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Gold is the goal for Americans

by Brad Holland / NHL.com
Forward Colin Wilson of Boston University is projected to be a first-round draft pick in 2008.
In each of the past five World Junior Championships, Team USA has found itself in an enviable position — competing in a semifinal matchup with a chance to move into gold-medal territory. But on four of those occasions, the Americans couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity, settling for the bronze-medal game.

The only success came in 2004, when the Americans won their semifinal matchup and then beat Canada to capture the world’s premier junior tournament.

On the eve of the 2008 edition of the World Junior Championships, the Americans are hungry for gold again.

Last season, after perhaps the most discouraging loss in modern Team USA World Junior history — a shootout loss to Canada — the American side showed as much resiliency as any team ever by picking itself up off the mat and slamming down Sweden in the bronze-medal game. The gritty back-and-forth affair was one of the most entertaining matches of the tournament.

It’s a victory Team USA will be looking to build upon in 2008, and the squad going to the Czech Republic seems fully prepared to do just that. From the goal out, Team USA looks like a contender and a champion in every aspect of its game.

The team is loaded with high-end talent; all but two members of the squad have been taken in the NHL Entry Draft, and the two remaining players are not yet eligible. Boston University forward Colin Wilson is projected to be a first-round selection in 2008, while the youngest member of the team, Jordan Schroeder, should be a blue-chipper for 2009.

Of the drafted players, seven were taken in the first round and one, James vanRiemsdyk, was taken second overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007.

With that sort of talent, nothing short of gold will be expected by the American players and support staff.

“The good news for USA Hockey is our players go into this expecting to be in the final,” said Jim Johannson, Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations for USA Hockey and a front-office veteran of eight consecutive World Junior Championships. “We’ve been in the semifinals the last five years. We were fortunate to win the championship in ’04, we got the bronze last year and we’ve lost some really tough hockey games over the course of that.”

With two medals in the past four tries and five consecutive semifinal berths, Johannson knows just how close his team is to taking its place along with the Canadians and the Russians among the elite teams in the World Junior Championships. The Canadians or Russians have knocked the United States out of gold-medal contention in each of the past four seasons, except for the golden run in 2004.

Leadership

John Hynes will be making his fourth appearance at the world’s premier junior tournament, but first as head coach. He served as an assistant the other three times, including the 2004 gold-medal run. He will be joined by assistants Keith Allain and Patrick Foley.

Their team was selected with an eye on chemistry and character.

“I think overall with the team we feel we’ve put together a good group of guys,” said Hynes. “We took a lot of things into account when we put the team together, such as not only just talent but character, chemistry, mental toughness, (and) different roles.”

Now that the roster has been populated with a team fully prepared to sacrifice for the greater good, it will be up to the coaching staff to find the right mix of lines and players.
“The first part (of our job) was to try to find A-level people that’ll give us A-plus effort, and now our job is to put them in the right seats on the bus and get that going. So we’re really looking forward as a coaching staff to really get into the coaching side now,” Hynes said.

The Forwards


Mike Carman could fill the role of being Team USA's No. 1 center.
Of the 12 forwards selected to the American roster, five are returning from the 2007 team that went 3-1-2 and captured the bronze medal. These returning vets will be counted on heavily for leadership on and off the ice.

But the first-time forwards selected to this roster are very mature, experienced players. As a result, the strength of Team USA may lie in the fact that it has very few holes.
”I don’t think there’s one or two players we’re going to rely on,” Hynes said. “We’re going to rely on the team.”

The team-first approach will be a strength for Team USA in this tournament. The American forward unit is well-balanced — defensively responsible but offensively capable. The only weakness could be the absence of a true No. 1 center.

Mike Carman
could fill that role. The small-but-feisty University of Minnesota skater plays far bigger than his six-foot frame and has the skill to make him very dangerous in the offensive zone. However, Carman has not played in a league game since last spring, when he ran into academic problems that have forced him to sit out the first half of the 2007-08 season.

One aspect Hynes likely will attempt to exploit, however, is the Americans’ dangerous winger corps — a physical, grinding group that should create havoc in the attack zone.

The strength in the Team USA attack will lie along the boards, and whether the physically imposing American wingers will be able to use their size to generate scoring chances will be a good indicator of American success in this tournament.

Eight of the 12 Team USA forwards stand 6-foot or better. Four — Ryan Flynn, Blake Geoffrion, Max Pacioretty and vanRiemsdyk — check in at 6-2 or taller.

A question for Team USA will be how well its young players — Wilson and Schroeder — are able to handle the pressure and the pace of WJC games. Both were exemplary at the U-18 and Ivan Hlinka tournaments this summer, but the WJC is a big step up.

If one of these two young players is able to emerge as a legitimate scoring threat, then the Americans will boast three scoring lines and one of the top shut-down lines in the tournament.
That shut-down line — which likely will feature fleet-skating forward Billy Sweatt, a 2007 second-round pick by Chicago, and possibly Geoffrion (2006, Nashville) — could be a key to this tournament.

Overall, the American attack will be based on a dump-and-chase philosophy that allows its quick, agile power forwards to wear down opposing defensemen. If those forwards are able to work the puck out of the corners and muscle it to the front of the net, the Americans will be extremely tough to handle — and even tougher to beat.

The Defense

While technically young — Jamie McBain is the only member to skate at last year’s Championships —Team USA’s defense features an accomplished group of players.
Each defender has been picked in the NHL Draft, and four were taken in the first round. This defense corps is anything but inexperienced. In fact, it is a highly mobile, highly physical crew that doesn’t look to have a single hole, continuing the American tradition of bringing strong blue-line groups to international competition.

This American blue line will have size, as only one, Cade Fairchild (2007. St. Louis, is smaller than 6-1 and only one, Jonathan Blum (2007, Nashville), weighs less than 184 pounds. The group will have speed, especially in the form of University of Notre Dame blueliner Ian Cole (2007, St. Louis), and University of Michigan defenseman Chris Summers (2006, Phoenix). It also boasts one of the Ontario Hockey League’s top offensive defensemen and power-play quarterbacks in the form of Lumberton, N.J., native Bobby Sanguinetti (2006, N.Y. Rangers).

With such a physically imposing forward unit, the American defense will have ample help in the defensive zone. Keeping the puck out of the net shouldn’t be a problem, especially with the quality of goaltending wearing red, white and blue in 2008.

The Goaltenders

Ohio State goalie, Joe Palmer, makes up one half of Team USA's backstop.
The goaltending situation for Team USA could not be better, as both netminders are capable of taking the starting role and running with it. It will be a tough decision to select the goalie to handle the lion’s share of the work.

“Right now we feel as though we have two guys back there that can help us win hockey games,” Hynes said.

Both Ohio State University backstop Joe Palmer (2006, Chicago) and Plymouth Whalers netminder Jeremy Smith (2007, Nashville) are talented, athletic goalies who know how to win.

Palmer is the more experienced of the two in international competition. He was a member of the World U-18 Championship in 2005 and 2006. He did not see action in 2005, but posted a 4-0 record, 1.46 goals-against average and .948 save percentage the next year to show just how calm and successful he has been in pressure situations.

Smith has posted exemplary numbers in his one-plus seasons with Plymouth of the OHL.
With a lifetime record of 36-10-3 and an OHL championship already under his belt, Smith has faced the best the CHL has to offer and lived to talk about it. Though not overly experienced in the international game, his experience shutting down the likes of Canadian forwards John Tavares (2009 eligible), Steven Stamkos (2008 eligible) and Shawn Matthias (Florida) on a regular basis will make him another attractive option.

“I think if we had to play either guy we’d feel very comfortable,” said Hynes.

The Intangibles

Not necessarily as skilled as the team that took the bronze in last year’s competition —  forwards Pat Kane and Peter Mueller, two key components to last year’s team, will not be in uniform — the American roster looks as deep and balanced as any other team in the tournament.

Perhaps most important, the roster also seems to be loaded with character players. Many of the skaters are teammates, and each of them, almost without question, is looked upon as a leader on his respective club.

Even the players are optimistic about Team USA seeming to have the right mix.

“That chemistry will come; the process is the most important thing because that’s the biggest thing in this tournament, who clicks well together first. Whoever generates the most chemistry is going to win this tournament,” Geoffrion said.

There seems to be something special about this team, from the upper-level management down to the players. It is a special team at a very interesting time. The success of previous U-20 USA teams has put this squad at a crossroads, where old foes will be faced with a brand new attitude, and gold is the only goal.
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