The U.S. Men’s National Team will open its quest for a second consecutive medal at the 2014 IIHF Men’s World Championship in Minsk, Belarus Friday against the host nation. All preliminary-round games will air live on NBC Sports Network, starting with Friday’s opener at 1:45 p.m. ET.
The U.S. took bronze last year, defeating Finland in a thrilling shootout to earn the country’s first medal at the event since 2004. Medals are hard to come by at the Worlds as the U.S. usually has a roster that is comprised of young players and few stars. With this being an Olympic year and no 2014 Olympians on Team USA’s roster, the team is even less experienced than normal.
Team USA has an average age of 24.3, with several players just a few years or less removed from college or junior. They’ll face a tough task at a tough tournament, but this youth could be a benefit for Team USA, as explained in detail in this full preview here.
Since there are so many fresh faces on this U.S. roster, I decided to compile a quick roster at a glance with a few facts on each player, particularly the young guys that may be unfamiliar to NHL fans.
Connor Hellebuyck (WPG) — The inaugural Mike Richter Award winner as college hockey’s goaltender of the year, Hellebuyck has been a budding prospect at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. He signed with the Jets upon the conclusion of his sophomore season with a career save percentage of .946 in 53 appearances over the last two years. At 20 years old, I don’t expect Hellebuyck to see a ton of time for Team USA, but he is one of the bright goaltending prospects in the growing American pipeline at the position.
David Leggio (Hershey-AHL) — A career minor leaguer, Leggio had a brilliant career at Clarkson University before heading to the pros. He was part of Team USA’s roster at the 2010 World Championship, but never appeared in a game and has played in the Deutschland Cup, a small tournament for pros in Europe. He spent this last season with the Hershey Bears and registered a .913 save percentage. His experience playing in Finland will help him be adapted to the bigger surface in Belarus if called upon.
Tim Thomas (DAL) — The 40-year-old goalie is the elder statesman of Team USA by nine years. He has a Stanley Cup, Olympic silver medal, Conn Smythe Trophy and two Vezina Trophies in what has been one of the most winding careers of an elite goaltender. He took the 2013-14 season off and ended up bouncing between the Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars this year with rather middling results, posting a .908 save percentage in 48 appearances. Not knowing what Thomas is planning for next season, this tournament could be his swan song. Though controversial due to his political views, it’s hard not to admire what Thomas has done on the ice over his career. This is his seventh World Championship appearance and likely his last.
Danny DeKeyser (DET) — In his first full season in the NHL, Danny DeKeyser didn’t look a bit out of place. He was a top-four defenseman for much of the year for the Red Wings, averaging more than 21 minutes a night. He missed 17 games due to injury this year, but managed to put up 23 points, showing his two-way skills are translating nicely to the NHL after a brilliant three-year career at Western Michigan University. DeKeyser, who joined the Wings as an undrafted free agent, should play a fairly prominent role on Team USA’s blue line.
Matt Donovan (NYI) — Donovan appeared in 52 games with the Isles this year and is likely to be a full-time member of their D corps next year. He is a third-year pro after putting up two impressive years at the University of Denver. He had 16 points in the NHL to go along with 25 in the AHL this season. Donovan was also part of the U.S. Junior Team that won gold in 2010, registering five points in seven games en route to the title. He was overshadowed, but was an integral part of that squad.
Jake Gardiner (TOR) — Another member of that 2010 Junior squad, Gardiner is growing into a strong puck-moving defenseman in the NHL. Gardiner had 31 points for the Maple Leafs this year. His excellent skating and offensive capabilities should make him a rather important asset for Team USA on the bigger ice surface at the World Championship. After really coming into his own this season, I’d expect Gardiner to play a rather large role for Team USA, particularly on the power play.
Seth Jones (NSH) — After going No. 4 overall at last year’s draft, Seth Jones showed he was more than ready for the NHL. He was particularly good earlier in the season, but as the Preds struggled down the stretch, Jones did as well. At 19, he’s still got plenty to learn, but his skill set and intelligence are key factors that should lead to him fulfilling his lofty promise. Jones had 25 points in 77 games this season. He has appeared in three IIHF-sponsored tournaments and has won gold in each, the 2011 and 2012 World U18 Championship and 2013 World Junior Championship. Despite his age, I think Jones will end up playing his way into more minutes in this tournament. It will also give Peter Laviolette, his new head coach with the Preds a glimpse of what he can do.
Jake McCabe (BUF) — One of college hockey’s top defensemen this year, McCabe signed his first pro deal upon the conclusion of Wisconsin’s season and immediately was inserted into the Sabres’ lineup. He didn’t really look out of place either. He appeared in seven games with Buffalo and registered one assist. McCabe was the captain of the 2013 World Junior gold medal squad and among the tournament’s top defensemen. He also won gold at the U18s in 2011. His ability to play a physical game, while also possessing strong offensive tools should make him valuable, but I’d expect the 20-year-old to get lighter minutes to start at least.
Connor Murphy (PHX) — One of four members of the 2013 WJC team on the blue line this year, Murphy got his first taste of NHL action earlier this season with the Coyotes. He had eight points in 30 appearances with Phoenix this year. More of a shutdown defender, Murphy’s youth may leave him on the bench often, but he has big-game experience at the World Juniors and scored the OT game-winning goal against Sweden in the 2011 World U18 Championship as Team USA won gold. He’s a big body on the blue line and should get a few opportunities in Belarus.
Jeff Petry (EDM) — At 26, he’s the oldest guy on this blue line and has the most World Championship experience as well. The Oilers rearguard has appeared in both of the last two World Championships and actually performed pretty well last year as Team USA claimed bronze. He had no points in 10 games, but was utilized in a shutdown role and played it well. I’d expect him to be utilized similarly this year and be one of the minutes leaders for Team USA at the Worlds.
Jacob Trouba (WPG) — Though just 20 years old, he has some valuable experience having played on Team USA last year in a bottom-pairing role. He played remarkably well for a teenager and showed during his rookie season this year with the Jets that he’s ready for prime time. Trouba had 29 points in 65 games this year and had he not been derailed by a serious neck injury, he likely would have been in the Calder conversation. He also has three gold medals (2 U18WC, 2013 WJC) to his name and a bronze at this event, with five total appearances at World Championship events. That’s pretty solid experience for a kid his age and it should lead to him playing a prominent role on this team, perhaps even a top-four role.
Justin Abdelkader (DET) — Named Team USA’s captain for the tournament, Abdelkader comes in as one of the more experienced NHLers to this team. He plays an important bottom-six role for the Detroit Red Wings and he’ll need to be one of Team USA’s better forwards in this tournament. Though I think he’ll be used primarily to go head-to-head with opposing team’s top lines, it’s not unreasonable to think Abdelkader could be a source of offense for Team USA as well. His grind-it-out, physical defensive style is going to be important against high skilled teams. Abdelkader is a smart defender with speed as well, which is so important on the bigger ice.
Johnny Gaudreau (CGY) — The Hobey Baker Winner in college hockey this year, Gaudreau is a unique talent that is going to probably have to play a huge role on Team USA offensively this year. Despite being just 20 years old, Gaudreau has world-class skill and posted the most productive season in college hockey in more than a decade with 80 points in 40 games at Boston College. The hype didn’t die down when he scored in his first and only NHL game last season. He was part of the 2013 WJC gold-medal team and scored seven goals there to lead Team USA. This is a big tournament for him and for the Flames in that it’s just another really solid development tool. This tournament is for professionals, meaning the smaller Gaudreau will get challenged against experienced older, stronger, faster players. Seeing how he does here should be fun to watch.
Jimmy Hayes (FLA) — He got bounced around a bit this season, but after the Blackhawks traded big Jimmy Hayes to the Florida Panthers, Hayes seemed to get a boost. He posted 18 points in 53 games with the Panthers, which isn’t much to write home about, but as he grows into a full-time NHLer, the points should come, too. Hayes is a big body with some good speed and physicality. His last effort in a USA jersey came in the 2009 World Juniors. After scoring against Canada, Hayes taunted the bench with an “I can’t hear you” kind of thing and Canada went on to erase a 3-0 lead and beat the U.S. in one of the great games in WJC history. Good chance for Jimmy to get a do over here.
Kevin Hayes (Boston College) — Jimmy’s younger brother was the second-leading scorer in college hockey this year playing with Gaudreau and Bill Arnold. He is a first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, but Hayes has not yet signed his pro contract and it is unclear if he will sign at all. If he doesn’t get inked by June 1, he’ll be eligible to become a UFA in August. There would be a long line to sign the big, skilled forward if he does become available. After three years of only OK production, Hayes exploded this year for 65 points, only two less than his previous three years combined. This is a big tournament for him to prove he can hang with the big boys and if he succeeds here, his UFA stock goes up too (if he gets there).
Tyler Johnson (TBL) — The undrafted forward had a tremendous season with the Lightning this year and was named a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year. Johnson is an exceptional young player who was long downgraded because of his lack of size. He had 24 goals and 50 points this season, helping the Lightning weather the storm without Steven Stamkos this year. He can play on the PK and is a threat to score shorthanded. I’d expect Johnson to be a top-six forward for Team USA, playing in all situations and getting leaned on rather heavily to produce. He has two WJCs under his belt including a gold-medal performance in 2010.
Colin McDonald (NYI) — McDonald is making his national team debut at age 29. The Islanders forward had 18 points in 70 games this season, but brings a wealth of pro experience to a really young team. McDonald is likely to end up a bottom-six stalwart for Team USA as they are going to need some defensive help at forward. With McDonald’s size and experience, he should be able to help in a big way in that department.
Andy Miele (PHX) — Though he has been able to find a full-time spot with the Coyotes yet, the former Hobey Baker winner has been extremely productive at the AHL level. That should put him in a top-six role for Team USA more than likely. Though undersized, Miele has speed to burn and quick stick skills. He has back-to-back 50-plus-point seasons in the AHL and should be able to do some damage on the bigger surface at the World Championship.
Peter Mueller (Kloten) — After not finding any work in the NHL, Mueller went to Switzerland where he played for Kloten. The former Coyotes first-round pick had 46 points in 49 games and will likely be using the Worlds as part of his audition to get back into the NHL. Concussions derailed a once-promising career, but Mueller still has some ability and likely could get back into the league one day soon. He had 17 points for the Panthers last year and also has previous World Championship experience. We’ll see how much he has left in this tournament.
Brock Nelson (NYI) — Nelson very well could be a top-six center with scoring potential for Team USA. The Islanders’ rookie of the year posted 14 goals and 26 points in 72 games in his first full-time NHL season. The former North Dakota standout has a tremendous release and if given space, he can really do some damage. I’d expect him to get some serious offensive responsibilities, which should be intriguing for any Islanders fans hoping to watch. Nelson was part of the bronze-medal 2011 World Junior team as well.
Drew Shore (FLA) — Spending much of the year bouncing between the NHL and AHL, there’s a good chance Shore is a full-time NHLer by next season. Solid at both ends of the ice, Shore can play center or wing, which is a good thing for Team USA. His production wasn’t quite where it was expected to be this year, but he remains a solid playmaker and should help provide some scoring depth for Team USA. He has a U18 gold and WJC bronze to his name in previous international experience.
Craig Smith (NSH) — After 14 points for last year’s national team en route to bronze, Smith will be looked to as an offensive leader for Team USA this time around. He and Paul Stastny were unstoppable last year, but Smith won’t have Stastny to feed the puck to this time around, meaning he’s going to have to be the guy. With players like Johnny Gaudreau and Tyler Johnson, Smith should have some help, but he’s going to be an important player for this team. He scored 24 goals for the Preds and registered his first 50-plus-point season in the NHL, so he should be primed up for more production this time around and likely will play a top-line role.
Tim Stapleton (Kazan) — For the last two years, Tim Stapleton has been playing in the KHL. That’s probably a good thing for Team USA as having an older player with both international and European pro experience can definitely benefit this relatively young squad. Stapleton had five points for Team USA at last year’s World Championship and is likely going to be a source of scoring depth for the U.S. The former Winnipeg Jet had 33 points for Ak-Bars Kazan this year.
Vince Trocheck (FLA) — After spending much of the year in the AHL, where he put up 52 points as a rookie, Trocheck made an instant impact with the Panthers in his first 20 NHL games. The two-way center posted eight points and rarely looked overmatched. Another member of that 2013 WJC team that won gold, Trocheck can be used in a variety of situations. I think he’d be a good fit as a third-line center.
Tommy Wingels (SJS) — Fresh off a disappointing end to the Sharks season, Wingels will make his Team USA debut. The solid two-way forward can bring a little energy and scoring pop to the U.S. lineup. I think he’ll end up playing a more prominent role for Team USA thanks to his NHL experience and how he played during his 16-goal, 38-point season with the Sharks. He’ll also be reunited with Miami University teammate Andy Miele, which should give each a bit of a jolt. The duo is also part of the You Can Play Project’s executive board, so it’s cool to see them both representing the U.S. in Belarus.
Team USA opens with Belarus at 1:45 p.m. ET Friday. I don’t anticipate doing many game recaps this tournament as the Stanley Cup Playoffs will take more of my attention this year, but I will provide updates on the tournament as I can over the next two weeks, so I hope you’ll come on back for that.
Enjoy the tournament, everyone.