2016 WJC Preview: Team USA seeks first medal in three years

By DJ Powers
Auston Matthews - Team USA

Photo: ZSC Lions forward and 2016 prospect Auston Matthews has produced 14 goals and 25 points in 22 games in 2015-16 playing in Switzerland’s top league (courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

 

 

The United States will be seeking a return to the medal round at the 2016 World Junior Championship in Finland. The Americans last medalled in 2013 when they captured gold at this event in Ufa, Russia.

Team USA is comprised of 12 current or future collegians, eight CHL players and one each from the AHL and Swiss Pro league that feature a combined 14 NHL-drafted players. Boston University is the most well represented team, NCAA or otherwise, with three current or future Terriers on this year’s roster. Also amongst the group are seven returnees from last year’s squad headed by phenom Auston Matthews, who is expected to go first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft.

While this year’s team is once again an impressive one, it isn’t without some controversy. The following is a breakdown by position for the United States.

Goaltenders

This year marks the first time since 2012 that Team USA features an all-OHL group in net. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds’ Brandon Halverson (NYR) and Flint Firebirds’ Alex Nedeljkovic (CAR), both returnees, will be the tandem backstopping the United States. The Kitchener Rangers’ Luke Opilka (STL), who was projected to be the Americans’ third netminder, has been battling an illness, which leaves the U.S. with two goaltenders. 2016 draft-eligible backstop Tyler Parsons of the London Knights was released by the team.

Defensemen

Anchoring Team USA’s defense this year are two returnees from last year’s squad in University of Michigan sophomore Zach Werenski (CBJ) and the Tri-City Americans’ Brandon Carlo (BOS). Carlo is also the only rearguard on this year’s squad from the CHL.

The most notable absence for the Americans is former Boston College standout Noah Hanifin, now with the Carolina Hurricanes.

The United States blueline is heavy in offensive-minded defensemen and that could potentially pose a problem particularly when facing teams such as Canada and Russia. Carlo is the most defensive-minded of the group. He and Boston University freshman Charlie McAvoy (2016 draft-eligible) also bring a physical element to the American squad.

The cornerstone of Team USA’s defense is Werenski. The Grosse Pointe, MI native’s noticeably improved defensive zone play and stronger 6’2” frame have resulted in better overall positioning in taking away time and space. Furthermore, Werenski has established a nice balance between his offensive side and defensive responsibilities with the Wolverines.

Among the newest members of Team USA’s NCAA-laden defensive corps is St. Cloud State University freshman Will Borgen. The Moorhead, MN native, one of two Buffalo Sabres draft picks on the Huskies roster, has been off to a terrific start with St. Cloud State. Borgen does an outstanding job of simplifying his game and, like much of the American defense, is active in joining plays.

Rounding out the USA’s defensive group are Miami University defenseman Louis Belpedio, Boston University rearguard Brandon Fortunato, and 2016 prospect Chad Krys from the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP). All three defenders stand under six feet, and bring a mix of offensive ability, defensive chops and skating ability that should serve the team well on the larger ice surface.

The two defenseman that missed Team USA’s final roster were Boston College freshman Casey Fitzgerald (2016 draft-eligible) and the University of Minnesota’s Ryan Collins (CBJ). Collins was a part of the 2015 WJC squad.

Forwards

Despite not returning standouts in current NHL forwards Jack Eichel (BUF) and Dylan Larkin (DET), Team USA’ strength is once again in their young and very deep forward lines. In addition to the aforementioned Matthews, the United States also returns Sonny Milano (CBJ) from the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters, and University of North Dakota sophomore Nick Schmaltz (CHI) from last year’s squad.

As good as the United States looks up front, it is also the position that has had the most controversy surrounding it heading into the tournament. More than a few eyebrows were raised when Notre Dame’s Anders Bjork (BOS) and Yale’s Ryan Hitchcock, both sophomores, were named to the team over other notable Americans such as the Winnipeg Jets’ 2015 first round selections Kyle Connor of Michigan and Jack Roslovic from Miami. Furthermore, Jeremy Bracco (TOR), who was projected to be a strong candidate to make the final cut, was not even named to Team USA’s preliminary roster. While some have speculated that Bracco’s omission was due, in part, to his abrupt departure from Boston College to join the Kitchener Rangers, the more likely reason (as is probably the case also with Connor and Roslovic) is the plethora of talented forwards available to choose from.

Bjork is blossoming into an excellent 200-foot player who currently co-leads Notre Dame in scoring with 16 points and leads the Fighting Irish with a +17 rating. Hitchcock, one of a handful of NCAA sophomores eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft, brings a nice combination of energy, speed and offensive prowess to Team USA.

Another sign pointing to the United States depth was the recent release of U.S. NTDP standout and Boston University recruit Kiefer Bellows. The Edina, MN native is the son of former NHL forward Brian Bellows and one of nine 2016 NHL Draft-eligible forwards named to Team USA’s preliminary roster.

In addition to Matthews, two 2016 draft-eligible Americans that many will be watching are the London Knights’ Matthew Tkachuk and the Erie Otters’ Alex DeBrincat. Tkachuk, the son of legendary Boston University winger and NHL Hall of Famer Keith Tkachuk, is a winger with elite-level skill that is projected to be one of the top picks in the upcoming draft. The diminutive DeBrincat, the OHL’s reigning Rookie of the Year, is a high-energy player that possesses tremendous scoring ability.

Rounding out the draft-eligible Americans is Scott Eansor from the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL. What Eansor lacks in size is made up for in grit and determination, attributes that will be put to use in the USA’s bottom-six group of forwards.

The forward lines also feature two early candidates for the NCAA Rookie of the Year in Boston College’s Colin White (OTT) and North Dakota’s Brock Boeser (VAN). White, who centers the Eagles’ dynamic line that also includes junior Ryan Fitzgerald (BOS), currently leads the NCAA in both freshman scoring (23 points) and assists (15). Boeser, who is part of one of the nation’s most prolific lines, currently leads all NCAA freshmen with 13 goals and will likely be paired with North Dakota linemate Nick Schmaltz for the United States.

Rounding out the drafted group of Americans are two sons of former NHL players in Harvard freshman Ryan Donato (BOS) and Kitchener Rangers winger Ryan MacInnis (ARI), as well as London Knights center Christian Dvorak (ARI). MacInnis and Dvorak are both turning in strong seasons in the OHL, with Dvorak currently leading that league in scoring with 28 goals and 65 points in 27 games. MacInnis, son of NHL defensive great Al MacInnis, is tied for 11th in scoring with 20 goals and 43 points in 29 games. Donato, son of former NHL forward Ted Donato, has produced nine points in 10 games for the Crimson.

The centerpiece of this year’s USA squad will undoubtedly be Matthews, the Arizona native expected to be selected first overall in this year’s NHL Draft. Matthews elected to play in Switzerland for the 2015-16 season, an unconventional path for a top prospect to take which has taken him off the radar somewhat. All indications are that Matthews has performed well against mostly men in the Swiss National League A, where he is already considered to be a top player in that league. Matthews will get the chance to shine on a slightly bigger stage at this year’s World Juniors.

Belarus | Canada | Czech Republic | Denmark | Finland | Russia | Slovakia | Sweden | Switzerland | USA

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF