For Team USA, it was almost like 2014 all over again.
After a strong start to the 2015 World Junior Championship, the United States saw their medal hopes dashed with another disappointing fifth place finish. As in last year’s tournament, penalties proved costly to the Americans, and once again it came at the hands of Russia in the quarterfinals.
Team USA got off to a 3-0 start with wins over Finland, Germany and Slovakia respectively. The United States had perhaps their strongest showing on New Year’s Eve versus archrival Canada despite falling 5-3 in the contest.
In the quarterfinal versus Russia, the Americans dominated five-on-five play but penalties, particularly those taken in the offensive zone, were the United States’ downfall. Two of Russia’s three goals came on the power play.
University of Michigan freshman Dylan Larkin (DET), University of Minnesota sophomore Hudson Fasching (BUF) and University of Denver sophomore defenseman Will Butcher (COL) were named the United States’ top three players of the tournament.
The story for the Americans was the stellar play of Larkin, who led Team USA with seven points (five goals, two assists). Larkin centered the United States’ most consistent line, which also featured Fasching and the Playmouth Whalers’ Sonny Milano (CBJ) that remained intact through much of the tournament. Larkin and Fasching were the Americans’ most potent duo. Both led the United States with a plus-7 in the tournament. Fasching finished with three points (one goal, two assists). Milano finished tied for second on the team with four points (two goals, two assists).
Butcher was the United States’ best defenseman overall. While some questioned his inclusion on the team, the Sun Prairie, WI native proved to be the Americans most consistent rearguard in the tournament, playing in all situations and chipping in an assist.
No member of Team USA got as much attention during the tournament as Boston University freshman Jack Eichel. The top collegian for the upcoming NHL Draft wasn’t quite as dominant as he was in last year’s tournament but nevertheless played exceedingly well, finishing tied for second on the American squad with four points (one goal, three assists). With the strong possibility of turning pro at the end of the season, Eichel’s return to the tournament next year (he is eligible) is uncertain.
Top 2016 draft prospect Auston Matthews was another of Team USA’s top performers. The Scottsdale, AZ native was especially good on face-offs, winning 50 percent of his draws to lead the Americans. He finished the tournament with three points (one goal, two assists). Matthews’ strong performance also helped solidify his top ranking for next year’s draft.
Team USA’s trio of current draft-eligible defensemen in Boston College’s Noah Hanifin, Michigan’s Zach Werenski and the Tri-City Americans’ Brandon Carlo were very good for the United States but none had spectacular tournaments. While all, particularly Hanifin and Werenski, are expected to go early in the upcoming NHL Draft, the draft stock of Hanifin and Werenski took a bit of a dip as a result of their tournament performances, while Carlo received a bump up the rankings.
The good news for the United States is that a number of players from this year’s squad could return in 2016 when the World Junior Championship heads to Finland. On the back end, only four players – goaltender Thatcher Demko (VAN) and defensemen Will Butcher, Ian McCoshen (FLA), and Anthony DeAngelo (TBL) won’t be able to return. In addition to Eichel, the forwards eligible to return next year are Larkin, Matthews, Milano, Nick Schmaltz (CHI) and Alex Tuch (MIN). This could bode well for the Americans heading into next year’s tournament as Team USA would have a more experienced group at this level should those players be available.
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