The 2013 IIHF World Championship is the last major international event before the 2014 Olympic Winter Games and opened Friday in Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden. The U.S. Men’s National Team seeks its first medal in the event since 2004 and will likely meet an uphill battle with wind in their face.
The World Championship has been mostly a disappointment over the years for Team USA. The event is not exactly a desirous one for players coming off the end of a long NHL season. A different set of circumstances this year with the lockout made for a potentially more favorable selection process for USA Hockey, but as the roster seems to indicate, the opposite may have been true.
The real issue with this event is it should be a showcase of the increasing depth in the American player pool in the NHL. However, it’s only shown of late that there’s still a long way to go in the quest to be a true hockey superpower. The U.S. may never match the depth of Canada, but fielding a team that can compete for a gold medal in this event despite heavy participation in the Stanley Cup Playoffs would be a major indicator of increased success in the country’s hockey development.
That could come in due time, but it’s not here yet. Team USA has a fairly tough preliminary schedule and a young roster. Making it to the qualifying round would be a solid accomplishment and the quarterfinals is not out of the question, but it’s going to take a pretty inspiring effort.
Coming up after the jump, an in-depth look at Team USA.
Joe Sacco was picked to lead the U.S. squad and while his NHL stint with the Colorado Avalanche was sub-par, he’s a good man for the World Championship job. He has a wealth of international experience as a player and he’s been an assistant coach at this level.
There may be some concern about his mentality heading into the tournament, having just lost his job in Colorado, but this event could also be part of his audition for his next gig. Sacco is a professional and will likely put his best into Team USA.
He’s joined by his Colorado assistant Tim Army; Phil Housely, who led the U.S. National Junior Team to gold in 2013; and Danton Cole, who coached the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team to gold in 2012. Avalanche video coach Pete Rogers will also be on staff in that same capacity.
Team USA has a relatively inexperienced goaltending group, with Ben Bishop the only player with time spent in the NHL. It’s tough to say if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Experience goes a long way as Jimmy Howard proved last year, coming up big in many situations once he arrived. However, there’s a certain hungriness that could play to Team USA’s advantage. These guys are still at the beginning of their careers and have a lot to prove.
Ben Bishop — Tampa Bay Lightning — Bishop is almost assured the starting position for Team USA. He has 45 NHL games under his belt, which isn’t a lot, but the most among the three goaltenders brought on. He’s going to get a lot of work at this tournament, but coming off his busiest NHL season with 22 appearances, he should be ready to go.
John Gibson — Kitchener Rangers — The Anaheim Ducks prospect was the MVP of the U.S. National Junior Team at the World Juniors and has two gold medals under his belt with one at the WJC this year and the 2011 World U18. Because of his youth, he’s likely along for the ride more than anything, but there is reason to give him some minutes if its at all possible. If this is about helping him gain more international experience, it would be great to see him get a game.
Cal Heeter — Adirondack Phantoms — Coming off his first professional season, the Philadelphia Flyers prospect has a big developmental opportunity with Team USA. Though his numbers were very average this year in the AHL, Heeter had a sparkling career at Ohio State and has shown some great professional upside. Getting a few games against top-end professionals in this tournament could be good for him. The biggest thing is that Heeter is a guy that wants to be here, so the effort will match the enthusiasm.
While not awe-inspiring, Team USA’s defense is a fairly well constructed group. It’s a young corps, with 28-year-old Matt Carle the oldest of the blueliners. There’s a good mix of international and NHL experience, however, and that could go a long way. There are enough guys on this blue line that can help put up points and move the puck well in transition, so this should be at the very least a serviceable defensive unit.
Chris Butler — Calgary Flames — A returnee from last year’s club that fell just short against Finland in the quarterfinals, Butler has some solid experience. He also has 267 NHL games to aid that experience. A defensive defenseman who can be physical, Butler is a solid depth player for Team USA. Butler’s last shift last year didn’t go so great, as he and fellow returnee Jeff Petry were caught with their pants down on the game-winning goal against Finland in the quarterfinal. It was a mistake he’ll have an opportunity to make up for this year.
Matt Carle — Tampa Bay Lightning — One of the most experienced players on this blue line, Carle has an opportunity to be a leader on this U.S. squad. Also, as a potential bubble player for a spot on the Olympic team, Carle has reason to bring his best at the Worlds. The former Hobey Baker winner and National Team Development Program alum is a high-end puck mover who should excel on the European ice. He is easily a top-pairing guy on this team and should see a lot of minutes.
Justin Faulk — Carolina Hurricanes — A breakout performer on last year’s World Championship team, Faulk is likely to be a key guy on the back end for the U.S. once again this year. At 20 years old last year, Faulk may have been Team USA’s best defenseman with four goals and four assists. He should see big minutes in his second turn here and could help better position himself in a hunt for a roster spot for Sochi. It’s within his reach.
Matt Hunwick — Colorado Avalanche — One of the players Joe Sacco can look to on the bench with some familiarity, Hunwick provides steady depth for Team USA on the blue line. More offensive in his time at the University of Michigan, Hunwick has turned himself into a relatively reliable defender and still has good puck-moving capabilities. He may see some quality time due to Sacco’s trust.
Erik Johnson — Colorado Avalanche — The lone Olympian on the back end, Johnson has a wealth of international experience and undoubtedly will be a minutes eater for Team USA at the Worlds. Coming off another injury-shortened season, Johnson is still struggling to live up to the promise of a former first-overall pick. Because of those lofty expectations, it often gets lost that Johnson is still a steady defender, who can be physical and has good enough offensive abilities to contribute at the other end. He’ll be playing a big role in what he may hope will serve as a refresher on what made him an Olympian.
Jamie McBain — Carolina Hurricanes — A solid puck-mover with good NHL experience, McBain may get a run at some top-four minutes at times with Team USA. He’s a good skater and was a weapon on the larger ice surface during his time at the University of Wisconsin. The European-style game should be a benefit to McBain, who is a solid skater and sees the ice well. Don’t be surprised if he exceeds expectations at Worlds.
Jeff Petry — Edmonton Oilers — Another returnee from last year’s squad, Petry had a relatively good tournament up until the final game against Finland. It was Petry who left the net-front open for Finland’s game-winning goal with just eight seconds remaining in regulation to end Team USA’s tournament. A year older and wiser, with another NHL season under his belt should help as Petry did have five points last year and played well for the most part. He has some offense to his game and could be a solid contributor for the U.S., while providing some depth.
Jacob Trouba — Winnipeg Jets — Fresh off an All-American season at the University of Michigan as a freshman, signing his first NHL contract and winning World Junior gold, Jacob Trouba is ready for this next step. Expect him to get some regular playing time as he certainly has earned the chance to prove himself. He’s won gold in each of the last three years with two U18 golds and this year’s World Juniors, making him one of just five American men with three IIHF golds. Trouba brings some snarl, responsible defensive play and some significant offensive potential. His inclusion on the roster will help Team USA.
To be quite frank, this forward group doesn’t look great as a whole. There’s a lot of youth and inexperience here, combined with a relative lack of true scoring talent. Besides Paul Stastny, there isn’t much here in regards to proven track record of offensive prowess at a high level. There are several players that have played in the World Championship before and the young guys brought in may be able to contribute offensively. A lot is going to have to go right for Team USA to be able to score with any amount of consistency, so there’s a real concern here.
Nick Bjugstad — Florida Panthers — Bjugstad scored his first NHL goal in his last of 11 games with the Panthers this season. The former first-round pick spent most of the year at the University of Minnesota, compiling his second consecutive 20-plus-goal season. A veteran of two World Junior Championships, Bjugstad has some international experience to come in handy as well. While Bjugstad has first-round pedigree and a solid collegiate career in his past, it’d be tough to see him as a top-six center at this level just yet. He’ll likely get an opportunity at some point, but he’ll have to prove himself early. At his best, he uses his size and speed well and has a terrific shot. The U.S. will need goals out of him.
Bobby Butler — Nashville Predators — A tremendous college and AHL player, Butler is still trying to find his way in the NHL. Being a part of this U.S. squad could be a good opportunity for Butler. Though he’ll likely be not much more than a depth player for the U.S., he has some good offensive skills that could come to fruition on international ice. He’s another one of those guys that is more likely to seize the opportunity with so much to prove.
Ryan Carter — New Jersey Devils — Carter is a solid addition for this U.S. outfit, just a year removed from a run to the Stanley Cup Final. The World Championship is somewhat like a playoff series, where every game matters and they come in quick succession. This tournament is a grind and a guy like Carter knows how to handle it. He’s got World Championship experience and his name on the Stanley Cup (with Anaheim). Having a veteran presence like his makes him a key asset in the lineup.
Stephen Gionta — New Jersey Devils — Another player with solid Stanley Cup Playoffs experience after last year, Gionta might find himself thrust into a bigger role for this U.S. team. With speed and tenacity, Gionta can get the job done at both ends of the ice. He’s had to claw his way to the NHL, but is making the most of his time there. His international experience goes back some years to the U18s, but he could be a soild contributor for this U.S. team.
Danny Kristo — Hamilton Bulldogs — The Montreal Canadiens might not have won the Hobey Baker this year, he was one of the very best in college hockey this year at North Dakota. He had a career year with 26 goals and 52 points. With his speed and ability to score, Kristo very well could be a top-six forward for this U.S. team on the wing. He won gold at the 2010 World Junior Championship and was a key player there. Kristo might be a bit young, but the way he plays the game could make him a weapon for this U.S. squad.
Drew LeBlanc — Chicago Blackhawks — Fresh off the Hobey Baker win and his NHL debut after signing a free agent contract, LeBlanc now gets his first crack at a U.S. National Team. With high-end playmaking ability and solid skill, LeBlanc very well could be a point-producer for this U.S. squad. He led the nation with 37 assists this year in leading St. Cloud State to the postseason and made a huge impact on every game. If he can adjust to the international game quickly, he should see more ice time down the stretch.
David Moss — Phoenix Coyotes — A former 20-goal scorer in the NHL, Moss is among the most experienced in the pros for Team USA’s forward crop. Though his production is down in recent years, Moss offers Team USA good size up front. He has good enough defensive capabilities to play some of the tougher minutes for the U.S. and should provide some leadership. Moss does have World Championship experience as well, so he’ll know what is going to be expected of him.
Aaron Palushaj — Colorado Avalanche — After being unable to crack the Montreal Canadiens lineup consistently enough, Palushaj got a second chance in Colorado. He posted nine points in 25 games with the Avs. Palushaj has been solid at the AHL level and in college hockey. He also has some World Junior experience, which could help. I’m not entirely sure where he’d fit in the lineup, but he could probably be plugged in a variety of spots.
Craig Smith — Nashville Predators — Smith may end up being the No. 2 center for this U.S. club. He’s played in the last two World Championships, performing quite well in both, so that experience is very helpful. He had some good linemates the last few years and won’t have the quality surrounding him as he has recently. That said, Smith has good speed and can provide offense, while not lacking in defensive capability. It seems weird to say it, but even at 23, he’ll have to be a leader on this team. Smith has been here and knows how to succeed at the World Championship level.
Tim Stapleton — Dynamo Minsk — After a somewhat successful NHL campaign with Winnipeg last year, Stapleton cashed in with the KHL’s Dynamo Minsk. He had 24 goals and 40 points in 52 games this year for Dynamo and has a wealth of experience playing abroad. That all could help as Stapleton is the lone U.S. player that played outside of North America this year. He also has World Championship experience and may be thrust into a top-six role for this team.
Paul Stastny — Colorado Avalanche — Perhaps the marquee player of this roster, Stastny has Olympic and World Championship experience to draw from. He was terrific for last year’s squad with nine points in eight games and will almost certainly be the No. 1 center this year. Without the supporting cast he had at last year’s event, a lot is going to rest on Stastny’s shoulders to carry. He’ll likely see the most ice of any forward and play in every situation from power play to penalty kill. It’s going to be a busy tournament for Stastny, who may have eyes on a second run at the Olympics.
Nate Thompson — Tampa Bay Lightning — Another returnee from last year’s squad, Thompson was a key piece of the fourth line that performed so well last year. He had two goals and played incredibly well defensively, so he might end up being utilized even more this time around. He had a solid year in Tampa and will likely be given a chance to get some special teams time at the Worlds. His experience is much needed in this forward group.
With such a young team and a relative lack of experience throughout the lineup, it’s going to be tough for Team USA to make it a long way in the tournament. Even making it out of the group stage could be a challenge.
The IIHF’s format has the top four teams in each group advancing to the quartefinals. Team USA’s group, Group B, consists of Russia, Finland, Germany, Slovakia, Latvia, France and Austria. Basically, Team USA has to find a way to be better than Germany, Latvia, France and Austria to advance and the U.S. should be. Beyond that, however, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Team USA has the tougher of the two groups, it appears, so if it can get to the quarterfinals and get a decent draw from the other bracket, there’s a chance to advance. Predicting a medal would be a reach for this club.
If Team USA can get off to a good start and win the games you’d expect a U.S. team to be able to win — versus France, Austria and Latvia — then it’s mostly a success. Getting to the quarterfinals would probably be good enough with this group. If the squad struggles early, it could be a long two weeks for the guys who decided to sign on to play.
How to Follow Team USA
All of Team USA’s games will either air live on NBC Sports Network, or will be available via live stream. All USA games will also re-air on NBC Sports Network on tape delay. NBC Sports Network is also committed to airing all of the quarterfinal games. The semifinals and medal games are still to be determined on what NBCSN will air.
Here’s the complete TV/Streaming schedule for NBC Sports Network (All Times ET):
Sat., May 4 — USA vs. Austria — 5:15 a.m. (TV/Stream)
Sun., May 5 — USA vs. Latvia — 1:15 p.m. (Stream only)
Tues., May 7 — USA vs. Russia — 1:15 p.m. (TV/Stream)
Wed., May 8 — USA vs. Finland — 1:15 p.m. (TV/Sream)
Sat., May 11 — USA vs. France — 5:15 a.m. (TV/Stream)
Sun., May 12 — USA vs. Germany — 9:15 a.m. (Stream only)
Tues., May 14 — USA vs. Slovakia — 5:15 a.m. (TV/Stream)
Thurs., May 16 — Quarterfinals — 6 a.m., 8:45 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. (TV only)*
* – U.S. game will also be streamed live, if they’re in
I won’t be recapping every U.S. game, but will have posts throughout the tournament to update and analyze Team USA’s progress throughout the tournament.