The good news for Team USA is they get to draw from the alums of the deepest National Team Development Program ever. The bad news is the best player from that team won’t be there. Center Jack Hughes is too busy with the New Jersey Devils in the NHL, and that has the Americans a little thinner down the middle than would be preferred. Having said that, this team still has serious gold-medal potential after taking silver in Vancouver.
There is a little concern over the center position, which means Los Angeles Kings first-rounder Alex Turcotte will be crucial. Luckily, the Wisconsin freshman has been fantastic in his nascent Badgers career, leading the team in offense alongside linemate and virtual Team USA lock Cole Caufield, the Montreal Canadiens pick. Both Turcotte and Caufield had strong showings at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Michigan, as did Anaheim Ducks first-rounder Trevor Zegras of Boston University. Zegras can play center or right wing and his usage may depend on how the rest of the roster fills out. Harvard’s Jack Drury, the Carolina Hurricanes prospect, is a returnee at center who can bolster a two-way line, but there is a spot open otherwise.
In terms of offense from the wings, Caufield will not be alone. Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nick Robertson has been on fire for OHL Peterborough and had a solid effort at the WJSS. Kings pick Arthur Kaliyev is a pure goal-scorer once again ringing up numbers for OHL Hamilton, but he will have to show strongly at camp.
The biggest X-factors for Team USA are Philadelphia’s Joel Farabee and New York Islanders right winger Oliver Wahlstrom. Both helped the Americans win silver last season and both have spent time in the AHL and NHL this year. Farabee seems to be entrenched with the Flyers, while Wahlstrom was sent down to Bridgeport in November to round out his game. If the Americans get him for the tournament, they’ll have a heavy offensive attack.
For the rest of the forward candidates, camp will be crucial. Boston Bruins first-rounder Johnny Beecher is off to a great start with Michigan in the NCAA and can play up and down the lineup, while big Curtis Hall (another Bruins pick) can help on the penalty kill and on a shutdown line. Hall, however, won’t have much of a workload sample before camp because he plays at Yale, which started its schedule later than most other NCAA programs. Jon Gruden (Ottawa/OHL London) and Blake McLaughlin (Anaheim/Minnesota) must work their way onto the roster after inconsistent WJSS showings.
The U.S. will be led by a couple of big college kids who earned silver in Vancouver: Mattias Samuelsson and K’Andre Miller. Samuelsson is a Buffalo Sabres pick who plays at Western Michigan, where he uses his massive frame to shut down opponents and block shots. Miller, the New York Rangers prospect and Wisconsin sophomore, blends size, skating and skill into an enviable package on the back end.
In terms of newcomers, Philadelphia first-rounder Cam York will be one of the most important. The Michigan freshman has the elite offensive skills to be the power-play quarterback for Team USA, which makes him a strong candidate for inclusion. But all three of these rearguards play on the left side, so the right side features uncertainty.
Bode Wilde, the Islanders pick, had yet to play a game through mid-November due to injury, but he would bring a big shot and a big body. Ryan Johnson is still young, but the Buffalo Sabres first-rounder has a track record of stepping up in big tournaments – last year’s World Jr. A Challenge, for example. Johnson is a Minnesota freshman who excels at moving the puck. He’ll get stiff competition from Jordan Harris, the Montreal prospect and fellow puck-mover who’s one year older and plays for Team USA assistant coach Jerry Keefe at Northeastern.
In terms of sturdy defensive play, both Spencer Stastney (Nashville/Notre Dame) and Ty Emberson (Arizona/Wisconsin) would be solid options.
We’ve got a coronation on our hands. Spencer Knight, the Florida Panthers first-rounder (13th overall in 2019), is the undisputed star, and his history indicates the potential for an MVP performance at the tournament. Knight had three shutouts and a .936 save percentage in his first 11 games as a freshman for Boston College while playing a tough schedule. Thanks to his time with the NTDP, Knight has extensive international experience, and he was Team USA’s third goaltender at the world juniors last year – so he’ll have a sense of what to expect, even if he didn’t see any game action.
Because the tournament is overseas, the Americans will bring three goalies, and Knight’s peers will likely be Dustin Wolf (Calgary/WHL Everett) and Isaiah Saville (Vegas/Nebraska-Omaha). Wolf has great numbers for the Silvertips, while Saville has done well in his initial NCAA foray with the Mavericks. Those two shouldn’t get too comfortable, however: undrafted Michigan State netminder Drew DeRidder will get a chance to play spoiler at camp.
Make no mistake, however: this is Knight’s team.
Behind the bench, the Americans will be well-coached, led by Scott Sandelin. An assistant coach with last year’s silver medallists, Sandelin has presided over a running dynasty at Minnesota-Duluth, where the Bulldogs have captured back-to-back NCAA titles and are once again a top-10 program this season. Sandelin’s Duluth squads have been talented from the back end out and very hard to score on, so it will be interesting to see how he deploys a team with that kind of skill on defense but also elite forwards who can change a game in a hurry.
While the U.S. would like to have more depth down the middle, this still looks like an excellent squad on paper. Team USA has fared very well at the WJC recently and the familiarity of many of the players with each other will make for quick and easy chemistry – and possibly a gold medal, too.
THN’s ODDS FOR GOLD: 3-1