Hudson Fasching (Francois Laplante / HHOF-IIHF Images)
Quite possibly the team to beat at the WJC, the US squad has the experience and the pieces to take the red, white, and blue back to the top of the podium.These are the salad days for USA Hockey. The Americans have won two world junior titles in the past five years, and even if the results surrounding those triumphs have been uneven, it’s something the national squad can still hold over it Canadian neighbors, who have no golds during that span. Obviously, the talent pool has a great deal to do with the recent success – players are coming from an ever-expanding number of states in the south and west, joining the traditional east and Midwest hotbeds – but the team’s brass has also found a knack for picking effective coaches.
Phil Housley was the latest find, jumping from a Minnesota high school job to the world spotlight in Russia and guiding his troops to victory. Now the ex-NHL defenseman is in the pros as an assistant coach in Nashville.This year’s bench boss is former Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki, who was an assistant with Team USA for those past two golds. If he can steer his charges in the right direction, this team has the skill and athleticism to go all the way. If not, missing the podium altogether (as the team did last year) is a possibility. That New Year’s Eve date with Canada to finish the round-robin has been crucial in the past and will be again. OFFENSE The force down the middle for Team USA is strong, and his name is Jack Eichel. Unlike Canadian draft rival Connor McDavid, Eichel was a central part of the American squad in Malmo, playing a top-six role and getting crucial shifts in the final minutes of big games. He has grown more dangerous since, cutting a swath of destruction through the NCAA as a freshman at Boston University, where his speed, shot and size have been too much for even 23-year-old foes to handle. The crazy thing about Team USA’s talent pool is Eichel might not even be the youngest gem in the lineup. Auston Matthews, the 2016 draft prospect, also cracked the roster. Another big center who gives defensemen nightmares, Matthews has been an uncontrollable star for the same National Team Development Program that birthed Eichel. Not that Team USA will be all baby fat. Hudson Fasching was a tank for the team in Malmo, and the University of Minnesota star (whose rights were traded to Buffalo from L.A.) will once again be a load to handle on the wing. Only Russian behemoth Nikita Zadorov could slow Fasching down last year. Tampa Bay prospect Adam Erne, himself a big dude with scoring flash, can also return, though his play was uneven at last year’s showdown. Otherwise, expect a generous helping of ex-NTDP products up front, such as Patrick Kane acolyte Sonny Milano (Columbus) and his former running mate Alex Tuch, a power forward with Boston College. There’s also Buffalo pick J.T. Compher, who will bring leadership, edge and scoring to the bunch after missing last year’s tourney due to injury. The Americans also usually bring at least one smaller forward with skill, and Chicago pick Tyler Motte of the University of Michigan won this year’s slot. DEFENSE Last year’s D-corps had some pretty tough luck. Specifically, there was the delay of game penalty Steven Santini took against Russia in the quarterfinal when he cleared the puck from his end and managed to put it over the glass in Russia’s end, which would not have happened in a rink with higher barriers. Santini, a New Jersey pick at Boston College, would be one of three returning blueliners if he can get healthy in time from a wrist injury. The other two vets are fellow Eagle Ian McCoshen (Florida) and Denver’s Will Butcher (Colorado), both two-way defenders. The real excitement, however, will come with the newbies. Two gifted youngsters are making a case for early inclusion in Zach Werenski of Michigan and Noah Hanifin of Boston College. Both are 17-year-olds who fast-tracked through high school to jump into college in their NHL draft years, and both are gifted with size, poise and offensive skill. The pair has experience together, too, as they both spent time with the NTDP under-17 team and under-18 squad. Hanifin went on to win gold at the world under-18s with the Americans. One dark horse to watch for is Sarnia’s Anthony DeAngelo (Tampa Bay), an offensive dynamo who has battled to keep his mercurial personality under wraps. Another CHL player with potential is 6-foot-5 Brandon Carlo of Tri-City. The 2015 draft prospect brings a nice physical element to the back end, along with enviable reach. GOALTENDING In years that Team USA has won, netminding has been a strength. Jack Campbell played the hero in Saskatoon, while John Gibson was dominant in Russia. Last year, expectations were high on Jon Gillies, but the Providence College stopper was just OK, and the squad faltered after a super-hot start. As with the forwards and defense, a young man will lead the Americans, though he’s not as young as the skaters. Thatcher Demko was a revelation for Boston College last season as a true freshman, and he parlayed that success into a second-round slot in the draft, where Vancouver grabbed his rights. Big and athletic, the California native had some hip issues in the summer, but he has rebounded from them and is back to putting up great numbers for the Eagles. Bad games are a rarity for the youngster, and he has already taken Boston College to the Frozen Four once. The competition for his backup is pretty open, though OHL Plymouth stopper Alex Nedeljkovic (Carolina) is a strong candidate. Nedeljkovic helped Team USA win gold at the under-18s in the spring, and he’s obviously familiar with some of the most dangerous players in the tournament thanks to his perch in an OHL crease. He doesn’t have the size of Demko, but Nedeljkovic has been a difference-maker in Plymouth for several years now. This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.