Team USA 2012 WJC Preview

By Andrew Sykes
Photo: Brandon Saad will be making his WJC debut this year. Saad is known for his combination of size and skill. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Always considered a contender and a threat for the gold medal, the United States entry at the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championships is no different. Led by the tournament’s most experienced goaltender in Jack Campbell (DAL), the Americans feature a bevy of talent up and down their roster.

With seven returning players from last year’s bronze medal-winning squad and eight first-round NHL draft picks, as well as many other highly touted prospects, team USA has the goods to match up with any of the tournament’s heavyweights.

The young men donning the stars and stripes will look to break through and find the chemistry that was present when the country captured its two World Junior titles in 2004 and 2010.

Goaltending

For the third straight year, the Americans hopes will rest on the shoulders of goaltender Jack Campbell. Already the most decorated goalie in the country’s history at the WJC, the 19-year-old Campbell backstopped the U.S. to their second ever gold medal in 2010 and returned last year to help lead the team to a bronze.

The Dallas Stars first-round pick was outstanding a year ago in Buffalo and walked away with the goalkeeper of the tournament award. If he is able to deliver that type of performance again this year, Campbell and the rest of his teammates should be able to bring home another medal which would further add to his World Junior legacy.

Backing up Campbell this year will be 18-year-old John Gibson. A member of the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL, Gibson has had a spectacular first half of his season and has posted numbers that are even better than those of Campbell.

A second-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2011, Gibson is a phenomenal talent who would likely be the starter on almost every other team in the tournament. With his impressive physical stature and athleticism, Gibson gives the U.S. an excellent option in a backup role.

Defense

USA’s blue line will be anchored by two returnees in Derek Forbort (LAK) and Jon Merrill with Forbort being the club’s top shutdown defender and Merrill being the best puck-mover. Both players are first round picks of the NHL and should be able to use their smarts and experience to become two of the top defensemen in the tournament.

A second-round pick of the New jersey Devils, Merrill is the most offensively skilled of the American blueliners and will be given the responsibility to quarterback the power-play, but he will have some help from Adam Clendening; a second-rounder by Chicago from 2011.

Brutish, 6’4, 220 pound Stephen Johns (CHI) who plays at the University of Notre Dame, is the most imposing American rearguard and will join the likes of Forbort and the 6’7 Jarred Tinordi as the three defenders who will be counted on to play a nasty, physical game, and make life hard on the opposition’s top players.

Jacob Trouba, the lone 17-year-old on the roster and Kevin Gravel out of St. Cloud State will compete for minutes on the third pairing.

Forwards

Of the forward group, Jason Zucker (MIN), Charlie Coyle (MIN), Nick Bjugstad (FLA) and Emerson Etem (ANA) are back from last year and are easily the team’s top four offensive threats.

Zucker, a crafty forward at the University of Denver was selected as the team’s captain and will be a player that head coach Dean Blais will rely on in every situation while Etem possesses electrifying speed that should quickly make him one of the most exciting players to watch in the tournament.

Coyle and Bjugstad are two big-bodied forwards who have the skill to match their size. Considered the Americans best forward a year ago, Coyle has all of the tools to be one of the tournament’s best forwards and with the 6’4 Bjugstad expected to line up as his center, he should have a lot of room to create.

Newcomers such as Brandon Saad and J.T. Miller are two players who could be in for coming out parties this year. Saad nearly made the Chicago Blackhawks out of training camp while Miller, a New York Rangers first-round pick, has had an excellent first season with Plymouth in the OHL.

T.J. Tynan (CLB), Bill Arnold (CAL), and Kyle Rau (FLA), are three players who made the team because of their offensive production while the likes of Josh Archibald (PIT), Connor Brickley (FLA), Austin Czarnik (Boston U.), and Austin Watson (ANH) will be used to play more of a grinding, defensive game for coach Blais.

Conclusion

Once again the U.S has assembled a team that has the talent on paper to compete with anyone. As is often the case, the ability of the team to gel together as a unit and develop chemistry quickly will ultimately be the biggest factor in determining whether or not they come home with the medal they desire.

Their individual talent alone may be enough to win a medal, but for Team USA to win gold they must get major efforts and contributions from their goaltender, every defensive pair and throughout the forward lines.