2013 WJC Preview: USA looks to improve on poor showing at last World Juniors

By DJ Powers

Alex Galchenyuk - USA

Photo: Montreal Canadiens prospect Alex Galchenyuk looks close to being NHL-ready, but the NHL lockout has given the talented forward the chance represent the USA at the 2013 WJC (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

After a disappointing seventh-place finish at last year’s World Junior Championship, Team USA will look to better that this year in hopes of taking home their first medal since 2011 and their first gold since 2010.

NHL-drafted collegians comprise much of this year’s roster, but there are some high-caliber Major Junior players also in the mix. The United States returns three players from last year’s squad – goaltender John Gibson (ANA), defenseman Jacob Trouba (WPG) and forward J.T. Miller (NYR).

Blainville-Boisbriand Armada forward Stefan Matteau (NJD) and University of Minnesota defenseman Brady Skjei (NYR) were Team USA’s final two cuts. Earlier, Plymouth Whalers forward Stefan Noesen (OTT) was ruled ineligible for the tournament by the IIHF after the OHL handed him a ten-game suspension for a hit back on Dec. 8.

One noticeable aspect of this year’s team, particularly among the skaters, is their experience and level of success in international play. A number of these players are former members of Team USA’s gold medal-winning U-18 squads from 2011 and 2012.

Goaltending

John Gibson is expected to be named the starter for the Americans. His experience in international play, particularly with last year’s team, will be an asset for the United States heading into the tournament. The Pittsburgh, PA native is off to a very good start with the Kitchener Rangers this season, although he is splitting time with Franky Palazzese. Gibson currently sports a 13-7-0 record that includes one shutout in 20 appearances. His .929 save percentage currently ranks fourth in the OHL, while his 2.33 goals-against average ranks fifth.

Rounding out Team USA’s goaltending trio are Jon Gillies (CGY) and Garret Sparks (TOR). While both players have been very good for their current respective teams so far this season, they also lack international experience.

Gillies has gotten off to a terrific start with Providence College this season. The South Portland, ME native has started all of the Friars’ 15 games this season and currently sports a 7-6-2 record that includes two shutouts. Gillies’ 1.95 goals-against average and .928 save percentage both currently rank in the top 20 nationally. At 6’5” and 230 pounds, Gillies is the biggest among the American goaltenders.

Sparks has been a workhorse for the Guelph Storm so far this season, currently ranking second in the OHL with 1,878 minutes played. Sparks had some consistency issues at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, but he has turned things around in a big way since November. The Elmhurst, IL native has appeared in 33 games so far, sporting an 18-8-0-4 record that includes four shutouts.

Defense

Defense looks to be Team USA’s strength heading into the World Junior Championship. Like last year’s roster, the Americans will have good size on their blueline again this year. But what makes the United States’ defensive corps better this year is the fact that it is loaded with defenders that possess high-end puck-moving skills and can also skate with top opposing forwards.

Jake McCabe (BUF) and returnee Jacob Trouba (WPG) lead Team USA’s defense. Trouba, one of Team USA’s four alternate captains, is off to an excellent start to his freshman campaign with the University of Michigan, having posted 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 16 games. With injuries decimating the Wolverines’ blueline in the first half of the season, Trouba has had to shoulder a bigger load for Michigan and has responded quite well. The Rochester, MI native possesses an outstanding combination of size, puck-moving ability and grit. But the key for Trouba in the WJC will be striking a balance between his ultra-aggressive style and being disciplined in his play.

After a successful but shortened freshman campaign last season, McCabe has picked up from where he left off with the University of Wisconsin this season. The Eau Claire, WI native currently leads the Badgers in defensive scoring with nine points (two goals, seven assists) playing in all 16 games to date. Where McCabe has really made his mark with Wisconsin this season has been on the power play, assuming the quarterbacking duties left by Justin Schultz (EDM). McCabe, who has been named Team USA’s captain, has already made great strides in his development as a sophomore. One area where this is particularly noticeable has been in his decision-making. He makes better decisions both with and without the puck, and it is an element that could prove to be a key in Team USA’s success in the WJC.

One American that all eyes will be on is alternate captain Seth Jones. The Plano, TX native, who is one of three undrafted players on the USA roster, is widely considered one of the top two players eligible for the upcoming 2013 NHL Draft. He has posted 28 points (eight goals, 21 assists) playing in 31 games with the Portland Winterhawks. Hockey’s Future’s Ian Altenbaugh notes that Jones already possesses an NHL-sized body and an NHL-type shot. He is an excellent skater with strong, fluid strides and moves the puck exceedingly well. It is those attributes along with his ability to control the tempo of a game that has many scouts really taking notice.

One American rearguard to keep an eye on during the tournament is Shayne Gostisbehere (PHI). While Gostisbehere is Team USA’s smallest defenseman, he is an excellent skater with speed that can also provide scoring depth from the blueline.

Gostisbehere heads Union College’s stellar defensive corps this season and is currently among the nation’s top-scoring defensemen. The Margate, FL native co-leads the Dutchmen rearguards with 13 points (five, eight assists) playing in all 15 games to date. Gostisbehere’s 13 points also currently tie him for seventh nationally among defensemen. While he is considered more of an offensive defenseman, Gostisbehere is also excellent at taking care of his own zone. His ability to play intelligently and effectively in all three zones is an asset that can greatly benefit Team USA in the tournament.

Rounding out Team USA’s defensive corps is hard-hitting OHL rearguard Connor Murphy (PHX) and the University of Minnesota’s outstanding puck-rushing defenseman, Mike Reilly (CBJ).

Forwards

Team USA’s forward lines, headed by returnee J.T. Miller (NYR) and the dynamic Alex Galchenyuk (MON), features a nice mix of size, speed and grit that can also put up the points.

Miller, a member of the AHL's Connecticut Whale and one of Team USA’s alternate captains, is the only American currently playing in the professional ranks. The East Palestine, OH native has posted 14 points (five goals, nine assists) playing in all 26 games so far. Miller is an excellent two-way forward that, as Hockey’s Future’s Ian Altenbaugh explains, brings a wide variety of attributes to the American squad.

“Miller is a prototypical Rangers forward in that he is tough, skilled, a good skater, and smart at both ends of the ice. Plays with grit, leadership, and skill. He's probably never going to be the most talented guy on the team, but will probably be among the hardest working. Skill-set that could have him play a checking/shutdown role or a complementary offensive role.”

A player who is not far behind Miller in terms of joining the pro ranks is Alex Galchenyuk. The Montreal Canadiens, who drafted the Milwaukee, WI native third overall at the 2012 NHL Draft, will likely get him into the pro ranks once the NHL season gets underway. But the Canadiens recently said that they will not pull Galchenyuk out of the WJC should the lockout be settled during the tournament. And that’s excellent news for Team USA as Galchenyuk is expected to be one of, if not the best, player on this team.

Galchenyuk has been one of the OHL’s top point producers this season. He currently leads his Sarnia Sting team and ranks second in the league with 61 points (27 goals, 34 assists) playing in 33 games to date. Galchenyuk has established himself as a dynamic scorer that possesses one of the best shots among all tournament participants this year.

As Hockey’s Future’s David Thicke notes, Galchenyuk has the ability to simply dominate the game.

“Galchenyuk can bring top line offensive production, give his linemates more open space and can hold the puck long enough for them to get free from the defender. He can draw the opposition forwards to him then strike with a quick, tape-to-tape pass. He accelerates over the length of the ice, which can cause the opposition's defenseman to back off the blueline allowing his team to exit their zone much quicker. He can control the power play down low on the circle from either wing and also play the point if needed.”

Among the group of forwards for the United States that could prove to be game changers are Boston College sophomore phenom Johnny Gaudreau (CGY) and University of Notre Dame standout freshman Mario Lucia (MIN).

After failing to earn a spot on last year’s team, Gaudreau will suit up for Team USA this year and could wind up being one of the top scoring Americans by tournament’s end. The Carney Points, NJ native currently leads all NHL prospects playing in the NCAA with 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) playing in all 14 games to date. His 23 points also tie him for seventh nationally. Gaudreau has been one of the nation’s most consistent point producers, having been held pointless in just a single game so far this season. One notable area of Gaudreau’s development this season is the strength, particularly to his legs, that he has added to his diminutive frame. It allows him to better fend off bigger opposing players and hasn’t come at the expense of either his speed or quickness.

After missing the first month and a half of the season due to a broken leg, Lucia made his collegiate debut with the Fighting Irish on Nov 15. Since then, he has become a valuable addition to the much-improved Notre Dame team this season. The Plymouth, MN native has appeared in nine games to date, posting 10 points (five goals, five assists). Lucia possesses some of the best hands in all of college hockey, but it is his ability to consistently stay with plays that could prove to be his greatest asset for Team USA.

Of the 13 forwards on Team USA’s roster, four have or have had ties to the Miami University program – Riley Barber (WSH), Sean Kuraly (SJS), Tyler Biggs (TOR) and Ryan Hartman. Defenseman Connor Murphy also has ties to the program as a former recruit.

Heading the group is Barber. Since bursting onto the collegiate scene in October, he has continued to be one of the RedHawks’ best and most consistent players. The Livonia, MI native comes into the WJC currently leading the nation in rookie scoring with 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) playing in all of Miami’s 18 games to date, and is making a strong push for both the CCHA and National Rookie of the Year honors. Part of what has made Barber so successful this season is his ability to make smart decisions with the puck. It isn’t often that he makes mistakes when the puck on his stick – a rare attribute among freshmen.

Kuraly, like Barber, is also in his freshman season at Miami. The Dublin, OH native holds the distinction of being the first-ever son of a former RedHawk to play for his father’s team. The younger Kuraly has posted four points (three goals, one assists) playing in all of Miami’s 18 games to date. Kuraly’s strong net presence and willingness to pay a price are attributes that have served his RedHawks team well and will likely do so with Team USA.

After a stint with Miami last season, Biggs has moved on to the Oshawa Generals this season where he has posted 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) in 34 games to date. His combination of grit and point-producing ability that made him successful at Miami has been taken up a notch with Oshawa. As Hockey’s Future’s John-Eric Iannicello explains, Biggs will need to play to his strengths to help Team USA make a successful run in the tournament.

“I think Biggs is still finding ways to make the most of his physical attributes. He plays a true power forward game and can take the puck to the net, but he seems to want to get rid of it quickly. He does a great job along the boards and on the cycle, but off the rush I think you would want to see him drive the net with his shoulder down a bit more. Biggs will need to play big and be intimidating to help Team USA.”

Hartman, who is a former Miami recruit before opting to play in the OHL instead, is the youngest of the American forwards and will enter his first year of NHL Draft eligibility in 2013. The West Dundee, IL native comes into the WJC as the Plymouth Whalers’ second leading scorer with 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists) in 32 games. One of Hartman’s attributes that has caught the attention of many scouts is his exceedingly hard-nosed, competitive style. Simply put, he’s a player that you hate to play against but would love to have on your team. That style and his ability to generate offense will make him a difficult player to contend with for Team USA.

In addition to Hartman, the other undrafted forward on Team USA’s roster is alternate captain Cole Bardreau. The Fairport, NY native, who is in his final year of draft eligibility, is off to a strong start as a sophomore with Cornell University this season. He has posted five points (one goal, four assists) playing in all 11 games to date. The role that Bardreau has taken on with the Big Red this season will likely be the same role that he will fill for Team USA – a shutdown, energy-line center. Bardreau’s combination of tenacity, superb stickhandling and a strong defensive side makes him particularly effective in the dirty areas. And it is those assets that could benefit the United States the most.

Rounding out Team USA’s group of forwards are resurgent North Dakota redshirted freshman Rocco Grimaldi (FLA), top Michigan Tech sniper Blake Pietila (NJD), Harvard freshman sensation Jimmy Vesey (NSH) and leading Saginaw Spirit scorer Vince Trocheck (FLA).

In addition to the HF writers mentioned in this article, writers Shaun Brisson and Brian Fogarty also contributed to this preview.

 

 

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