It’s a little later than I would have liked to get this story up, but a late-tournament illness knocked me out of commission and the recovery took a little longer than I expected. Finally back on my feet, with a little distance from the tournament and a couple re-watches of some of the games and now we can finally wrap a bow on this tournament.
The silver medal always feels a little empty with it coming in defeat. You could tell by the looks on the U.S. players’ faces just how empty a feeling it was for them, falling just short of the gold medal thanks to a late goal from Finland after a valiant American comeback. However, the U.S. closed out the 2010s on an unprecedented four-year medal streak earning a gold, two bronzes and this year’s silver. Additionally, the Americans medaled in seven of the last 10 years, earning three golds, a silver and three bronze medals. It is a significant development in USA Hockey’s World Junior history, one that shouldn’t be overshadowed by the loss.
The tide has turned in the way the U.S. approaches this tournament and has dramatically turned in the expectations teams can enter it with. The U.S. has won 12 medals total at this event. Considering seven have come in the last 10 years, the shift is dramatic. It’s a credit to the improving and deepening player pool, to the standard set forth by the late Jim Johannson and the expectations the players have for themselves now.
While gold should basically be the expectation in any tournament the U.S. enters, I thought the 2019 version of Team USA overachieved thanks to strong goaltending, timely scoring and a really solid piece of coaching. This roster did not have the speed or the skill of some of the more recent U.S. entries at the World Juniors, but they managed to reach the final by dispatching a very, very talented Russian squad and fell just short against a Finnish team that found its game at the right time. The Americans were not the best or most talented team in the tournament, nor were the Finns, but that just goes to show you that nothing is a given in this tournament anymore. Everyone else is just good enough now to force each team to bring its best or suffer the fate of an early exit.
So with all of that as the setup, here’s a look at the 2019 U.S. National Junior Team with positional and player-by-player analysis.
I thought this was going to be a position of strength for the U.S. going into the tournament and it absolutely was. The U.S. had three guys they could have had start games for them and ended up utilizing Kyle Keyser and Cayden Primeau, while young Spencer Knight was an active observer, getting a few games as a backup on the bench but not seeing the ice. Primeau ended up taking the reins and performed at an exceptionally high level when USA needed him most.
Kyle Keyser (Oshawa Generals/BOS): Keyser started against Slovakia and Sweden in the preliminary round, finishing 1-0-1-0. He was an absolute star in the tournament opener as Slovakia gave USA a pretty big scare. Against Sweden, USA looked awful to start and left Keyser out to dry a little too often. That said, I thought Keyser acquitted himself well on the biggest stage of his young career. He wasn’t as battle-tested as Primeau and may have also come down with an illness that cost him a chance at being the guy in the medal round, but that was unconfirmed. Either way, he was capable when called upon even if his statline (.872 save percentage) doesn’t look amazing.
Spencer Knight (U.S. National U18 Team/2019): The top draft-eligible goalie for 2019 may not have gotten into a game, but he’s the front-runner for the starting gig next year and probably the year after that. Being at the World Juniors, even as an observer, should serve the young netminder well even though it was quite a layoff of games for him.
Cayden Primeau (Northeastern/MTL): I can’t really say enough about Primeau’s performance throughout the WJC. He played against Kazakhstan and Finland in the preliminary round and ended up getting the start in the quarterfinals and held onto the job from there. He finished with a .937 save percentage over five starts, allowing only eight goals over that span. Primeau was the single biggest reason the U.S. servived a dogfight with Russia in the semis and was doing all he could to give Team USA a chance in the final. He made a lot of tough saves look routine with his excellent technique and positioning. Primeau is such a smooth goalie and as much as I liked him in viewings last year, I thought he was at his absolute best in the last two games of the tournament. He’s a big kid with a natural talent for the position and you can tell he really works on his craft. I think he’s become a big-time goalie prospect over these last two years and will only get better.
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The point of biggest concern for me was the defense and I think that also proved true in this tournament. The depth was not where it needed to be for the U.S. to roll three pairs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think the drop-off after Team USA’s top two defensemen — Quinn Hughes and Mikey Anderson — was significant enough that it made it difficult for the U.S. to do much when either of those two weren’t on the ice. That said, each defenseman had bright spots in the tournament and the two guys eligible to return next year — K’Andre Miller and Mattias Samuelsson — will have gained some valuable experience playing in some high-pressure situations. In the end, I think the U.S. needed more of a puck-moving element on the back end. There weren’t a ton of great options outside of the guys they picked, but the lack of skill on the back end was notable, particularly against the best teams in the tournament.
Mikey Anderson (Minnesota Duluth/LAK): Though he did not earn a selection to the media all-star team, Anderson was one of two Americans that got my vote for inclusion. He played major minutes in the tournament, playing a team high average of 22:31 per game, and always seemed to step up in the big moments. He got the offense cooking in a really bogged down game against the Slovakians, scoring the game’s first goal. Anderson scored the first goal in the dramatic four-goal comeback against Sweden, too. He always seemed to come through in key situations for the Americans. If there’s one complaint for his tournament, he took three penalties and they usually came after he got beat, which didn’t happen a ton. I came away from this tournament with a much better appreciation for Anderson’s offensive tools and respect for his character as both a captain and top defenseman. He had a really good tournament, finishing with five points.
Quinn Hughes (Michigan/VAN): Despite only recording two assists, I thought Quinn Hughes was a game-changing player for Team USA. He was the team’s best player over the course of the entire gold-medal game, creating rushes and opportunities with his superior skating ability. There were so many instances where he was able to extend plays and reset things when the U.S. was getting out of sorts just by skating pucks out of trouble. There were some miscues and turnovers which comes with the style Hughes plays, but I thought he was a significantly positive influence on a team that really didn’t have as skilled or as quick a team as in years past. His semifinal was probably his worst game, but Hughes averaged over 22 minutes a night otherwise and made a ton of plays that probably should have ended in the back of the net had some of his teammates been a little sharper with their receptions of his passes.
Phil Kemp (Yale/EDM): Kemp didn’t always have an incredibly noticeable tournament, but he doesn’t have a very noticeable game in general. That’s not his style. He is a defense-first player and that stood out in particular in the final. I thought he was great defensively in that game, maybe one of USA’s most reliable defenders in that one. Kemp just doesn’t provide a lot of offense and that’s going to make it harder for him to make an NHL impact down the line. He can make a good first pass and reads plays well, and there’s little doubt his defensive sense is of the high-end variety. If he can develop a smoother offensive game, he’ll have a better chance down the line and I think he would have helped USA more if he was a bigger support of their transition game. In the World Juniors, you can really benefit from players like Kemp, especially in tight games like the final and semifinal. In those kinds of contests, he was more than adequate.
K’Andre Miller (Wisconsin/Yale): Miller had a bit of an uneven tournament and didn’t make as much of an impact offensively, but he also dealt with illness right in the middle. He even missed a game due to the apparent stomach flu that battered the Swedish lineup and caught a few of the U.S. players as well. Miller had one assist in the tournament and essentially played bottom pairing minutes throughout the tournament. That said, I thought he and Mattias Samuelsson got some key shifts in the final when the game was still in the balance. He defended very well in the tournament and handled the puck well for the most part. Miller is still just scratching the surface of his ability. His physical presence is getting more pronounced and I think he could be an absolute force in this tournament next year. If I was giving a letter grade for his performance, it’s probably a C+ or maybe a B- grading on the health curve.
Dylan Samberg (Minnesota Duluth/WPG): He was essentially USA’s No. 3 defenseman in the tournament, getting significant minutes with Mikey Anderson. As a returning player, I had pretty high expectations for Samberg and I don’t think he met them. That said, he played well for stretches of the tournament and then there were others where he was a step behind and not managing the puck well. The game against Sweden and I think the gold-medal game were two of the performances I wish I could give him a do-over for. The Sweden game was overwhelming for him, while I had some serious puck-management concerns about him in the final. His ice-time went down in the third period of that game as the U.S. turned to Miller and Samuelsson more because Samberg kept turning the puck over. I’ve seen Samberg enough times to know how good he is as a defenseman, but I also thought this tournament showed that there’s still plenty he needs to work on before taking the next step.
Mattias Samuelsson (Western Michigan/BUF): I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve been a pretty big Samuelsson fan since last season. I think there’s a lot more offense in his game than he’s shown in recent years. His role certainly didn’t put him in a position to produce here, but he also had zero points and didn’t get a lot of shots through. Defensively, I thought he was good for the most part. When he’s engaged physically, he can be an intimidating presence. That happened in a few games, but I would have liked to see him push the envelope even more. There were some instances in this tournament where I thought the pace got to him, but there were also games where I thought he stepped up and played a really mature, smart game. Overall, I think Samuelsson is better than what he showed at the World Juniors, but it wasn’t a disappointing tournament by any means for him.
Jack St. Ivany (Yale/PHI): Team USA’s seventh defenseman, it was hard for Ivany to get ice in the tournament. He averaged 5:37 a game and it was pretty clear that the coaching staff couldn’t put him out there in key situations. It wasn’t all bad for St. Ivany, as he played against Finland in the prelims with Miller out sick and he performed really well in that game. In the others, however, he had some issues picking up the rush and wasn’t able to get much going offensively. St. Ivany was one of the guys they didn’t have in the summer camp and I think sometimes those players get some advantages when it comes to making the team, despite the risk of not knowing. The one thing that summer camp does is it shows how a player can handle the pace and pressure of top players. The gap between the ECAC and the World Juniors is a big one and I’m not sure St. Ivany could manage it.
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The U.S. had to deal with Jack Hughes missing three games and did they ever miss him while he was out. The team was faster and better with Hughes in the lineup. It also gave them more flexibility to play with lines, which Mike Hastings did until the very last game. I don’t know that the U.S. ever found the right mix, but the fact that they were able to continually throw lines in the blender and get some sort of results is really good. Had Hughes been 100 percent and if he had been able to get some more chemistry in time for the medal round, the U.S. may have found more success in scoring in some of those key situations. In the end, they basically fell one goal shy of gold and they had some big-time performers up front — some expected and some not.
Evan Barratt (Penn State/CHI): Coming into the tournament as the NCAA’s leading scorer, Barratt had a great start to the tournament. He was Team USA’s best forward and maybe their best player against Slovakia, scoring a goal. That ended up being the only goal he scored in the tournament. It was a big one at the time, but losing Barratt’s production down the stretch wasn’t great. He played a pretty heavy game and I liked how he got on opposing defensemen and had the confidence to push the puck into the zone on entries. I think the U.S. had big plans for Barratt and they kept throwing him out there, but the points didn’t materialize in a way for Barratt to maximize his expected impact for this team.
Noah Cates (Minnesota Duluth/PHI): I think Cates had a bit of an uneven tournament for Team USA, but he got better as the event went on. He was at his best in the medal round, scoring a beauty of a goal against the Czech Republic and setting up both goals in the gold-medal game. Cates was given a pretty prominent role in the lineup, playing top six minutes for a lot of the tournament. Early on, I’m not sure his play warranted it as he seemed a step off and didn’t have much by way of significant offensive contributions. I really liked his progression, though. He plays hard.
Sasha Chmelevski (Ottawa 67’s/SJS): I thought Chmelevski was one of USA’s best players in this tournament. He played hard every single game, worked for his offense and made some huge plays over the course of the tournament. He ended up with seven points, tied for second on the team. He scored and had the primary assist on both goals for Team USA in the final, he had some key setups in the big comeback for a point against Sweden and he made himself a threat. I think Chmelevski was viewed as a more defensive-minded center for this team, even though the U.S. staff was well aware of his offensive capabilities. They got him on the power play at times and I thought his game really opened up when he was with either Ryan Poehling or Jack Hughes. Chmelevski is a legit prospect who I think has a substantial NHL future as he combines his skill with a great work ethic. I came away from this tournament with an even greater appreciation for him as a player, and I already thought he was pretty darn good.
Logan Cockerill (Boston University/NYI): He only had one assist, but it was a big one — on Oliver Wahlstrom’s goal against Russia in the semis. What Cockerill also had, however, was a lot of speed. He pressured defenders with his ability to get around them and his ability to get in on the forecheck. He played with a ton of energy and there were times where I was hoping we’d see even more of him. For long stretches of that gold-medal game, he was one of USA’s most active forwards. The stat sheet doesn’t do him justice as I think Cockerill really picked up his game when it mattered most.
Jack Drury (Harvard/CAR): He started the tournament as the 13th forward and may have been No. 12 on the depth chart when it was all said and done. That said, I thought Drury played effectively in the minutes he was given. He killed some penalties and made some defensive plays over the course of the tournament. He finished without a point, however, which included some time in the medal round playing on Jack Hughes’s wing. Drury isn’t a great skater, which I think limits his ability to produce, but I think his work ethic and hockey sense are up there with anybody’s.
Joel Farabee (Boston University/PHI): I thought Farabee was one of USA’s most consistent players from the start of the tournament to the end. He has good skill and speed, which was evident a lot during the tournament. Farabee also has that well-established work ethic where he’s not above getting into the hard areas to make plays. He averaged nearly 18 minutes a game as a top-line forward for the U.S. and finished the tournament with five points. He could play in just about any situation, against anyone. He’s eligible to return next year and I could see him doing so in a leadership role in 2020.
Jack Hughes (U.S. National Under-18 Team/2019): There seemed to be a sentiment out there that Jack Hughes didn’t have a great World Juniors. However, under the circumstances, I thought he was pretty good — sometimes great. He is the only U.S. player who had a point in every game he played. Granted, he missed three games with injury, but he made a positive impact in every game he played. The nature of Hughes’s injury was never made public, but coming back for the games that mattered and playing as well as he did was a good sign and also shows how competitive the 17-year-old is. There was no one more upset he wasn’t playing than him. Had he been 100 percent, I think you would have seen bigger points and some signature moments for Hughes, but that’s all part of the “what if” game now. Make no mistake, Hughes played well and was a continual threat when he was on the ice.
Tyler Madden (Northeastern/VAN): One of the better puckhandlers on Team USA, Madden was really good at getting pucks into the zone. He played a lot and at times was one of USA’s most dangerous offensive threats. He only finished with four points, though. He did score twice against Finland in the prelims, but I thought he became less effective in the harder games. It’s not that he was making soft plays by any means, because I think he showed some improved competitiveness and tenacity in tight games. It’s just that his style of game didn’t work as well against teams like Russia and the improved Finland in the gold-medal game. That’s not to say it won’t later, but it’s just that he still needs to hone his craft and work on finishing plays off because he has the moves to create plenty of offense. Overall, I think this was a really strong and positive tournament for Madden who showed that he has taken some big steps forward from last season.
Josh Norris (Michigan/OTT): Team USA’s No. 1 center and top faceoff man, Norris was utilized in just about every situation. He could provide offense, he could provide a defensive stop. He just was whatever the U.S. needed him to be. Norris finished the tournament with six points while averaging nearly 19 minutes a game as USA’s most utilized forward. I think the maturity in Norris’s game has allowed him to become more productive without losing the well-rounded aspects of his game. He can play the game at a fast pace and has shown tremendous progression from last year to this year, only increasing his value to Ottawa after acquiring him as part of the Erik Karlsson trade.
Jay O’Brien (Providence/PHI): O’Brien didn’t take a shift in the medal round for Team USA, though he did dress for the games. He was the 13th forward and the U.S. didn’t really find a spot to get him in. That said, O’Brien’s early-tournament play didn’t really give them much of a reason. I don’t want to call it a wasted spot because I can understand why O’Brien was there. He was one of Team USA’s more effective forwards in the summer camp, but his early showings at Providence and his early play at the WJC show there’s a lot of work to be done there. He’s still only a few months removed from prep hockey. The physical tools are there for him to be a really good player. He just needs to keep adjusting to the pace, especially when it comes to puck decisions. O’Brien isn’t making those plays at a high enough level yet, but that could come with a lot of development time at Providence.
Ryan Poehling (St. Cloud State/MTL): Team USA’s leading scorer in the tournament, Poehling was also responsible for one of this team’s signature moments. He helped engineer one of the greatest comebacks in World Junior history as Team USA erased a 4-0 deficit with the last three goals coming off of Poehling’s stick in the final 6:30 of regulation. Poehling was named a tournament all-star and the MVP after finishing with eight points. Four of those eight points came in that epic showdown with Sweden. Beyond the points, I thought Poehling was a pretty consistent, reliable presence. He created chances, made some really nice plays and I think he’s shown that his skill level has grown majorly since his draft season. He’s not going to blow anyone away with any one thing that he does, but I think Poehling has a star quality about him. He talked a lot about the heart of the team through tears after the gold-medal game and I think he’s one of the guys that embodied that heart. He had some great chances in the final, and they just didn’t drop for him. Overall, I think Poehling had a pretty remarkable tournament.
Jason Roberton (Niagara IceDogs/DAL): Tied for second on Team USA with seven points, I think Robertson had a pretty interesting tournament. Four of his seven points came against Kazakhstan, but he was an impact player for USA throughout the tournament. I think the U.S. needed more goals from him, but he was an offensive factor in most games. The biggest way Robertson can improve his ability to impact the game is to improve his skating. I think it got exposed at times in the tournament, most notably in the gold medal game. Roberton has a high-end offensive skill set, though, with good hands, good protection ability, a good shot and solid vision. If he can work on his wonky stride a bit more, I wonder if he improves his ability to project more comfortably as a top-sixer at the next level. There’s something there for sure.
Oliver Wahlstrom (Boston College/NYI): While he wasn’t a factor in every single game, I think Wahlstrom came up big enough times for the U.S. to declare his early-season slump over. He did have a goal disallowed in the gold-medal game, which would have been a nice cherry on top of what I thought was a strong tournament. He scored a big goal against Russia in the semis and was a key player in USA’s comeback against Sweden. Overall, Wahlstrom had two goals and two assists. You’d certainly like to see more production from him, but given the way the early season has gone for him, he did enough for me. He finished the tournament with a team-high 27 shots on goal and he wasn’t just throwing pucks at nets for the heck of it as we’ve seen him do in some of his less effective games. He was taking the chances he was given and sharing the puck plenty. Wahlstrom has more work to do before he’s going to be ready to make the NHL jump, but I think we’re seeing him get his groove back a little.
This U.S. team battled through plenty of adversity in the tournament and managed to come away with a silver medal. Coach Mike Hastings aptly noted that this team had a lot of different players step up at different times. They didn’t have those guys that they had to rely on. The goaltending was a huge factor in getting to the final and a big reason the U.S. was competitive against a Finnish team that was far better than the team they beat 4-1 in the prelims. In the end a silver is perhaps disappointing, but I still think this team performed ahead of expectations. I don’t want that to seem like a slight to this team because there was no doubt a lot of talent there and that win over Russia in the semis was one of the gutsier efforts I’ve seen out of a U.S. team in some time. What I think this team ultimately showed is that the mentality of the players has shifted to meet the reality.
U.S. teams have long been good enough to contend for gold every single year, but I don’t know that every U.S. team has truly believed that. This group showed a certain level of the right kind of arrogance throughout the prelims and into the medal round. It nearly landed them the gold. Now we’ll see if next year’s group can do better, with a likely large contingent of 18 year olds from the incredible 2001-born class currently ripping up the U18 ranks.
Thanks for letting me come back and reading what I have to say in this space. I’ll be returning to my regularly-scheduled ESPN writing in February with draft rankings, prospect rankings and all kinds of other things. I’ll actually be doing a lot more there than I did last year.
I’m not sure when the next chance I’ll have to write here will be, if ever, but it’s always fun to see that people still enjoy this level of in-depth Team USA analysis. The appetite for it has definitely increased since I started this thing and that was always the hope, that the more people could learn about this stuff, the more they’d get into it. I owe the readers of this blog a huge debt of gratitude for supporting this site and me over the years, allowing me to climb the ladder and land what has been an absolute dream job at ESPN. I hope you’ll check out my stuff over there (the best way is to subscribe to ESPN+), too. Until next time, here’s the sparkling Bald Eagle GIF. America.
Great wrap up, Chris—thank you. (A little thing, but thanks also for including where each player is from non-WJC-wise). I guess my only question would be your take on coaching. Very entertaining tournament, and I’m already looking forward to next year!