Team USA won its second consecutive gold medal at the U18 World Championships. Last year they did it on home ice in Fargo, N.D., but this year in Minsk, Belarus, half a world away.
First-year head coach Kurt Kleinendorst agreed that it was a shame that the tournament couldn’t be seen by hockey fans in the US.
"It’s such a great tournament. It’s amazing how much talent there is out there, in every country," he said.
Having outscored their opponents 33-7, Team USA’s statistics would seem to show there was little contest. Kleinendorst would argue the opposite.
"From the outside, it might look like it was easy, but it was not easy," he told Hockey’s Future. "We were as prepared as we could be, I thought our kids played phenomenal and every game there was a point where it could have gone either way."
Kleinendorst said that Sweden, who his team lost to in the round-robin and then met for the gold medal, gave the toughest fight.
"In the gold medal game, we played very well, but at the same time, we were opportunistic," he said. "When they made it 3-1 in the third, they took a run at us. We held our composure and we got through it. But that’s a group that doesn’t quit, they were good. [Sweden] was big, they were strong, strong on the puck, disciplined. They pushed us. This is a good Swedish draft class, there’s going to be some kids on that team who are going to be first-round picks. Very well-coached (by Stephan Lundh), playing with a tremendous amount of confidence by the time we got them in the gold medal game."
Team USA held onto that 3-1 lead the rest of the game for the win.
"At the end of the day, it was everybody playing together," Kleinendorst said. "We didn’t have a weak link in the bunch. I never had a ‘fourth line’ — I had four lines. The beauty of this team is that every single night it was a different player, a different line that stepped up. You would never have known who my top line was."
Goaltender Jack Campbell was named Best Goalkeeper of the tournament by the Directorate, posting a .965 save percentage and 0.83 GAA in six games, including three shutouts. He also won gold with the U20 team this year.
"Jack Campbell obviously had some shutouts, but at the same time, as much credit as he deserves, the team deserves credit for how we played in front of him," Kleinendorst said. "He didn’t have to make a lot of big saves, but when he did, he did. And that’s not always easy if you’re facing 14 shots a night. Any goaltender will tell you, those are tough circumstances. But he did a great job."
The defensemen in front of Campbell were an elite group: Derek Forbort, Jon Merrill, Adam Clendening, Jarred Tinordi and Justin Faulk. But they were by and large only five strong — the first time all year that they played such a structure.
"We for the most part played five defensemen," Kleinendorst said. "Stephen [Johns] and Frank Simonelli were the two who were somewhat on the outside looking in, but they were unbelievable in the locker room, on the bench. Talk about their true colors coming out."
Of the five defensemen who bore the burden, the former AHL coach and New Jersey Devils scout said, "It was like we just shot them out of a cannon. Extra ice time, more responsibility, got more into the game. They all stepped up. Every one of them, I guarantee you, has improved their draft status through that tournament."
Merrill, who was officially named one of the three best players on the team by coaches, played at a level not always seen.
"Merrill was never under the radar. Everyone knows how good of a player Jon Merrill is," Kleinendorst said. "But he really stepped his game up. He probably helped himself more than anybody over there as far as what he did, how he played. He went out and controlled every moment, whether it was with the puck or without it. He saved his best hockey for Belarus, no question. It was almost like he was just waiting for that tournament to start. So what you got to see was what his true potential really was. He contributed as much as anybody."
Three 2011-eligible players led the team in scoring, Clendening, Nick Shore, and Rocco Grimaldi, each with 10 points in seven games. Austin Czarnik, also 2011-eligible, led the team in goals with five.
Only two players who were not part of the NTDP all season were added for the tournament — forwards Austin Watson and Connor Brickley. Watson played for the OHL Peterborough Petes this season, while Brickley played for the Des Moines Buccanneers in the USHL.
"Connor Brickley was an absolutely huge add to our team," Kleinendorst said. "The question that I kept getting from everybody was ‘Do you really want to take the chance with Connor Brickley? He’s going to take penalties, bad penalties.’ Let me tell you, that was an absolute crock of crap. I spoke to Connor and let him know exactly why I wanted him on this tea, what he was going to bring to our team, how important he was going to be to our team, but that none of that would matter if he was in the penalty box all night. He was like ‘Coach, I get it. I know exactly what you’re saying. Don’t worry about me.’
"Tim Taylor, one of my assistant coaches, his responsibility before every game was to go to Connor and say ‘Connor, we need you on the ice, we don’t need you in the penalty box. But we need you to play the way you need to play.’ Connor said ‘I get it Coach, don’t worry.’ He was unbelievable. We needed his energy, spunk, and attitude. He had defensemen on other teams looking over their shoulders every single shift. He made huge plays offensively with the puck. He was responsible, made good puck decisions. He did everything we asked him to do — I loved him. I think he was a big part of our success."
Brickley finished the tournament with just four penalty minutes, along with four assists, in seven games.
Kleinendorst had praise for Jason Zucker, who is known for raising his game for the occasion, be it the U20 World Juniors or the U18s.
"The bigger the game, the better he plays," Kleinendorst said. "And you can’t say that about everybody."
Kleinendorst said that he felt Zucker had a lull after he came back from the World Juniors.
"He took about six weeks off when he got back from the U20, and I didn’t even love him the first two games in Belarus. He picked it up after that and was just a solid player for us," Kleinendorst said.
Zucker finished with the most shots on the team with 24 for the tournament, scoring four goals and three assists.
Team USA was fortunate in the injury department. The only player to miss a game due to injury during the tournament was Bill Arnold, one game for a minor upper-body injury. He returned for the last two games. All season long, there were only minor injuries, which Kleindendorst credited to the conditioning regimen of the NTDP.
Someone who really stepped up and surprised was forward Chase Balisy.
"I felt all along that over there on the big rinks with a little more time, a little more space, he was going to be a good player for us and he turned out — and he’s probably the guy you wouldn’t expect to come out of my mouth. But he was a solid player for us all year long, but he just kind of fit in then. He didn’t get a lot of attention. Quietly he had a very good year. But over there, his battle — he helped us quite a bit."
Balisy may be a late-round pick in the 2010 draft. Forbort, Merrill, and perhaps Campbell and Tinordi, are expected to go in the first round.