Keith Allain, head coach of the U.S. National Junior Team that will play in the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y., later this month, knows all eyes will be on his group as they look to repeat as gold medalists.
Allain, however, doesn't believe that looming pressure will be put on his team from those on the outside looking in.
"We talked about this with our group this summer," Allain said. "The pressure that will be on us is the pressure we put on ourselves. We're all very competitive people. We all want to be the absolutely best we can be and we're going in looking to win the gold medal. So whether we're getting pressure externally or not, that's not a factor on how we'll operate as a group or how we'll approach our task on a daily basis."
Armed with eight returning players, nine first-round NHL draft picks and a handful of promising prospects eligible for the 2011 Entry Draft, USA Hockey announced its preliminary roster that will attend a training camp run by Allain prior to the IIHF 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo and Niagara, N.Y., later this month.
Allain and Team USA General Manager Jim Johannson officially announced the 29-player roster, which needs to be trimmed to 22 by Dec. 25, during a press conference at HSBC Arena in Buffalo on Tuesday. The final roster is expected to be finalized on Dec. 22.
"Part of mine and (director of player personnel) Tim Taylor's job is to try and get the best combination of players in the hands of the coaches to have success," Johannson said. "I think a fundamental change in what we've done is you see 29 players coming to a competitive camp. Until last year, we used to name our team and go to camp. We'll have 29 guys battling for 22 spots, so you have that little extra edge in your camp that gets them ready to play and be competitive at it, and that's worked very well for us."
Team USA, which earned its second gold medal and first since 2004 following a stunning 6-5 overtime win against Canada in last year's gold-medal game in Saskatoon, will look to defend the crown on home soil beginning with preliminary-round action Dec. 26.
The U.S. opens against Finland at 8 p.m. ET on Dec. 26 at HSBC Arena. They'll also play Switzerland, Slovakia and Germany during the preliminary round. The quarterfinals will be played Jan. 2 at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. ET; the semifinals on Jan. 3 at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The bronze-medal game will be Jan. 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET; and the gold-medal game will be played Jan. 5 at 7:30 p.m. ET. All knockout-round games will be played at HSBC Arena and broadcast on NHL Network-U.S. and TSN.
"I think every year is a learning process," Johannson said. "We have to look at our player pool and build out the best team to win. The bottom line is, it's been easier to make this roster because we have more and more better players. Our system is producing more players capable of playing at this level and from USA Hockey standpoint, while it makes decisions like this tough, it's the right kind of tough decision to have to make (in narrowing roster to 22)."
Team USA's training camp will take place in Troy, Rochester and Amherst, N.Y., Dec. 17-23, and will include pre-tournament games against the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute men's ice hockey team Dec. 19, the Czech Republic on Dec. 21 and Norway on Dec. 23.
Among those returnees are goalie Jack Campbell of the Ontario Hockey League's Windsor Spitfires, who was in goal when the U.S. won the gold this past January. Also coming back to defend the gold are defenseman John Ramage of the University of Wisconsin and forwards Ryan Bourque of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Quebec Remparts, Jerry D'Amigo of the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies, Chris Kreider of Boston College, Jeremy Morin of the AHL's Rockford IceHogs, Kyle Palmieri of the AHL's Syracuse Crunch and Jason Zucker of the University of Denver.
Campbell appeared in three games last year, finishing 1-2-1 with a 2.54 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. His breakout moment came when he replaced Mike Lee in net for Team USA 3:56 into the second period of the gold-medal game against Canada. He allowed only two goals on 34 shots to help lead the U.S. to victory.
In seven games, Ramage had 3 assists -- including the only assist on John Carlson's overtime goal -- and a plus-5 rating; Bourque had 3 assists and a plus-3 rating; D'Amigo tied Kreider for the team lead with 6 goals and was second with 12 points, along with a plus-7 rating; Kreider had 6 goals, 7 points and a plus-6 rating; Morin had 2 goals, 7 points and a plus-4 rating; Palmieri had 1 goal, 9 points and a plus-8 rating; and Zucker had 2 goals.
Nine players invited to the U.S. camp were taken in the first round of the 2009 or 2010 Draft. From the 2009 class are defenseman Nick Leddy (No. 16, Minnesota), Kreider (No. 19, N.Y. Rangers) and Palmieri (No. 26, Anaheim). Taken this past June were Campbell (No. 11, Dallas), defensemen Derek Forbort (No. 15, Los Angeles), and forwards Nick Bjugstad (No. 19, Florida), Charlie Coyle (No. 28, San Jose), Emerson Etem (No. 29, Anaheim) and Brock Nelson
(No. 30, N.Y. Islanders).
Allain, also coach of the No. 1-ranked Yale University Bulldogs in the men's hockey poll for the first time in school history, is thrilled to be serving as head coach of his third U.S. National Junior Team (2001, 2002). And this time, it's on home soil.
"We have a group of players who will play with speed, skill, energy and enthusiasm with an absolutely ultra-competitive nature," Allain said. "That's what I feel we need to be successful. We have a combination of experienced vets and newcomers and I think it's nice to strike that balance.
"For me, the two keys to success in this tournament are you have to come together as a team as quickly as possible because teams win hockey tournaments, not individuals," he added. "You also have to build as the tournament goes on. It's a challenge to be in competitive games and know you have to win games at the same time, but you have to slowly build your game so that when you get to the end, you're playing you're best hockey."
Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler, who played on last year's gold medalists, is eligible to play for Team USA but will not as he's a major part of the Anaheim Ducks' blue line. Fowler has 12 points in 23 games and is third on the team with an average ice time 21:57 per game.
Interestingly, six of the 10 defensemen invited to camp are 6-foot-2 or taller, including Brian Dumoulin (6-4), Derek Forbort (6-5), Jon Merrill (6-3), Jamieson Oleksiak (6-7), Philip Samuelsson (6-2) and Patrick Wey (6-2).
Allain squashed the notion that USA Hockey was looking ahead to a possible rematch with Team Canada when considering which blueliners to invite to camp.
"In building a defensive corps, I don't think we can build for a tournament with one opponent in mind," Allain said. "We can go through this tournament and, theoretically, not play Canada. I think we have to build our team based on who our best players and strengths are. It's nice to have versatility in all your players and this defensive corps gives us a tremendous amount of flexibility."
Participation by Morin or Palmieri also is questionable as each has been recalled by his NHL teams at some point this season. Palmieri had 1 goal in 10 games during a November recall, while Morin has 1 assist and a plus-2 rating in five games during the season's first two months.
"Right now they are cleared for our camp," Johannson said. "The plans right now are for all of them to be at camp. There's always going to be the injury caveat but it's safe to say that once they get here, unless something drastic happens between Dec. 16 and 22, they would be released and with us that entire time. We've had great cooperation form the NHL clubs. It was important that these guys were in the announcement because if everything stays as it is right now, the players all will be released to us. But again, I can't control injuries that occur within their NHL teams."
There are several promising 2011 draft prospects on the roster as well, including defensemen Adam Clendening of Boston University and Oleksiak of Northeastern University, and forwards Brandon Saad of the OHL's Saginaw Spirit and Rocco Grimaldi of the U.S. National Team Developmental Program.
"It's always a pleasure to put on the USA jersey and I've done it twice already (for the 2009 and 2010 Men's Under-18 Team) and won gold medals each time," Clendening, of Niagara Falls, said. "It's a thrilling experience and you have to take in every moment you wear the jersey. Not many players get to do it, so when you get a chance you have to make the best of it.
"It would be great to be involved in a tournament that has had so many world-renowned players play before and have then gone on to successful NHL careers."