Judging by recent World Junior Championship performances, including last year’s gold medal in Ufa, Russia, the United States’ identity is synonymous with success at the annual tournament.
But, with only three returnees included on the 26-man preliminary roster announced Wednesday, the Americans will have to create a new persona in 2014.
“From our perspective it’s a deep pool of players, it’s a group that will have to create its own identity and create their trademarks as a team,” said Jim Johannson, general manager of the United States World Junior team.
Despite the relative lack of experience, Johannson says he’s excited about the squad assembled, which he describes as “deep” and “versatile.”
One the most critical returnees to this year’s team is forward Riley Barber (Miami University - NCAA), a 2012 draft pick of the Washington Capitals.
Barber is the Redhawks co-leading scorer with 24 point in 16 games and will be looked upon to fill a similar role for this team. In 2013, Barber contributed three goals and three assists at the World Juniors.
“All he’s done is score, that’s something Riley Barber has done, whether at the World Junior Level or the collegiate level at Miami,” said Don Lucia, Team USA head coach. “He’s obviously going to have to be a go-to guy for us.”
Lucia is in his 15th season as the Minnesota Golden Gophers (NCAA) head coach with over 600 wins and back-to-back National Championships in 2002 and 2003.
Ryan Hartman of the Plymouth Whalers (OHL), a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, is the other returning forward from 2013.
Where Team USA management feels most confident is at the goaltending position with Jon Gillies (Providence College - NCAA), Anthony Stolarz (London - OHL) and Thatcher Demko (Boston College - NCAA) filling the three open slots in net.
“When you talk about short tournaments and the world juniors you start with goaltending,” said Johannson. “We feel really, really strong about the goaltenders we have coming into camp.”
Johansson was hesitant to name a starter but mentioned that Gillies and Stolarz have a “leg up” at this point based on their current performance at the collegiate level.
Gillies is sitting on a stellar 1.81 goals against average and a .945 save percentage in 2013 with Providence, while Stolarz is second in the Ontario Hockey League with a 2.38 GAA.
The nod may go to Gillies as a returning player, however Johannson said the situation will “play out” in camp.
There are no returners on Team USA’s blueline, as expected returnee Pat Sieloff (AHL – Abbotsford) has been ruled out of the tournament due to a staph infection.
Acknowledging the void left by Sieloff’s absence, Lucia said, “He’s going to be missed. He’s a tough rugged defenseman. It’s another opportunity for someone else to step up.”
Connor Carrick (Hershey – AHL), one of two players on this roster with NHL experience, could be a player looked upon to fill top-four minutes in place of Sieloff. Carrick scored his first NHL goal earlier this season with the Washington Capitals.
The other NHL experienced player is forward Stefan Matteau (Albany – AHL), who played 17 games for the New Jersey Devils in 2012-2013 after not making last year’s World Junior team.
One of the interesting prospects for this team is Jack Eichel, an underage player born in 1996, who is raising a lot of interest for the 2015 draft.
A slick offensive player with the United States National Development Program in the USHL, Eichel has a real opportunity to skate in Malmo.
“He’s an absolute dynamic offensive player and he’s also a guy who is ready on a physical level,” said Johannson. “He’s dominated the college schedule that he’s played and the USHL schedule that he’s played. Couple that with the U-18 event that he played in November where he was clearly the most dominant player on the ice.”
In all, 18 of the 26 players selected currently play collegiate hockey, which management credits for the increased quality of USA Hockey.
“It’s been a great two-way street in terms of the cooperation with USA Hockey and the collegiate programs and the collegiate programs turning their kids to represent their country,” Lucia said.
“The Partnership we have with [NCAA Hockey] in supporting the U.S. Junior Program and USA Hockey as a whole has been vital to the growth of the American player in college hockey and the international scene,” added Johannson.
The 26 players will participate in a training camp Dec. 15-18 at the University of Minnesota's Mariucci Arena (an Olympic-size sheet of ice) in Minneapolis, with preparations continuing in Angelholm, Sweden, before the final 23-man roster is announced on Dec. 23.
The USA will play against Minnesota State-Mankato (NCAA) on Dec. 17 before playing international exhibitions against Finland on Dec. 20 and Sweden on Dec. 22.
Click here to see the complete Team USA preliminary roster.