2014 IIHF Men’s World Championship: Team USA Preview

Ah, Spring. The warming weather, the smell of freshly-cut lawns, baseball, grill food and the granddaddy of them all… the IIHF Men’s World Championship. OK, so maybe not, but the World Championship has been a lot more fun to follow in the last few years thanks to NBC Sports Network televising every U.S. game to give fans without a team in the playoffs something to cheer about at least.

2014_IIHF_World_ChampionshipThe 2014 IIHF Men’s World Championship will be held in Minsk, Belarus starting May 9. All of the preliminary-round games will air live on NBC Sports Network and almost all of them are at decent hours in the day time, not the ungodly hours of Sochi. Phew.

Last year, Team USA ended a nine-year medal drought by winning a surprise bronze with Alex Galchenyuk playing the role of T.J. Oshie in scoring multiple shootout goals to win the game and 20-year-old John Gibson stealing the show. This year, the U.S. has a roster that is even younger and less experienced than the last, but of all the most recent World Championships, this tournament may be the most intriguing to watch.

Team USA’s roster (which you can see here) is rife with young players, some that haven’t even stepped foot in the NHL yet, but are destined to very soon. With an average age of 24.3, the U.S. is bound to be one of the youngest clubs in Minsk.

Coming up after the jump, a look at the tournament, Team USA’s chances, why you should consider watching this year and why this World Championship is the most controversial in recent memory.

Controversy in Belarus

This is a hockey blog, so I don’t want to get too political here, but I also don’t want to bury this at the end of the post as this is an important note about this particular World Championship.

Since the IIHF picked Minsk as host, they have been under a bombardment of protests over the last few years. Belarus is a controversial locale due to a sub-par human rights record for President Alexander Lukashenko, who (fun fact), among many other transgressions against his own people, wanted Belarus to be the new USSR when he took office in 1994. Also, he’s hockey buddies with Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko is the mustachioed fellow on the left. Fun guy.

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There were many organizations that called for the tournament to be moved or at least suspended until Belarus released its political prisoners including CEPA,  many U.S. politicians and the European Parliament among many others. It even went so far as a bill getting sponsored by Chris Smith, Republic congressman from New Jersey called the Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011. That act included an official call to the IIHF to suspend its plans to hold the tournament in Belarus.

The IIHF never budged. Not one bit.

You can read a lot more about this over at the fantastic blog Hockey in Society.

Though the tournament probably shouldn’t be here, it is. There will still be hockey and as such, I will cover the hockey being played.

Team USA at a Glance

Team USA will be led by head coach Peter Laviolette, who has a wide range of international coaching experience, including at the Olympics and this very tournament. He also has been in these things as a player. On his bench, he’ll be joined by USA Hockey’s go-to assistant of late, Phil Housley, NTDP coach Don Granato and last year’s head coach Joe Sacco. It’s a good group of coaches that will undoubtedly get this team to play to win.

They also have the challenge of taking one of the youngest teams in this tournament against some hardened international squads that have experience in this tournament and will be looking to pick apart a young team.

So let’s talk about that youth factor…

As noted, Team USA’s average age is 24.3. There are six players that are 20 or younger including 19-year-old Seth Jones, Team USA’s youngest player this year.

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Tim Thomas is by far the oldest player and most experienced for Team USA. He’ll likely be the club’s No. 1 goalie at age 40. Next closest to Thomas is 31-year-old forward Tim Stapleton, who has plenty of Worlds experience himself and spent last season with Ak Bars Kazan in the KHL. Jeff Petry at age 26 is the elder statesman of Team USA’s blue line.

Of the 25 players on the roster, 14 were what I would consider full-time NHL players last season. Twenty players appeared in at least one NHL game last year, while a total of 22 have at least some NHL experience in the past.

Two of the three players without any NHL time are goaltenders. Connor Hellebuyck, who spent last season with UMass-Lowell and longtime minor-league goalie David Leggio who was a member of the Hershey Bears last year. Kevin Hayes was the second highest scorer in college hockey last year and is a former first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, but has yet to sign his pro contract.

While the youth on this roster could prove problematic when it comes to having tournament success, this is going to be an interesting team to watch. Many of these players haven’t had an opportunity like this in their careers. They haven’t been jaded by a long NHL season that relegates them to play in the tournament they wouldn’t be in had their team made the playoffs. This group could be hungrier than your average U.S. team rife with NHLers, which is why it could be interesting to watch.

Another interesting factor is that Team USA’s roster includes several recent World Junior Champions. While that’s a completely different tournament, building that culture of success and rewarding players with this opportunity after winning a major tournament is a really solid idea for USA Hockey. They did the same thing with the Olympic orientation camp last summer. Keeping the core of those teams together in the future could payoff down the line internationally.

There are six players from the 2013 World Junior Championship gold medal squad including four defensemen from that team: Jones, Jacob Trouba, Jake McCabe and Connor Murphy. Trouba, Jones and McCabe led all defensemen in scoring at that tournament and Trouba was named the tournament’s best D. Team USA’s leading goal scorer from that team, Johnny Gaudreau and Vince Trocheck, who scored the gold-medal-icing empty-netter against Sweden are also on the club.

The team also includes three players from the 2010 gold-medal squad including defensemen Jake Gardiner and Matt Donovan, as well as forward and Calder Memorial Trophy finalist Tyler Johnson.

Returnees from last year’s World Championship bronze medal squad are Craig Smith, Tim Stapleton, Trouba and Jeff Petry.

Thomas is the only Olympian on the team. He won silver with Team USA in 2010 and will be making his seventh World Championship appearance. He was part of the bronze-medal squad at Worlds in 2006.

So the U.S. has a good dose of international experience, but there is a lot less when it comes to actual experience in this tournament, which is a lot harder to win that it is ever given credit for.

The U.S. has not won gold at the Worlds since 1933 and that drought is unlikely to end this year. The lack of experience is going to make it tough going against the experienced and older teams that will be put on the ice by some of the major hockey countries. Even with that in mind, there’s a reason youth could very well be a benefit.

So the U.S. brings this group of players, many of which are too young to not appreciate an opportunity like this. Could that lead to a higher level of competitiveness? It’s possible, if they buy into whatever Laviolette wants them to do.

Why You Should Watch

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Even if this U.S. team struggles in the tournament, which it very well could and probably should, there are a lot of reasons to tune in.

For all the reasons stated above, this team gives NHL fans a chance to see some of their team’s young players and prospects in a very tough tournament likely play in much larger roles than they currently do or will for their NHL teams. Additionally, they are getting challenged against professional players, many of which play in the NHL or the higher levels of European pro hockey.

For guys like Jake McCabe, Johnny Gaudreau, Connor Hellebuyck and Kevin Hayes who have limited-to-no pro experience after being three of the best players in the college ranks, this gives them a chance to test their mettle.

For Calgary fans who got a taste of Johnny Gaudreau in just one game this year with the Flames after he won the Hobey Baker, this tournament is going to give you a glimpse of just how pro ready he really is. Even if he doesn’t produce, seeing if he is able to hang with the European pros and still make some plays out there, it should be a good confidence builder. No matter what, this is at the very least seven or more games of professional experience he has under his belt heading into next season.

This tournament has been a great launching pad for some of the younger players in recent years.

Jacob Trouba was Team USA’s youngest player last year. He was a bottom-pairing defenseman for Team USA for a lot of the tournament, but showed that he was more than ready for his jump to pro hockey and had he not gotten hurt this season, could have been a legitimate Calder contender.

Craig Smith, who is on the team this year, joined Team USA after his sophomore season at Wisconsin. He was one of the team’s better players and eventually signed his first pro deal with Nashville after showing he could handle himself against the pros. He’s now going to his third World Championship after a star turn on last year’s team with 14 points in 10 games.

This tournament is a great test for a lot of young guys, not just the ones who have no NHL experience.

Players like Drew Shore, Vince Trocheck, Brock Nelson, Matt Donovan and Connor Murphy, who all saw NHL time last year, have a chance to apply what they learned as pros and put it to good use against fellow NHLers and some of the top European pros. All could play more prominent roles on Team USA, too.

The same goes for Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba, who each played big roles as rookies this year. Seeing them take that next step heading into their second seasons would be great to watch.

So if your team has a young prospect in this thing, it’s worth watching beyond the flag-waving fun of international hockey in general.

There’s also a heavy underdog factor here. This team’s youth is clearly going to put them at a disadvantage on paper against stronger teams. The U.S. will have to play Russia and Finland along the way here in the preliminary round. If they can get through that gauntlet and steal a few wins, that’s going to be exciting to watch.

Analyzing the roster

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OK, so the underdog factor is very real because this is a team devoid of top-level NHL players. There’s usually at least one or two, but that won’t be the case anymore. Tim Thomas is easily the biggest name on the roster, but his best years appear to be well behind him after a rather rough go this year.

I don’t know where the goals are going to come from on this roster. Offensively, there’s not a lot of pop. In the past, there has been one or two proven NHL scorers on the roster like Max Pacioretty or Paul Stastny in more recent years. Not this time around.

Craig Smith is probably going to be the go-to source of offense. Yes. Craig Smith. He had 14 points last year en route to bronze, but is not an elite offensive player obviously. He also won’t have Stastny to pass to this year.

That means young guys like Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau and former Hobey winner Andy Miele have to step up. Tyler Johnson should play a fairly prominent role on the roster as well when it comes to producing.

I could also see Brock Nelson as a top-six forward on this roster with some scoring punch, while guys like Tim Stapleton and Peter Mueller, who each played in Europe this year and have World Championship could get in on a role like that as well. Brothers Jimmy and Kevin Hayes bring much needed size and power to the lineup that can translate more at the offensive end than defensively.

The U.S. will have to look to guys like Justin Abdelkader and Tommy Wingels to take on a lot of the tough defensive assignments, I think.

The defense is incredibly young, as noted, but it may be the position of greatest strength for the U.S. Jones and Trouba are certainly ready to play big roles and have had great results in their first NHL seasons as well as a long line of international success together.

My guess is Team USA is going to play the heck out of Jake Gardiner as well. His skating is such a huge asset on the larger ice surface and his ability to move the puck is as good as anybody’s on the team. Danny DeKeyser will get some big minutes too, I’m sure. Jeff Petry is the most experienced guy on the team and will also be looked to for strong minutes. Matt Donovan, Connor Murphy and Jake McCabe all should provide some good depth and I’d guess a lot of the rotating will be between Murphy and McCabe when it comes to lineup decisions, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Tim Thomas was not very good this season and he is the team’s de facto No. 1 goalie. He should bring his best as he loves America, you know. But it is going to be a challenge. He’ll get tested with that young D in front of him and I think the U.S. is going to get outshot a whole lot with few high-skill forwards.

If Thomas falters, there’s not much of a Plan B. Connor Hellebuyck was the goalie of the year in college hockey, but is just 20 years old with no international experience at any level. David Leggio had a fair year in the AHL and also has no international experience. He did play a year of pro in Finland, however.

So could this team do some damage in the tournament? It’s a longshot, I think, but even if this is an experience builder for USA Hockey’s future in the tournament, it would have to be considered a success.

Guys like Trouba, Jones and Gaudreau very well could be big players in the future of USA Hockey. Heck, Hellebuyck, Murphy, McCabe, DeKeyser and Gardiner all could be, too. Getting those guys into a tournament like this and really pushing them will only help down the line.

It could be a long tournament if Team USA’s inexperience swallows them whole, but if they can somehow finish in the top four of their group and advance to the quarterfinals, that would be a big accomplishment I think. There’s a lot of different things that could happen, which is why I think I’ll watch this year’s tournament with the most interest of recent years.

TOURNAMENT FORMAT

There have been some changes to the tournament format this year. Gone are the qualification-round games, putting more emphasis on the preliminary round. The top four teams from each group advances to the QF. The bottom two teams overall after round-robin get relegated.

There are two groups of eight teams. Each team will play seven preliminary-round games to determine seeding.

Team USA is in group B with Belarus, Finland, Germany, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Russia and Switzerland. It’s going to be tough, but Team USA even with its young roster is capable of finishing in the top-four in this group to make it to the quarterfinals.

In the playoff round, the top seed from Group A will play the No. 4 seed from Group B and so on and so forth.

TEAM USA SCHEDULE

Here’s Team USA schedule with broadcast times. All games will air live on NBCSN unless otherwise noted. All times ET:

Fri., May 9 vs. Belarus — 2 p.m.
Sat. May 10 vs. Switzerland — 1:45 p.m.
Mon., May 12 vs. Russia — 1:45 p.m.
Thurs., May 15 vs. Latvia — 9:45 a.m.
Fri., May 16 vs. Kazakhstan — 9:45 a.m.
Sun., May 18 vs. Finland — 9:45 a.m.
Tues., May 20 vs. Germany — 5:45 a.m.*

Thurs., May 22 — Quarterfinals — TBD
Sat., May 24 — Semifinals — 7:45 a.m./11:45 a.m. (tape delay)

Sun., May 25 — Bronze Medal Game — 9:30 a.m. (tape delay)
Sun., May 25 — Gold Medal Game — 2 p.m.

* – Team USA is playing a pre-tournament exhibition game May 6 in Germany against the Germans.

I won’t be able to have posts on every game this year, but be sure to follow along on Twitter as I will be providing updates and hopefully will be able to get posts on some of the newsier happenings at the World Championship and provide occasional commentary on this blog.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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