Last year’s finish: Seventh
Last year’s round-robin record: 1-3-0-0
Yahoo! Canada Sports has asked North American-based players, some of whom are playing in the world junior championship, to break down their national teams.
After a disastrous showing in last year’s WJC, which found the Americans left out of the medal round altogether and stuck in the relegation round, longtime NHL defenceman Phil Housley has been tasked with restoring a USA program that’s just three years removed from a gold medal.
Though Housley’s well known for the gaudy offensive numbers he posted during his career, his club’s best path to success in Ufa centers around keeping pucks out of its own net.
2013 draft-eligible defenceman Seth Jones, who captained Team USA to a gold medal in last year’s U18 championship, has lofty expectations for his first (and perhaps only) shot at WJC glory.
“One of the goals I have is to give up the least number of goals in the tournament as a team,” Jones told Buzzing the Net in early December. “It’s going to take a lot of depth, with four full forward lines and three good defence pairs to win this thing.”
Jones, the Portland Winterhawks rookie and son of ex-NBA player Popeye Jones, may be the flashiest name on the American squad, but he says he’ll be taking his cues from the team’s three returning players from last year.
Defenceman Jacob Trouba – who also played on the U18 team last year – is back, along with forward J.T. Miller (formerly of the Plymouth Whalers) and goaltender John Gibson of the Kitchener Rangers.
“Trouba (who plays for the University of Michigan) is a great leader by example and I think we’ll take after him,” Jones said. “J.T. is key for us on and off the ice and we really listen to what he has to say, and Gibson is a guy who can make big saves and win games for us.”
With Plymouth’s Stefan Noesen banned from participating in the tournament due to his OHL suspension, there are 10 CHLers on the preliminary U.S. roster that will be cut from 26 to 23 this weekend. That list doesn’t include Miller, who played for the OHL’s Whalers last season but is currently in the AHL with Connecticut.
Jones touts the depth of the American team, and says that experience playing together in past tournaments and in environments like the U.S. National Team Development Program could help the club come together quickly in Russia. But he acknowledges Team USA faces a very difficult road ahead.
“It’s tough to keep up with a team like Canada,” he said. “You can’t let them get off the puck with easy plays. You have to be physical, chip pucks in and hit their defencemen.”
That physical play could lead Jones into confrontations with Canadian players Ty Rattie and Tyler Wotherspoon, WHL teammates of his in Portland.
“Just because Rattie sees me coming at him, he’s not going to turn around and skate the other way,” Jones cracked. “He’s going to try to go around me and score, so I have to be willing to go after him.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Forward Alex Galchenyuk (Sarnia Sting, OHL) The third overall pick in 2012 by the Montreal Canadiens is the highest draftee on the roster, and he’s been toying with the OHL in recent weeks. With 19 goals and 40 points in his last 18 games, Galchenyuk has risen to second in the league scoring race (one point behind Canada’s Ryan Strome). He could end up as Team USA’s biggest scoring threat in Ufa.
Defenceman Seth Jones (Portland Winterhawks, WHL) It’s a foregone conclusion that Jones will go either first or second overall in the next NHL draft, largely because of a combination of size, speed and skill rarely seen in a defenceman. He’s averaging nearly a point a game in Portland, but he’ll need to throw his body around during the WJC more than he usually does to buoy Team USA’s hopes.
Defenceman Jacob Trouba (Michigan, NCAA) If defence is going to be the strength of the American team, Trouba will set the tone. The first-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets won a silver with Team USA at the U17 level and a U18 gold. After last year’s disappointment in the WJC, you can bet he’s motivated to add a third medal to his collection.
Forwards John Gaudreau (Boston College, NCAA) and Rocco Grimaldi (North Dakota, NCAA) At 5-9 and 5-6, respectively, neither one of these guys is much of a physical presence (Gaudreau is listed at just 150 pounds). But on the big international ice, these two skilled forwards could be dangerous if given some room to operate.
Forward J.T. Miller (Connecticut Whale, AHL) Miller’s the only member of the roster who’s been playing professionally, and while he started a bit slow in the AHL, he’s improved drastically in recent weeks and has 14 points in 26 games for the New York Rangers affiliate. Like Trouba, he’s sore from last year’s showing in the tournament and will probably be the team’s most valuable all-around forward.
Goaltender John Gibson (Kitchener Rangers, OHL) Gibson mostly sat on the bench watching Jack Campbell in last year’s tournament, playing only in a 4-1 group loss to Finland. With a career OHL save percentage hovering around .930, the Anaheim Ducks prospect should be more than ready to take on the starting role.
MUST WIN GAME: Sure, group games against Canada and Russia will be the biggest tests for Team USA, but if the Americans come up short in those contests they’ll likely need to beat Slovakia in their final round-robin game on New Year’s Eve to avoid another embarrassing drop to the relegation round.