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Don't Count Out USA's Medal Hopes at the World Championship Just Yet

At first glance, it may be hard to get too excited over USA's men's World Championship effort. But what it lacks in star power, it makes up for in a group with so much to prove.
Matt Beniers

Matthew Beniers

On paper, USA's roster misses the pazazz it typically would at the men's IIHF World Championship.

And, yes, the overall talent pool is far below what we usually see at this tournament. It can really feel like a road hockey draft at points. But like we saw with the 2018 Olympics, you don't need NHL stars to make a compelling international hockey product. Close the overall talent gap in a tournament of this size and you won't get a ton of stinkers out there.

So when you look at Team USA, it definitely doesn't look pretty. But very few American teams over the past 20 years have had much star power to deal with, yet typically find a way to give the top teams some headaches along the way.

Is that this time? Perhaps, but they'll need a pretty complete effort to pull things off this year because the roster is not exactly ideal.

It's worth noting that while USA is devoid of any superstar talent, 17 roster players skated in at least one NHL game this year and nearly all of them were full-timers. Canada had 18 players meet that criteria, but USA's mark still beats most other teams in the tournament. IIHF experience, though, is a different story. Of the 25 men named to the roster, 22 of them had never participated at this event.

The two big names to watch up front are Dallas' Jason Robertson and Arizona's Conor Garland. Robertson was an obvious choice for USA after an explosive rookie season, firmly putting himself into Calder Trophy consideration with 45 points in 51 games to finish behind Joe Pavelski in team scoring. Robertson played a big role on USA when they won silver at the 2019 World Junior Championship but this is his first time with the big boys. 

Garland is also coming off of a hot season, tying his personal season-high of 39 points despite playing in 19 fewer games. For a goal-starved Coyotes team, his 34 goals over the past two seasons puts him a goal behind Christian Dvorak for the team lead in that span despite playing nine fewer games. He and Robertson should be the team's top wingers, and given the big roles they'll have for this team - a real medal contender - they'll find a way to flourish.

Like Canada with Owen Power, the Americans are bringing a top 2021 draft prospect in forward Matthew Beniers - Power's teammate at the University of Michigan. Beniers' NCAA rookie season was a true success with 24 points in 24 games and a gold medal run at the World Junior Championship with the Americans. Beniers likely will skate in the bottom half of the lineup and might not even get into every game as an 18-year-old, but his inclusion is significant. A good outing could boost his draft stock, potentially pushing him closer to No. 1 conversation as the draft's top forward.

The most intriguing position - and one that brings a lot of comparisons to the 2013 team that won bronze - is in net. The starting goalie that year was a guy with a lot of promise that spent the past few years bouncing between the NHL and AHL - Ben Bishop. The backup was a future NHL starter in John Gibson, a young netminder with such a bright future ahead of him. 

In a sense, Cal Peterson is this year's Bishop and the 2021 John Gibson is Jake Oettinger, Dallas' future No. 1 – eventually taking over Bishop's job. Both Petersen and Oettinger are quite young but coming off of strong rookie runs, especially Oettinger. Petersen became LA's starting goalie this season and should get the bulk of the action, four years after serving as USA's third goalie at this event. Petersen has spent his pro career playing behind mediocre efforts, and while USA definitely isn't the top team heading to Riga, he'll have ample opportunities to win meaningful games at a championship level, something he hasn't done since junior hockey.

The real wild card this year is on the blueline, but that's a trend tournament-wide. Don't be shocked if Zac Jones - a 20-year-old with 10 NHL games to his credit - is given heavy minutes on this team. Jones had a huge NCAA season en route to winning the championship with UMass and had an impressive 10-game stint with the Rangers to end the season. He may not have a ton of pro experience, but with the season he had, just ride the momentum. Matt Roy will likely slide in beside him in his first outing with Team USA in any major international event.

After that, the Americans are going to need a bit of luck along the way. The rest of the defense core is made up of depth guys who are likely getting a better shot at ice time this year than they'll ever get again, so it's a chance to really impress. Still, expect the Americans to rely a lot on their goaltenders because this group doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

What should you make of this American team? Speed is a strength up front, the defense will have a "prove people wrong" mentality and the goaltending should be solid. The lineup looks ugly at first glance, but when you consider the fact that nearly every team is greatly impacted by the loss of high-quality talent due to COVID-19, it isn't THAT bad. Think about it: Finland had zero full-time NHLers when they took gold in 2019. Heck, look at USA's roster in 2013 when they won bronze. 

There's still a medal on the line. National pride. It doesn't matter if they don't have the starpower. USA will do everything it can to win the championship and you might be surprised just how good this tournament can be without all the big names.

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