By Steven Ellis – Eurohockey.com
Every year, there’s talk about how the Americans have a chance to win the World Juniors. Even without Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel, it could really be USA’s time.
Goalies: Very few teams can compete with the goaltending the Americans are bringing to Toronto this year. In fact, all three goaltenders have given the team reasons to use them as the starting goalie, but in a short tournament, the team will need someone to walk away with the role. The favourite for the spot is Tyler Parsons, the London Knights starting goaltender that led his OHL squad to the Memorial Cup championship just a few months back. A second-round selection by the Calgary Flames, Parsons has never represented the United States internationally, but at 19, he’s experienced overall. The Most Outstanding Goaltender at the Memorial Cup in the Spring, Parsons is off to a hot start again this year for London and with a major championship to his name already, he’s definitely a favourite to steal the starting spot.
18-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Joseph Woll is also a threat for the top spot, with two medals under his belt for the Americans in U17 and U18 play. Back in April, Woll posted the best save percentage and goals-against average for the team that would go on to win the bronze medal, a low result for the country but a good performance from Woll himself. Woll has played very well for Boston College in the NCAA this year as a rookie and is proving himself to be one of the better North American goalie prospects right now.
His former National Team Development Program partner, Jake Oettinger, will throw his hat in the ring before making a case for the starting role again next year. Once a camera man for HockeyTV’s coverage of the 2015 Under-18 World Championships, Oettinger has been one of the top goalie protegees for the United States in recent tournaments, and while many will be interested in his exploits as a 2017 NHL Draft prospect, his time to shine will probably have to wait until next year, even if he is deserving of ice time.
Defencemen: Despite having a strong defensive core, USA’s biggest weakness may come on their backhand. Still, they have quite a good group to work with. Jack Ahcan has been given many chances to lead the team from the blue line, and since he’s still undrafted, he’s got a lot to prove. The 19-year-old defenseman has only represented the Americans once, winning the bronze medal at the 2015 World Junior A Challenge in Whitby, Ontario. He’s been a fantastic two-way star with St. Cloud State University in the NCAA this year, and if he’s paired with Charlie McAvoy, they’ll create a good top pairing.
McAvoy is probably the biggest name on the American blue line, and it’s no secret as to why. The 14th overall pick by the Boston Bruins played for the Americans in last year’s World Junior tournament, failing to record a point in five games. Unafraid to take risks to make a game-changing play, McAvoy is a strong skater that makes his opponents look silly with his puck control. He’s got a good shot and has shown his playmaking skills in his second year with Boston University, so look for him to quarterback the power-play, among other things, this year
Fellow Bruins draft pick Ryan Lindgren has been a star internationally for the Americans, winning a silver and a bronze at the U17 and U18 levels respectively. A captain of both of those teams, Lindgren is a proven leader that won’t put up high numbers at the pro level, but he will shut your best stars down. Buffalo Sabres prospect Casey Fitzgerald comes from a family of hockey stars, including cousins Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes, Keith Tkachuk and Matthew Tkachuk. A second-year defender with Boston College, Fitzgerald was given a lot of chances to prove himself in pre-tournament action, and he played quite well. Same goes for Adam Fox, the best defenseman at the 2016 Under-18 World Championships earlier this year.
Forwards: Up front, there’s no question that the Americans will be quite effective around the net. Even without stars like Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel, who are both still eligible to play for the team, the team has three strong scoring lines full of players who have either shined for USA before or are ready to set their mark. One of the names that gained a lot of traction during the tournament was Tage Thompson, a 19-year-old star with the Univ. of Connecticut. A first-round choice by the St. Louis Blues, Thompson had a big pre-tournament on the top line with Clayton Keller and Colin White as the team’s top winger. He’s shown great strides in his second year with Connecticut and many believe he has the potential to have great results with the American squad.
Keller is no stranger to the American spotlight ever since his midget days with Shattuck St. Mary’s prep school. Keller is consistently the best forward on the ice against skaters three years older, a sign of greatness that is hard to find in most players. While small (5-8/150), Keller is an incredible skater with a great stride and a high top speed. Every time he touches the puck, you can expect to almost always see him make a great play, whether it be a great long range pass or a powerful slap shot. Keller had 105 points with the USNTDP in 2015-2016 and has transferred his talent well over to the NCAA, where he has 15 points in 10 games with Boston University. He was the U18 World Championship MVP earlier in 2016 and had the most points at the Under-17’s a year before. What’s next for him at the U20 level.
White will also be counted upon by the Americans. Currently sitting at 17 points in 18 games with Boston College, the Ottawa Senators prospect had seven points in seven games with the bronze medal-winning World Juniors in 2016. White had an incredible U17 World Hockey Challenge tournament in 2014, with the assistant captain posting 10 goals and 18 points to help USA capture a gold medal. An experienced star on the international stage already, the former USNTDP goal scorer seems to step up his game when representing his country and will be a dangerous top-line centreman.
Not considered to be a big star, Jordan Greenway is worth keeping an eye on. A second-round selection by the Minnesota Wild, the rough-and-tumble power forward will likely be a third-line option for the squad, but his tremendous summer camp in Plymouth, which saw him dominate the competition both with the puck and physically. Jack Roslovic is also on the upward trend for the United States, especially after staring on a line with Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk at the 2015 Under-18’s. After putting up 19 wins in 25 games with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, Roslovic has shown himself to be strong against men at the pro level and will hope to make a big impact at the World Junior level in his only World Junior tournament appearance.
Two other exciting names are Jeremy Bracco and Erik Foley. With 51 points in 27 games with the Kitchener Rangers this year, Bracco has been one of the most dominating forwards in the OHL this season and should easily beat out his 64-point performance a year ago. Bracco has two gold medals internationally to his name so far after finishing with the most assists at the U17 and U18 level. Foley isn’t as well known, but he did a fantastic job in pre-tournament play and sits with 15 points in 16 games with Boston College this year. A Jets prospect like Roslovic, Foley plays a great two-way game and makes great plays in all three zones of the ice.
Prediction: No matter what year it is, the Americans are always strong enough to contend for a medal. With so many strengths all over the roster, there is very little reason to believe the Americans won’t be in the gold medal game in Montreal. Whether or not they can pull off the ultimate prize is still up to debate, but they’re going to be a major contender, no question about it.