The good news is Team USA at this year’s World Championship has a goal-a-game in the NHL among its forwards. The bad news is it’s a committee of eight guys. Of the 13 forwards named to this year’s team, there are just 84 goals at the NHL level this season. That’s six fewer than Sidney Crosby, Tyler Seguin and Claude Giroux have among them.
It’s strange how good the United States is at almost every level of hockey. It has owned the under-18 World Championship, recently picking up its sixth gold medal in the event in the past seven years. The Americans are a force at the World Junior and women’s level, but have been a bust on the international scene with their NHL players.
The Americans have yet to win an Olympic tournament with ONHL participation and their results in the World Championship have been downright dismal. USA has not won a true World Championship gold medal since 1933 – it was given World Champion designation in 1960 by virtue of winning the Olympic gold medal – and has a paltry three bronze medals to show for the past 20 years.
Perhaps that’s because they treat the World Championship as though it’s the Podunk Regional Silver Stick. Whether it’s by design or due to the fact that their top players don’t seem terribly interested in going, the tournament has been something of a petry dish for the Americans where they can watch their young players germinate in an international tournament.
Of the 13 forwards they will have in Prague, just eight of them played in the NHL this season and six of them were full-time players. Nobody scored more than the 25 goals that Anders Lee had in 2014-15. But it’s not as though USA didn’t have access to some very good offensive players. Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks and Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t make the playoffs and Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators and T.J. Oshie and David Backes of the St. Louis Blues were ousted in the first round of the post-season. Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets would have been there, but he's dealing with a family situation.
Contrast that with Canada, a country that hasn’t won a gold medal in seven years. If that drought gets extended to eight this spring, it might as well stop sending players to the event. Led by Crosby and Seguin up front, Canada has an all-star team up front, chock full of players who know they’ll have a better chance at representing Canada in the World Cup and/or Olympics if they extend their season by a month and play in the World Championship.
The difference between the approaches players from both countries take is no more stark than in the best offensive players both teams had available to them. Kessel, who suffered through a miserable year and might have seen the World Championship as an opportunity to redeem himself, turned down USA’s invitation to play. Crosby, on the other hand, jumped at the opportunity to play and remarked that playing for his country never gets old. The American stars, on the other hand, seem to view playing in the World Championship as more of an inconvenience than an honor.
But the desertions for USA aren’t only up front. Despite having the likes of Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller, Corey Schneider, Craig Anderson, Keith Kinkaid and Alex Stalock available to them, the Americans are going into a tournament against some of the best shooters in the world with a goaltending tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Alex Lyon. One of them played for the Winnipeg Jets farm team this season, the other is an undrafted 22-year-old who played at Yale.
Up front, USA will be counting on contributions from Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin of the University of Michigan and Jimmy Vesey from Harvard. Also on the squad are former NHLer Dan Sexton and recently Nashville Predators addition Steve Moses, both of whom are KHL refugees.
Any country that thinks it can go into a world class tournament such as the World Championship and thinks it will have success is counting on another Miracle on Ice. If the Americans do have a saving grace, though, it will be in a defense corps that consists of Seth Jones, Justin Faulk, Torey Krug and Jake Gardiner at the top end. In fact, it’s entirely possible USA will be led in scoring by a defenseman.
The sad thing about it is USA Hockey actually didn’t have that much of a choice. It was turned down by so many players that it had to go outside the NHL – really, really far outside the NHL in some cases – in order to put a team together for the tournament. And until American players start taking the opportunity to play in this event seriously, they’re going to get fairly predictable results.