When it comes to the IIHF Under-20 World Championship, known better to most as World Juniors, recent history for the United State team has been one that should provoke moments of wistful glee for fans of the American squad.
It is a tournament where, for decades, medals were something talked about, yet rarely achieved.
But for four straight years, the U.S. team has walked into the tournament and come home wearing some sort of gold, silver or bronze around their necks.
The best of those was 2017, when the U.S. walked into Canada and won gold on enemy soil. Combined with bronze medals in 2016 and 2018, and last year’s runner-up silver medal performance, you might look at the current era as the greatest in the American history of the tournament.
So it’s no wonder as this year’s Team USA is about to embark on its journey for gold in Ostrava and Trinac, Czech Republic, when they open against rival Canada on Thursday, there are some high expectations.
If there is one difference coming into this year’s tournament is that some of the elite players are on the younger age and will play against teams with older rosters. That, though, says U.S. coach Scott Sandelin isn’t a major concern.
“We’ve got guys who have the ability to score,” said Sandelin. “A lot of the [top rated players] are ‘01s (born in 2001, thus 18 years old), but I’ve found that the best players find a way to get it done no matter what age you’re at. I’m not overly concerned about youth.”
Sandelin says that he likes the mix of players on this year’s roster. This year’s roster has 19 current U.S. college players, three from the CHL and one, former Boston College forward Oliver Wahlstrom, who is currently playing professional in Bridgeport of the AHL.
Unlike many teams of recent years, there isn’t some high-flying superstar that every is pointing at to watch. This team might be one of the more balanced clubs, top to bottom, which some could see as a concern but Sandelin sees as a luxury.
“I think it’s a really good mix. We’ve got a lot of really talented young players and some older guys, too,” Sandelin said. “We’re going to have balance. I like our back end that is going to be a little bit older. There is a good mix back there of puck movers and defenders.”
The defense has a good mix of size and skill, including Massachusetts rookie Zac Jones, a puck mover standing 5-foot-10 and Wisconsin’s K’Andre Miller, who at 6-foot-4 is always a physical presence.
The final line of defense might be the most impressive.
Leading the way is goaltender Spencer Knight, who came on strong at Boston College before the break and is considered one of the most elite goaltenders in the nation. He likely assumes the starting position to begin the tournament with Omaha’s Isaiah Saville and Dustin Wolf from Everett in the WHL backing up.
That combination will likely be the most critical part of this roster.
“[Spencer’s] got a great demeanor in the net, a calmness in the net. As a former defenseman, I like the fact that he can play the puck,” said Sandelin. “It’s no secret that early on [this season] there were some struggles but if you look at the last nine games, he’s given up a goal a game. It’s good that he’s coming in very confident right now.”
The tournament begins with a rare early matchup with Canada (many years, the U.S. and Canada don’t meet until the final game of pool play). The following day, the Americans take on Germany, probably the most winnable game on paper in the opening round.
After a day off, the U.S. will play Russia on Dec. 29 and then host Czech Republic on Dec. 30.
The top four of five teams in the pool advance to the knockout round which begins on Jan. 2. The semifinal games are on Jan. 4, while the bronze and gold medal games take place on Jan. 5.
In addition to the college players on the Team USA roster, two other collegiate players will represent their country. North Dakota defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker will play for Team Canada while Minnesota forward Sampo Ranta will represent Team Finland.
All Team USA games and most other games of the tournament can be viewed on NHL Network in the United States.