If you’re a fan of Team USA in the upcoming World Junior Championship, you may be convinced that this is a battle of just two players — Jack Eichel of the United States and Connor McDavid of Canada.
The two players are not just standouts on their particular teams but also are projected to be the top two players in a talent-laden NHL Entry Draft next June. Both of their participation in this under-20 tournament will impact their NHL future.
2015 World Junior Championship
United States schedule:
Friday, Dec. 26: U.S. 2, Finland 1 (SO)
Sunday, Dec. 28: U.S. 6, Germany 0
Monday, Dec. 29: U.S. 3, Slovakia 0
Wednesday, Dec. 31: Canada 5, U.S. 3
Friday, Jan. 2: Quarterfinals: Russia 3, U.S. 2
Sure, the U.S. will once again face off against Canada on New Year’s Eve in Montreal (although this year’s game will be played at 3 p.m. EST — we know those Canadians take their New Year’s Eve festivities seriously, right?). At that point, being the final of four round-robin games for each team, there may be little on the line. Since last year, eight of the 10 teams — four from each pool — have advanced to the quarterfinal round, meaning the bye for finishing first in your pool is no longer.
In fact, the opening-round games are nearly meaningless, as we saw a year ago. The U.S. skated past its first three opponents, lost a tight game to Canada on Dec. 31 and then immediately was eliminated in the single-game quarterfinals against Russia.
Canada, which won its pool, may have had an easier draw in Switzerland in the quarterfinals but then was routed by Finland in the semis and went home without a medal after losing to Russia in the third-place game.
Thus this is a tournament within a tournament, and as long as you don’t stink it up in the round robin, you are equally as likely to win as any of the eight teams advancing to the medal round.
When you look at each team and its makeup, you almost need to view this like you would the NCAA ice hockey tournament when evaluating: which team has the big-game players, best goaltending and top special teams.
Team USA general manager Jim Johannson hopes the roster he assembles represents exactly that.
“It’s a speed and energy tournament. That’s what the World Juniors is,” said Johannson. “But I think the third component of it is the need to have versatility.”
That versatility comes in the personality of the players he selects. Every one of the 22 or 23 players (you can roster two or three goaltenders) that will make the final team are all-stars on their current teams. But can they make that adjustment, if needed, to be a role player for a little less than a fortnight?
The roster that has been competing through training camp certainly seems capable. In addition to Boston University’s Eichel up front, you have a number of great playmakers and finishers including Michigan’s JT Compher, who played on a line with Eichel in last Friday’s 5-2 exhibition win over BU, as well as Compher’s college teammate Tyler Motte and Minnesota forward Hudson Fasching.
On the blue line, three of Boston College’s finest — Noah Hanifin, Ian McCoshen and Steve Santini (who has been injured and may or may not participate, something that could be critical to this team’s defensive depth) — may be the team’s leaders. Other collegians include Denver’s Will Butcher, Minnesota’s Ryan Collins and Michigan’s Zach Werenski.
Boston College goaltender Thatcher Demko is expected to carry much of the play because of his experience last season and his history of success for the U.S. at the under-18 and under-17 levels.
But then there are a lot of names not familiar to college players. Chase De Leo of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks may have been Team USA’s best player in last Friday’s exhibition game. Sonny Milano, who committed to Boston College before choosing to play for Plymouth in the OHL, is loaded with offensive talent.
And then there’s Auston Matthews. All of the hype that Eichel is getting for Team USA this year, you can expect the same for Matthews next year. A forward on the U.S. National Under-18 Team, Matthews is certainly a guy to watch as the youngest player on this club. His skill level has been compared to that of Eichel, although it’s not yet clear whether Matthews will choose college or major juniors.
The final component for Team USA is its head coach. Mark Osiecki, who was a longtime assistant at Wisconsin and a three-year head coach at Ohio State before landing in his current job in the AHL, has a proven track record in this tournament.
Three times he has been tabbed as an assistant and all three teams medaled — two golds and a bronze. He hopes that his past success can rub off on this group of players but also understands that when you have such a high talent level, sometimes it is best to stay out of the way.
“The one thing this group has brought and has been consistent, the compete level is so high,” Osiecki said. “To be able to be on the ice with those guys is so much fun. You don’t have to say much. You point them in the right direction and away they go.”
For American fans, the hope is high that the direction and place this team is going is toward the gold-medal podium.