Caleb Jones (left) and Casey Fitzgerald
With just one first-rounder in their ranks, the seven-man unit may not have a ton of name recognition, but they've been getting the job done for the Americans
Team USA has now gone through the world junior round robin unblemished, thanks to a 3-1 win over Canada. And while everyone on the team has done their job, it's hard not to look at the defense corps and see a group that is playing way above expectation.
In a perfect world, the Americans would have Zach Werenski as their top guy, but he's a little busy running the NHL's hottest team right now in Columbus. Instead, fellow first-rounder Charlie McAvoy (BOS) is the most experienced member of the clan and also the only defenseman on the team to go in the top-30. Heck, Jack Ahcan has been passed over in two straight drafts entirely, while Casey Fitzgerald went through once before Buffalo picked up the Boston College rearguard the second time around.
But the unit is getting results and they`re doing it by not messing around.
"We're trying to keep things simple right now," said Edmonton Oilers pick Caleb Jones. "We have a really deep and talented group of forwards, so if we can get pucks up to them as quickly as possible and have the puck in our end as little as possible, that's probably the best for us."
And hey, when offensive wizards such as Clayton Keller, Colin White and Jeremy Bracco are receiving those passes, it seems like a pretty good strategy. But the blueliners aren't a bunch of talentless gorms, either. There's a healthy dose of puckmoving skill in the group and offensively, you won't find many better than Adam Fox when it comes to instincts (Ryan Lindgren and Joe Cecconi round out the crew). Still, shutting down the opposition is the mission and despite not being a huge group, many of Team USA's defensemen can play a nasty, physical game. Jones and Fitzgerald in particular are tenacious and ones to watch if you're an enemy player.
"It comes along with the pride of playing for your country," Fitzgerald said. "We all have that chip on our shoulder and we'll get in your face."
In a tournament where physicality is not encouraged, that can be a tough mandate, especially when the standard seems to change game to game and even period to period. In the Canada game, both sides ended up in the penalty box a lot. But while the Americans got prime scoring chances in tight, the squad's defense largely managed to hold Canada to the perimeter. Perhaps the Americans learned from last year's medal-round defeat, when Russia made its crease a no-go zone for the U.S. and stifled the American big guns in the process. Now that the tournament is single-elimination, those turf wars are going to become all the more crucial and Team USA is playing the right way this time.
And while McAvoy is the only blueliner in the unit to see world junior action before, he has been proud of how the new troops have come together so far.
"We have seven great 'D' and every one of them is here for a reason, because they fit a role," he said. "We'll need every single guy to be playing great hockey in order to be successful."
Coach Bob Motzko joked the other night that his staff kept waiting for the unheralded defense to show weakness, but it just hasn't happened and probably won't at this point. Think back to Pittsburgh's blueline last year and you'll find a corps led by Kris Letang, but otherwise filled with honest soldiers whose job was to wing the puck out as quickly as possible to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. That team ended up winning the Stanley Cup and with the way Team USA's defense is playing, a championship is well within reach there, as well.
This unit may not have a lot of marquee names, but it's a movie worth watching, nonetheless.