After two years of Spencer Knight at the helm, it's a changing of the guard for the United States.
For Drew Commesso, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect, he hopes that change brings the same result Knight achieved last year: a gold medal at the World Junior Championship.
Commesso currently looks like the top option to be the United States' starting goaltender when the tournament begins this weekend, with many already expecting the Americans to fall short of the gold. That's easy poster board material for USA, who typically comes in as the second favorite behind Canada, but often emerges as the team to beat.
Last year's lineup was one of the best the Americans have ever iced, with Trevor Zegras, Cole Caufield and Alex Turcotte leading the way, among others. Knight was tremendous, outdueling Canada's Devon Levi – both were Panthers' prospects at the time – in the final and showing why he was one of the best players in the tournament, regardless of position.
USA will need that again, likely from Commesso. No pressure or anything.
Commesso was supposed to be USA's third goaltender last year, but exposure to a COVID-19 positive case meant he was forced to watch from home instead.
"I remember last year I was getting my bags packed and got the call that I was in close contact and had to head into quarantine instead," Commesso said. "It was one of the most devastating times of my life. But I knew that everything happens for a reason and there was a bigger plan for me."
Call it a second chance for Commesso if you want to, but he's hungry to finally reach the level he's been dreaming about since he was a young kid. Scouts love his confidence – Commesso believes in himself as much as anyone. You need that in a young goaltender, especially during a major international tournament where all eyes will be on USA's biggest rivals, the Canadians.
Coach Nate Leaman believes in Commesso, too. During the summer showcase put on by USA Hockey in July, Commesso played in all exhibition games, the only goalie to do so. He was strong back then, and while those contests don't have much to do with his preparation over the past month, he proved he can handle the challenge. USA might need to lean on him heavily, and his confidence definitely shined through.
Commesso entered camp on a bit of a hot streak, posting a 2-1-2 record in his final five games with Boston University with just eight goals allowed. Boston University has struggled this season, sitting sixth in the 11-team Hockey East standings. Commesso, though, has been a bright spot.
And that hot streak has carried over into an impressive camp. Commesso is projected to be USA's No. 1 over Kaidan Mbereko, who's a year younger than Commesso.
As a 2002-born puck stopper, Commesso only gets one shot at this, and his play took a turn for a better at the right time to give fans some hope. That wasn't necessarily the case when he went 1-4-1 over a six-game stretch from Oct. 23 until Nov. 13. It's hard to quantify confidence, and playing NCAA games over a week ago doesn't really translate after all the time off, but he looked at his best just as he was preparing to leave for camp.
“The last month, it's been about having a lot of confidence going back into the tournament because I know how hard I work and how much my family has sacrificed and how much USA Hockey sacrificed for me,” Commesso said. “It’s my plan and I’m going to put 110 percent into this tournament and every decision that I make is going to be based on helping this team win gold.”
Commesso was good in his half-period of pre-tournament play, at one point getting outshot 12-2 as the Finns laid on the pressure early. The Americans are in the stronger group with Sweden and Russia, so Commesso will be quite busy leading into the quarterfinal. USA has neer won consecutive World Junior Championship titles, and people are already writing USA off – and partly because there isn't a star goaltender to take the reins this year.
Is Commesso the right man for the job? USA Hockey seems to think so.