It's difficult to think that the United States might not be able to defend their title from the last year and go on to win their fifth gold medal in a row and eighth in the history of the Under-18 World Junior Championship.
USA Hockey has, yet again, put together a team consisting almost exclusively of players who are based in Ann Arbor, Michigan all season long and compete for the U.S. NTDP in the USHL. This means that, unlike other teams, the U.S. players have spent a great deal of time together, perfecting their chemistry, tactics and much more. However, this year's selection collected less points in the standings of the USHL than the 2011-12 team, falling short of a playoff spot. Also, big defenseman Seth Jones, who might be chosen first overall at the upcoming NHL Draft, won't travel be a part of the U18 squad this time around.
Last year, the Americans had everything they needed. If you were looking for a rock-solid netminder, shutdown defenseman, hard-shooting blueliner, creative forward, tough winger or a PK specialist, Team USA had it. That's one of the reasons why they were able to beat Sweden 7-0 in the gold medal game. From the last gold-medal winning team, only forwards JT Compher and Anthony Louis, along with defenseman Will Butcher, will play this at this year's tournament. Despite the fact that the Under-18 team of the United States placed seventh at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August, they should still be considered the top gold medal contender.
Strengths: As mentioned above, chemistry. These players simply know each other, spend a good deal of time together, some of them for more than just this season. Also, they have not only perfected their chemistry, but their special teams know what to do on both the power-play and penalty kill because they've been playing together in these situations all season long. Last year, only the defensemen Jones and Jacob Trouba were their true stars, so last year's team wasn't better by much.
Weaknesses: It would be easy to state that there are no weaknesses for Team USA, but that might be a little too optimistic. It is a certainty that every team needs a star or a leader. Considering experience and skill level, Compher might become the mental leader of the team. He's like Wayne Simmonds on the ice, which means he possesses a great on-ice leadership ability.
Key player: Again, let's talk about Compher, whose full name is Joseph Taylor Compher, the 18-year-old native of Northbrook, Illinois. Last year, at the Under-18 WJC in the Czech Republic, he played on the third line and still managed to rack up five points in six games. In the recently completed USHL season, he was almost a point-per-game player for the U.S. NTDP. Compher likes to play physical hockey despite his small frame (5'10“, 181 pounds) which can draw comparisons to Simmonds or T. J. Oshie. He should be the captain of the team and also is very likely to draw a lot of attention from scouts as he could possibly be picked in the first round of the upcoming draft. One thing that is likely, though, the chances of the Americans winning another gold at this event is likely to depend a great deal on Compher's performance.
Who NHL scouts will be keeping a close eye on: Besides Compher, Butcher should also get some attention as he was the seventh blueliner on the 2012 U18 WJC squad and will likely be in one of the top defensive pairs in Sochi. The defense, however, should be led by two-way defensemen Keaton Thompson and Steve Santini, both available to be drafted in 2013. Number-one netminder Thatcher Demko, a native of San Diego and future Boston College goalie, will want to prove that he belongs among the youth hockey elite as he posted great numbers in the 2012-13 USHL season. A lot of eyes will be on 2015 draft-eligible forward Jack Eichel, who only played in 14 USHL games this year, but registered more than one point per game in that short stint. Also, Louis and Tyler Kelleher, two 2013-draft-eligible forwards who averaged slightly less than a point per game with the NTDP squad, should be paid some attention.
Unexpected gem: New Jersey native Connor Clifton is big reaguard who can play an extremely physical brand of hockey. He is just one of those players who goes after the body and is very good at it. He showed off his impressive defensive play at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August and managed to rack up produce some points in this past USHL season.
Next: Group B