
Cam Atkinson, who split the season between Columbus in the NHL and Springfield in the AHL, could also be a strong source of production. With 29 goals in 51 AHL games and seven in 27 NHL games, Atkinson has potential to break out. It’s not like his production at the pro level was a fluke. Atkinson put up back-to-back 30-goal seasons at Boston College, which is pretty tough to do at the NCAA level. Size shouldn’t hold Atkinson back at the World Championship.
Team USA also has established NHL veterans like Justin Abdelkader, Joey Crabb, Nate Thompson, Jim Slater and Patrick Dwyer that should provide good balance throughout the lineup.
Then throw in J.T. Brown, who had a sensational season with Minnesota Duluth before getting five games in with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Kyle Palmieri, who was an AHL All-Star this year and saw action in 18 NHL games with Anaheim, and the U.S. has a pretty solid group up front.
The forward group isn’t very big, but it should have decent enough speed and there’s a little more offensive potential with this group than years previous.
There are still two open spots on this U.S. team, but they don’t necessarily have to fill those holes before the start of the tournament. USA Hockey can add those two players at different points in the tournament if need be. It could depend on how the conference semifinals go in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If a few players become available and willing, the U.S. could have a pair of impact players parachute in at just the right time.
In summation, this U.S. team, as constructed, has a chance at competing for a medal. It’s not going to be easy with a lot of really strong teams at this tournament, namely Russia, Sweden, Canada, Slovakia and defending champion Finland. Still, Team USA has a really good opportunity to make some noise in Helskinki and Stockholm.
With all, but one of its preliminary round games live, the U.S. will also get some excellent exposure thanks to NBC Sports Network. Full TV schedule here.
It may not seem like it matters, but that this tournament is televised, no matter how small the audience, it may elicit some extra motivation out of the players to perform. Before, this was a tournament barely registering on the radar at all. If the U.S. laid an egg, few would notice. That’s not the case anymore. Despite a small audience due to the time difference, people will know if this team doesn’t perform.
It should be fun to follow if nothing else. More hockey on TV, especially international hockey of any kind, is good for the sport. Hockey at the international level is a joy to watch, even if the very best for each country aren’t available.
As for coverage on USofH, the goal is to have post-game recaps for each of Team USA’s IIHF contests, complete with in-depth analysis on what went right, what went wrong, who played well and who didn’t. You guys know the drill.
Stay tuned for more IIHF Men’s World Championship throughout the week.