The Buffalo Sabres are well represented on Team USA at the 2006 World Junior Championships with a pair of 2005 draft picks playing on the favored American squad. Forward Nate Gerbe (142nd overall) and defenseman Chris Butler (96th overall) both made the cut and both will be important defensive players shutting down the opponent’s attack.
Team USA began the tournament with an 11-2 shellacking of Norway. The Americans took advantage of more than 16 minutes of power play time, scoring five of their goals with the man advantage. Neither Gerbe nor Butler picked up a point in the offensive barrage, although Butler was +3 on the game and Gerbe picked up a penalty. Both were pleased with the game and the result.
“I’d say for the most part it was pretty good,” Butler told Hockey’s Future after Team USA’s morning skate on Wednesday. “Obviously a lot of things we need to work on, we’ve only had a couple of games together, but I’d say we’ve improved a lot every day, and that’s the biggest thing.”
“Excited to win,” Gerbe commented on the game with a big smile. “It’s always great to win. The team played really well for Norway, they never gave up, but we know it’s going to get harder as we go along, so we have to prepare.”
Against Norway, the American team was heavily booed by the Vancouver crowd, who put their support behind the over-matched Norwegian team, cheering raucously after both of the team’s goals and jeering after every American penalty or missed play. Gerbe says that they expected that kind of reception in Canada, and admits he enjoys being the villain.
“Not real surprised, we are in Canada and everything. But, I like it, so I had fun.”
Butler, who had a solid game in his own zone, said he was pleased with his own play, adding that he is just trying to make the easy play.
“I was pretty happy with the way that I played. Just trying to keep things simple. Limit my mistakes as best I could and just do whatever I could to help the team.”
Team USA takes on Team Finland tonight (December 28), who dropped their first game 5-1 to Canada. In that game, the Finnish team appeared to be rattled by the physical play of the Canadian juniors, something that Butler and his teammates are looking to capitalize on tonight.
“I think so, a little bit. North American style is probably a little more physical than typical European style,” said Butler. “I think that’s part of our game, something we’re going to try to do against every team.”
With only three elite-level hockey nations in the pool, Finland will be Team USA’s only test before their highly-anticipated New Year’s Eve clash against Canada. Butler told HF about his team’s game plan for Finland.
“We know Finland is going to be strong and they’re going to be hungry obviously after losing to Canada. We just have to play smart, not take too many penalties, stay out of the box and bury some of our chances.”
The most obvious challenge for any team in the tournament is having all of its players come together to form a cohesive unit after only a week or two of practicing together as a team and coming from a variety of different leagues and collegiate conferences. Butler believes that the transition has not been too difficult for the American team, and it shows on the ice, where the team has displayed the synergy of a team that has been playing together for years.
“Oh, it hasn’t been too bad. A lot of good guys that really get along well,” says Butler. “A lot of many different funny personalities, we have a good time in the dressing room and you know, I think everybody is realizing their role on this team and what they have to do to be successful.”
Another part of this challenge is getting players to play within their roles. Most of the players participating in the tournament are the star players on their teams. As a result, some of the players must adjust to play more two-way or defensively-focused roles. Gerbe is one of the players who have been asked to concentrate on his defensive efforts for the event.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit different, but I’m used to playing a grittier style. Taking in my size and everything, I found myself comfortable [in a defensive role].”
Butler also believes his role on the team is primarily in his own zone.
“I think my job is going to be to kind of play a shutdown role defensively. Limit the forwards chances and hopefully help out offensively a little bit.”
In addition to having an outstanding group of forwards and a very solid group of defenders, goaltending may be one of the team’s biggest strengths, with Cory Schneider (VAN) starting between the pipes. Schneider, who is big, positional, goaltender, is calm and collected while under fire. He is also a teammate of Gerbe’s at Boston College.
“It’s a great feeling [to have Schneider in net]! You know if you mess up you always have a chance,” Gerbe said of the Canucks prospect. “Cory will probably save you. But he’s doing really well for the Eagles and here.”
Another of Gerbe’s teammates at BC is Dan Bertram (CHI), another example of an offensive player with his club team that is playing a more defensive and physical role as a member of the Canadian Junior team. Despite being linemates at school, Gerbe’s doesn’t think it will be awkward when they line up against each other on December 31st.
“No, it won’t be weird at all. I played against him last year in the World Under-18 so it was fun and everything. But now we know each other a little more and it’s going to be more exciting.”
At just 5’5, 160 lbs, Gerbe is one of the smallest players in the tournament. But overcoming both his size and the odds has become second nature for the young forward. However, he admits that he was thrilled to be selected in the past NHL Entry Draft, knowing how much NHL teams look at size.
“Yeah, taking in my size and everything, I’m real thankful to be drafted, being at my size. I was really exciting and everything when I heard from Buffalo.”
He believes that in order for him to make the NHL he’s going to have to work hard every day and never give up, as it is unlikely that he will grow much more. He’s good-natured about his diminutive size, however, smiling and laughing and responding “It never gets old,” when asked if he gets sick of hearing about his height.
Size and strength are also going to be key factors of whether or not Butler becomes an NHLer as well. The 6’1, 185 lbs defender is still lanky and in need of building his upper body strength if he is going to be a successful professional.
“Just continue to get bigger and stronger,” said Butler when asked what part of his game needs improvement. “Start paying attention to more of the little details. All the little stuff and obviously continue to work on my skating and stuff because obviously with the new rules it’s going to be tough, you can’t really clutch and grab, and there’s more emphasis on the skating and stuff like that.”
Butler also spoke about what he believes he does well on the ice.
“I think my strengths would be my D-zone coverage and skating ability. My ability to see the ice pretty well, and obviously my offensive game is something I’m trying to work on both here and in college.”
For Gerbe, the uphill battle will continue long after the tournament ends. Currently enjoying a successful freshman campaign with 10 points in 14 games, Gerbe will develop his skills in college for the next few years. Despite his lack of size, Gerbe is a feisty player who is almost always in the middle of the action. He’s spent his entire career getting knocked around by bigger opponents, and his perseverance shows no signs of letting up. Gerbe is well aware of the odds facing him, but is hopeful that the new rules introduced to the NHL this season will help him down the road.
“Yeah, I think the new rules help. I mean, a lot of small guys in the NHL are doing really well which helps me a lot.”
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