Weiss: USA World Junior Championship Outlook

By Andrew Weiss (@WeissFC)

The Summer Evaluation Camp has nearly long been forgotten, two camps on two different continents have been completed, and initial cuts have been made by USA’s general manager Jim Johannson and head coach Phil Housley. Despite one cut still remaining, we finally have a good picture as to what type of team USA Hockey has brought to Ufa for the 2013 World Junior Championship.

With Sunday’s roster announcement, the outlook on this year’s team and predictions on how they will do over the next week and a half formally began. For what it’s worth, below is my own outlook on the team and how I think they will do.

    Forwards

Upfront, there are a lot of big names like 2012 third overall pick Alex Galchenyuk, current Hobey Baker favorite Johnny Gaudreau, sparkplug Rocco Grimaldi, and power forward J.T. Miller.

With those names come a lot of questions. Can Miller, who played the wing on last year’s team, be the team’s top center and be looked to be a leading goal scorer on the team? Will Gaudreau and Grimaldi be effective despite their lack of size at this tournament? Can Galchenyuk be a point per game or more player in his first IIHF international event?

While I think a lot of the answers are yes, a question that I still do not have an answer for is aside from Miller and Galchenyuk, who will be the surefire point getters?

Last year, I think it well known that Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Brandon Saad, Nick Bjugstad, and Emerson Etem (despite not scoring) could create a scoring opportunity any shift. I’m not sure this year’s team has those type of guys compared to years in the past. The team was also hurt in this area when Stefan Noesen was ruled ineligible to play in the tournament.

What this team does have is what Johannson and Housley made a priority when selecting this team: great skaters. This is arguably going to be one of the best skating teams USA Hockey has assembled for this tournament in recent memory and was apparent in the team’s two exhibition games. The team also has size to go with the speed and versatile power forwards like Miller and Tyler Biggs that will be looked upon to counter Canada and Russia’s potency.

    Defense

It is hard to argue that Canada does not have the best defenseman at this tournament. Aside from the Canadians, I believe the United States has the next best group of defensemen at the tournament. Last year, Jacob Trouba struggled early on in the tournament, but came into his own as the tournament progressed. Then there is Seth Jones who has been dominating the WHL and will be a very solid defender on the big Olympic ice. Both look ready to go after playing in Saturday’s exhibition game and will play on different pairings while playing a top four role.

With the exception of captain Jake McCabe, there are no guarantees who else will be manning the blue line on Dec. 27 against Germany quite yet. Despite a final cut still looming because of an injury, there is still a pretty good idea what the remainder of the defensive corps will look like.

Much like the forward group, the remainder of the defensemen that will be on the team are all strong skaters. Each defenseman that is still with the team also displays a strong ability to create scoring opportunities.

With the skating and offensive ability being a positive, I do question how strong this group can be against teams with deep offensive ability. Players such as Shayne Gostisbehere, Matt Grzelcyk, and Mike Reilly must have good tournaments in the defensive end for this team to do well.

    Goaltenders

For the first time in three years Jack Campbell will not be there to save the day for the United States, but his successor John Gibson should be up to the task. Gibson got his feet wet last year appearing in two of the US’ games and has been nothing short of stellar for Kitchener this year. All signs point to his hip being healthy so the US should be in good spot between the pipes.

If for any reason Gibson is not healthy or struggles, the team could be in trouble. Both Jon Gillies and Garret Sparks have had great seasons for their respective team, but at this tournament it’s anyone guess how they will play. Gillies admitted to me last August he struggled in part to the larger ice surface at the 2011 Ivan Hlinka and Sparks lacks international experience all together. To their credit, both did look very good splitting time in the team’s exhibition win against Sweden.

    Intangibles

Other than the goalies, I do not make a big deal out of a possible struggle to play on an Olympic ice surface with this team. In addition to the team’s skating ability, the team also has international experience on the big ice. On the current 24 man roster 14 players have played in international tournaments with the National Team Development Program and another five have played games with an Olympic ice surface numerous times in the last year.

I do make a deal of having a high school hockey coach in Phil Housley behind the bench. Yes, he has been an assistant on this team before and yes he’s been more hands on in selecting this year’s team than any coach in recent memory, but one has to wonder how he will coach without coaching being the head coach of junior or college team previously.

The US team plays Russia and Canada in back-to-back games, but does have an off day on Dec. 29 between the two games. This could be a big advantage in preparing for Dec. 30’s game against Canada. If the team does have a good game against a very good Russian team, the momentum and preparation time could bode very well heading into the game against the best team on paper at the tournament.

    Bottom Line

Despite the looming question marks, think this team has potential to make a run at a medal. After penciling in Canada winning gold and Russia silver, it comes down to the United States, Sweden and Finland all vying for bronze in my opinion. All things considered, I like the US to finish fourth at this year’s tournament.

In what will come down to a single elimination tournament, anything can happen with the five teams that have a legit change to medal. There also seems to be a dark horse team at almost every tournament and the Czech Republic could easily play that role this year.

Right or wrong with my prediction, I cannot wait until this tournament to begin to play out early Wednesday morning. Feel free to tweet your thoughts about my outlook on Team USA as well as your thoughts once the tournament gets underway to me @WeissFC.

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