Americans aim for the podium

USA poised to win medals three years running

26.12.2011
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Credit Union Centre Saskatoon Saskatchewan Canada

U.S. head coach Dean Blais is back behind the bench after a one-year hiatus. Will he lead his team to a medal hat trick? Photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images

EDMONTON – It’s all or nothing for U.S. coach Dean Blais at the 2012 U20 Championship in Alberta. His 23-man roster consists of 20 players aged 19 and only two 18-year-olds (backup goalie John Gibson and forward J.T. Miller) and one 17-year-old (Jacob Trouba). This means Team USA in 2013 in Russia will be a young and very inexperienced team at the U20 level, but it also gives the Americans an excellent chance to do this year what they have never done before—win medals at three successive World Junior Championships.

“We didn’t go into the selection process with any grand vision about how many 19-year-olds we needed,” team general manager Jim Johannson explained. “The bottom line was that the 92 birth year ended up being a high-end year for the player pool. It kind of sorted itself out on the ice with the talent we had.”

There are six returnees (plus third goalie Andy Iles) to the team, and this presents another oddity. On the one hand, that’s a significant core of experienced talent in the lineup. On the other hand, it means most of those 92 birth players haven’t been at the U20 previously.

Said Blais, the gold-winning coach in 2010: “Every year you hope to have the leadership, and this year that’s got to come from our seven returning players. We don’t want [goalie ] Jack Campbell to have to be a leader, but certainly he’s the most important because he won the gold in 2010 and bronze last year. Without leadership, we don’t have a chance.”

Like Team Canada, the biggest problem for the Americans will be getting 20 very skilled individuals to play like a team. Consider this about the final Team USA roster named on Thursday. Seven of the 23 players come from seven different teams in Canadian junior hockey, from Medicine Hat in the west to Peterborough in the east, and the remaining 16 from 14 NCAA hockey teams. In all, the roster is represented by 21 different teams spread across the continent.

“That’s the biggest thing we’re working on right now,” Blais said. “Even though the players are from all over the United States, we have one common goal in mind—to get better. They’re highly skilled players, so if we can get our system into place with them, that will help determine our success rate. It doesn’t seem to matter that we have guys from all over. Certainly the NDP program has had a major role in the development of the players that are here. Hockey players are hockey players, and they’re all skilled, but now we have to put them together. That’s our biggest challenge.”

Blais’ point is valid, though. Despite the varied current teams, some 14 of the players were involved in the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As well, Trouba is a current member of the NTDP.

“Jake has surprised me very much,” Blais admitted. “Being a 94-born player, you never know whether he can make the transition and play at this level, but he played well and has played his way onto the team. He’s strong, moves the puck well, is an honest player. We expect him to be really effective for us.”

One of the curiosities of the U.S. roster in the discrepancy in size between the defencemen and forwards. On the blue line, Blais has six of seven players at least 6’2”. The only “small” blueliner is 5’11” Adam Clendening. Up front, though, things are reversed. Nine of the 13 forwards are 6’1” or smaller.

“In the end, the defence just happened to be big,” Johannson explained. “They all move very well and are capable of getting the puck to our forwards. And just the same way, many of our forwards are small, but still incredibly talented. It’s just been an odd way this year about the mix.”

What’s most impressive about the team is the attitude which the front office brings to the rink every day. “I think the talent level is there that we expect to get a medal, whereas 15 years ago we maybe only hoped to get a medal,” Blais suggested.

Johannson expressed the same when he announced the naming of the roster. “It’s a great day for USA Hockey as we announce our final roster, but a lot of good players got cut today, which shows these days just how hard it is to make this team and the extent of our depth of talent the coaching staff has at its disposal. When people see our team play, they’ll see a team that plays with high tempo that competes all over the ice and plays fundamentally well.”

Johannson revealed that USA Hockey hopes to host the U20 again in 2018. It last hosted in 2005 in Grand Forks, North Dakota and in 2011 in Buffalo, New York. The current calendar calls for Russia to host in 2013, followed by Sweden and Canada in 2015. The event will likely return to Europe for 2016, then to Canada for 2017, leaving the Americans with an open spot in 2018.

In the meantime, Team USA gets ready to play four games in six days during the Preliminary Round starting with Denmark on Boxing Day and culminating with what should be another United States-Canada classic on New Year’s Eve.

Blais offered his thoughts on all opening-round opponents. “We don’t know a lot about Denmark, but we know Finland is always competitive and hard working. We played them out at Lake Placid this summer during camp and saw them play against Canada, a 3-1 loss, but they gave them everything Canada wanted. The Czech Republic is very talented, always a tough opponent. We will scout them as we get closer to playing them on December 30. And Canada is Canada. They’re always in the mix, obviously playing here in Calgary and Edmonton the favourite in the tournament. We want to be in a position where we improve to have some chance of success like we did in Saskatoon. We felt like we played well enough to win but lost in a shootout in Saskatoon against them, but we got into the gold-medal game and were fortunate enough to win in overtime.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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