VANCOUVER — The U.S. finished preliminary play with a 3-0-1-0 record, beating Slovakia, Kazakhstan and Finland, while dropping a thriller against Sweden.
Through four games, it’s still hard to get a read on this U.S. team. They have only just begun starting to establish an identity. They look a lot like recent U.S. teams, but I’m not sure we’ve seen them play like any of the teams that contributed to USA’s unprecedented streak of medals in three consecutive years.
Part of the problem is that the team’s most skilled forward has played just one game as Jack Hughes has missed three consecutive games with an undisclosed injury. Not having a difference-maker like him in the lineup changes the complexion of the team and the potency of the offense. Additionally, the U.S. has been dealing with illness over the last few games. Whatever the ailment may be, it also felled Sweden who happens to be staying in the same hotel as the Americans in Victoria. USA defenseman K’Andre Miller missed the game against Finland and I’m told Oliver Wahlstrom was limited against Finland as he also was sick. He only took one shift in the third period before not returning.
So knowing all of that, it’s hard to say that we know what this U.S. team is or isn’t. We may have seen some glimpses of how they can play, however, in their 4-1 win over Finland to close out preliminary round play. It was not a dominant showing, but it was effective, efficient and the team did all of the things it needed to do to get the right result. Whether a similar effort will be enough against some of the tournament heavies remains to be seen, but the U.S. has done little to dissuade anyone from believing them to be a legitimate contender where not one team here has stepped out to stake a claim as the undisputed best team. Sweden is probably the only one that has come close to this point, even though Russia is the team with 12 of a possible 12 points coming out of preliminary play.
Now Team USA will take on the Czech Republic in a crossover quarterfinal. The Americans earned the right to stay in Victoria, getting a day of rest without traveling across to the B.C. mainland via ferry and bus. They’ll play at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET on NHL Network, squaring off against a team that has struggled to find its way. It will be a rematch of last year’s bronze medal game where the U.S. absolutely rolled, but it’s a new year with new teams and anything can happen at the World Juniors.
Before we get there, however, I wanted to assess where Team USA is at through four games at the World Juniors, specifically how the players have fared and how their roles have changed over time. So here’s a quick player-by-player breakdown, stats and a brief preview of Wednesday’s quarterfinal matchup.
GoaliesEmbed from Getty Images
Believed to be a position of both strength and depth for the Americans, that has held true so far. Both Kyle Keyser and Cayden Primeau have started two games for Team USA. And though he has not played, the U.S. has dressed Spencer Knight twice. Primeau is going to start the quarterfinal, but they know they have a guy they can turn to in Keyser should Primeau falter. It’s a good position to be in.
Kyle Keyser (Oshawa Generals/BOS): Though his numbers may look a little underwhelming over his two starts, Keyser got some tough assignments and performed very well. He stopped all but one shot against Slovakia in a game that had no business being as tight as it was here, and was hung out to dry multiple times against Sweden. He has shown, however, that this stage is not too big for him and he has been unrattled. He’d certainly like to be the No. 1 guy, but Primeau has performed just a bit better. Once again, I think the U.S. can have faith in either player. Stats: 2 GP, 1-0-1-0; 2.95 GAA, .872 SV%
Cayden Primeau (Northeastern/MTL): Primeau started games against Kazakhstan which was not much of a test and he ended up allowing two goals, and rose to the occasion of the much bigger games against Finland. Against the Finns, he made 27 saves and was tested at various stages of the game where he had to be sharp. He never once looked rattled, but did pop out a few rebounds that caused some problems. Aside from that, Primeau looked like the more polished of the two goaltenders and as Hastings said after the win over Finland, Primeau has made their decision on who to start much tougher. It turned out that the game won him the job. Stats: 2 GP, 2-0-0-0, 1.50 GAA, .927 SV%
Spencer Knight (U.S. Under-18 Team/2019): Knight dressed to back up Primeau in both of his starts, but has not played otherwise.
DefensemenEmbed from Getty Images
Based on what we’ve seen out of the U.S. defensemen so far, the team seems to have enough depth to compete, but if they’re going to contend, the blue line has to be better. Quinn Hughes and Mikey Anderson have carried a heavy load and have been USA’s two best defenders. That’s what you would expect out of a couple of returning players of their ability. After those two, however, the performance has been uneven at times and sometimes it’s been just plain not good enough.
Hughes and Anderson have been the ice time leaders with both playing on average three to four minutes more than the next closest defenseman in average time on ice, Dylan Samberg. The U.S. is better when these two are on the ice and probably at their best when they’re on the ice together. The only defenders who did not look overmatched against Sweden were Hughes and Anderson. Everyone else struggled with the pace of the game and it wasn’t until one of Hughes and Anderson was out there basically every other shift that the U.S. was able to push the pace enough to get Sweden back on its heels.
Against Finland, the blue line looked much improved, with Jack St. Ivany stepping into a more substantial role with Miller out sick and handling himself well despite limited action in previous games. As long as Miller is healthy, St. Ivany likely goes back into the seventh defenseman role getting a few shifts here and there.
This group took big steps between Sweden and Finland, but the games only get tougher and faster. The big bodies they brought to this tournament have to use that Sweden game as the barometer for how things go next and they have to figure out what went wrong and get it fixed to have a chance against other top teams in this tournament.
Mikey Anderson (Minnesota Duluth/LAK): I have been very impressed with Anderson’s role as both a leader and stabalizing force for this team. He says the right things after games, he has the respect of his teammates and he’s led by example on the ice. He’s been playing big minutes and in all situations as the second power play unit point man and a top penalty killer. Anderson is a really good skater, but has had moments where some of his reads put him behind the play. Aside from that, I think he’s proven to be reliable at both ends of the ice.
Quinn Hughes (Michigan/VAN): Hughes only has two assists so far in the tournament, which some might view as a problem seeing as he’s such an offensive-minded player. But the points only tell part of the story about the way Hughes plays. Also, it’s important to note that he’s second on the team with 17 shots on goal. He’s getting chances, the puck just isn’t bouncing for him yet. Beyond that, Hughes has been everything the U.S. needs him to be. His ability to get the puck out of the zone and up the ice is unparalleled by anyone else on the team. His skating remains elite and unique, baffling defenders who think they’ve got him locked down. There have been some costly turnovers, which I think will always be in Hughes’s game, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. USA is better when he’s on the ice, period. That’s why he leads the team with an average of 22:24 per game and is in all of the big situations.
Phil Kemp (Yale/EDM): Kemp essentially is the U.S. No. 6 defenseman in terms of ice time. He plays a fair amount with Hughes and is used a lot on the penalty kill, which has always been a strong part of his game. Kemp is a defense-first guy, who tends to use his size well and has a good defensive stick. There have been times where I think he’s struggled to adjust to the speed and has had a little trouble here and there defending on the rush. He’s played to his identity as a defense-first guy who can make a decent first pass.
K’Andre Miller (Wisconsin/NYR): Miller has had some highs and lows in this tournament. He’s been solid for the most part, averaging 16:47 per game and often playing with Mattias Samuelsson. He can defend well and there have been a few instances where he let some of his offensive game show. He’s still figuring it out. One of the concerns was his game against Sweden and just getting lost in his own zone at times. He is a fine skater, but the pace seemed to eat him up a few times. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to redeem himself like so many others did against Finland as he was out sick. I still think he can be relied upon, but there have to be some lessons learned from that Sweden game. I’ve watched him several times live over the course of this season and that was the most negative viewing I’ve had of him, so I know there’s a lot more in his game that we’ve yet to see at the WJC.
Dylan Samberg (Minnesota Duluth/WPG): As one of the returning players, I think the expectations are a bit higher for a guy like Samberg. He’s been the team’s No. 3 defenseman and sees time on the PK and can draw some tough matchups. While I liked his performance against Slovakia, I’ve thought he’s only been OK otherwise. He’s too good a skater to get beaten on the rush as he has some times and I think his puck management has been suspect so far. Part of the harsher views I’ve had is because I’ve really liked Samberg as a player and prospect in terms of his growth over the last two years. I think he’s got more skill than he’s shown and I think he’s a smart player. I think we’ll see him a lot more with Anderson the rest of the way here and that’s probably a good thing for him.
Mattias Samuelsson (Western Michigan/BUF): I had Samuelsson graded out as a first-round talent last year. At times at WMU, he’s looked every bit that good and other times you wonder. This tournament has been up and down for Samuelsson. He’s played his game, which is aggressive defensively, physical and just enough offense to give teams something to consider when he’s on the ice. Like some of USA’s other blue liners, I thought he got exposed by the pace of the Sweden game, but then recovered well and played solidly against the Finns. But that was a slower game. He’s going to be an important player in the medal round because I think he can give you solid minutes, but I’d be a little curious as to how he’ll perform against teams that can push the pace more. That said, he can be an intimidating presence on the back end and he has been at times here.
Jack St. Ivany (Yale/PHI): It’s been a tougher tournament to gauge St. Ivany because of his role. He’s the seventh defensemen and hasn’t done a ton to suggest he should be more than that. He was on for both goals against scored by Kazakhstan and generally hasn’t shown much of the puck-moving capabilities I’ve seen him showcase at other times. He did play well against Finland in elevated ice time, making more confident plays, but I still think he’ll be parked on the bench a bit. He was a very interesting addition to the camp and while I haven’t seen Yale a ton this year, he’s stood out in the games I have seen on tape. I think he’ll continue to play only if the U.S. is shorthanded.
ForwardsEmbed from Getty Images
In general, USA’s forwards have been pretty strong. They have had moments of inconstency and the offense has had bouts of inconsistency. It’s tough to judge fully without Jack Hughes, who undoubtedly would have helped. But you look at the way others have stepped up, particularly Ryan Poehling, Tyler Madden and Jason Robertson in Hughes’s absence. Evan Barratt and Josh Norris have been hard-driving centers that have shown versatility. Meanwhile, the depth of the lineup probably could have been better at times.
Still, the U.S. took 10 of a possible 12 points from the prelim round because their forwards scored at the right times. Now they have to really pour it on in the quarters.
Evan Barratt (Penn State/CHI): As one of Team USA’s top two centers, Barratt has played a significant role in Team USA’s attack. He’s only managed one goal, however, despite a team-leading 20 shots on net. Despite not producing a ton, Barratt has been one of the tone setting forwards, giving effective shifts particularly in his forechecking and putting pressure on opposing defense. While Barratt is not an overly fast player, he has shown an ability to play with some pace here and has put pressure on opposing defenders. He also has a physical edge and some power in his game that makes him more of a handful.
Noah Cates (Minnesota Duluth/PHI): Cates has had a bit of an up-and-down tournament for me. There hasn’t been much by way of offense, but he’s done a solid job on the penalty kill and providing some energetic shifts. He has no points and I think he’s struggled to find his offensive game at the pace this team needs to play at. He continues to contribute with his defensive game and he can push the pace as well. I think he had his best game against Finland and if that’s a sign of things to come, he’ll be able to make more of an impact on the tournament as a result.
Sasha Chmelevski (Ottawa 67’s/SJS): My appreciation for Chmelevski has only grown since his performance at the summer evaluation camp and he’s done even more in this tournament. While he is Team USA’s fourth-line center essentially, he can play in all situations. He’s on the power play and was a major factor in USA’s comeback against Sweden as he assisted on USA’s first two goals in that dramatic third period. What I like about Chmelevski is that he has the confidence in his puck skills to take defenders on one-on-one, to carry the puck into the zone and to make passes in traffic. Take a look at his backhand saucer to Oliver Wahlstrom on Ryan Poehling’s first goal against Sweden. Unreal play. What I think USA needs out of Chmelevski more is just a bit more consistency. I thought he was a little less effective against Finland in his offensive game, but his tenacity on defense remains a key attribute. He has a goal and two assists so far in the tournament.
Logan Cockerill (Boston University/NYI): Cockerill’s role has fluctuated some on Team USA. He’s mostly been a bottom-six forward who can provide some speed in the lineup and get some tough matchups here and there. I don’t know that he’s been effective in any one specific way, but he certainly hasn’t hurt the U.S. He has yet to find the score sheet.
Jack Drury (Harvard/CAR): Drury started the tournament as the team’s 13th forward. Now he’s essentially the 12th, getting bottom line minutes and playing fine when he’s put out there. You’ll see him on the PK from time to time and he’s taken some hard shifts. He hasn’t really been put in a position to produce offensively, but his value to this team was always in his ability to defend. He hasn’t hit the score sheet and is a minus-2.
Joel Farabee (Boston University/PHI): I think Farabee has quietly been one of USA’s most impactful forwards. He’s given them some really strong shifts. There have been some lapses in his play from time to time, but generally I think he’s been pretty good. He is third on the team with five points and plays a style that really fits Team USA’s identity. Farabee plays the game fast and he is able to push the pace, making it tougher on opposing defenses. He also can make plays with high-end hockey sense and vision. He’s made some really nice passes that have led to goals. I think this has been a very strong tournament overall for him.
Jack Hughes (U.S. Under-18 Team/2019): It’s been disappointing that Hughes has been out for every game but one. No one feels worse about it than he does. Having only played against Slovakia, he showed what he brings to the table for this team. He makes USA faster and more dangerous in the offensive zone and should play a significant role in the offense going forward. Hughes will play his second game of the tournament in the quarterfinal against the Czech Republic. The U.S. is going to have to protect him a bit to make sure there are no injuries as he’ll certainly have runs taken at him, but if he’s back at even close to 100 percent, he’ll be one of USA’s best forwards. He had one assist in his only game so far
Tyler Madden (Northeastern/VAN): One of the bigger surprises of the tournament, Madden has seized a top-six role with this team and has earned every bit of his playing time. He has some dynamic puck skills and I think he’s shown better quickness overall in this tournament. He is becoming more of a driver when he’s on the ice, too. He has three goals and an assist and I think he’s actually progressively gotten better as time has gone on. The one thing I want to see from him going forward is just becoming a little better at finishing off his plays. He does such a great job on entries and beating defenders, but I want to see him get more shots and finish more passes. But I’m seeing a player on an upward trajectory as a prospect.
Josh Norris (Michigan/OTT): One of Team USA’s most trusted centerman, Norris has shown his versatility in this tournament. he’s made a lot of plays at both ends of the ice and is often out there for the key draws. He has taken 68 faceoffs and won 62 percent of them. He also has a goal and three assists. His ability to play with pace and be aggressive at both ends makes him the kind of player USA wants to emulate in their style of play. He hasn’t been a dominant force by any stretch, but he’s been very good and looks every bit the part of a returning player.
Jay O’Brien (Providence/PHI): O’Brien has seen his role go from minimal to essentially non existent as the 13th forward who may get a handful of shifts in the game. At this point, he hasn’t done enough to show he should be getting more ice time. While he is a fantastic skater, the pace of the tournament has seemed a little overwhelming at times. O’Brien is only a few months removed from prep school. He’s going to need a lot of time to get his game up to speed. It’s been the same thing at Providence this year. I think he made this team on how well he played in the summer camp and he’s still trying to get there. As a late 1999, he won’t return to the WJC, but he has room to grow at Providence where they’ve had great success with prospects that were more of projects like Mark Jankowski.
Ryan Poehling (St. Cloud State/MTL): An offensive force for USA, Poehling has had to bounce around the lineup as a result of Jack Hughes’s injury. Having started on the wing, he’s been back at center more with Hughes out. I wonder how that will change with Hughes back in. Either way, Poehling has been solid. He has a tournament-leading eight points heading into the playoff round and a signature moment with the natural hat trick against Sweden. He also had a really nice goal against Finland. The growth from last year to this year is truly impressive.
Jason Robertson (Niagara IceDogs/DAL): Robertson has shown in this tournament that what he’s doing in the OHL this year is no fluke. He’s always had offensive tools, but now he’s becoming more polished. He’s not an amazing skater, but he’s on pucks quickly and he reads the play really well. He has enough skill to beat defenders, but he’s especially good at getting his shot off. He finally scored against Finland, which Mike Hastings said Robertson called before he went on the ice. “He said, ‘I’m getting one tonight, boys,'” Hastings told the media after the Finland game. It was only a matter of time because he had some great chances throughout. He is second on Team USA with six points with a goal and five assists. I think he’s been an ideal top-line player for the U.S. and an impressive performer.
Oliver Wahlstrom (Boston College/NYI): When you look at Wahlstrom’s stat line, it doesn’t wow you, but I’ve liked him a lot in this tournament. Especially since he’s an 18-year-old, he has been a bigger threat offensively than some guys with another year of WJC eligibility to go can be. He has a goal and two assists, but what I’ve liked most about Wahlstrom is that he’s playing smarter. He’s not trying to do too much like I saw earlier in the year at Boston College. He’s selective with his shots and he’s made some really nice plays to open up other players. He assisted on Poehling’s first and second goals against Sweden and I thought they were A-plus plays from a guy who loves to direct pucks to the net. I think Wahlstrom could be better here, but he’s showing more maturity and I’ve liked him in general.