Flames prospect Jon Gillies will be the backbone of USA’s World Junior Championship squad

Jon Gillies (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

When Team USA was flying into Russia for last year’s world juniors in Ufa, it shared a plane with Canada, Sweden and Finland. With that many players on board, it was a warm flight and the Americans were clad in sweaters when the plane touched down. But as soon as goaltender Jon Gillies got to the door, the icy embrace of Russia caught up with his fashion decision.

“It literally took your breath away,” he said of the cold.

A quick dodge back for his winter coat took care of the problem, but with Gillies back to help defend the title for Team USA in Sweden, the Americans are hoping not to be caught unprepared for anything.

The past two times Team USA has won gold at the world juniors, it has done so behind incredible netminding. Last year, it was Anaheim pick John Gibson, who was an absolute monster in Ufa, earning MVP honors and surrendering just two goals in three medal-round games. He finished the tournament with a 1.36 goals-against average and .955 save percentage. In 2010, it was a 17-year-old Jack Campbell, the eventual Dallas first-rounder, picking up for Mike Lee and stoning Canada en route to John Carlson’s famous overtime goal in Saskatoon.

Now, the mantle falls to Gillies. Taken 75th overall by Calgary in 2012, Gillies was the backup to Gibson last year, getting in 20 minutes of mop-up duty in an 8-0 shutout of Germany. But even being on the bench helped his confidence.

“I came back from that tournament a better goalie, just by watching ‘Gibby,’ ” he said. “Even when he lost those two preliminary games (to Russia and Canada, with identical 2-1 final scores), he didn’t get too low.”

As incredible as Gibson was, he also had a sparkling defense in front of him. Gillies won’t get the benefit of playing behind Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba, because both teenagers are now in the NHL with Nashville and Winnipeg, respectively. In fact, due to a hip injury and subsequent infection, fellow Flames pick Pat Sieloff won’t be on the blueline to protect Gillies, either. That means an entirely new defense corps for Team USA this year, but Gillies is happy to use last year’s experience at the world juniors to help out the newbies in front of him.

“As a goalie, you’re a leader no matter what,” he said. “That’s my opinion. I try to lead by example no matter what team I’ve been on.”

The backbone of the Providence College squad, Gillies has used his imposing 6-foot-5 frame and natural athletic ability to propel the Friars up the Hockey East standings as a sophomore. He prides himself on staying even-keel in net and on his consistency; he’s never been yanked in a game by coach Nate Leaman and that’s a source of personal satisfaction. Through 14 appearances, he had only given up three or more goals three times and came away with a tie in two of those. Plus, the opponents were Miami, Boston U. and Quinnipiac – all tough outs.

But the big question internationally is whether he can be a difference-maker in the Red, White and Blue. This will be a solid year for netminders and Gillies will not be the biggest name in the crease, despite his fairly impressive resume to date. Russia will be going with Tampa Bay prospect Andrey Vasilevskiy in net and he already has a silver and a bronze from past world juniors. In Zach Fucale, the Canadians have one of the most accomplished teen tenders in the world (Ivan Hlinka gold, Memorial Cup championship with Halifax), while Sweden can roll out Oscar Dansk, backstopper for one of the best teams in the Canadian Hockey League, the Erie Otters.

Gillies said he loved the work ethic instilled in Team USA during the national program’s summer evaluation camp and the squad will need it sooner than later.

At least the last line of defense is a big stopper with confidence in himself.

This feature originally appeared in the World Junior Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

Check back on the 26th for previews for Canada, the United States, Russia and Sweden.