The United States has never repeated as WJC champions or won the tournament on home ice. That could all be about to change in Buffalo.
As the defending champions, the Americans have set the bar pretty high. Center Clayton Keller, defenseman Charlie McAvoy and goaltender Tyler Parsons made up a fearsome triumvirate last year, and Troy ‘The Dagger’ Terry was as clutch a teenager as you’ll find. Which is not to say that you should sleep on this year’s squad, however. “It’s pretty much the same type of team as last year,” said one scout. “A lot of skill up front and a defense that can skate and transition the puck.”
Winning at home in Buffalo would be an undeniable treat for Team USA, though Canada will certainly want revenge after losing last year’s final in Montreal. Also of note: the Americans have never repeated as WJC champs or won the tournament on home ice. The two North American teams meet for the first outdoor game in tournament history – at New Era Stadium, home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills – during the round-robin, but don’t be surprised if they clash again with a medal on the line. In beating the Russians last year, the Americans also got a huge monkey off their backs, as success against their Cold War rivals had been scarce. In returning coach Bob Motzko, the U.S. has a motivator who knows his players, and the talent pool is once again deep.
For a minute there, it looked like the NHL was going to blow a hole in Team USA’s roster. But when Ottawa sent Logan Brown back to OHL Windsor and Edmonton returned Kailer Yamamoto to WHL Spokane, the path was cleared for a scintillating top end with Casey Mittelstadt (Buffalo) to reunite. That trio was excellent together at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Michigan and while they may not be a line in Buffalo, they will be major offensive drivers. A lot of pressure will be on Mittelstadt in particular, being a Sabres first-rounder who’s off to an impressive start at the University of Minnesota.
There is a sense amongst Team USA that they’re not as strong down the middle as in previous years, and that could hurt them against top squads such as Canada or Sweden. But Ryan Poehling (Montreal) is in the midst of a breakout season with St. Cloud State, while Trent Frederic (Boston) has been a solid two-way player for Wisconsin. In Brown, the team has a 6-foot-6 titan who has been getting stronger since the Senators drafted him 12th overall in 2016. He already has a Memorial Cup championship to his name and has run roughshod in the OHL since returning from Ottawa. If he plays like a No. 1 center, there will be no problem here.
Overall, Team USA has a wide variety of skill sets up front, from waterbug Patrick Harper (Nashville) to power forward Joey Anderson (New Jersey) and sniper Kieffer Bellows (New York Islanders). Expect some grinders to get into the mix, too, as the U.S. always finds spots for hard workers who can skate and kill penalties. High-end 2018 prospect Brady Tkachuk is another notable. He played on a line with Poehling and Anderson at the WJSS and was effective.
Don’t be surprised if Adam Fox (Calgary) earns some post-tourney accolades for his work in Buffalo. The Harvard sophomore has a hockey brain befitting of someone who plays at an Ivy League school, and he uses it to put a lot of points on the board. Fox was the top scorer at the WJSS in Michigan, and he’ll challenge Swedish prodigy Rasmus Dahlin in the blueline scoring department at the world juniors. With Fox quarterbacking the power play, the Americans are in good hands. But he’s not the only skilled member on the back end: Quinn Hughes (2018 draft) is a dynamic stickhandler.
When Team USA needs to settle things down, it can always turn to Ryan Lindgren (Boston). The University of Minnesota sophomore is a veteran of last year’s team, though a stomach bug forced him to miss the final. Nonetheless, he has been a leader on international squads for a while now. If the Americans need size, Dylan Samberg (Winnipeg) of Minnesota-Duluth is a good option and comes with the benefit of playing alongside Fox during the Michigan series. In an era of mobility, Team USA will come well prepared.
This is where things get intriguing for the U.S. Last year, Parsons carried the mail, and he was stellar in the gold medal game, stoning the Canadians in the shootout. The two heir apparents to the throne are Jake Oettinger (Dallas) and Joseph Woll (Toronto). They were teammates with the U.S. National Team Development Program, then parted for archrival NCAA programs: Oettinger at Boston University, Woll down the street at Boston College. Both played well last season but have been struggling this year (as have their teams, uncharacteristically).
While Oettinger has the status of being a first-rounder, don’t count out Woll in this race, as he’s had more consistency to his game this season. Woll also saw two games of action last year as Parsons’ backup, so he has a leg up on Oettinger in that department. Jeremy Swayman (Boston) was a surprise addition to the final camp roster thanks to his strong play at the University of Maine.