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2021 World Junior Hockey Championship: Team USA preview and roster

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Once again the American roster is laden with talent, can they turn that into a place on the podium in Alberta?

Rena Laverty/USA Hockey

Last year’s World Juniors was a rude awakening for the Americans in the Czech Republic as they struggled to overcome a lack of chemistry and head-scratching coaching. Their issues led to a disappointing exit in the quarterfinals against Finland, and a sixth-place overall finish behind Switzerland. While both Canada and Russia appear to be the early favorites, the Americans will be looking to rebound and thrust themselves directly into the gold medal discussion as well.

One of the challenges the US team faces is the same as many others in that they’re losing players to COVID-19 protocols surrounding the tournament. As it stands right now, three players from Boston University — Robert Mastrosimone, Alex Vlasic, and Drew Commesso —have all been withdrawn, with Vlasic and Mastrosimone being particularly big losses. They are also now without John Beecher, a returning player who tested positive for COVID, and also forced his roommate Thomas Bordeleau to withdraw due to exposure.

The last time the United States put together a disappointing World Juniors tournament, they responded with a medal showing. This year they’ll need their big stars to find their chemistry and start strong. They have an extremely deep roster, they just need to utilize it.

Team USA final roster

# Player Position League Current team (NHL)
# Player Position League Current team (NHL)
30 Spencer Knight G NCAA Boston College (FLA)
29 Logan Stein G NCAA Ferris State University
32 Dustin Wolf G WHL Everett Silvertips (CGY)
11 Brock Faber D NCAA University of Minnesota (LAK)
2 Drew Helleson D NCAA Boston College (COL)
23 Ryan Johnson D NCAA University of Minnesota (BUF)
7 Tyler Kleven D NCAA University of North Dakota (OTT)
5 Jackson LaCombe D NCAA University of Minnesota (ANA)
8 Jake Sanderson D NCAA University of North Dakota (OTT)
17 Hunter Skinner D NCAA London Knights (NYR)
3 Henry Thrun D NCAA Dubuque Fighting Saints (ANA)
4 Cam York D NCAA University of Michigan (PHI)
10 Matthew Beniers F NCAA University of Michigan (2021)
21 Brett Berard F NCAA Providence College (NYR)
12 Matthew Boldy F NCAA Boston College (MIN)
24 Bobby Brink F NCAA University of Denver (PHI)
18 Brendan Brisson F NCAA University of Michigan (VGK)
13 Cole Caufield F NCAA University of Wisconsin (MTL)
22 Sam Colangelo F NCAA Northeastern University (ANA)
25 John Farinacci F USHL Muskegon Lumberjacks (ARI)
28 Arthur Kaliyev F OHL Hamilton Bulldogs (LAK)
19 Patrick Moynihan F NCAA Providence College (NJD)
26 Landon Slaggert F NCAA University of Notre Dame (CHI)
15 Alex Turcotte F NHL Los Angeles Kings
9 Trevor Zegras F NCAA Boston University (ANA)

Strengths

It’s hard to look up and down the United States roster and not land on a high-end NHL prospect. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the years thanks to the growth of the US National Team Development Program. The forward group is highlighted by some truly incredible players from across the NCAA including Cole Caufield, Matthew Boldy, Alex Turcotte, and Trevor Zegras. Throwing in Arthur Kaliyev, Brendan Brisson, and the highly touted Matthew Beniers, it’s a scary group to match up with across the lineup.

In net, the Americans might boast two of the best goaltenders in the tournament outside of Russia’s Yaroslav Askarov in Spencer Knight and Dustin Wolf. Knight has been a standout at Boston College for the last two years while Wolf won the CHL Goaltender of the Year Award for the Everett Silvertips. Being able to turn to either high-end goalie is a huge deal in this tournament where one or two bad games can spoil so much for teams.

While the defence features some question marks, they do have a handful of standouts, including the highly mobile Brock Faber, and top draft pick Jake Sanderson. Jackson LaCombe is also a player to keep an eye on given his penchant for pushing the offensive game from the blue line.

Weaknesses

Having a mountain of talent on your roster is a fantastic problem to have but it creates a problem in itself. You have to find a role and ice for all of these players. It shouldn’t be too hard to roll out four dominant lines with this team. The problems arise when a line isn’t clicking, and you have to shuffle multiple people around. In the tournament last year, Scott Sandelin stubbornly refused to promote his best forward when the team was struggling, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole so to speak. For this year, the Americans need to run their best players together and avoid trying to shoehorn them into roles that don’t fit the players.

There are also some questions about the defensive group going into this tournament. While they’ve added mobility and offensive upside, they’ve also added some pieces that might not fit the nature of how World Juniors games are played. Players like Tyler Kleven and the returning Beecher don’t quite fit with many of the other high-end pieces on this roster. Last year, the US coaching staff insisted on playing Beecher down the middle with Caufield on their wing, something that clearly did not work. They’ll need to avoid similar mistakes this year.

Finally, for this team, there’s a certain mental aspect to overcome — forgetting last year’s struggles and focusing solely on the upcoming tournament.

X-Factor

For Team USA, the X-Factor in this tournament is whether or not they can get their offence to gel together and reach their potential as a team. The Americans are without Beecher and Bordeleau due to COVID concerns, and also Nick Robertson who was not released by the Toronto Maple Leafs for the tournament. They’ll need their returning players to replace that talent now. For players like Caufield, who struggled to get going in last year’s tournament, can they find their game and be the dominant players they’re capable of?

The coaching staff letting this highly skilled group play a finesse game is crucial. Trying to treat the tournament like an average hockey game is a recipe for failure. The team has the potential to be a huge offensive juggernaut, they just have to be allowed to do so.

Finally, if the defence struggles, can the duo of Wolf and Knight hold the fort to keep the Americans in games against the other elite teams?

The Habs Angle

For Montreal Canadiens fans, the focus of this tournament will be fully on Cole Caufield this year as Jayden Struble was left off the roster along with Sean Farrell. Struble has battled some injuries which cost him some playing time, so his absence makes sense, but remains disappointing all the same.

For Caufield, he had a quiet tournament in 2020 for a flawed Team USA, and this year he’ll be counted on to be a leader on a deep team. He should easily be a top-six staple on this team, and putting him opposite a player like Arthur Kaliyev could provide them both the space to utilize their goal-scoring talents.

It would also be a good time to remind Habs fans that in his first World Juniors, Ryan Poehling struggled a bit before exploding the following year and winning Best Forward, MVP, and being named to the All-Tournament Team. Caufield is primed to potentially pull off the same feat if the American team can find their stride quickly in Alberta.