United States World Junior Championship Preview

Ryan Kennedy
Riley Barber (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

THN Predicted Finish: 4th

The Americans come into Malmo as the defending champions, but you won’t find many gold medals in the dressing room. Thanks to aging out, NHL graduation and injuries, the U.S. had, at best, three returning players on the roster – goalie Jon Gillies, scoring winger Riley Barber (Washington, 167th overall in 2012), pictured above, and skillful agitator Ryan Hartman (Chicago, 30th in ’13).

As vaunted as the Canadians were during last year’s lockout-fuelled super teen showdown in Ufa, the Americans were just as impressive in retrospect. Alex Galchenyuk, Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones are all starring in the NHL already, while ‘Johnny Hockey’ Gaudreau is still scorching the college ranks with Hobey Baker in his sights. Oh, and after winning MVP of the world juniors, starting netminder John Gibson went on to backstop the U.S. men to a bronze medal at the World Championship as a 19-year-old. No big deal.

But the Americans can’t pine for the past. They’ve got a gold to defend and yet another New Year’s Eve cage match with Canada following what will likely be three easy wins against Germany, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The loser of that North American throwdown will likely face a difficult quarterfinal opponent, as one of Russia, Sweden or Finland will have to finish third in the other pool.

One other X-factor for the U.S. comes from behind the bench: Phil Housley moved on to the NHL’s Nashville Predators as an assistant coach to Barry Trotz, so the whistle and clipboard fall to University of Minnesota bench boss Don Lucia. The 15-year head of the Golden Gophers has two NCAA titles at Minnesota, but none since 2003. Does he have the magic to help Team USA go back-to-back? Housley was great behind the bench in 2013 and when the Americans don’t buy into their leader, things tend to go sideways (see Keith Allain in Calgary two years ago, when the U.S. had to fight off relegation).

OFFENSE
Though the Americans won’t have a go-to guy like Gaudreau, there is plenty of size and skill up front. Nic Kerdiles (Anaheim, 36th in ’12) likely would have made the team last year were it not for a bizarre 10-game suspension levied on him by the NCAA because of a hotel room bill that wasn’t repaid to his family advisor quickly enough. Post-ban, he was one of the University of Wisconsin’s best players and continues to wear that crown as a sophomore.

Hudson Fasching (Los Angeles, 118th in ’13) fell in the draft thanks to a poor offensive year with the U.S. NTDP, but has been excellent as a freshman for Lucia’s Gophers. Then there’s Adam Erne (Tampa Bay, 33rd in ’13), another big kid with talent who proved his worth to the U.S. brain trust at the summer camp in Lake Placid when he volunteered for the shootout against Finland after forcing the game into overtime with a late marker. Erne scored the final two shootout goals for the U.S. to clinch victory in the exhibition game.

Barber was a pleasant offensive surprise last year and as one of only two possible returnees among skaters, he’ll need to bring his knack for finding the back of the net to Malmo. In terms of sandpaper, Hartman brings a huge dimension to the team.

DEFENSE
This is the biggest question mark for the Americans. Boston University’s Matt Grzelcyk (Boston, 85th in ’12) was the final cut to the team last season and actually travelled with the squad to Europe for exhibition play, so he’s technically not a returnee. Minnesota’s Brady Skjei (NY Rangers, 28th in ’12) is a smooth skater with shutdown ability, while Ian McCoshen (Florida, 31st in ’13) has been a great two-way presence for Boston College as a freshman.

But the player closest to the NHL is Connor Carrick, who actually started the season with Washington before the Capitals sent him to Hershey in the American League. A late-round pick (137th in ’12), Carrick has quickly become a dangerous offensive D-man and will need to bring that acumen to the U.S. blueline.

Despite being green at the world junior level, this group does have a good amount of mobility and bulk, with multiple players weighing in at 200 pounds or more, so the U.S. will be able to handle the big forwards from Canada, Russia and Sweden.

Last year’s defense corps included current NHLers Jones and Trouba (plus Connor Murphy, who made his debut with the Phoenix Coyotes), so this year’s group can’t help but pale in comparison. But there are still pieces to like here.

GOALTENDING
Gillies has seen first-hand what it takes to win it all. He has a gold medal from last year when he served as John Gibson’s backup. Nothing on his Providence College resume indicates he’ll fall flat, but if he does, the Americans have a decent secondary option in Anthony Stolarz (Philadelphia, 45th in ’12).

The big 6-foot-6 netminder dropped out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha last year to join the Ontario League powerhouse London Knights mid-season. He played the majority of games for the Knights en route to a league title, though he ceded the crease to Jake Patterson during OHL final against Barrie, with Patterson earning three of London’s four wins, and the two split the minutes at the national showdown.

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.