However, Nagobads’ longevity also provided a poignant reminder: it has been more than 42 years since the U.S. men’s national team has earned a gold medal in either Olympic or IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship play. In fact, the Americans, who earned a bronze medal last year in Riga, amazingly have not won a World Championship tournament since 1933.
Is it time for the 89-year drought to end on Finnish ice? Let’s take a closer look at this year’s young American team, which features nine World Championship first-timers and has an average age of 25. Coached by David Quinn, they’ll compete in Group B in Tampere against such medal contenders as host Finland, Sweden, and Czechia.
GoalIf Alex Nedeljkovic can post the same kind of numbers he posted in his two previous experiences as an IIHF starter, the Americans will have a chance to succeed.
Nedeljkovic backstopped the U.S. to gold at the 2014 U18 Worlds (1.84 GAA, 90.2 save percentage) and bronze at the 206 World Juniors (1.66 GAA, 94.3 save percentage). After an impressive nine-game playoff run with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2021, the ultra-athletic 26-year-old became the Detroit Red Wings’ starter this season (3.31 GAA, 90.1 save percentage). Playing a career-high 59 games, he faced the league’s sixth-most shots (1,796). A 2019 Calder Cup winner with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers, Nedeljkovic will need to show great resilience in Finland.
The hard-battling Strauss Mann, who was in net when the 2022 U.S. Olympic team lost 3-2 in a quarter-final shootout to Slovakia, is seeing his pro fortunes rise. The former University of Michigan captain spent 2021-22 with the SHL’s Skelleftea AIK and has just signed a one-year deal with the San Jose Sharks.
Jon Gillies, a 2013 World Junior gold medalist as John Gibson’s backup, rounds out the trio after appearing in a career-high 19 games as one of seven (!) New Jersey Devils goalies this year.
DefenceYou can’t say there isn’t name value on the U.S. blue line. It starts with the surname “Jones.”
After signing an eight-year, $76-million contract extension with the Chicago Blackhawks, Seth Jones – named Best Defenceman at the 2014 Worlds in Belarus – had an up-and-down season. Named the American captain, he tall, powerful 27-year-old put up 51 points, more than anyone else on this U.S. roster, but also recorded the NHL’s second-worst plus-minus (-37).
Jones, who won bronze in 2015, owns the record for the most ice time ever in an NHL game (65:06 in a 3-2 quintuple overtime playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020). The third-time World Championship participant will play big minutes in every situation and should drive the offence.
For Jones, this is also an opportunity to play internationally with his younger brother Caleb, who joined him with the Hawks this season after three seasons in Edmonton. Caleb Jones accumulated 15 points in 51 games in 2021-22.
Another younger brother who’ll get lots of attention is Luke Hughes. The #4 overall pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2021 already towers physically over his famous brothers – Quinn, Vancouver’s #7 overall pick in 2018, and Jack, New Jersey’s #1 overall pick in 2019.
The University of Michigan blueliner was named Big Ten Rookie of the Year (co-champion with Ohio State goalie Jakub Dobes) after posting 39 points in 41 games. For context, his powerhouse Michigan squad also featured leading scorer Matty Beniers of the Seattle Kraken (43 points in 37 games) and 2021 #1 overall pick Owen Power of the Buffalo Sabres (32 points in 33 games). Luke Hughes is this team’s youngest player at age 18 and expectations are high.
The vocal enthusiasm and energy of Nate Schmidt, who’s making his IIHF debut at age 30, could be a rallying point for this young Team USA. On a blue line laden with journeymen apart from the aforementioned names, it’s important to have good esprit de corps. Schmidt had 32 points in 77 games in his first season with the Winnipeg Jets.
ForwardUsually, scoring goals at the Worlds isn’t a big problem for the Americans. Since 2012, when the tournament adopted a 64-game format, the U.S. has averaged a total of 33.1 goals. For reference, Finland triumphed in 2019 with 31 goals and Canada in 2021 with 28 goals.
However, this year could be a different story.
The most productive U.S. NHL forward on this roster is Alex Galchenyuk, but the former #3 overall pick of the Montreal Canadiens (2012) is no longer the shifty offensive force who racked up 30 goals and 56 points in 2015-16. Rather, Galchenyuk is coming off an underwhelming campaign with six goals and 15 assists in 60 games with the Phoenix Coyotes. That ranked the veteran centre 109th among all U.S. NHL skaters in 2021-22.
Overall, this is a mixed bag of journeymen and prospects, including one-time go-to guys with the U.S. U18 and U20 national teams – like Kieffer Bellows or Sasha Chmelevski – who have not seen their productivity translate at the NHL level so far.
San Jose will be hoping for a good performance from 20-year-old Thomas Bordeleau, who had five assists in eight NHL games before returning to Michigan. The U.S. often likes to add a Hobey Baker Award winner to its Worlds roster – in this case, it’s 2018 winner Adam Gaudette of the Ottawa Senators, who finished with 14 points in 58 games.
Objectively, despite having decent team speed, the U.S. may have trouble filling the net even before the medal round arrives.
CoachingThere’s no lack of experience when one of your assistant coaches has more Worlds head coaching stints under his belt than the 2022 head coach.
Former New York Rangers coach David Quinn, who helmed the fifth-place American Olympic team in Beijing, is in charge once again. The 55-year-old demands a commitment to solid two-way hockey. His five years as the Boston University bench boss clearly benefit him in terms of handling young players. Despite missing the playoffs twice in three years in Manhattan, Quinn played an important part in the emergence of Rangers prospects like Adam Fox and Alexis Lafreniere.
Quinn is assisted by ex-Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who served as the U.S.’s head coach annually from 2017 to 2019. Blashill enjoyed a record of 19 wins – tops all-time among U.S. Worlds coaches – and seven losses, capturing bronze in 2018. Buffalo Sabres head coach Don Granato, a veteran of the U.S. National Team Development Program in the 2010’s, and longtime Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings are the other assistant coaches.
Projected ResultsEven if winning gold is a long shot for the Americans this year, their podium trend has been positive lately. The U.S. has won the bronze medal at four of the last eight Worlds (2013, 2015, 2018, 2021).
But there’s a caveat: the U.S. had legitimate NHL scoring threats at all those tournaments. Just look at their leading scorers: Paul Stastny (15 points, 2013), Brock Nelson (10 points, 2015), Patrick Kane (20 points), and Conor Garland (2021, 13 points). This year, the Americans could potentially struggle to outgun not just the medal contenders, but even lesser Group B lights like Latvia or Norway.
If the U.S. gets exceptional goaltending and defence, beats the odds, and medals in Tampere, it’ll be a miniature “Miracle on Ice.” A quarter-final exit seems more plausible.