With a plethora of talent up front and options on defense, Team USA could go all the way.
The Americans nabbed a bronze medal in Helsinki, though the game against Sweden was anything but hard fought. Both teams were clearly disappointed not to be playing for gold, and neither seemed to be trying until Team USA opened the scoring and decided from there that bronze was better than nothing. On the whole, the U.S. has underachieved a bit the past couple of years, though it’s also been snakebitten by the same opponent every time: Russia. The Cold War rival has taken out the Yankees in three straight medal rounds, thus obscuring otherwise solid tournaments for the U.S. If the Americans can pull a Red Dawn – or just avoid Russia altogether in the medal round – there’s no reason to doubt them as gold-medal contenders. As an added bonus, the Americans get to lay some pain on Canada in the round-robin. These games are always hot and have important medal-round implications.
Like Canada, the U.S. will have to do without some pretty impressive teens this year. Auston Matthews definitely isn’t leaving Toronto, and Matthew Tkachuk is a long shot based on his early-season work in Calgary. But USA does have an experienced team, led up front by Ottawa Senators first-rounder Colin White of Boston College. White is the type of fast, two-way center NHL teams covet more than anything these days, and he’s looking for revenge after settling for bronze in Finland. Other returnees include Vancouver first-rounder Brock Boeser, who was criminally under used by coach Ron Wilson last year. Boeser is one of college hockey’s top players and has the power to cut through tough defenses (such as Russia’s fortress-like team). World junior coach Bob Motzko said Boeser and Winnipeg prospect Erik Foley were his best players during the summer exhibition tournament in Michigan, and both have played well for their respective college teams, North Dakota and Providence.
Perhaps the most important difference this season versus last concerns Team USA’s depth up front. In past years, the bottom six has been populated with energy guys, some of whom were undersized and undrafted. But this year, the team finds itself in a situation where Christian Fischer (Arizona/AHL Tucson) could be a super-skilled version of a “bottom sixer.”
If there is one main concern, it’s the health of Arizona first-rounder Clayton Keller. The dynamic center went down with a lower-body injury in early November and, while he should be back in time, it’s worth keeping an eye on. His chemistry with fellow Boston U. freshman and NTDP alum Kieffer Bellows (NY Islanders) would provide the basis for a deadly scoring line, particularly if Tage Thompson picks up where he left off in the summer.
It’s not that Team USA is lacking options on defense. It’s just that the team has a lot of options that aren’t very distinguishable from each other. The only true certainty at this point is that Boston Bruins first-rounder Charlie McAvoy will be on the top pairing. The Boston U. sophomore had a great summer camp, where he continued the excellent work he put in with the Terriers during his freshman campaign. McAvoy brings a bit of everything to the table, from his excellent mobility and rushing skills to an ever-evolving defensive side and some physicality. He was also part of the team last season, so he brings experience.
Beyond McAvoy, there will be some interesting choices to be made. Adam Fox (Calgary) is a program favorite, having gone through the NTDP, and his smart puck-moving game far outweighs his less-than-ideal stature at 5-foot-10. He got off to a great start this season with Harvard. Chad Krys (Chicago) played a small role on the team last year, but that experience will go a long way. He shares a lot of similarities with Fox, for what it’s worth. If the team needs physicality, Edmonton pick Caleb Jones can provide it, while Bruins selection Ryan Lindgren is a character guy and yet another NTDP alum available for duty. Having so many defensemen who played together at one point can be a real benefit. That was the case with the 2013 blueline corps that won gold in Russia. Nearly every defender had played for the NTDP beforehand (including Jones’ older brother Seth) and it really helped with quick chemistry.
For this crew to succeed, it will have to be a tight collective. Last year’s squad relied too heavily on the Zach Werenski-Brandon Carlo pairing and paid for it when they understandably tired against the Russians.
The Americans have received some pretty stunning performances in net lately, from John Gibson’s MVP effort in Russia to Alex Nedeljkovic pushing the team to bronze last season. Based on the resumes of this year’s contenders, Team USA could be in luck again. London Knights ace Tyler Parsons (Calgary) put on a stunning display against Canada during the summer tournament, and his Memorial Cup title run doesn’t hurt his case, either. Parsons is known for making clutch saves at the right time and, in a tournament where even the best teams can get into run-and-gun matches with each other, that will be a great asset to have. Parsons battled a lower-body injury earlier in the season but was back at it by mid-November.
A pair of teammates turned rivals will vie for the other spot, in Jake Oettinger (2017 draft) and Joe Woll (Toronto). The two NTDP battery mates now play on opposite sides of the Comm. Ave rivalry, with Oettinger at Boston U. and Woll at Boston College. Both tenders have great size and rank top-four in the conference in terms of save percentage, goals-against average and win percentage. Not bad for a couple of freshmen. With little separating the two in terms of ability, the other world junior job may simply fall to whichever netminder is hottest come December. No matter who takes to the crease, however, look for the position to be in solid hands.