At last year’s 2016 World Junior Championship, Team USA was headed by a number of top-drawer prospects from the 2015 and 2016 draft classes—Zach Werenski, Alex DeBrincat, Christian Dvorak, Matthew Tkachuk, Brandon Carlo, and of course, Auston Matthews. None of them are back for this year’s edition; for the most part, this wasn’t up to the Team’s architects, but they did surprisingly cut Alex Debrincat despite his excellent OHL season. This team has brought back several experienced but less renowned names to try and improve on 2016’s bronze medal showing.
The American team is dominated by NCAA products, with only a few CHL players scattered in—it’s tempting to wonder if DeBrincat was at a disadvantage on this team, being an OHL player. Still, this is a strong, experienced squad, especially at forward and in goal, and it looks primed to fight for gold.
Despite the loss of some big names, Team USA presents as an extremely deep and dangerous forward group. Elder statesman Colin White—20 at the end of January and an Ottawa Senators draftee, sadly—looks primed to lead the forward group, and is a two-way forward with legitimate scoring punch. Three other standouts to watch: Kiefer Bellows, a Boston University sniper who inherited his shot from his NHL father; Jordan Greenway, a towering, crease-crashing LW and brother of Leaf draftee J.D. Greenway; and Jack Roslovic, a playmaking former linemate of Auston Matthews. Team USA is going to come at their opponents in waves.
For Leaf fans, the primary interest at forward is Jeremy Bracco, whom the Buds drafted 61st overall in 2015. Bracco fell to the Leafs at that spot because of his size; his offensive skills and fantastic skating were notable before draft day and have become more so since. Bracco has been shredding the OHL, where he opened the season with a 26-game point streak before finally being held off the scoresheet in his last game before leaving for WJC camp. Still, his super-speed offensive game should serve Team USA—and hopefully the Leafs—in good stead. His instincts and agility will put goals on the sticks of whichever American forwards are fortunate enough to play with him.
If you’re a Canadian Leafs fan and you feel like supporting Team USA, you can at least rest assured you’re selling out for something exciting: the Americans look ready to dazzle on offence, headlined by one of the most exciting Leaf prospects.
Team USA has undergone considerable turnover on defence. As the NHL is now learning, Zach Werenski is a hell of a player to have at your disposal, and now he, and Brandon Carlo with him, are gone.
Aggressive offensive defender Charlie McAvoy looks slated to take on a big role in his second tour of duty with the American U20s. He was a first-round pick of the Bruins in June (14th OA) and has an A on his jersey this tournament. After him, there are a number of question marks, although several players could certainly impress. Caleb Jones, a physical two-way defenceman, stands out as the younger brother of star Columbus defender Seth Jones. If the American defence can come together quickly, the Americans will be in good shape.
Team USA boasts strength in goal, led by blue-chip netminder Tyler Parsons. Parsons is currently the goaltender for the powerhouse London Knights of the OHL; he dazzled there last season, putting up the best save percentage (.921) of any goalie to play 30 games. The Flames liked what they saw and made Parsons the second goalie taken in the 2016 draft (2nd round, 54th overall), behind Canadian goaltender Carter Hart. Parsons is renowned for his athleticism and capacity for spectacular saves, and he helps mark out goaltending as a significant strength for Team USA.
While Tyler Parsons looks to have the inside track for the #1 job, Leafs fans can’t help hoping he doesn’t get it, because that might open the way for Leaf draftee Joseph Woll. Woll is also having himself a good year, for Boston College, putting up .917 in 17 games. Woll is a big boy (6’4”) with range in net, and it’s possible his size, his NCAA background, or his general ability might give him a chance to nab the starting job.
Of course, now that I’ve said it, 18-year-old Jake Oettinger (also having a great year) will steal the job. Oettinger backstops Boston University, a team that has supplied a considerable portion of this roster.
If the defence can move the puck to facilitate the deep forward group, and they get the kind of goaltending their trio is capable of, the Americans should frighten every other team in the tournament. The U.S. has been a growing hockey power for years, and while they may have a bias towards the NCAA, this lineup is a good example of how strong American collegiate hockey has become. The States are a developmental powerhouse, and the world may be about to find that out firsthand.