Historically, Team USA has owned the world under-18s and it's not just because of the talent America has been producing. Of course it helps to have the likes of Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel or Seth Jones at your disposal, but the decision to send the National Team Development Program squad has also been a master stroke by USA Hockey.
Simply put, while every other major hockey power is essentially assembling a disparate group of all-stars for the tournament, Team USA sends a team - kids who have been playing together for the whole year and, for the most part, two straight seasons dating back to their time with the NTDP's under-17 squad.
This year's tournament, which will be held in Texas, poses a different challenge, however: due to the pandemic, Canada will have a much stronger team than usual because every player from the OHL and WHL was available to them, whereas usually the CHL playoffs drastically limit the Canadians to players whose teams either missed the post-season or got eliminated early.
That means 2021 sure-fire first-rounders Brandt Clarke, Dylan Guenther, Mason McTavish, Corson Ceulemans and Cole Sillinger are all on board, plus top 2022 prospect Shane Wright and top 2023 pick Connor Bedard, who was eviscerating the WHL with Regina before leaving for camp.
On top of that, the Russians look very strong thanks to the cohort they're bringing, which includes 2021 first-round prospects Fyodor Svechkov and Nikita Chibrikov plus 2023 phenom Matvei Michkov.
The last world under-18s was won by Sweden (thanks to Lucas Raymond) and Finland won the year before that. But between 2009 and 2017, the Americans won seven of nine gold medals. If they want to get back there in Texas, they'll have to play to their strengths - and that's chemistry.
This year's under-18 squad features only non-NTDP player and that's goalie Braden Holt of WHL Everett, who will join NTDP regulars Gibson Homer and Kaidan Mbereko. Homer is your likely No. 1 here and he's more than competent as a starter.
Overall, this isn't the most talented group the Americans have assembled for the tournament, but they will be one of the most difficult to play against. Liam Gilmartin, Red Savage and Justin Janicke (all 2021 prospects) cause havoc up front, while big 2022 prospect Rutger McGroarty (an under-17 who has played up with the under-18s in the second half) is a load to handle thanks to his size and skill.
When it comes to pure goal-scoring, 2021 first-round prospect Chaz Lucius is the most talented of the bunch, with Dylan Duke (2021) good for greasy in-tight offense. Sasha Pastujov, another 2021 prospect, can both dish and shoot. Secondary scoring is available from 2022 prospects Jack Dylan Hughes, Logan Cooley and Isaac Howard. Cooley and Howard are up from the NTDP under-17s but have played a lot with the under-18s, while Hughes is an under-18 with a late birthday.
The defense corps is good, but missing the team's best player, Luke Hughes, who has been out since early March with a season-ending injury.
With Hughes out, that provides more room in the spotlight for Aidan Hreschuk, who started off the year slow but eventually picked things up. Sean Behrens has been great all year and he'll have to continue that at the worlds. There's also Roman Schmidt, the towering two-way blueliner with lots of potential. All three blueliners are 2021 prospects.
If Team USA is going to win it all, the built-in chemistry will be key. This was quite evident when they stomped all over a group of USHL all-stars at the recent Biosteel All-American Game. That game, a lopsided 7-1 affair in the NTDP's favor, looked like a competitive game on paper, but the NTDP was too cohesive.
It's been a couple years since Team USA won gold but this year's squad has potential. Now it's time to realize it when they hit the ice in Texas at the end of the month.