Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

World junior championship: Team USA might lack star power, but new crew may earn its stripes

GROUP A: UNITED STATES

2013 finish: Gold medal, beat Sweden 3-1 in final
2013 round-robin record: 2-0-0-2, 19 GF/7 GA

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.

Almost all of the names have changed, yet the letters U-S-A remain across the front of the sweaters. That counts for something.

Team USA peaked at a propitious moment last January in Ufa, Russia, dominating the medal round to capture its second world under-20 gold medal in its last four tries. Only three players, captain Riley Barber, two-way forward Ryan Hartman and projected No. 1 goalie Jon Gillies, are back for coach Don Lucia, whose team is Group A with rival Team Canada. The way USA Hockey nurtures its young talent through its centralized national team development program in Ann Arbor, Mich., sets up the Yanks to have some able reinforcements.

"Now we get a label on our backs," Hartman said prior to the Americans' departure for Sweden. "Everyone’s going to be coming after us, I don’t know if we’re the favourite or not, but in my mind we should be. We’re pretty deep."

They might not be as deep as the '13 crew that boasted Alex Galchenyuk, Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba, who are each now established as 19-year-old NHLers. Calgary Flames farmhand Patrick Sieloff, a shutdown defender who was likely surefire captain material, is also injured. That makes it four U20-eligible players who are absent, the same as Canada with 18-year-old Nathan MacKinnon and 19-year-olds Sean Monahan, Morgan Rielly and Tom Wilson.

However, Team USA adapted well to a European setting last year.

"We have a lot of versatile players who can play any position and skate really well," Barber said recently. "I think all the new faces is sometimes a good thing because they’re going to be especially fired up to put on the sweater.

"We had high-end, top NHL draft picks last year but the main thing that caught me was the excitement that spread through all the players, about being on a such a big stage," Barber added. "That really helped us at the end.

"The main thing is adapting to the overall speed and talent level."

Gillies noted the absence of the rugged Sieloff is "big loss for us — he's one of the best leaders I've ever encountered." The blueline brigade has been completely turned over, but Team USA includes New York Rangers first-rounder Brady Skjei and high second-rounders such as Ian McCoshen (Florida Panthers) and Steven Santini (New Jersey Devils).

"This summer they were phenomenal," said Gillies, referring to a series of summer exhibition games in Lake Placid, N.Y.. "In that Canada game, I didn't face too many scoring chances. I think I only had five shots in the third period. They were blocking shots left and right, making simple plays."

Offensively, the Barber-Nic Kerdiles-Danny O'Regan line stacks up as Team USA's most creative unit. The other lines might have to produce through cycling the puck and forcing defenders into mistakes.

"You really never know in tournaments," Barber said. "It’s fast and quick and a guy can get hot at the right time."

How the legacy of the 2013 team factors in should be interesting. Team USA has won three of the last 10 world junior tourneys, but has yet to repeat. Ultimately, the Americans are starting fresh after winning the WJC where no country, or its fans, could point at who was playing in the NHL.

"That’s why last year was such an awesome tournament, because of the lockout," Hartman said. "There was no excuse for any team."

Players to watch

Forward Riley Barber (Miami RedHawks, NCHC): Barber will wear the Captain America cape as a returning player who notched six points in seven games during the march to gold in Ufa. The Washington Capitals selection has broken out with 28 points in 18 games as a sophomore for Miami.

Forward Andrew Copp (Michigan Wolverines, Big Ten): There is no Trouba, but the Ann Arbor-Winnipeg connection remains strong since Copp is a Jets fourth-rounder. The centre will have to play an all-around game for Team USA; he's averaged a point a night through 14 games for the maize and blue, who are ranked No. 3 in the NCAA.

Forward Jack Eichel (U.S. under-18, USHL): Eichel, a rangy forward with good vision, is only two months past his 17th birthday but is too much of a prodigy to leave home. The Boston-area product is considered the best U.S. prospect for the 2015 NHL draft, aka the Connor McDavid derby. Do bear in mind the tournament can be rough on young players, especially with the grind of seven games in 11 days.

Forward Ryan Hartman (Plymouth Whalers, OHL): The first-round pick of his hometown Chicago Blackhawks will need to be "He brings grit, he brings skill, he literally does it all," Gillies said. "I look forward to seeing him in a bigger role, although he was phenomenal in a shutdown role last season with Cole (Gaudreau) and Piets (Blake Pietila)."

Forward Vince Hinostroza (Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Hockey East): The ND freshman was a late add for the evaluation camp, but has the ability to use his speed to beat defenders to the outside and create opportunities. Hinostroza, like Hartman, is an Illinois native who belongs to the Blackhawks, after being taken No. 169 overall in 2012.

Forward Nic Kerdiles (Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten): The Anaheim Ducks second-rounder is a power forward with a big shot and finishing touch around the net. Kerdiles had a four-game multi-point streak going when he left Wisconsin to join Team USA's evaluation camp.

Forward Stefan Matteau (Albany Devils, AHL): Was cut from the '13 squad but provides some beef along the boards. "He has NHL experience — which you can’t put a price tag on — and I think he’s going to be very useful for our team," Barber said. "Just his size and power. I don’t think the big games will get to him."

Forward Danny O'Regan (Boston University Terriers, Hockey East): San Jose Sharks fifth-rounder has centred a line with Barber and Kerdiles during pre-competition play. They project to be the go-to trio for Lucia. O'Regan has five goals and 11 points over 17 games as a sophomore at Boston U.

Defenceman Connor Carrick (Hershey Bears, AHL): The 19-year-old offensive defenceman had a three-game cameo with the Washington Capitals in October and scored his first NHL goal before being placed in the American league. Carrick can be a catalyst as a puck-moving defenceman, as he showed while helping the Plymouth Whalers come within three wins of the OHL final last season.

Defenceman Matt Grzelcyk (Boston University Terriers, Hockey East): A hometown pick by the Boston Bruins, the diminutive Grzelcyk is a puck-moving defenceman who can adapt well to the big ice. That trait was strong with the 2013 team, in particularly with Union College's Shayne Gostisbehere and Minnesota's Mike Reilly.

"He's a lot like Gostisbehere and Reilly, the way the play," Hartman said of Grzelcyk.

Defenceman Brady Skjei (Minnesota Golden Gophers, Big Ten): The New York Rangers pick is a mobile rearguard with size who has waited his turn after being bumped out of the deep D corps in 13. Skjei, who plays for Lucia at Minnesota, has helped the Gophers reach the top of the NCAA Division I poll. "With the big ice surface you have to be able to quickly react and get there," Barber said. "Skjei’s one of the best skaters I've seen. They can retreat back to their net."

Goalie Jon Gillies (Providence College Friars, Hockey East): The Calgary Flames gleaned a ton from Gibson's example of grace under pressure in Ufa and has become one of the top goalies in college hockey. "We played them at Providence and he was great," Barber said. "It was definitely on our scouting report to get as many guys in front of him as you can, because if he can see the puck, he’s going to make the save. He’s built a great reputation. That shows in his reputation and the ranking they have (No. 5 in the USCHO poll)."

MUST WIN GAME: Canada (Dec. 31, 11:30 a.m. ET)

It seems like the group stage always comes down to this border battle. Canada and the U.S. have been in the same pool in five of the last six years; the one exception, coincidentally, came when the tournament was in Buffalo in 2011.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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