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WJC Preview: Gold medal hopes for USA will hinge on goaltending

The Americans beat the champion Canadians last year, but it wasn’t in the gold-medal game. Timing matters, and the quest is obvious now.
Matthew Murnaghan/Hockey Canada images

Matthew Murnaghan/Hockey Canada images

Last year in Buffalo, the Americans came out flat against Sweden in the semifinal, and it cost them a chance at gold. Team USA still came away with a bronze after drubbing the Czechs in the third-place match, but for a squad that had already beaten Canada in an outdoor game, the end result was a little hollow.

That American team had a ton of firepower up front, led by Casey Mittelstadt and Kieffer Bellows. Both of them have aged out of the world juniors, but the U.S. will still have a loaded arsenal at its disposal thanks to the latest top NHL draft prospect, Jack Hughes. Team USA will likely ask the Ottawa Senators to loan budding power forward Brady Tkachuk for the tourney, but it’s hard to see the Sens agreeing to that request, given how well the rookie has played while healthy.

This will be a good U.S. team with a chance at gold, assuming all the parts come together – particularly in net.

The name at the top of everyone’s watch list is Jack Hughes and rightly so. The top 2019 draft prospect and NTDP superstar can create dangerous opportunities practically every shift due to his speed, creativity and hands. But more importantly, the U.S. will be able to create matchup problems for a lot of teams thanks to a wealth of talent up the middle.

Along with Hughes, they also have two 2018 returnees in St. Cloud State’s Ryan Poehling (Montreal) and Michigan’s Josh Norris (Ottawa). Poehling and Norris are two-way players with offensive skills, and Poehling in particular can be used to shut down opponents’ top lines thanks to his size and responsible nature. Norris, whose NHL rights went from San Jose to Ottawa as part of the Erik Karlsson trade, is off to a great start with the NCAA’s Wolverines, leading the team in scoring and contributing on both special teams.

On the wings, Team USA has a lot of options, and the final camp in December will be crucial. OHL Kingston’s Jason Robertson (Dallas) is a power-play ace who wins puck battles and keeps plays alive, but he’s not the fleetest of foot. Neither is Harvard’s Jack Drury (Carolina), but he’s reliable and plays like a warrior – which could make him a great bottom-sixer.

Oliver Wahlstrom (New York Islanders) has gotten off to a slow start in his NCAA career with Boston College, but his past NTDP work and scoring ability give him a great chance of sticking. Joel Farabee (Philadelphia) brings a relentless motor, and it would be fun if the Americans reunited last year’s sick NTDP top line of Farabee-Hughes-Wahlstrom.

The U.S. team brass is also intrigued by Providence freshman Jay O’Brien (Philadelphia), though he is working his way back from a concussion. The door is also open for 2019 draft prospect Matthew Boldy, who plays a similar game to Wahlstrom.

The back end holds a ton of promise with a group that includes three returnees from last year’s team: Quinn Hughes (Vancouver), Mikey Anderson (Los Angeles) and Dylan Samberg (Winnipeg). In Hughes, the U.S. has an incredible skater who dominates when he has the puck and is also the older brother of center Jack Hughes. The two loved playing together at the World Junior Summer Showcase, and this will be a rare chance for them to suit up on the same team, unless the Canucks win the draft lottery. Anderson is a steady presence on the blueline, while Samberg brings an aggressive element to the proceedings. Anderson and Samberg play for NCAA national champion Minnesota-Duluth.

From there, Team USA can go in a couple directions, but the braintrust wants a variety of skills. Phil Kemp (Edmonton) is the classic defensive defenseman, while Reilly Walsh (New Jersey) has the offense and transition game to get the puck moving in the right direction. Mattias Samuelsson (Buffalo), an NTDP alumnus now at Western Michigan, offers size, smarts and a positionally sound game.

When the Americans cut down their initial roster at the WJSS, nine D-men lasted to the end. Should anyone usurp the names above, the frontrunners would be Joey Keane (New York Rangers), Ben Mirageas (New York Islanders) and undrafted Matt Anderson. Keane is a great athlete who can move the puck and is playing well for OHL Barrie, while Anderson is another Duluth kid who goes about his work quietly and efficiently. Mirageas, an NCAA sophomore at Providence, is a two-way option.

Perhaps the most exciting new name is K’Andre Miller (New York Rangers), the Wisconsin freshman who missed the WJSS due to illness. He’s been outstanding for the Badgers and plays a high-end two-way game. One potential issue in the selections? The only right shots in the bunch are Keane, Kemp and Walsh.

This is the big X-factor for Team USA. The Americans didn’t get great goaltending last year, and they’ll need it in Vancouver and Victoria if they want gold. Cayden Primeau (Montreal) came into the year as a favorite, but he has battled consistency issues at Northeastern after a stellar freshman campaign. Keith Petruzzelli (Detroit) has the size but not the numbers at Quinnipiac. Kyle Keyser (Boston) has been solid for OHL Oshawa and had a good showing at the WJSS, while Spencer Knight (2019 draft) is clearly the future in net but is still young for this tournament. Knight has the most upside, and there could be a case made for him to earn a spot based on merit alone: he led Team USA to silver at the world under-18s as an underager, and he has been dominant against NCAA competition while playing for the U.S. NTDP this year. Could he not have a Jack Campbell effect this year before coming in as the starter in 2020? The final camp in Everett, Wash., will determine the roster and the Americans must choose wisely – because the difference between playing in the final and settling for less is often just one game.

The Hockey News' Gold Odds: 3/1


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