NHL Network analyst Dave Starman has covered each of the past four World Junior Championship tournaments. He also spends a tremendous amount of time broadcasting and scouting college and junior hockey games across North America. As a result, he is intimately familiar with many of the players who are competing for gold during the next two weeks in Ufa, Russia. Throughout the WJC, Starman will weigh in with his thoughts and analysis, focusing his attention heavily on the fate of the Americans. These are his thoughts on the United States before their tournament begins.
The World Junior Championship is full of great hockey and tremendous drama.
Living full-time in the world of amateur hockey (college/junior), I see most of Team USA's guys on a regular basis, and they have a good team. It isn't as star-studded as some recent entries, but the best team doesn't always win this thing.
Short tourneys are based on four things to watch.
The first is goaltending. It sunk the Americans in 2009, and that team was as good as any in the tourney. It was the bedrock of the 2010 U.S. team that won gold -- Mike Lee was a game-saver in the medal round and Jack Campbell saved the day in the gold-medal game when Lee struggled.
The power play is the second key. When Canada won in 2009 in Ottawa, its power play was 50 percent. I'll repeat that: 50 percent. They were 21-for-42 in six games. The United States was No. 2 on the power play in 2010 when it won gold, and its penalty kill was also lights out. Canada and the United States have finished 1-2 from 2009-11 in power-play percentage.
The third thing to keep an eye out for is chemistry/leadership.
Going back to the Americans in 2010, there was a time when the captain, Derek Stepan of the University of Wisconsin, felt the team was tired and needed a day off and shouldn't do a game-day skate. He and the leadership went to coach Dean Blais and told him they needed a morning off. Blais told Stepan, "If you think it is the right thing to do I'm OK with it." That created ownership of the team for the leaders and built trust in the captains from the players. That stuff wins championships.
The fourth, believe it or not, is the third and fourth lines on the team.
There are two 60-second commercial breaks per period as opposed to the four that are about 90 seconds long at the NHL level. You can't overuse your top lines, especially as this wears on, because you play six or seven games in about 12 nights, technically all on the road. In this tourney, you are at the end of the Earth, so it feels even more like you are away from the creature comforts of home. If your depth isn't very good or dependable, you cannot win, and the knock on the Americans in this year's tournament has been scoring depth. I think this is a factor to watch.
This time around for Team USA, the defense corps is solid. It has been in recent years, although last year the knock on the back line was they were really big but really soft. On a bigger sheet of ice, the defense could be the linchpin for this team. Seth Jones' comment that the United States is the best team in the tourney had a little Rex Ryan in it, but this is a fortnight when keeping your eyes open and mouth shut is usually a good thing.
The goaltending is interesting. Perhaps the worst penalty the United States took in the past four tourneys I called was John Gibson's interference penalty against Finland in the third period of their second round-robin game. The Americans had tied the game 1-1 early in that period, were starting to gain momentum, and had just gone on the power play when Gibson's penalty killed that momentum. The Finns scored twice in about a minute of 4-on-4 play and, essentially, that was it. His handling of the moment of adversity wasn't great and it ended his tourney as he sat out the next two big games.
People grow, and I'm sure he did from that experience as he returns for another shot at gold. Garret Sparks is a highly touted prospect and John Gilles has been good this year at Providence College.
Here's how I see it from afar:
Canada has a lot to prove and its goaltending the past three tourneys has let it down. You can make a case it almost did in 2009, but Dustin Tokarski shook off a bad first 10 minutes against the Americans in that epic game in Ottawa and was a difference-maker the rest of the way. He held when pushed in a wild 6-5 win against Russia then again in the gold-medal game against Sweden.
If Canada's goaltending holds up, and their big names do as expected, it is probably its gold to win. Playing this thing is Russia will be great for the Canadians. One thing I saw first-hand the past four years was how much pressure there was on Canada. I was in the same hotel as the team in '09 and '12 and it is unreal the scene they saw both at the rink and away from it. Being out from under the microscope is probably a good thing. No need for showtime despite a national audience from fans, media and 24/7 coverage on TSN.
The Russians are interesting. I was sitting with Nate Leaman, an assistant on the 2009 U.S. team, the other day before a game he coached at Providence against Vermont. We were reminiscing about the '08 and '09 tourneys and got around to this year and the Russians. He asked me my thoughts on them. I said they will either dominate this thing with a wild home crowd behind them or bomb out if they decide to be hometown heroes and rock stars instead of hockey players. The Russians have been good the past four years but they haven't been a team. They have had some great individual performances from their players but it hasn't been a full team thing. It is something to watch.
The Slovaks can be pesky. Year after year, Slovakia and Finland tend to be the fly in the ointment, and many former U.S. coaches from the World U-20s have said those two squads year after year scare them in big spots because they tend to know when to push the envelope. Slovakia played the Russians hard on Day One (a 3-2 overtime loss); expect more of that.
The Germans should go a polite 0-4 and find their way back to the B pool by the end of this.