U.S. will be tested early in 2016 World Junior Championship

Michigan’s Zach Werenski is the U.S. captain at the World Junior Championship (photo: Dan and Margaret Hickling).

The victory for the U.S. Under-20 World Junior team in Ufa, Russia, in 2013 seems like a distant memory.

At the time, it was the third medal in four years for the Americans, two of which were gold. One might argue that was the high point for the U.S. in the history of the largest international hockey tournament outside of the Olympics.

2016 World Junior Championship

Dec. 26, 2015-Jan. 5, 2016, Helsinki

United States schedule (all times Eastern and all games on NHL Network):

Saturday, Dec. 26: U.S. 4, Canada 2

Monday, Dec. 28: Sweden 1, U.S. 0

Wednesday, Dec. 30: U.S. 10, Switzerland 1

Thursday, Dec. 31: U.S. 4, Denmark 1

Saturday, Jan. 2: Quarterfinals: U.S. 7, Czech Republic 0

Monday, Jan. 4: Semifinals: Russia 2, U.S. 1

Tuesday, Jan. 5: Bronze-medal game: U.S. 8, Sweden 3

Since then, the record for the Americans has been strong in the event but success has been nonexistent. In 2014 and 2015, the Americans negotiated a near-identical path through the preliminary round, only to suffer the same fate — a quarterfinal-round loss to Russia — that kept them for competing for a medal.

So as the 2016 edition of the World Junior Championship begins Saturday in Helsinki, expectations for the U.S. are high but optimism is a bit guarded given recent failures.

The roster of 22 players contains 11 current collegians and one commit (Boston University freshman-to-be Chad Krys). Nine of the players are playing in major juniors, while possibly the top player on the American roster will be a professional, Auston Matthews, who passed on both major junior and college to play professionally in Switzerland this year while he awaits a likely No. 1 selection in the 2016 NHL Draft.

The college players will have the most impact on the defensive position: Six of the eight defensemen selected are current or future collegians. Leading that group is the captain of the team, Michigan standout Zach Werenski.

Dave Starman, who will be the analyst calling the American games on NHL Network, said that having a solid defensive corps is critical in a short tournament.

“I think in a short tournament, your team defensive play comes together a little slower than your team offensive play,” said Starman. “There’s going to be pressure on these [defensive players] to really be good.

“When I look at this U.S. defense corps, the one thing I see is mobility. It’s a group I think can defend. It’s a group I think can move pucks out. I think this group is going to be real key, especially getting through games one and two, so this team can get their feet underneath them.”

Those first two games — the opener against Canada on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, NHL Network) and a game against the always-tough Swedish squad on Monday (9 a.m. ET, NHL Network) — translate to one of the most difficult openings Team USA has faced at the tournament in a number of years.

Should the Americans emerge with a split or a sweep of those games, the confidence will be built and the club will be well positioned heading to the close of round-robin play against Switzerland on Wednesday (1 p.m. ET, NHL Network) and Denmark on New Year’s Eve (9 a.m. ET, NHL Network).

“If I’m this coaching staff, I’m drooling at the thought of playing Canada [in game] one and Sweden [in game] two,” Starman said about the American staff that will be led by Ron Wilson, who guided the Americans to gold in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. “If you go 0-2, you have two games to get back to 2-2, and the top four [of five] in the poll advance.

“I think if you play the easier teams early, it gives you a false sense of security. And then you play these tougher teams like Canada or Sweden or Russia, and you’re not as battle-tested as you want to be.

“So they’re going to go into game three and four and then the crossover round with those two games under their belt. I think it’s the best thing for them.”

Facing some early adversity, in fact, has proven beneficial to the Americans in the past. In 2010, U.S. lost to Canada in the round robin only to advance to the medal round and exact revenge to capture gold. Three years later, Canada and Russia both beat the Americans in the round robin but the U.S. blasted the Canadians 5-1 in the semifinals before beating Sweden in the finals 3-1.

The biggest common denominator of those two gold-medal teams, however, was the goaltending. In 2013, John Gibson was the backbone and tournament MVP. Three years earlier, the tandem of Jack Campbell and Mike Lee was solid for much of the tourney.

This year, the goaltending will be handled by two battle-tested netminders from the OHL — Brandon Halverson from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and Alex Nedeljkovic from the Niagara IceDogs. Both backed up Boston College’s Thatcher Demko a year ago and possess the needed experience associated with the tournament.