For the first time since 2013, Team USA left the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship (WJC) with a medal, taking home the bronze medal with a dominating 8-3 rout of Sweden on the last day of tournament. Earlier in the tournament on Dec. 28th, the U.S. had lost to Sweden 1-0 in preliminary round play.
Harvard freshman Ryan Donato (BOS) had perhaps his best outing of the tournament, posting a pair of goals that included the eventual game-winner. He finished the tournament with four points (three goals, one assist).
The United States finished second in Group A behind the Swedes before trouncing the Czech Republic, 7-0, in their quarterfinal matchup on Jan. 2nd. The Americans then faced Team Russia in the semi-finals on Jan. 4th and once again couldn’t solve the Russians, suffering a heartbreaking 2-1 loss. This year marked the third consecutive time that Russia has beaten the United States, but this time it was for a spot in the gold medal game.
One of the biggest keys to the United States’ success was that it was a total team effort, with point production coming from all four lines and most of their defensemen. The Americans’ 35 goals were the second-highest total in the tournament. With the exception of defensemen Charlie McAvoy (2016) and Chad Krys (2016), all skaters posted at least a point in the tournament. Furthermore, all skaters except Krys finished with a plus rating while Krys finished the tournament a -1.
Two notable aspects of Team USA’s performance throughout the tournament were their excellent transition game and active defensive corps. Of the Americans’ 89 total points, 19 came from the defense and accounted for 21 percent of the team’s offense.
One of the more intriguing accounts in the tournament for the United States was their special teams play. The Americans finished the tournament as the top penalty-killing team with a 94.7 percent efficiency rating. In addition, Team USA led the tournament with two shorthanded goals. But their power play was a very different story. If the United States had one glaring weakness in this year’s WJC, it was their disappointing power play. The Americans finished seventh in the tournament with a power play that clicked at 19.2 percent. Only Denmark, Slovakia and the Czech Republic had worse power play numbers. Team USA netted just five goals with the man-advantage.
The dynamic duo of phenom Auston Matthews (2016) and Matthew Tkachuk (2016) co-led Team USA with 11 points apiece. Matthews, who served as one of the United States’ alternate captains, solidified his status as the expected top overall pick in the upcoming NHL Draft with a dazzling and consistent performance, and finished the tournament co-leading all players with seven goals. In addition, he accounted for three of the United States’ five power play goals. Tkachuk also solidified his status as a first-round selection in the upcoming draft and proved to be especially dangerous around the net throughout the tournament.
Matthews and team captain defenseman Zach Werenski (CBJ) were named tournament All-Stars, with Werenski being named the Best Defenseman by the IIHF Directorate. Werenski led all players in the tournament with a +10 and co-led all defensemen with nine points (two goals, seven assists). Werenski and defensive partner Brandon Carlo (BOS) were the pillars on the United States outstanding blueline, making crucial plays at both ends of the ice while logging upwards of 20-25 minutes of ice time per game.
Not surprisingly, Carlo finished behind Werenski in defensive scoring for Team USA with four points (two goals, two assists). Although the Colorado Springs, CO native was the United States’ Player of the Game in the preliminary round match versus Denmark, he had his best outing of the tournament in the bronze medal game where he posted a goal and assisted on Donato’s game-winner.
The brilliant goaltending tandem of Alex Nedeljkovic (CAR) and Brandon Halverson (NYR) combined to post a tournament-best 1.44 goals-against average and .948 save percentage. Nedeljkovic, who saw most of the work, was terrific between the pipes, finishing second in the tournament among all netminders with a 1.66 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage.
Despite seeing limited time, Halverson gave Team USA added depth in goal. He made his tournament debut near the midway point of the preliminary round game vs. Switzerland on Dec. 30th, helping to secure the victory for the Americans. Halverson made his lone start the following day versus Denmark, stopping 16 of the 17 shots he faced to backstop Team USA to a 4-1 win.
Alex DeBrincat (2016), who began the tournament on the top line with Matthews and Tkachuk, had a rather tough tournament. The Farmington Hills, MI native was ejected late in the first period of the United States’ opening preliminary round match vs. archrival Canada on Dec. 26th before suffering an injury in the next game versus Sweden. DeBrincat wound up missing Team USA’s next two games versus Switzerland and Denmark respectively. He returned to the lineup in the quarterfinal match versus the Czech Republic, posting a goal in the team’s 7-0 victory. DeBrincat was one of eight players on the USA roster that are eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft.
Although the Matthews line has garnered most of the attention, the line of Sonny Milano (CBJ), Christian Dvorak (ARI) and Anders Bjork (BOS) were quite impressive in their own right, particularly in playoff round play. The trio figured in on early goals in the quarterfinals versus the Czech Republic and the bronze medal game vs. Sweden. In addition, the line accounted for the United States’ lone goal versus Russia in the semi-finals. Dvorak, who led the OHL in scoring coming into this WJC, finished the tournament tied for fourth on the team with eight points (three goals, five assists) and was named Team USA’s Player of the Game in the semi-final match versus Russia. Milano also finished with eight points. His seven assists and +9 were tied for second on the team. Bjork, whom some felt wasn’t deserving of a spot on the team, proved his detractors wrong with a superb three-goal performance and earned Team USA’s Player of the Game honor in the bronze medal game.
The stellar play that Nick Schmaltz (CHI) has displayed in the NCAA thus far this season was successfully carried over to the WJC. The role that the Verona, WI native was thrust into with the United States in the tournament is similar to his role at the University of North Dakota. While Schmaltz finished the tournament with an impressive eight points (two goals, six assists), the bigger story was his excellent defensive game. Schmaltz utilized his superb skating and stick work very effectively in taking away opportunities for opposing players throughout the tournament. Furthermore, he was able to successfully balance that with key offensive contributions.
Brock Boeser (VAN), who is Schmaltz’s linemate at North Dakota, was also his linemate at the WJC. However, Boeser did briefly see some time on the Matthews line earlier in the tournament following DeBrincat’s injury. The Burnsville, MN native posted three points (one goal, two assists) in the WJC with his lone goal coming at a crucial time during the bronze medal game vs. Sweden that restored the USA’s lead early in the second period.
One player who saw a different role with Team USA was alternate captain Colin White (OTT). The Hanover, MA native has played exclusively at center at Boston College so far this season. In the WJC, he was slotted in at right wing on the top line, replacing DeBrincat for nearly all of the remainder of the tournament. White adjusted to his new role remarkably well, finishing with seven points (three goals, four assists) that included being named Team USA’s Player of the Game in the preliminary round match vs. Canada.
White also provided one of the Americans two shorthanded goals. The other came courtesy of Scott Eansor (2016). The Englewood, CO native, one of just two WHL players on the team’s roster, netted his lone goal (and point) of the tournament on a wonderful breakaway vs. the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.
Although Ryan MacInnis (ARI) and Ryan Hitchcock (2016) didn’t post any goals in the tournament, both provided energy and secondary point production for the United States. MacInnis finished the tournament with three assists and Hitchcock finished with two.
Like the Matthews line, Team USA’s top defensive pairing of Werenski and Carlo also garnered quite a bit of attention, but the rest of the defensive corps were excellent throughout the tournament as well.
Two NCHC rearguards in Miami University sophomore Louie Belpedio (MIN) and St. Cloud State freshman Will Borgen (BUF) comprised the United States’ second defensive pairing. Belpedio, one of Team USA’s alternate captains, suffered through some difficulty early in the tournament that included a bad turnover that led to Sweden’s lone goal (and the game-winner) in the preliminary round matchup. But the Skokie, IL native improved as the tournament went along, as he finished with a goal and an assist. Like Belpedio, Borgen also got better as the tournament progressed. Although he was held goalless in the tournament, Borgen did post three assists that included a terrific setup on Boeser’s goal in the bronze medal game.
Current Boston University defensemen Brandon Fortunato (2016) and Charlie McAvoy, and future Terrier Chad Krys rounded out the USA’s defense. While Fortunato was the only one to post a point (an assist), all three played well in the tournament, particularly following preliminary round play. The most interesting aspect about Fortunato and McAvoy is the fact that the two do not play together on the same pairing at BU, despite their great chemistry together throughout the WJC. That could potentially change when the two return to the Terriers’ squad, though.
Looking ahead to 2017
Eight players are eligible to return for Team USA at next year’s WJC in Toronto and Montreal. They are forwards Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, Colin White, Alex DeBrincat, and Brock Boeser; and defensemen Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy and Chad Krys.
In next year’s WJC, which takes place Dec. 26th, 2016 through Jan. 5th, 2017, the United States will be playing in a Group B that also features Russia, Slovakia, Latvia and host Canada.
Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF