World Junior Championship preview: United States
Auston Matthews. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
World Junior Championship preview: United States
USA's fate will be decided by coach Ron Wilson's ability to get his team pulling in one direction and finding a goalie who won't get pulled.
United States | Group A | Roster | THN odds to win: 9:2 Murphy’s Law holds that once again the Americans will run into Russia in the medal round of the world juniors. In the past two years, the Cold War enemies have met in the quarterfinal and the Bears have eaten the Eagles on both occasions. Because of that, Team USA appears to have struggled in the past two tourneys when, really, the squad was just bad in the wrong game. This year’s edition brings both enormous promise and a sense of chaos that could again doom the States to a land far from the medal podium. Coach Ron Wilson has a wealth of international experience and a big-game resume, so his biggest challenge will be getting up to speed with what his teenaged charges’ strengths and weaknesses are before tournament time comes. This is a greater task than it may seem, as chemistry and motivation have been a moving target for the Americans over the years. Dean Blais worked one year, but not another. Phil Housley was coaching high school before steering his juniors to gold, while successful veteran NCAA stalwarts such as Keith Allain and Don Lucia had less success. Getting a talented roster on the same page is crucial here.
OFFENSE Scoring will be no problem for Team USA. Auston Matthews, a returnee from last year’s squad, will be one of the most dangerous players in the entire tournament. The No. 1 prospect for the 2016 draft has already been playing on bigger European ice surfaces thanks to his tenure with the Swiss League’s Zurich Lions, so no adjustment period will be needed. Matthews has also been playing against men, so facing off against boys won’t be very intimidating. The Americans could have had a devastating 1-2 punch at center with Dylan Larkin joining Matthews, but Larkin was playing too well for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, so he was not made available. Columbus Blue Jackets pick Sonny Milano is another veteran of the tournament, and Team USA hopes the deft stickhandler will be motivated to help his country get back to a medal finish. Another name to keep an eye on is Ottawa Senators first-rounder Colin White, a speedy two-way center from Boston College who has really impressed team brass this year. Depending on how the squad’s final camp goes, there are a number of options to fill out the lineup and from the sounds of it, some returnees may need to re-prove themselves. Vancouver first-rounder Brock Boeser (North Dakota) and 2016 prospect Matthew Tkachuk (OHL London) would be excellent additions and both ended the national summer camp on high notes. There will also be a lot of love for 2016 prospect Clayton Keller, a dynamic center who leads the National Team Development Program in scoring by a wide margin, and ex-NTDPer Jack Roslovic, the Winnipeg first-rounder who’s now a freshman at Miami.
DEFENSE Team USA’s back end starts with a no-brainer in Columbus first-rounder Zach Werenski. Werenski is an all-around star with the University of Michigan and already has one world juniors under his belt. The Wolverines standout is a great skater and contributes to the power play and penalty kill. For shutdown capabilities, Boston Bruins pick Brandon Carlo will return from last year’s squad. At 6-foot-5, Carlo has great reach and plays a physical game for the WHL’s Tri-City Americans. Another tower on the back end ripe for return is Ryan Collins, the 6-foot-5 Columbus second-rounder currently plying his trade at the University of Minnesota. From there, Team USA has a lot of options but no locks. ****Brandon Fortunato, an undrafted and undersized member of the Boston University Terriers, always seems to make a good impression, and he does have an NTDP background, so consider him an intriguing dark horse (his point-per-game pace this season won’t hurt, either). Another small but skilled hopeful is Miami’s Louie Belpedio, a Minnesota Wild prospect who captained Team USA to gold at the 2014 world under-18s. Of course, should Carolina give the Americans the last-second holiday gift of Noah Hanifin, then all of a sudden Team USA looks a lot stronger. But team brass was not going to make grandiose plans based around the NHL rookie’s presence.
GOALTENDING If the Americans crash and burn in Finland, goaltending will be the most likely culprit. Coming into the season, the job was Brandon Halverson’s to lose – and he has lost it as of now. The New York Rangers pick has struggled mightily with OHL Sault Ste. Marie, opening the door for other stoppers. Unfortunately for Team USA brass, other favorites have also faltered. Evan Sarthou, a 2016 prospect, is having a rough go with WHL Tri-City, while Carolina prospect Alex Nedeljkovic is just now turning things around with OHL Flint – a situation exacerbated by an autumn injury. One of the only U.S. goalies having a great campaign is St. Louis Blues pick Luke Opilka, who had originally been seen as more of an option for the 2017 tournament. Playing for a juggernaut OHL Kitchener squad, Opilka has an excellent record, though his individual numbers are more middle-of-the-road. However, Opilka got sick and will miss the tournament, handing the two spots to Halverson and Nedeljkovic. Netminding has often been the key to success for Team USA at the world juniors: Jack Campbell’s heroics helped the Americans knock off Canada for gold in Saskatoon back in 2010, while John Gibson was a virtual wall when the U.S. rumbled to the top in Russia three years ago. Without a stopper on top of his game, the Americans will likely be sunk.