The buzz is building about this tournament in the United States of America. The tournament now has a long term broadcast partner in the NHL Network, the team is competitive every year, and the tournament has been played in North America the past four years, allowing for a maximum television audience. Chris Peters has noticed the spike in interest as he's been running his excellent The United States of Hockey blog.
"I've noticed a lot more people asking me about the tournament, people I'd never expect to hear from... Certainly the hardcore U.S. hockey fans are really getting into it. The Olympics helped stoke the international fire, so there's that national pride attached. The most important thing is that the NHL Network has broadcast all USA games for the last three years with their own guys, (previously) they used to just take the TSN (Canadian) feed. The fact that there's a consistent television home for this tournament will only help it grow. So it's a slow build, but there's a lot to like about the World Juniors, so I'm really excited that Americans are finding out what it's all about.
"It's amazing how far it's come in the last five years, though. This was barely a blip on anyone's radar down here when I first started working at USA Hockey in 2007. Now it's something people are actively following."
Team USA's final roster selection was a hotly debated topic on Twitter, as American puckheads started to show similar passion about the process to what we've seen from Canadian fans over the years. It'll be interesting to see if this momentum stalls the next couple of years with the tournament going to Russia and Sweden. A big result in 2012 could be key to that, and this year's team holds a ton of promise.
Recently, seeing the USA with a medal at the end of an IIHF junior level tournament has become pretty commonplace. The success of the US National Team Development Program based out of Ann Arbour, Michigan, is a significant reason why, but it's also not the only way. This year's U20 team is being made up of players in multiple different developmental leagues, with a large contingent from Canadian major junior hockey as well as the traditional NCAA system. It's an approach that works for such a large nation that is probably producing more players than it has the high end developmental leagues to support it. According to Peters, this success can be traced to the developmental models formulated by USA Hockey, most recently the simply named American Development Model. "They look at the entire system, from youth hockey up to junior. The NTDP and the USHL sit at the top of the American development pyramid. I think there's more required of the midget hockey programs than there's ever been. We're seeing guys coming into Junior hockey younger and younger because they're getting really good coaching at the youth levels, particularly midget and bantam." The focus stays away from the NCAA/CHL debate, and definitely helps eliminate the bias that the team has been accused of in the past towards NCAA talent, but under this model the focus on the players ends with the NTDP/USHL.
With all that out of the way, let's look at the defending bronze medallists roster for 2012 after the jump:
|Josh Archibald||RW||5'10"||170||Oct 6/92||Univ. of Nebraska-Omaha||WCHA||Penguins (6/174, '11)||none|
|Bill Arnold||C||6'0"||216||May 13/92||Boston College||HEA||Flames (4/108, '10)||U18 (1)|
|Nick Bjugstad||C||6'4"||205||Jul 17/92||Univ. of Minnesota||WCHA||Panthers (1/19, '10)||U20 (1)|
|Connor Brickley||C||6'1"||194||Feb 25/92||Univ. of Vermont||HEA||Panthers (2/50, '10)||U18 (1)|
|Charlie Coyle||C||6'2"||207||Mar 2/92||Boston University||HEA||Sharks (1/28, '10)||U20 (1)|
|Austin Czarnik||C||5'8"||152||Dec 12/92||Miami University||CCHA||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Emerson Etem||RW||6'1"||196||Jun 16/92||Medicine Hat||WHL||Ducks (1/29, '10)||U20 (1)|
|J.T. Miller||C||6'1"||194||Mar 14/93||Plymouth||OHL||Rangers (1/15, '11)||U18 (1)|
|Kyle Rau||C||5'8"||172||Oct 24/92||Univ. of Minnesota||WCHA||Panthers (3/91, '11)||none|
|Brandon Saad||LW||6'2"||205||Oct 27/92||Saginaw||OHL||Blackhawks (2/43, '11)||U18 (1)|
|T.J. Tynan||C||5'8"||170||Feb 25/92||Univ. of Notre Dame||CCHA||Blue Jackets (3/67, '11)||none|
|Austin Watson||RW||6'3"||194||Jan 13/92||Peterborough||OHL||Predators (1/18, '10)||U18 (1)|
|Jason Zucker||RW||5'11"||181||Jan 16/92||Univ. of Denver||WCHA||Wild (2/59, '10)||U20 (2), U18 (2)|
Quite simply, this is a well balanced, dynamic forward group that the Americans are bringing to Alberta this year. Team captain Jason Zucker is in his 5th IIHF appearance, and he looks like he'll be but a piece of the overall USA machine. Emerson Etem and Brandon Saad are arguably better than any of the Canadian players in the WHL or OHL this year, and Nick Bjugstad is having a phenomenal year in the NCAA as a 19 year old. Expect the returning forwards to play big roles, led by Zucker, Etem, Bjugstad, and recent college dropout Charlie Coyle. Chris Peters is also looking at newcomers Saad and J.T. Miller to play big minutes. It'll be interesting to see how the small trio of Kyle Rau, T.J. Tynan, and Austin Czarnik factor into Head Coach Dean Blais' attack.
This American team can get scoring from not just 3 lines, but most likely all 13 forwards will factor into the offence a little bit. It's an impressive group.
|Adam Clendening||5'11"||190||Oct 26/92||Boston University||HEA||Blackhawks (2/31, '11)||U18 (2)|
|Derek Forbort||6'5"||201||Mar 4/92||Univ. of North Dakota||WCHA||Kings (1/15, '10)||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Kevin Gravel||6'4"||190||Mar 6/92||St. Cloud State||WCHA||Kings (5/148, '10)||none|
|Stephen Johns||6'4"||220||Apr 18/92||Univ. of Notre Dame||CCHA||Blackhawks (2/60, '10)||U18 (1)|
|Jon Merrill||6'3"||209||Feb 3/92||Univ. of Michigan||CCHA||Devils (2/38, '10)||U20 (1), U18 (2)|
|Jarred Tinordi||6'7"||216||Feb 20/92||London||OHL||Canadiens (1/22, '10)||U18 (1)|
|Jacob Trouba||6'2"||192||Feb 26/94||USNTDP||USHL||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
This group took a hit when Carolina refused to release Justin Faulk for the tournament, and another one when top 2013 draft prospect Seth Jones suffered an injury in pre-tournament action. However, it's still a solid group, just with a couple of legitimate question marks. Jon Merill returns, and he's been a star for USA Hockey, but he hasn't played a game all year sitting out multiple violations of team rules at Michigan. Derek Forbort and Jarred Tinordi provide a tower of power for the USA that we're used to seeing out of the shutdown Canadian pairing, which is an interesting element to add in what promises to be a physical Group B with Canada, Finland, and the Czechs. Jacob Trouba gets elevated quite substantially with the injuries, and with a strong showing could see himself in the team's top 4, and also in a few more NHL scouts' top 5 listings for the 2012 Draft.
This is a big group that also has plenty of skill. Merill, Trouba, and Clendening should see time on the PP, leaving the tougher minutes for the likes of Tinordi.
|Jack Campbell||6'2"||183||Jan 9/92||Sault Ste. Marie||OHL||Stars (1/11, '10)||U20 (2), U18 (2)|
|John Gibson||6'3"||201||Jul 14/93||Kitchener||OHL||Ducks (2/39, '11)||U18 (1)|
John Gibson may be the heir apparent here, but this is still Jack Campbell's show for eleven more days. Allow Chris Peters to gush:
When this tournament is over, Jack Campbell will stand alone (as USA's top junior goalie), regardless of where the U.S. finishes. He and Jason Zucker are the only two men in USA Hockey history to have won three gold medals at IIHF Championships, having twice won at the World U18s and once at the WJC. Campbell's IIHF totals are mind-numbing.
Despite the tough loss to Canada in the semis last year, Campbell was Team USA's best player. It was the same story throughout the tournament and he was named the best goalie in Buffalo. For whatever reason, when he's got a USA crest on, he finds a way to raise his game another level. I don't know if USA Hockey has ever had a goalie it has been more confident in. He'll be the key for Team USA once again this year and he's more than up to the challenge.
In the end, the Americans boast one of, if not the most complete lineup in 2012. And there's one more important note on this team: the return of the 2010 WJC gold medal winning Head Coach, Dean Blais. Whereas last year's team came up short in the grit department against Canada, according to Peters, Blais won't allow that to happen. "Team USA really struggled to score goals last year... This team will be faster, stronger, and tougher, no doubt. One thing you may have noticed... there wasn't much grit on last year's roster. I think that will be remedied this time around. Blais holds his players accountable and makes adjustments quickly."
This team has a bit of everything, and star power in every position. Peters holds this group in high regarding, claiming 1992 stands as one of the best US birth years ever, rivalling the 1984 birth year that brought home the country's first ever WJC gold in 2004.
On paper, it's easy to see why.
Prediction: 1st in Group B.