As families gather across the world, the U.S. National Junior Team is diligently preparing for a difficult annual task. Coming into the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship as the defending gold medalists, Team USA has pressure, but with only three returnees, it’s not pressure born out of a need to repeat.
While this U.S. team would like to be the first U.S. squad to complete back-to-back gold medals, they basically start fresh this year. With players hungry for a championship and, perhaps more than anything, to prove they were able to attain the high standard set by those that have gone before them.
The U.S. will have to do it with a depleted roster. Three eligible players busy with NHL duty and others out with injury, depth has taken a hit, but it won’t be leaned on as an excuse. With the growth of American hockey and the increased prominence of American players matriculating to the NHL, a lack of depth due to outside factors is hardly enough a reason to preclude the U.S. from competing.
The road through the tournament as it is for every team, every year, will be difficult. The U.S. starts group play with the Czech Republic and will end it with rival Canada. A new tournament format means every team has a seven-game path to gold. It levels the playing field a bit, but it makes the margin for error so slim when the January portion of the tournament begins.
This U.S. team will be built like those of years past. A premium on speed has left some quality players at home as the Team USA hopes to use the big ice to its advantage. Speed throughout the lineup will put pressure on opposing defenses and helps narrow the gap in skill Team USA will face against certain teams in the tournament.
There’s also a big emphasis on goaltending. In any tournament the U.S. has had success, the goaltending has been excellent. Team USA has a good trio, but will likely ride Providence’s Jon Gillies (CGY) throughout the tournament. If Team USA can get the goaltending that has made Gillies one of the finest netminders in all of college hockey, they have a really good chance of making some serious noise at the tournament.
John Gibson was sensational last year, but Gillies may have to be better this time around. The defense corps for this U.S. squad is miles different than last year’s. It’s more than serviceable, but it doesn’t have Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba patrolling the blue line.
The U.S. went with a more mobile defensive corps, with almost every player possessing good passing abilities. There’s balance to the defensive group, with a pair of good shutdown guys in Brady Skjei (NYR) and Steven Santini (NJD), a duo of solid two-way defensemen in Ian McCoshen (FLA) and Jaccob Slavin (CAR) and a trio of really strong puck-movers in Matt Grzelcyk (BOS), Will Butcher (COL) and Connor Carrick (WSH). That mobility and quickness on the back end could be a real difference maker for the U.S.
Up front, the U.S. still has one more cut to make before finalizing its roster, but they have the players capable of manufacturing offense. Starting with a good top line of Nic Kerdiles (ANA), Danny O’Regan (SJS) and newly-named captain Riley Barber (WSH), the U.S. has a trio of players that are comfortable with each other and offer a diverse enough skill set to be difficult to prepare for. Each player has the capability to score and has enough speed to keep pressure on opposing defenders.
The U.S. also should be able to expect a high level of production from its second scoring line featuring 17-year-old center Jack Eichel (2015). Along with Ryan Hartman (CHI) and more than likely Adam Erne (TBL), assuming Erne is healthy enough for the tournament, there’s a good mix of speed, high-end skill and grit. Both Erne and Hartman play physical games and combine that with good scoring skills. Eichel might be the most skilled player on the whole team and was a force in most exhibition games.
None of these lines are finalized yet, but it would appear Stefan Matteau (NJD), Andrew Copp (WPG) and Hudson Fasching (LAK) would make up Team USA’s third line, which will be there to provide scoring as well. This group can provide some energy and won’t be a liability in the defensive zone. There’s a lot of muscle on this line, too.
At the bottom of the lineup, Team USA will be looking for shut-down defensive play from Thomas Di Pauli (WSH), Quentin Shore (OTT) and probably either Vince Hinostroza (CHI) or Tyler Motte (CHI). This is an energetic group with a good mix of size, speed and smarts. Throw in Zach Stepan (NSH) as a possible 13th forward option and you’ve got yourself the mix in the lineup to do a lot of different things in the tournament.
Goals are probably not going to come easy for this team, but in this tournament they rarely do. There will obviously be some games where the offense comes easier than others, but in those tighter defensive contests, the U.S. is going to have to get creative.
The good thing about this U.S. lineup is the mix of size they’ve brought in. Teams that control the middle of the ice tend to have the most success on the big sheet. Good net-front play and driving the net are skills teams have to possess. Finding ways to get the quality shots from in close can go a long way in bringing the goals. This team definitely has the guys that can play that game adequately.
The U.S. will also want their D engaged in the offensive play and that won’t seem to be a problem with the group they have.
More than anything, a team has to take advantage of what is given to them. Mistakes are magnified on the big sheet, especially by teams that transition well and find ways to be opportunistic. The U.S. doesn’t have the skill level of past years, so pouncing on mistakes will be important.
There’s also some emphasis on the coaching staff in a short tournament. Last year, the coaches made key adjustments when the team wasn’t performing up to its ability. Making those quick decisions in the tournament and many times in the game and making the right ones can be a big difference. Don Lucia seems to have a good grasp on how he wants to play and what his team needs to do. He wanted a lineup with versatility so he could plug guys into various roles throughout the tournament and he has that. Now it’s just about using them properly. With a winning pedigree, Lucia has done it in the past and will be tested to do so in Malmo.
Another interesting factor for this year’s team is that it comes in an underdog. Unlike last year, when Seth Jones said the U.S. was the best team in the tournament, he wasn’t far off. This year, the U.S. is probably a few steps behind teams like Canada and Sweden who have a litany of high draft picks and players with WJC experience. There’s nothing wrong with being the underdog. If nothing else, it can be a motivating mentality to have.
The U.S. squad in 2010 wasn’t given a real chance to be ultra competitive, but they ended up winning the gold medal. Conversely, in 2012, the U.S. had one of its best teams on paper and finished seventh. This tournament can be a strange one. You never quite know what you’re going to get.
The new format only enhances the potential for insanity, with every advancing team having to play in the quarterfinals, there’s more opportunities for surprises. It is likely going to come down to goaltending for a lot of teams and the cliche, but true, timely scoring. Sometimes it’s about catching lightning in a bottle in a seven-game tournament. Teams still have to be good enough to know what to do with it, though.
The 2014 World Junior Championship is going to be an interesting one and, as always, a lot of fun.
All of Team USA’s games will be carried live on NHL Network U.S. and streamed live simultaneously on NHL.com for free.
Team USA’s 2014 World Junior Championship Schedule (All Times ET)
Dec. 26 — vs. Czech Republic — 11:30 a.m.
Dec. 28 — vs. Slovakia — 7:30 a.m.
Dec. 29 — vs. Germany — 9 a.m. ET
Dec. 31 — vs. Canada — 11:30 a.m. ET
Jan. 2 — Quarterfinals — TBD
Jan. 4 — Semifinals — TBD
Jan. 5 — Medal Games — TBD