For USA Hockey, the IIHF U18 World Championship has become the ultimate opportunity to show its teeth and what the program has achieved. The team has been medaling for years and is coming off a disappointing loss to Canada in last spring’s gold medal game, one in which it outshot its northern neighbors, 35-12. This year’s squad is once again heading to the tournament with gold ambitions in mind, but will be looking a bit different than in years past.
Despite this obvious ambition on behalf of the program, they started off the tournament with a bit of an unpleasant surprise. Despite dominating play for the great majority of the game, often skating and moving the puck at will, the U.S. lost 4-2 to Switzerland, allowing three unanswered goals against in the third period. The team will now refocus in its usual manner and face the Czech Republic on Saturday, a team that opened its tournament with a 9-2 victory over Denmark. After that, the U.S. will finish off the preliminary round by taking on two Nordic countries, namely Denmark and then host Finland, which has title ambitions of its own. The U.S. lost 2-1 to Finland in last year’s tournament despite outshooting the Suomi, 51-19.
This year’s squad is chock full of players who are of great interest to the NHL community. A good handful are expected to be taken within the first 60 picks in this summer‘s NHL Draft.
Few teams can boast to be participating in the U18 World Championship with an OHL Goaltender of the Year, but that’s exactly what the U.S. is doing. Alex Nedeljkovic spent this past season with the Plymouth Whalers, for whom he put up a 26-27-7 record with a .925 save percentage and 2.88 goals-against average. A butterfly goalie with strong left-right movement, Nedeljkovic has a mental fortitude that rarely sees him get shaken up, even if some concentration errors can lead to the odd unnecessary goal against as was seen against Switzerland on Thursday. Blake Weyrick (6’2”) and Edwin Minney (6’4”) each spent this winter with the U.S. NTDP and the coaching staff knows it can go with either of them at any point without having much to worry about. Both would be the hands-down starters for several other nations at this tournament.
The blueline is filled with a potpourri of prospects that offer all sorts of skills and capabilities. Jack Dougherty can play the game anyway you like it, something his coaches always love. A heady player with strong skating skills, this thoroughbred keeps opponents honest while always being able to give a solid first pass and man the point on the power play with the best of them. Just about the same can be said of 6’3” Jack Glover, who put up impressive offensive numbers for the program this past winter. The pair is currently rated 37th and 38th by ISS Hockey for the 2014 draft, and most will expect them to be long gone by the third round in June's draft.
Sliding right in with the same type of profile and what some feel is a tick more hockey sense is team captain Louis Belpedio, whose game improved by leaps and bounds this past winter. His leadership skills have risen to the surface and the righty shot has the full trust of the coaching staff. He also makes a nice partner for two different, yet equally important U.S. defenseman. One is the hulking Ryan Collins, who is 6’5” and 205 pounds. Blessed with a long reach, Collins can check with the finest while also making adept use of his pokechecking and stickhandling skills to make life miserable for opponents. The other is the small Long Island native Brandon Fortunato, who is swift and adept on his skates while featuring hands many players can only dream of. An offensively gifted player, he has a keen sense for finding his teammates in prime scoring positions.
Perhaps the most interesting blueliner for Team USA is underager Noah Hanifin. An excellent skater and stickhandler, Hanifin is extremely creative and has a flair for the dramatic. Breathtaking rushes deep into the offensive zone are a thing of regularity and the ability to not only hold the puck in tight quarters along the blueline, but to also make something productive of low-percentage plays has scouts foaming at the mouth. ISS currently has him rated third overall for the 2015 NHL Draft, one currently considered to be very deep.
The defensive unit is rounded out by the physical John MacLeod, who is ready to face any opponent in any corner. His job is to keep things safe and simple and that’s just what he makes sure he does.
The most noteworthy player on the team is draft-eligible in 2015. Jack Eichel has been the talk of the town when it comes to USA Hockey for several years now and is currently ranked second by ISS for the 2015 draft. A player who loves to have the puck and then twist and turn as he sees fit, Eichel already had a top-six role for Team USA at the 2014 WJC in Malmo, Sweden. He hounds the puck like few players can and is just brimming with confidence. This winter, he popped in 52 goals for the program (not including tournaments) and continues to become stronger and stronger on an almost weekly basis. He also played a big role for the 2013 squad in Sochi.
Linemate Alex Tuch has become his perfect partner. Creating space and havoc, Tuch plays with a boatload of confidence and keeps opponents honest. Strong offensive skills accompany a body that allows him to keep opposing players on his perimeter. Tuch has a keen nose for the net and creates incredible space for his linemates. The two power forwards are joined by playmaking center Sonny Milano. A crafty and speedy player, Milano takes long shifts and is constantly trying to spring offensive opportunities into life. His stickhandling can be a thing of beauty, even if this sometimes leads to dead-end situations. This winter he put up 35 goals and 71 assists for the program and is currently ranked 18th by ISS for the upcoming draft. Eichel, Tuch, and Milano form as homogenous a line as this tournament has to offer.
Ranked even higher than Milano by ISS is second line forward Dylan Larkin. The 6-foot, 190-pound sniper has spent this winter learning how to put the puck in the net with aplomb. His nose for the goal is undeniable and his offensive acumen gives opponents fits. He’s joined by playmaking winger Ryan Hitchcock of Long Island and speedy, crafty underager Kyle Connor. Both have the skillsets and offensive awareness necessary to continually feed Larkin whenever he’s in a position to score. Connor is ranked 14th by ISS for the 2015 draft.
Much of Team USA’s strength lies in the fact that hardworking role players such as Dylan Pavelek, Joe Wegwerth, Shane Gersich, and Anders Bjork are always able to play an intelligent, aggressive, clever game that gives the team options at all times. Each of these players knows how to put the puck in the net and will be heading for top NCAA programs in the very near future. At a tournament like this, a team is best served by new heroes just about every game and any of these players can be just that on a whim’s notice.
An close eye should be kept on 16-year-old Auston Matthews. Coming from Scottsdale, AZ, he’s here to gain experience, but is already the shining star of his class and has shown some dominating offensive skills for the program’s U17 circuit. He also managed to put up 10 goals and 20 points in 20 USHL games. At this juncture, some feel he could be a top-5 pick for the 2016 NHL Draft. He may get a solid chance to reinforce that belief in this tournament.
Jared Fiegl and Nolan Stevens will take on yeoman jobs, but add to a depth that few teams can feature.
If the top two lines – which get plenty of ice time – fail to score enough, as was the case against Switzerland, this U.S. team could find itself in trouble, especially if the goaltending continues to be as shaky as Nedeljkovic was in the tourney opener. Don’t count on it, though. This team has that typical Team USA confidence and swagger, and that is something few teams can bring to the table. In addition, only Canada’s blueline can come close to featuring the overall skill and skating that this club features.
Last year’s team lost out on a gold medal primarily because top goaltending prospect Thatcher Demko had problems avoiding the bad goal against here and there when only seeing 12-20 shots a game. This team will continue to show a great amount of puck possession and the defense will not be allowing many shots against. The difference between a quarterfinal loss and the gold medal victory will likely depend almost solely on the goaltender's ability to avoid bad goals against while only facing 10-20 shots a game. It would help, though, if the offense could turn some of that incredible puck possession into more tangible offensive results.
When all is said and done, anything short of a visit to a medal game would be quite shocking for a program that has become a dominating force at the U18 level.
Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin