BUFFALO NY - DECEMBER 30: Charlie Coyle #3 of the United States celebrates scoring in the first period against Germany during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship game between United States and Germany at the HSBC Arena on December 30 2010 in Buffalo New York. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Thanks to a mature and accomplished coach, and a load of international experience, the underdog Americans should be a factor at the World Juniors again this year.
It's an event that is gaining steam in the United States, and for good reason.
The IIHF World Junior Championship used to come and go with few Americans noticing. A good reason for that was the inability of USA Hockey to field a consistently competitive entry in the tournament.
That all started to change in the early 2000s. The National Team Development Program, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., had established itself and started producing top prospects. Those prospects started winning in international events.
As former USA Hockey PR guy Chris Peters noted on Twitter, the team's performance in the tournament started to improve when the NTDP was formed in 1996. Since that point, Team USA is at a .650 winning percentage in the World Juniors, and the Americans have gone from a medal longshot to a group expected to contend for a medal every year. When the team flops like it did in 2009, there is great disappointment.
Last year's entry earned a bronze medal after a disappointing semifinal effort against Canada, bouncing back to beat Sweden.
This year, USA Hockey again called on Dean Blais -- the accomplished college coach at North Dakota and now Nebraska-Omaha who led the team to its 2010 gold medal -- to coach one of the oldest teams they've ever had in this tournament. The United States roster is crawling with 19-year-olds (this is the under-20 championship, though it's come to be known as the World Juniors).
Goalie Jack Campbell and forward Jason Zucker are playing in this tournament for the third time. Guys like Nick Bjugstad, Charlie Coyle, Derek Forbort, Jon Merrill, and others were on the team last year, and gained valuable experience. Blais supplemented his returning stars with plenty of big names in college and junior hockey. Forwards Austin Czarnik (playing for Miami University in Ohio), T.J. Tynan (Notre Dame), and Kyle Rau (Minnesota), along with defensemen Jarred Tinordi (London of the OHL), Adam Clendening (Boston University), and Jacob Trouba (NTDP) are not experienced in this tournament, but bring plenty to the plate.
Blais has a team in the mold of what he's looking for in this tournament. Team USA's opponents will be challenged to match this group's skating ability, and as long as the likes of Tinordi and Merrill are around, no one will push Team USA around.
If Blais has a hole on this roster, it's on the blue line. Merrill has been serving a team-imposed suspension at Michigan, and his first game of the season will be Monday against Denmark. Forbort is the only other blue-liner with tournament experience. Justin Faulk was eligible for the team, but the former Minnesota Duluth star and current Carolina Hurricanes rookie has been logging big minutes as a top-four defenseman. The Hurricanes chose not to release him to play in the tournament.
The team took a hit in the first exhibition game Tuesday when 17-year-old Seth Jones suffered an upper-body injury. USA Hockey ruled Jones out for the event, and while that open spot was used to select St. Cloud State defenseman Kevin Gravel, the Americans will miss Jones' dynamic ability.
Blais is a top-notch coach, known for his ability to get the maximum out of young players. Two years ago, his underdog American team stunned Canada in overtime to win gold for just the second time ever in this tournament. He's got Scott Sandelin -- fresh off a national championship at Minnesota Duluth last spring -- as an assistant, and the two close friends have plenty of work ahead of them in the next couple weeks.
This American squad won't be a favorite like it was last year (Bovada lists them as 7/2, behind defending champion Russia at 5/2 and host Canada at 1/1), but Blais doesn't care. He'll have his kids ready to play, and he'll rely on guys like Zucker (relentless), Coyle (dynamic two-way player), and Merrill (reportedly the best defenseman in the team's pre-tournament camp) to lead the way with their talent and experience.
If they stick to Blais' plan, the Americans have a chance to contend. If they stray, they're probably not talented enough to knock off the Russians or Canadians.