HALIFAX, Canada – USA Hockey is in the midst of a generational change. The stars of the 1996 World Cup are quickly exiting the ranks of professional hockey leaving opportunities for a younger and equally talented corps of American skaters. The 2008 World Championships will present USA Hockey with a chance to evaluate these players with an eye towards the 2010 Winter Olympics. Team USA, like Team Canada, will benefit from having a solid training camp where they can get accustomed to the team and system employed. Usually in heading over to Europe, there is little in the way of preparation time and establishing some momentum heading into the actual tournament. Team USA had a productive training camp in Portland, Maine and now focused on the task at hand.
Coaching: John Tortorella takes the reins for Team USA. Four years after leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup, Tortorella will focus on getting the Americans back into medal contention. For Tortorella this is also a chance to put himself forward as a solid candidate for the 2010 Olympics with an impressive showing. Adding a World Championship medal alongside his Stanley Cup victory will make USA Hockey officials take notice when making a decision concerning Vancouver. Widely regarded as a talented bench boss, Tortorella will no doubt take this challenge with the same intensity as if he were coaching an NHL playoff series. Known for his up-tempo teams, Tortorella will look to employ the young, fresh legs he has at his disposal to put a lot of offensive pressure on opponents in Halifax. Mike Sullivan, who coached the Team USA entry at the 2007 World Championships in Moscow, will return behind the bench as Tortorella’s assistant. Kurt Kleinendorst, along with brother Scot, was a standout player at Providence College and a member of the 1984 Olympic team. Currently, Kleinendorst coaches the New Jersey Devils AHL affiliate Lowell Devils.
Goal: Florida Panthers netminder Craig Anderson had an impressive World Championship debut in Latvia when he posted three wins and a 2.36 goals-against-average. Robert Esche, fresh off a season in the Russian Super League with Ak Bars Kazan, is an experienced hand going back to the 2000 World Championships where he shut out Russian in a Preliminary Round shocker in St. Petersburg. Esche has represented Team USA at the 2000 and 20001 World Championships as well as the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, and 2006 Olympics. Esche went 22-5-2 and a 2.01 goals-against-average in 29 games with Ak Bars Kazan. Bruins netminder Tim Thomas is another solid option. Thomas is coming off an impressive season where his 2.44 goals against average in 57 games was the best of his career.
Defense: There are key players on defense that provide the necessary depth the Americans need. Keith Ballard and Matt Greene return after contributing a combined five assists last spring in Moscow. Greene was particularly strong defensively with a +4 that tied for the team lead. Ballard made his debut as a 22-year after his season ended with the University of Minnesota in 2004 when USA won bronze. Edmonton Oilers Tom Gilbert enjoyed an impressive 2007-08 campaign. He led team defensemen in goals (13) and points (33). He led all rookies in blocked shots with 159. Gilbert a cornerstone in the Oilers long-term future having recently signed a six-year, $24 million deal. Gilbert will be a key catalyst on the special teams where success in vitally important in a tournament of this nature. James Wisniewski is no stranger to international success. He’s been a member of three gold medal teams: 2001 World Under-17 Challenge, the 2002 World Under-18 Championship, and 2004 World Junior Championship. He’ll get the chance now to do the same for the men’s senior team. Paul Martin was a late addition to the team and should help. Martin starred with the University of Minnesota before becoming a top four defenseman with the New Jersey Devils.
Forward: There are so many players worth watching upfront for Team USA. Patrick Kane was not only selected first overall by the Chicago Black Hawks but made the team in his first training camp and led all NHL rookies in scoring. Kane is the odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy and deservedly so. Kane will be a linchpin on this team and expected to be a catalyst. Kane is a crown jewel of the US National Team Development Program. He’s an example of why the program was created to produce players of Kane’s caliber by honing their talents. With the New Jersey Devils eliminated from the NHL playoffs, Team USA now has the benefit of Zach Parise in the lineup. Parise, the Devils leading scorer with 32 goals and 23 assists will be making his third World Championship appearance. Parise is a smooth skater who brings loads of offensive talent to the lineup. Bruins forward Phil Kessel will be making his third consecutive tournament appearance. Jeff Halpern, a four time World Championship performer, is the lead veteran on the team. At 31 years old and former NHL captain with the Washington Capitals, he will need to be the on and off ice leader for this young group of players. An intriguing member of the team is Jason Pominville. Pominville, born in Canada, will play for the American side. Pominville, a dual citizen, approached USA Hockey about representing the team. He’s a welcome addition. A deft playmaker, Pominville recorded 53 assists. There is significant depth and skill on the roster with David Backes, David Booth, Peter Mueller, Patrick O’Sullivan, and Drew Stafford among Team USA’s prominent forwards. Lee Stempniak came into his own last year at the World Championships where he led the team in goals (6) and points (10).
Projected Results: In a competitive but manageable Group B pool in Halifax, Team USA should finish first or second. The highlight will be the last game of the Preliminary Round when USA takes on Canada. With Halifax being the home barn for Canada, USA will get their first taste of championship playoff type hockey. Slovenia and Latvia cannot be overlooked but if the Americans are on their game, then the results should not be in doubt. This team, a mix of talented youngsters and veterans possessing of international experience, will contend for a medal. As with Canada, Team USA has the benefit of not making a transatlantic trip and should therefore be fresh and ready to go.