Since winning their first gold medal at the World Junior Championships in 2004, the United States have been unsuccessful in getting back to the top, although the same can be said for every other country as Canada has won the last five gold medals. In those last five tournaments, the Americans have just one bronze medal, which came in Sweden in 2007. Many current prominent NHL players have passed through those American teams: Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel, Colin Wilson, Bobby Ryan, T.J Oshie, and Drew Stafford to name a few. There is no doubt the United States has improved their ability to develop star players, especially those on the offensive side, yet if they are to medal this year, their defense will likely be the reason why.
A freshman goalie for St. Cloud State University, Mike Lee (PHO) has been making a name for himself between the pipes. In 12 games this season, he has a 2.63 GAA and a .909 save percentage, solid numbers for a freshman netminder. Lee will likely be Team USA’s starting goalie when the tournament opens, but his advantage over Jack Campbell is not so big that if were to have a poor outing, coach Dean Blais would be afraid to make a switch. However, for now, it appears that the starting job is Lee’s to lose. He will need to rely on his great positioning and string together a few good games if the United States is to go far in this tournament. The World Juniors are known for raising a player’s stock, especially when it comes to goalies. Good goaltending can win a tournament, and for Lee, this is the perfect opportunity for a coming out party.
Jack Campbell, who won’t be 18 until January, is currently playing for the U.S National Under-18 team, but has decided to commit to the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL for next season, joining an already strong organization. He’s got a chance to be a first round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and should he get enough ice time to impress in this year’s tournament, the probability of that happening will certainly increase.
Although only recently turning 18, Cam Fowler will be a vital part of the United States’ defense corps, which says a lot about his skill level. Fowler is the fourth leading scorer on the Windsor Spitfires with 40 points in 32 games. The potential top-five pick in the 2010 draft should see plenty of time on the power play.
Like Fowler, John Carlson will be counted on to provide some much needed offense from the back end for the Americans. Carlson barely fits the age restriction for the tournament as he turns 20 on January 10th. The Washington Capitals’ first-round selection finished his season last year on a playoff run with the Hershey Bears and looked quite average, but has been a huge part offensively for the team this year recording 24 points in 29 games. He’s even managed to get himself into three games with the Capitals and has not looked out of place.
Jake Gardiner is another former first-round pick, but he has struggled mightily thus far this season, at least on the offensive side. Despite registering 21 points in his freshman year last year, the Ducks draft pick has just three points in 18 games this season for the Univ of Wisconsin. If anything can inspire Gardiner to improve his offensive output it could a tournament as prestigious and important as the World Junior Championship.
The New York Islanders have been very successful in drafting defensemen in the past few years, selecting Team Canada defensemen Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic, and with his play this season at the University of Denver, you can add Matt Donovan to that list. Donovan has nine points in 17 games, which is good enough for second in scoring by defensemen on the team. Donovan rounds out what could potentially be the Americans’ top-four defensemen.
John Ramage is the only undrafted defenseman to likely make the American junior team, but his play has certainly warranted his inclusion. His offense alone has spoken volumes as he has out-performed teammate Gardiner at Wisconsin with seven points in 18 games as a freshman. Ramage is mentioned as a possible top two round draft pick in the 2010 draft and an impressive tournament will certainly cement that status.
Like most of the American defensemen, David Warsofsky (STL) has plenty of offensive upside. His 23 points last season for Boston University were impressive for a freshman and he has continued that pace this season, registering eight points in 13 games. Though he is undersized at 5’9, he has not let that affect his game, showing the ability to take the body when needed. Max Nicastro is a teammate of Warsofsky at BU and a third-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings. While the smaller Warsofsky has been able to maintain a steady defensive game, Nicastro has struggled defensively, with a -9 rating. However, familiarity and chemistry is vital in a short tournament so a potential Warsofsky-Nicastro pairing could come to be as a bottom pairing.
Brian Lashoff (DET) rounds out the group of eight defensemen in the hunt for a roster spot.
Much of the USA’s offense is likely to be generated from the back end, but a trio of NHL first rounders will be expected to carry the load up front. Jordan Schroeder (VAN) will head the offensive attack while Kyle Palmieri (ANA) and Chris Kreider (NYR) will be expected to contribute on the score sheet if the United States is to medal. Like many on the roster, however, Schroeder has been struggling this season. Despite adding 45 points in just 35 games last season for the University of Minnesota, Schroeder’s production has dropped off significantly, registering just 12 points in 18 games. Palmieri has not exactly been lighting up the score sheet himself for Notre Dame, but as a freshman, there is a significant transition period. Boston College’s Kreider in his freshman season has also struggled, with just five points in 14 games. However, with the three first-round selections getting significant ice time against those their own age, expect them to produce.
The Americans are not likely to place all their eggs in one basket, and with their balanced offensive attack, there are quite a few players who may see time on the top two lines. Ryan Bourque (NYR), Derek Stepan (NYR), Danny Kristo (MTL), Chris Brown (PHO), and Phil McRae (STL) may all get an audition, along with the Kreider, Schroeder and Palmieri, playing in the top six forward slots. Bourque and McRae headline a list of six forwards playing in the CHL who will skate for the Americans. Bourque is in his first season for the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL and while buried behind some talented players, has been able to put up 27 points in 31 games. McRae, a second round pick of the St. Louis Blues, has been a steady point producer for the London Knights of the OHL for the past two and a half seasons. McRae can play a gritty game that may be best suited for the third or fourth line, but his size and ability to work along the boards may see him play a bigger role.
While the big names for the Americans have seemed to struggle this year, Stepan has been continually improving his game at Wisconsin. The sophomore has 22 points in 18 games, including 17 assists. His ability to find the open man will likely land him the No. 2 center spot behind Schroeder while he may have a fellow New York Ranger prospect on his wing in Kreider.
Kristo is another winger that may see time on the second line, and perhaps on the top line if Palmieri struggles. Kristo, a Montreal Canadiens’ second round pick, has excelled in his freshman season with the University Of North Dakota, putting up 16 points in 18 games. Kristo also has that element of grit to his game that if he were to struggle offensively, he could move to the third line to give another winger a shot in a scoring role. Brown is a center who can move to the wing if needed and with the depth at center of the American squad, his versatility may come in handy. He’s been able to put the puck in the net, scoring seven times in 18 games this season as a freshman for the University of Michigan.
The bottom two lines will likely be filled out by four players playing in the CHL this season: Tyler Johnson, A.J. Jenks (FLA), Jeremy Morin (ATL), and Luke Walker. Undrafted Johnson is one of three returning players for the Americans. His consistency the past two seasons for the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL has been impressive given his size, as the 5’9 center has recorded near a point per game. Jenks is another near point-per-game scorer in the CHL. He is in his fourth year with the Plymouth Whalers, and though he has scoring touch, the winger is known to throw his body around, and will likely see time on the penalty kill as his defensive game is above par. Morin, a 2009 draft pick of the Atlanta Thrashers, is in his first season with the Kitchener Rangers, and statistically, he has made it hard for the American scouts to overlook him. Morin is actually second in Ranger scoring with 44 points in 32 games and with the United States’ offense being fairly balanced, Morin could find himself on a scoring line as the tournament goes on. Walker is another undrafted WHL’er playing for the Portland Winterhawks. Walker will likely be utilized on the bottom two lines.
Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick Jerry D’Amigo and 2010 draft-eligible Jason Zucker are the remaining two forwards in the hunt for a roster spot.