The U.S. National Junior Team saw their World Junior Championship come to an end far sooner than they could have expected it to in 2014. After starting with three sound wins over weaker opponents, the U.S. suffered back-to-back losses to their biggest international rivals with Canada taking the final prelim game and Russia eliminating the U.S. in the quarterfinals. In the end, USA finished the 2014 World Junior Championship in a fifth place.
Finland won the gold medal Sunday, beating rival Sweden 3-2 in overtime. Buffalo Sabres prospect Rasmus Ristolainen scored the golden goal to make Finland the fifth different gold medalist at the WJC since 2009. That means Finland will be in the same group with USA and Canada at next year’s World Junior Championship.
The optics of an early exit are never good. However, it seems this time around, there’s not really much need for outrage. Is it disappointing coming off the gold medal? Of course. This team should have done better, but I don’t see this team as a dramatic underachiever even finishing outside the medal round.
It is a far cry from the seventh-place finish by the 2012 team, that by any measure, was far better on paper than the one USA Hockey sent in 2014. Even with that in mind though, U.S. teams absolutely should have the depth to be a gold-medal contender every time they enter a tournament and I think even this year’s team was. Once you get to single elimination, however, anything could happen.
In past tournaments, like ending up in the relegation-round in 2012 or in the quarterfinal exit in 2009, the U.S. bowed out due to games they probably shouldn’t have lost. When the path to the gold medal is halted by Russia, sometimes you just have to tip your cap.
There are several factors that contributed to Team USA’s early exit. They certainly could have beaten Russia and had they not had a brief, but costly breakdown in the middle of the second period, Team USA probably would have been playing for a medal today.
It was the same story in the final preliminary round game against Canada, where the U.S. had a brief let down in focus and discipline and it ended up costing them dearly.
This team was never soundly out-played or out-worked. That’s why I think the reaction to finishing fifth this time around results more in a shoulder shrug than pounding-on-the-desk outrage. As I’ve said, this team could have won gold. They lost in part because of their own doing and fell short of the goal that every U.S. team enters this tournament with now.
Why Team USA Lost
I went back and watched parts of the Canada and Russia games to see where USA went wrong. The conclusion for me was the same as Don Lucia’s after the quarterfinal loss to Russia. In each game there were lapses of about 5-6 minutes apiece that turned the tide of each game.
The U.S. was definitely a different team against Canada after Nic Petan scored to tie the game 1-1 in the second period, however it was even more prevalent in the third. Team USA came out a bit flat and between the first and seventh minute of the period. In that span, Canada scored twice, including a power-play tally from Connor McDavid that gave Canada a 3-1 advantage.
Team USA actually fought back into that game while trailing 3-1 and found their game again. If Connor Carrick doesn’t get robbed with a brilliant toe save by Zach Fucale on a breakaway, there’s a good chance the U.S. has new life and more time to engineer the comeback. They went right down to the wire after Stefan Matteau cut the deficit to a goal.
Similarly, in the second period against Russia, the U.S. had a breakdown of about 5 minutes or so, starting with their failure on a power-play that began at the 10:40 mark of the second period. That PP was prematurely ended by a Matteau penalty, which was then followed by a Tommy Di Pauli hooking call. That gave the Russians a 5-on-3 PP and Nikita Zadorov’s bomb from the point tied the game.
With Di Pauli still in the box, the U.S. won the draw after the goal right back to Steven Santini. He went to clear the puck the length of the ice, but it was ruled his shot went over the glass for a delay of game. Replays seemed to show it hitting the glass first, but it is hard to know conclusively. Either way, the U.S. was 5-on-3 still, Zadorov unleashed another bomb and the momentum swung firmly in the Russians favor.
What the U.S. lacked in both games was an effective counter-punch after their brief lapses. There wasn’t a single line the U.S. could look to and expect a big goal from. There was no game-breaking player on the roster. Perhaps the most skilled forward overall was 17-year-old Jack Eichel, who it would be unfair to expect to be that guy for Team USA. That was a major difference between this year’s team and the gold-medal group.
As soon as Team USA hit the elimination phase of the tournament in 2013, Johnny Gaudreau became the team’s go-to scorer and was almost automatic with seven goals over his last four games in the tournament.
This U.S. team lacked the depth of skill to provide that counter-punch that it needed in those last two games. There were several solid goal scorers in the mix, but none of them could really do it by themselves. Sometimes you need a player to do that. That said, when you don’t have the depth of skill, you have to find a way to manufacture goals. The U.S. had the speed and strength to beat teams in transition and out-work them down low.
When those games wore on, the U.S. had trouble connecting on passes and getting any sort of sustained pressure. On the bigger ice surface, when trailing, puck possession becomes even more important. So when the U.S. struggled to connect on passing plays or making teams work harder in the defensive zone, comebacks were harder to complete.
That’s essentially what it comes down to. In short tournaments, when your back is against the wall, the margin for error is slim. The U.S. erred at inopportune times, their opponents capitalized and that’s the end of it.
Obviously, the fact that Team USA started the tournament 3-0-0-0 with big wins over Germany, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, makes the last two games a bit harder to understand. Clearly this team was on another tier compared to those previous three. The U.S. also played one of its best periods in the tournament in the first against Canada.
So when you see things like that, it definitely does make the breakdowns in the other two games all the more perplexing.
It really is hard to pin blame on any one player or coach or anyone else for why things shook out the way they did. Second-guessing with 20/20 hindsight is a little too easy. I had no problem with the player selection based on what I saw in camp and from the rest of the selection pool. I liked the way the lineup was structured early on in the tournament as well and thought player usage was appropriate.
Perhaps there could have been a few more late-game adjustments from the bench to try and manufacture a bit more offense, but I didn’t think any one line was going to make that big of a difference. There were only so many combinations worth trying.
Jon Gillies played well in the tournament. He may get some blame, but really shouldn’t. He didn’t lose the team any games, but he didn’t steal any either. Sometimes you need your goaltender to do that for you. I don’t think there was any moment in the tournament where Gillies let down at all, though.
The penalties late in the tournament were cause for concern. Had the U.S. played more of a clean game, they would have had more success more than likely.
I think a lot of folks will also look to the guys that could have been on the roster but weren’t available as another reason the U.S. fell short, but I don’t think that’s a good excuse. No question this team would have been better with Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba, Alex Galchenyuk, Patrick Sieloff and the J.T. Compher, who ended up getting injured in camp, but Finland just won a gold medal without three of their best players in the age group — Olli Maatta, Aleksander Barkov (both in the NHL) and Kasperi Kapanen (who got injured in camp).
You have to find ways to win in these short tournaments, this U.S. team didn’t and I think this really is as simple as that.
What We Learned
One of the things that is clear about this tournament is that the new format did not hinder competitiveness. Though there is no longer a bye to play for, finishing first in the group is just as, if not more important.
Had the U.S. beaten Canada, their path would have included Switzerland in the quarterfinals, which is obviously a much more favorable draw than Russia (still not a gimme though). They would have then met Finland in the semis and who knows how that would have played out as the Finns took out Canada with a 5-1 win before dispatching Sweden in the gold-medal game.
The U.S. will be in a group with Finland and Canada next year, and the format will remain unchanged. So, yet again, there’s more of an emphasis on trying to win the group. A third-place finish would likely bring either Sweden or Russia in the quarterfinals next year, so beware.
Another thing I think we learned is that the Europeans are leveling the playing field even more with high-end puck skills. Look at the top players on Finland, Sweden and Russia, and those guys have creativity, soft hands, tremendous on-ice vision and offensive know-how. They had multiple players they could count on to make things happen, generate offense and if need be, create a goal. Finland’s Teuvo Teravainen and Sweden’s Filip Forsberg were almost machine-like offensively.
You look at almost Sweden’s entire lineup, the top six for Finland and Russia and you’re looking at some guys that can play the game in a way North American players are less equipped for. That isn’t necessarily true of some of those rare talents like Jonathan Drouin or Connor McDavid (or dipping into last year, Johnny Gaudreau) who just have loads of creativity.
One thing I remember Ray Ferraro saying during a Canadian broadcast this year is that the nice thing about the Euro teams at the WJC is that the players haven’t had the creativity coached out of them yet by NHL coaches. I loved that line so much, but I think it extends beyond the NHL and into the developmental hockey ranks in North America.
We’re not letting our players in North America have enough leeway to be creative.
It’s all about systems and winning instead of fun and development. That’s a real gap between the two sides of the hockey world. There’s a lot that can be learned from the way Sweden and Finland develop their players.
For instance, a total 64,000 people play hockey in Sweden and 66,000 play in Finland. Among those two countries, Sweden has 47,000 youth hockey players, while Finland has 37,000. The United States has 510,000 players, while Canada has more than 600,000 players. How is it that two countries with about 10 percent of the players of either the U.S. or Canada, has so many high-end skill players? They’re doing something right.
It’s not just the World Juniors. Look at the NHL, too. They’re producing as many guys with Stamkos-level skill as Canada with a fraction of the numbers. There are skill players in the U.S. and Canada, but there should be more.
One of these days, our youth hockey culture will remember that fun goes a long way to making better hockey players as opposed to winning what amounts to meaningless games.
The U.S. National Junior Team this year fell short, but there were some serious positives to take out of the tournament as well. The 18-year-olds that will be back next year, particularly Hudson Fasching, Steven Santini and Will Butcher, and 17-year-old Jack Eichel were exceptional in the tournament. Their experience playing prominent roles at a young age will definitely be huge factors next year when they’re back on North American soil.
The 1996 birth year has a lot of skill players and some the 1995s that didn’t make the team this year will be more prepared the next time around. Also, the 1997 birth years just claimed the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge title on Saturday, which means some players — perhaps led by defenseman Noah Hanifin, an all-tournament selection at the U17s — will be ready for the World Juniors as under-agers next year.
The U.S. will also be able to bring back Thatcher Demko, who never dressed for a game in the tournament, as one of the goaltenders next go around. Ian McCoshen and Adam Erne will also be eligible to return to Team USA, as will late cuts Anthony DeAngelo and Tyler Motte.
There’s a really solid foundation to build off of and I think this team showed that even though they lacked some of the star players, they could hang with their peers pretty well. A one-goal loss to Canada and a two-goal loss with an empty-netter to Russia is not something that is worth freaking out about.
With the tournament in Canada next year, there’s a whole other set of complications. Hostile crowds, a massive media crush and games that are at more favorable times for TV viewers means the spotlight is brighter and the pressure intensifies.
The good news is that the World Junior Championship is only growing in popularity in the U.S. More people are catching on to the tournament and with NHL Network bringing all of the USA games and medal-round games to the television audience, it will only continue to grow.
The 2014 World Juniors will end up being a forgettable tournament from the American perspective, but it was one of the best events in recent memory. Finland became the fifth different nation since 2009 to win the tournament and the first outside of the big four of Sweden, Russia, U.S. and Canada since 2001. The parity is becoming very real as these small nations continue to churn out elite players.
That’s good for the tournament, it’s good for international hockey and for the future of our sport as a whole.
This was a lot of fun to follow along with, even with the early U.S. ouster, and I appreciate you joining along for the coverage.
I’ve got two more pieces yet to come, with a full player-by-player assessment of Team USA’s forward crop, as well as the same breakdowns for defense and goaltenders. After that, it will be time for a break. Thanks again for checking out United States of Hockey this year. Hopefully we’ll be back for another round in 2015. Happy New Year.