2011 WJC: Team USA welcomes the world, looks to send them home empty-handed

By Jason Menard

Like the drunken uncle who spoils Christmas dinner, Team USA played the role of unwelcome house guest at Canada’s party last year in Saskatchewan, derailing the host nation’s attempt at a sixth consecutive World Junior Championship gold en route to taking its second tournament crown in seven years.

This year, Team USA has rolled out the welcome mat and is welcoming the world to Buffalo for the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championship, and in an attempt to repeat as tournament they’ve brought a heaping helping of experience to the table.

Team USA is returning eight players to the tournament from its gold-medal-winning entry from last season. And while players like blueliners John Ramage (CAL), and forward Ryan Bourque (NYR), Jerry D’Amigo (TOR), Chris Kreider (NYR), Jeremy Morin (CHI), Kyle Palmeiri (ANH), and Jason Zucker (MIN) will all be counted on to lead the team both on and off the ice, it’s the returning veteran between the pipes who gives the American squad its best chance at retaining its crown.

In general, superlative goaltending has been the common denominator when it comes to finding the right equation that adds up to victory, and with Jack Campbell (DAL) between the pipes the U.S. arguably has the tournament’s top netminder. Campbell, who made the move to the junior ranks with the Windsor Spitfires this season, has had an up and down season to date in the OHL. However, Campbell has proven that he can rise to the occasion when the stakes are highest. Last year, Campbell was between the pipes in the deciding match against Canada to take home gold. Although he faltered a bit, letting in two late goals that enabled the host nation to send the game into overtime, Campbell’s performance in the extra frame was a key reason why the Americans won that game. He also has won two gold medals at the Under-18 tournament and was the Dallas Stars‘ first-round draft pick.

Campbell is the projected starter for Team USA, but if he falters the club has a more-than-capable backup on hand in 2011-draft eligible netminder Andy Iles. The Cornell University product is one of six players who won gold at the 2010 U-18 tournament, along with Campbell, and blueliners Justin Faulk (CAR), Derek Forbort (LA), and Jon Merrill (NJ).

In addition to copious WJC experience, Team USA also has some deep NHL roots — both in terms of players who have seen time in the big leagues (Chicago’s Nick Leddy and Morin, and Anaheim’s Kyle Palmieiri) and players who grew up with the NHL in their blood in Bourque and Ramage, who are likely to be second-generation NHLers.

Team USA has built a roster based on a solid foundation in net, with size on the blue line, and dynamic and speedy offensive players up front. Joining Faulk, Leddy, Merrill, and Ramage on the blueline are Carolina prospect Brian Dumoulin, LA pick Derek Forbort, and Washington hopeful Patrick Wey. There is no lack of size on the American blue line, led by the 6’5 Forbort, the 6’3 Merrill, and Wey at 6’2.

Size isn’t as much of a premium up front, although 6’4 Nick Bjugstad (FLA) and 6’3 Brock Nelson (NYI) aren’t exactly shrinking violets. Instead, general manager Jim Johannson and head coach Keith Allain have crafted a roster that should play to the coach’s strengths. Allain coaches the number-one ranked Yale squad, which is known for its speed and aggressive play — a style that’s tailor-made for smaller-but-dynamic players like Bourque (5’9), D’Amigo (5’11), and Palmieri (5’10). They should thrive again in Allain’s up-tempo style and, along with Morin, will be amongst the team’s scoring leaders.

Rounding out the forward corps are Chris Brown (PHO), Mitchell Callahan (DET), Charlie Coyle (SJ), Emerson Etem (ANH), Kreider, Brock Nelson, and Drew Shore (FLA). This contingent of forwards enables Team USA to ice three quality scoring lines, along with a more-traditional grinding line that — led by a little ball of hate in Callahan — will bring physicality and an ability to get under the skin of its opponents.

Team USA is seeing continued benefits from its commitment to its national development program. The Americans have long been on the cusp of reaching that upper echelon inhabited by the Canadas, Russias, and Swedens of the international game, and finally broke through with their gold-medal performance last year. Now, with a program that’s developing elite-level forwards who are gifted goal scorers and playmakers, they have to be considered one of, if not the, favorites for this year’s WJC.

Team USA is ready to play the role of gracious host to the international hockey community. However, with a team that’s built to put the puck in the net — and boasting a blue line and netminding duo that affords the squad the luxury of taking a few more chances — Team USA won’t be so generous as to give up the tournament’s top prize. In fact, there’s a very good chance that when the other teams return home following the tournament, they’ll be doing so empty-handed, with the gold medals remaining right where they are.