The Americans are coming, the Americans coming…used to invoke fear into their competition yet in the World Junior Championship this just has not come to pass.
Having only medalled three times since 1986 the United States have yet to become a consistent dominant force in junior hockey but that could all be changing in the future.
With the continuing improvement in development at USA hockey and in the United States Hockey League the Americans could be challenging for the gold every year.
Coach Lou Vario who has been an assistant in the past and he will try to bring back a gold like the U18’s American team in Slovakia this summer.
They have a few players returning from last years squad headed up by forwards Christopher Higgins a Montreal draft pick in 2002, Eric Nystrom a Calgary draft pick in 2002, Dwight Helminen an Oilers prospect, undrafted Dustin Brown from the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League and defenseman Ryan Whitney a Pittsburgh top 5 pick in 2002.
The Team USA forwards is very similar to the Canadians in that they are smaller quick skating group with the exception of Barry Tallackson a New Jersey Devil draft pick who comes in at 6-4 and over 200lbs and Dustin Brown and Maine product Greg Moore just over 200lbs. The multitude of skill among the forwards should be more apparent then last year with several players coming from the successful U18 and U17 programs in Ann Arbour. The young slick playmaking Zack Parise and Patrick O’Sullivan should fit in nicely with the veteran two-way Nystrom and McConnell to give them a nice balanced attack. The coaching and scouting staff has done a good job in bringing in players that can fill a role on all four lines. The exposure the younger forwards will receive in this tournament will reap the team benefits next year.
The blueline is mobile and tough and they should be the opposition difficulties in front of the net and along the boards. Although they only have one returning player Ryan Whitney on defense Coach Vario says “I am fully confident in the ability of my defense to cornerstone of our success”. With that said the size of this defense is impressive having Matt Greene, Matt Jones and Mark Stuart all over 215lbs apiece. Expect to see bodies thrown around with regularity in their own zone and the European teams in their division make not take to kindly to abusive play. To give the defense some offensive punch Tim Gleason, James Wisniewski and young Ryan Suter have been given the green light push the transition game and quarterback the power play. The defense core seems to be the biggest strength of the team and the U.S.A. will go as far as the defense takes them.
Goaltending this year has no big names such as Jason Bacashihua or Rick Dipietro on the roster just relative no-names such as University of Maine’s James Howard and Bob Goepfert from Providence a 6th round draft pick of Pittsburgh in 2002. Both from Hockey East Bob Goepfert does come to the team with some impressive credentials by being named player and goaltender of the year in Cedar Rapids of the USHL in 2002. His blazing start for the Friars solidified himself on the team and Providence’s head coach Paul Pooley has called him one of the best rookie goaltenders in Hockey East. His counterpart Jim Howard is no slouch this year either being named rookie of the month in November honors and posting a ridiculous .949 save percentage over 8 games. He has paid is dues coming through the ranks of the U17 and U18 programs and both players could give notice that they intend to deliver the good for their respective country.
Just a little reminder to the other teams in the tournament just because you have never heard about a player doesn’t mean he cannot come in and shut down your team, history always repeats its self every once in a while. Remember Dryden as a rookie and some Russian goalie that nobody heard of in the 1972 Summit series, things have a funny way happing when you least expect it and that’s exactly what the Americans are hoping for.