Judging Team USA on its recent finishes at the world juniors is a tricky thing. Sure, the Americans have landed fifth in the past two outings, but in both cases they fell to the rival Russians in the quarterfinal; they also could have won it all had fate bounced their way.
That is the challenge now accepted by former NHL coach Ron Wilson. Last seen behind the bench with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2012, Wilson has been announced as Team USA’s coach for the 2016 world juniors in Finland and despite his professional hiatus, I can see him being very successful in the role.
The most obvious reason why is that Wilson has performed well in short international tournaments before. Remember the 2010 Olympics, when the Americans took Canada to overtime before Sidney Crosby clinched a home gold medal for the Canucks? Wilson was in charge of the bench for the silver medallists. He has helmed several other squads for the U.S., including at the 1998 Olympics and 2009 World Cup, plus been to the Stanley Cup final as a rookie head coach in Washington.
So that’s a positive. Forecasting how successful a world junior coach will be is a pretty tough gig, however, especially when you’re talking about the Americans. For whatever reason, there is no special formula or type of coach that can be counted on to do well. Dean Blais was a no-nonsense veteran when he led the Americans to gold in Saskatoon, but ineffective two years later in Calgary when the team dropped to seventh.
The friendly Phil Housley was coaching a low-profile Minnesota high school team when he took charge of the clipboard one year later in Russia and harnessed his squad to a gold medal, while higher-profile NCAA names such as Keith Allain and Don Lucia had to settle for bronze and fifth, respectively.
What the Americans always seem to have recently is top-end talent. Jack Eichel will most likely be too busy playing for the Buffalo Sabres next winter, but his heir apparent – Auston Matthews – will have a clear schedule. Matthews already played at the 2015 event and looked great for his age. He’ll be the main attraction this time.
Dylan Larkin will come back up front and the recent Red Wings pro signing is a great one. Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski, two of the best defensemen available in this summer’s draft, will also return from last year’s squad. And the Americans have nice options in net thanks to OHLers Brandon Halverson and Alex Nedeljkovic – again, two returnees.
So Wilson will have the talent, it’s just a matter of shepherding it through. Benoit Groulx snapped Canada’s gold-medal drought this year thanks in part to ‘tic-tac-tao,’ while Russian coach Valeri Bragin pulled a Darryl Sutter, making sure his team turned on the jets by the time the games began to matter – and only falling a goal short in the final game against the Canadians.
Winning a gold with 23 teenagers as your charges is no easy task. Wilson can get their attention with his vast resume; the goal in Helsinki will be to get the Americans in synch with each other.