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U20 World Junior Championships Preview: Team USA

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This is not uncharted territory for the USA U20 team.  They are the defending champions with the tournament being held in their country, much like they were in 2005 in Grand Forks.  That previous time, however, saw an extraordinarily stacked Canadian team (thanks to the NHL lockout) steal all the headlines and absolutely demolish the competition.  This year, the Americans are not only expected to put up a fight, they're considered the frontrunners to win it all again. 

The Americans are returning eight players from last year's gold medal winning team, including key players like Jack Campbell, Jerry D'Amigo, Kyle Palmieri, Chris Kreider, and Jeremy Morin.  Campbell was the goaltender of record for the gold medal win, and posted a .923 SV%, though he only made 3 appearances.  The four forwards mentioned there all had at least a point per game, although some were able to pad their stats against the lesser countries (the Americans had eight players total with at least 7 points in their 7 games).  On defence, only captain John Ramage returns, but the defence is quite large as well as mobile:  Six of their seven defencemen weigh in above 200 lbs.  

Winning on home soil could go a long way to making the tournament more popular in the USA.  The American games are being broadcast on the NHL Network, with the return to hockey play-by-play of Gary Thorne.  Combine the recent succeses in 2004 and 2010 with the avenues for obsession and instant updates that the internet provides, hockey fans south of the 49th are starting to take notice of this event.  That being said, it's still expected that Canadian fans will outnumber American fans at Buffalo over the next two weeks.  Still, the Americans have good reason to believe they'll have the bragging rights at the end of it all.

I spoke with Chris Dilks of SB Nation's Western College Hockey Blog about the roster, the excitement surrounding the team and the event, and the huge growth in hockey development programs in the United States in recent years.  

The team has eight returning players in total, six of them being forwards.  Of the newcomers, who might be expected to provide offence, or will it largely fall on the returning players?

Dilks:  I think a lot of people are expecting big things from the returning players, not just because they’re returning, but because Jeremy Morin, Kyle Palmieri, and Jerry D’Amigo have all played pro hockey this year, with Morin and Palmieri getting some time in the NHL, which is pretty rare for a junior team.

Of the new-comers, I really like the year that Drew Shore has had so far, and I think he could be a big piece of the puzzle. There’s always the potential for a surprise too. Last year, Chris Kreider had scored just two goals and three assists in the first half of his freshman year with Boston College and no one really expected much from him, and then exploded for six goals in the tournament. Somebody like a Brock Nelson or Nick Bjugstad that hasn’t necessarily torn it up against older college competition yet may contribute now that they’re going up against players their own age.


Does this roster have an obvious weakness?  Or, to put it another way, what's the biggest question mark surrounding this year's team?

On paper, I think most people would say it is the defense. The group of defensemen from the ’91 birth year in the US was always a little thin, but was often times carried by Cam Fowler, who won’t be playing in the tournament because he’s an NHL regular. So this year’s team is going to have to get a lot of quality ice time from three players out of the ultra-talented group of ’92-born defensemen in Derek Forbort, Justin Faulk, and Jon Merrill. All three are excellent players, but it’s tough to rely on younger players on the blueline.

Goaltending is also always going to be a question mark heading into a short tournament like this just because it’s such an important position, and you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get. Obviously the US is in a pretty good spot returning Jack Campbell, who helped win the gold medal last year, but Campbell has been inconsistent at times this year, and just one or two bad goals can sink an entire tournament run.

Dean Blais last year claimed the Americans modelled their game after Canada's in leading the team to victory. Do we expect a similar approach from Keith Allain?

I’d expect a similar style of team to what the US had last year, which was a lot of speed, and a lot of toughness. I don’t know if it’s so much about replicating the style of play Canada has, because if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it. Canada’s big advantage is that they have so much incredible talent at their disposal. But what I think the US tried to do was go with bigger guys, especially some bigger guys that can skate to round out their roster over some players that were maybe more offensively-gifted, so that they could go toe-to-toe and hit with the always physical Canadian team.

The USNTDP has become the defining program of USA Hockey in recent years.  How has the program's presence affected the more traditional leagues, like high school hockey?

I don’t think its had too big of a negative impact simply because they’re only taking about 25 kids per year, and the areas that they pull from have become more diverse in recent years, to the point that Minnesota high school hockey is only losing about two kids per year to that program.

It maybe thins out the talent in the USHL a little bit more since you’re essentially taking one or two good players off each team’s roster, but the NTDP is probably a better situation for those kids, especially at the U17 level, where those kids can get more ice time and experience.

In Canada, regional politics are often cited as a reason for roster choices.  Is there any reason to believe that kind of thinking enters the equation for the USA at all?  Do players who defect from a college commitment to the Canadian Hockey League face any bias (this is an issue with some European teams, most notably the Czechs)?

There are always accusations of bias when somebody’s favorite player doesn’t make the cut, but the truth is, there are a lot of talented players and only so many roster spots. Some people say there is a bias against CHL players. If anything, I’ve always thought the bias came from people north of the border who tend to overrate some of their players a little too much, which in a way is understandable. A 19 year old CHLer is one of the older players in his league while a 19 year old NCAA player is one of the youngest in his league, so often times, on paper, the CHL player looks much better just because of his statistics.

USA Hockey maybe shows a little preference towards players that have played with the NTDP, but more than any sort of agenda, I think it is because those players have loads of international experience, and there’s just a comfort level in terms of knowing what they’re going to get from those players after having won with them before.

Ultimately, winning is first and foremost for USA Hockey, especially now that they’ve become a major player internationally and there is the expectation for good results, not just the hope for good results. They’ll take anybody that they feel can help their team.

Are the U20s getting more popular with American hockey fans?  Is it getting easier to access the games?

I think it definitely is among American hockey fans. It’s still off the radar of the average person, even in the more hockey-friendly areas of the country—it’s always a pain trying to get a sports bar to put a game on TV—but more hockey fans are definitely starting to take notice.

Two things have really made this tournament more accessible. First, this long string of WJCs held in North America has made it easier for people to follow, since games are being played in primetime rather than the weird times they’d be played over in Europe.

But the really big difference is that the internet has made the games, but perhaps more importantly, the players so much more accessible to the average fan. Ten years ago, the US World Junior team was a pretty anonymous group. Nowadays, it’s so much easier to follow these players that I think people have a much better idea of who they are, where they’ve come from, etc. and that connection makes it so much more fun to follow.

Team USA
# Player Pos. S/C Ht. Wt. Born Hometown Club Drafted/Rights
27 Nick Bjustad C R 6'4" 205 1992 Blaine, MN Minnesota (WCHA) 1/19 ('10), NAS
17 Ryan Bourque (a) C L 5'9" 165 1991 Boxford, MA Quebec (QMJHL) 3/80 ('10), NYR
10 Chris Brown C R 6'2" 194 1991 Flower Mound, TX Michigan (CCHA) 2/36 ('09), PHX
24 Mitch Callahan RW R 5'11" 174 1991 Whittier, CA Kelowna (WHL) 6/180 ('09), DET
1 Jack Campbell G L 6'2" 183 1992 Port Huron, MI Windsor (OHL) 1/11 ('10), DAL
3 Charlie Coyle C R 6'2" 207 1992 East Weymouth, MA Boston Univ. (HEA) 1/28 ('10), SJ
9 Jerry D`Amigo LW L 5'11" 214 1991 Binghamton, NY Toronto (AHL) 6/158 ('09), TOR
4 Brian Dumoulin D L 6'4" 209 1991 Biddeford, ME Boston College (HEA) 2/51 ('09), CAR
26 Emerson Etem C R 6'1" 196 1992 Long Beach, CA Medicine Hat (WHL) 1/29 ('10), ANA
25 Justin Faulk D R 5'11" 201 1992 South Saint Paul, MN Minnesota-Duluth (WCHA) 2/37 ('10), CAR
7 Derek Forbort D L 6'5" 201 1992 Duluth, MN North Dakota (WCHA) 1/15 ('10), LA
29 Andy Iles G L 5'9" 181 1992 Ithaca, NY Cornell (ECACH) undrafted
19 Chris Kreider LW L 6'2" 214 1991 Boxford, MA Boston College (HEA) 1/19 ('09), NYR
6 Nick Leddy D L 5'11" 190 1991 Eden Prairie, MN Rockford (AHL) 1/16 ('09), CHI
12 Jon Merrill D L 6'3" 209 1992 Brighton, MI Michigan (CCHA) 2/38 ('10), NJ
11 Jeremy Morin (a) RW R 6'1" 190 1991 Auburn, NY Rockford (AHL) 2/45 ('09), CHI
8 Brock Nelson C L 6'3" 185 1991 Minneapolis, MN North Dakota (WCHA) 1/30 ('10), NYI
23 Kyle Palmieri RW R 5'10" 194 1991 Montvale, NJ Syracuse (AHL) 1/26 ('09), ANA
21 John Ramage (c) D R 6'0" 201 1991 Chesterfield, MA Wisconsin (WCHA) 4/103 ('10), CAL
15 Drew Shore C R 6'2" 201 1991 Denver, CO Denver (WCHA) 2/44 ('09), FLA
18 Patrick Wey D R 6'2" 205 1991 Pittsburgh, PA Boston College (HEA) 4/115 ('09), WAS
16 Jason Zucker RW L 5'11" 181 1992 Las Vegas, NV Denver (WCHA) 2/59 ('10), MIN


2011 Draft Hopeful:  G Andy Iles (passed over in 2010)

Not made available:  D Cam Fowler (ANA)

NHL Draft Picks:  21, including nine first round picks and seven second round picks.

Notable cut:  F Brandon Saad

Staff:  Jim Johannson (General Manager), Keith Allain (Head Coach), Mark Osiecki, Phil Housley and Joe Exter (Assistant Coaches)

Defending a title isn't easy, and while the Americans have a lot of things going for them as a result, I don't know if they'll be prepared for the semifinals.  The gap between the Americans and the other contenders isn't that great, and really it's non-existent between them and the Canadians.  An easy group draw means there is only one game where the Americans will likely face a challenge, their game against Finland.  If they win all their group games, they will go into a game likely against Canada, Sweden, or Russia without being terribly challenged.  Will the eight returning players be able to lead the way in what will be a huge jump in competition?  That will be the key moment for the Americans this tournament.  They could very well do it, but last year's team seemed to continue to improve by facing Canada in the last preliminary round game, followed by Finland, Sweden, and Canada in the playoffs en route to gold.  This team won't be able to be acclimatized to high level competition by the looks of things, and I'm wary in a short tournament that it'll be beneficial for them.

Prediction:  1st in Group A, 4th overall.