USA Hockey’s pre-tournament camp opens in New York at the Rangers practice facility Sunday. Stick with United States of Hockey for more camp preview content later today.
John Gibson — Goaltender
Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pa. Birthdate: July 14, 1993
Current Team: Kitchener Rangers
NHL Rights: Anaheim Ducks (2nd Rd., 39th overall, 2011)
National Team Experience: National Team Development Program (2009-11), U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team (2011 U18 WC, gold), U.S. National Junior Team (2012 WJC, 7th)
When the camp opens for Team USA on Sunday, there will be at least one man with nothing to fear. John Gibson is one of the three goaltenders invited to camp, which means he’s already on the team. He’s also the clear-cut No. 1 goalie for this squad.
Gibson was the primary back up for Jack Campbell at last year’s World Juniors and may be in search of a bit of redemption in his second go at the tournament.
He appeared in just one game, but it was a meaningful one. Gibson was rock solid through the first 40 minutes against Finland in Team USA’s second preliminary-round game. After the U.S. tied the game early in the third period, the momentum swung firmly in the Americans’ direction.
Just before the halfway point of the final frame, with the U.S. buzzing, Gibson steered a puck to the corner. As Gibson tracked the play across his crease, a charging Finn was heading for the puck. The big netminder casually, but probably intentionally, strayed from the crease, slightly impeding the Finnish forward, who also ended up losing his footing. The referee’s arm went up right away. Interference.
Finland’s Joel Armia scored on the ensuing power play. Twenty-nine seconds later, Mikael Granlund scored to make it 3-1. After that, the U.S. was toast. Armia added another and the U.S. lost 4-1.
The loss obviously wasn’t entirely on Gibson, but the penalty was the turning point in the game. It was a decision so uncharacteristic of Gibson, it was almost hard to fathom what had happened. He never got a chance to make up for it.
The U.S. lost each of its next two games and headed to the relegation round. Jack Campbell played every minute outside of the Finland game.
So it’s been a year of waiting, but knowing Gibson, it hasn’t been a year of stewing. His mental toughness is among his best skills. Goalie is the one position where the intangibles seem to matter most and Gibson hits on pretty much all of them. Add the focus, the calm demeanor in the net and general steadiness to his immense physical tools and you’ve got yourself a pretty good goaltender.
Based on which goalies will be playing in 2013 that we’re aware of already, Gibson has a very good chance to be considered one of, if not the best in the whole tournament. The second-round pick of Anaheim is currently second in the OHL in goals-against average (2.13) and save percentage (.934).
At 6-3, 212, he has a good mix of size, technicality and athleticism. Gibson possesses some terrific rebound control, tracks pucks well and never gets intimidated in his crease. He will have a very solid defensive group in front of him, but with the skill of teams like Canada and Russia, he’s going to need to be sharp.
The U.S. isn’t going to come close to matching the depth of Canada, and it won’t out-skill the likes of Russia and on the other side, Sweden and Finland. That makes Gibson’s job all the more important. If the U.S. struggles to score goals like it did last year, they’ll obviously have to be better at preventing the other team from scoring.
The U.S. can be confident in Gibson. Outside of that one WJC game, he has a sparkling international record. In 2011, he was the directorate award winner as the World Under-18 Championship’s best goaltender after he backstopped the U.S. Under-18s to gold. The year before, Gibson helped end a seven year gold drought at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, nearly shutting out Canada-Ontario in the championship game. It was that tournament where Gibson established himself as one of the top goalies in the age group and he really never looked back.
When the starter job has been his, he’s been outstanding, the picture of consistency. This is going to be his show. The way the U.S. schedule sets up, he may end up playing every minute of every game.
There was some concern before the U.S. named the roster as to whether or not Gibson would even be available. After suffering a strained hip flexor on Nov. 27, Kitchener shut him down so he could rest, with his timetable for return listed as indefinite. USA Hockey didn’t flinch in inviting him, as Team USA GM Jim Johannson said he spoke to Gibson before adding him to the roster and was confident he’d be ready for the tournament.
Thursday night, Gibson confirmed his readiness with a 33-save victory over Windsor in his return from injury. That’s a major relief for Team USA as they know their big goaltender appears to be ready for the task at hand.
There will be pressure on Gibson, but that’s where he tends to thrive. If the U.S. has any hopes at competing for any medal, let alone gold, Gibson will have to be at his best in every game. Seth Jones might be Team USA’s most important skater, but John Gibson is the key. The big netminder has the ability to put the team on his back. He might have to.
Team USA Candidates on TV Tonight
Before heading off the the pre-tournament camp, U.S. players will participate in their own team’s games this weekend. Four of them will be playing on national television tonight.
Here’s a look at who and where you can follow them.
Miami at Ohio State — 7 p.m. ET — Big Ten Network
Sean Kuraly — C — Miami — Kuraly, who was the subject of a World Junior Watch spotlight earlier this week, was one of the best players in Team USA’s summer camp, but has found the adjustment to college a little difficult. I spoke to Kuraly earlier this week to get his thoughts on his performance this year and making the jump to college.
“For me, everything’s a little bit of a process,” Kuraly said. “You’re trying to get used to everything and it was kind of the same way in [Indiana-USHL]. It’s kind of similar to what I’m going through now, but I can already see myself going through this transition quicker.”
Kuraly explained that he felt it took his entire first year in the USHL to get used to that level of play, but things are progressing well at Miami.
“I feel like this year it’s only taking half the year, just to get my feet wet and feel comfortable and be confident enough to have the puck on my stick a lot or as much as I need it,” said the 19-year-old. “It’s taken longer than I hope, to be honest. You always want to score goals but we’re winning and that’s the best thing.”
Kuraly may be on the bubble for the U.S. squad, so heading into camp with a strong pair of games at Miami would be a positive step towards earning a spot. He has been primarily a third-line center for the RedHawks this year, so keep a close eye on his two-way capabilities and speed. That’s how he’s likely to make Team USA.
Riley Barber — RW — Miami — Barber has a little more to prove than everyone else in camp having not been invited to the National Junior Evaluation Camp in August. His torrid start to the year has given him this opportunity. The nation’s top-scoring freshman has 19 points on the year and has been dynamic with linemate Austin Czarnik, a member of last year’s U.S. squad.
Keep an eye on what Barber can do from the wing to create offense and how he puts himself in positions to score. Most of Team USA’s right wings in camp are more physical, while Barber has a little more touch and finesse. If he is to make the U.S. roster, he has to bring those potentially high-end offensive tools to a top-nine role.
This is also a bit of a rivalry game, so it should be a pretty intense series, which only helps Kuraly and Barber who will have to have an awfully high compete level to earn a final spot.
Western Michigan at Michigan — 7:30 p.m. ET — CBS Sports Network
Jacob Trouba — D — Michigan — Expected to be one of the leaders for this U.S. team as a returning player, Trouba has been outstanding in his freshman season. The Wolverines, however, have not. This is a huge series for the home team as they look to turnaround what’s been a fairly disastrous start to the year.
Keep an eye on Trouba’s physical game and his ability to generate offense. While his defensive skills are high end, his offensive tools are really beginning to shine through as a true fresman. He gets a lot of ice time and could end up a big part of Team USA’s power play as a trigger man.
With the importance of this game between No. 7 WMU and Michigan in terms of CCHA standings and national exposure is a good situation for Trouba to be in before he heads into camp where he will be expected to lead by example.
Alabama-Huntsville at Wisconsin — 8 p.m. — Fox College Sports
Jake McCabe — D — Wisconsin — There might not be a lot left to learn about McCabe who has been playing pretty well for the Badgers. Though Wisconsin has struggled this year, the team seems to be on its way back from the depths.
Coming off a 5-0 win against UAH last night, there’s always that chance for a bit of a let down on Saturday, but McCabe will have to keep the energy level up. Like the Miami duo, his spot on the team may not yet be completely secure.
McCabe is a pure two-way defender. He has valuable skills both offensively and defensively and that makes him awfully versatile. In a game against UAH, look for McCabe to try and open up his offensive game a little bit more. The stakes are a little lower for this non-conference game with a weak opponent and McCabe isn’t afraid to take chances.
The sophomore defenseman’s mobility is vastly improved and that could keep him in the mix to play an important role for Team USA. Closing out the second half on a high note has to be important for the Badgers and McCabe.
Team Canada’s Roster Decided
Hockey Canada made it’s final cuts Thursday, which included the always uncomfortable and almost completely unnecessary “shove the freshly-cut teenager in front of a host of cameras and microphones so the public at large can truly feel his complete and utter disappointment” song and dance.
The 23 players selected to represent Canada at the 2013 World Junior Championship includes a bit of a different feel than Canadian teams of the recent past.
Typically, they would bring a line full of “energy” players that’s sole purpose was physicality and intimidation. This year, they don’t really have anyone like that. Most of the physical guys can also put up points in bunches, so Canada is erring on the side of speed and skill.
The big names, and there are many, include Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Dougie Hamilton, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Strome, Morgan Rielly, Malcolm Subban and Mark Scheifele. Team Canada also broke from recent trends by bringing not one, but two under-agers in Halifax teammates Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. The last time Canada brought two 17-year-olds to the WJC was 2008. A couple of fellas named John Tavares and Steven Stamkos.
The one area of weakness, and it’s really only a mild weakness, might be the goaltending as Malcolm Subban is awfully talented, but can be inconsistent and will be under immense pressure. Jordan Binnington is a solid back-up, while Jake Paterson may end up riding the pine as an 18-year-old. Goaltending has been Canada’s Achilles heel in the past and it can be again.
Other than that, there’s strength at every position. Nathan MacKinnon is going to be a top pick in this year’s draft and he’s projected to be this team’s 13th forward. They cut guys like first-rounders Mathew Dumba, Derrick Pouliot, Tom Wilson and Mark McNeill. So that’s a pretty good indicator of how good this team should be.
There isn’t going to be a team in this tournament that will come close to matching Canada player-for-player, skill-for-skill. There’s too much depth on this club. They’ll come into the tournament heavy favorites and if they are to be beaten, it’s going to take nothing short of a herculean effort. Not even the flag-wavingest American would disagree.
That said, you never can tell what will happen at the World Juniors. That’s what makes this event so fun.
USA meets Canada Dec. 30 at — get this — 4:30 a.m. EST. Fun!
Coming up later today, what to watch for at Team USA’s camp and what we can learn about Team USA throughout the camp process.