A year ago, the Americans were embarrassed in Alberta. Two years after winning gold, the USA ended up upset by the Finland and the Czech Republic and placed in the relegation round. It was a rare low point for the Americans, who have been consistently improving at this tournament in recent years.
For the Americans, the U20 is a true challenge, having to evaluate who the best players are in a very large country where players are playing at three very different levels of play. How does a NCAA freshman that is barely playing compare to a 19 year old that is scoring a lot in major junior? Are the guys that turned professional in the AHL really that much further along than the guys still in junior or college? And how can one create a competitive camp atmosphere when you can't bring in 35-40 players like Canada does and run scrimmages against each other?
These are the challenges the Americans face every year, and this year it ultimately fell on should be Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Housley to put the best players on the ice and implement a system that will work best for this disparate group of hockey players.
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|John Gaudreau||J.T. Miller*||Rocco Grimaldi|
|Alex Galchenyuk||Vincent Trocheck||Riley Barber|
|Mario Lucia||Sean Kuraly||Tyler Biggs|
|Jimmy Vesey||Cole Gaudreau||Ryan Hartman|
This year, USA decided to go with a team that had a lot of flat out speed. Only Miller remains from last year's team, and most of this year's team is 19, with only Galchenyuk, Barber, and Hartman representing the 1994 birth year. But this group seems to be finding their way at the NCAA level quicker than usual, with most of the players having key roles on their teams already.
Gaudreau is considered a Hobey Baker candidate at 19, Grimaldi is near a point per game for perennial powerhouse North Dakota, and Mario Lucia is scoring at over a point per game for Notre Dame. Only a couple of these players come from the major junior circle, and the most prominent of them is Alex Galchenyuk, the dual Russian-American citizen taken third overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 2012, who is the son of a former Belarussian Olympic hockey player.
The American team may lack the familiar names of the Canadian team to some, but these are all players who are just now achieving success at a higher level of play than most Canadian players play. It's an incredibly talented group, and should be able to score more than enough goals to compete with the top teams in the tournament.
Key Player: J.T. Miller plays a huge role on this team. A lot of the team's current setup depends on him being a productive center, something that doesn't seem like an absolute guarantee. Miller is an effective two-way forward who needs to be able to get the puck to his talented wingers while taking some of the defensive responsibilities away from the Galchenyuk-Trocheck-Barber line. His role will be similar to the one fellow New York Rangers center Derek Stepan had when the Americans won gold in 2010.
|Left Defense||Right Defense|
|Mike Reilly||Seth Jones|
|Shayne Gostisbehere||Jacob Trouba*|
|Jake McCabe||Connor Murphy|
|Matt Grzelcyk||Patrick Sieloff|
Defense is USA's strongest position at this year's tournament, as they can run out three excellent pairings that are effective in all three zones. Seth Jones is the lynchpin, with the young emerging star 18 year old playing at a level that is quite rare for players at his age group.
Behind him is the Gostisbehere-Trouba pairing, which would normally be a top pairing at this tournament if not for Jones' exceptional ability. Even the McCabe-Murphy pairing provides a great balance of shutdown ability (Jake McCabe, who has been named the team's captain) and a potential PP shooter in Murphy.
American forwards should have little trouble receiving breakout passes from this group of players. Only Canada can claim to boast the riches on the blueline that the USA has in terms of combining puck-moving skills and defensive zone coverage.
Key Player: This is Seth Jones' team. He's the player that is quickly becoming the focus, due to his unique backstory as the son of a former NBA professional and his uncanny dominance at such a young age. This year's NHL Draft will likely see Nathan Mackinnon go first overall, but Jones makes a compelling case (as does Aleksander Barkov from Finland). Jones appears to be more talented than Ryan Murray was last year, and is similar in terms of his polished ability at a young age as players like Adam Larsson and Victor Hedman were in their draft years.
The Americans are currently holding out on the last cut on defense due to the undisclosed health concerns of one of the players. Connor Murphy is the player assumed to be hurt, as he missed the third period against Finland in the team's last warm-up game (see timesheet here), while Patrick Sieloff is considered the guy on the bubble. The announcement may well be made by the time this is published.
Gibson was part of last year's team, and he has been a consistently near the top of the leagues he's played in statistically. His save percentages have been very consistent: .921 at age 17 with the U.S. National Development U18 team (and .926 in 17 USHL games), .928 last year with Kitchener in the OHL at age 18 (plus .938 in the playoffs), and .929 this year at age 19 with Kitchener. He's arguably the best 19-year-old goaltender in this tournament in terms of pedigree, and the job is his to lose as a result. Gibson is coming off an injury, but has gone through the rigors of the training camp and is apparently ready to go.
Jon Gillies is the next in line, a massive 6'5 goaltender who is playing great hockey with Providence College (.928 save percentage through 15 games). He projects to inherit the job from Gibson next year, as the Americans always like to bring next year's projected starter along as a backup. Garret Sparks is a respectable third goaltender, giving the Americans arguably the best depth in the tournament at the goaltending position.
No one could have predicted last year's seventh-place finish, and it's hard to see a similar fate playing out two straight years. However, the Americans are still part of the "Group of Death", and will absolutely need to take care of business against both Germany and Slovakia to ensure they advance to the playoffs. The Americans could well beat either or both of Russia and Canada and set themselves up very nice seeding-wise.
Anything short of a medal will be a major disappointment, but this is a team that should realistically see itself competing for the gold medal. Seth Jones sure seems to think so, as well.