Goalies: This is Thatcher Demko’s job to lose. In 2014, the Vancouver Canucks prospect was brought along as the 3rd goalie in preparation for the 2015 edition where he would get his chance as an 18-year-old starter. Demko has already won a silver in U17 competition and a gold in U18 action, but wasn’t spectacular in either showing. The Boston College puckstopper has only been pleasant at the NCAA level, and the more mature dual-citizen of Canada and USA should be one of the better goaltenders in the tournament. If he doesn’t live up to the challenge, Alexander Nedeljkovic is more than capable of taking over the job if needed. The Carolina Hurricanes goaltender is highly talented, and while he did impress at the U18 tournament last year, it’s likely Nedeljkovic’s time will come to be the star in 2016.
Defensemen: Noah Hanifin of Boston College and Zach Werenski of the University of Michigan are two of the most interesting young defenseman at the World Juniors. Hanifin, ranked as the highest defenseman in most 2015 draft rankings, was a star with the USA U18 team last year, recording five points in seven games. Hanifin is already playing in the NCAA after years of playing with the US National Development Team, so he’s as ready as anybody for a situation like this. Werenski is in a similar situation, and while he’ll likely be a later top ten selection this June, it must be fantastic to have multiple young defenseman excelling at the University game before many kids have left the junior ranks. Will Butcher, a University of Denver player drafted by the Colorado Avalanche, and Ian McCoshen, a Florida Panther prospect who plays for Boston College, are both returning from the fifth place team in 2015, while Steve Santini of Boston College is hoping to return after wrist surgery on Oct. 28. If he does indeed play, watch out world, the amount of upside this team has on the blue line is staggering.
Forwards: The offense will be America’s strongest asset coming into the tournament. That’s a given when you have a guy like Jack Eichel leading the charge, but the team is strong with all four lines. Eichel is simply one of the best players at his age and will no doubt be a top three selection in the 2015 NHL Draft. Tyler Motte proved to be lethal when paired with Eichel during the summer camp, so it’s likely the pair will be reunited again for at least a good portion of the tournament. A very exciting prospect in the American stable is 19-year-old Miles Wood, one of the true rising forwards in American hockey. U.S. Under-18 star centre Auston Matthews will get his first chance at the U20 World Junior team, and while he may not have a lot of responsibilities as a 17-year-old, he should prove exactly why he’s one of the top prospect options for the 2016 NHL Draft. Hudson Fasching, Sonny Milano and Dylan Larkin should all be able to provide adequate offense, and Alex Tuch and John Hayden should add an offensive flair to the bottom six.
Projection: The Americans were missing some big offensive weapons in 2014 with the likes of John Gaudreau and Alex Galchenyuk moving on. This time, they’ve got Eichel, one of the best young players to suit up for the team in many years. This team can easily battle for the gold this year and should be taken very, very seriously.
Check out USA’s roster here.
Past five results:
2010: Won Gold Medal
2011: Won Bronze Medal
2012: 7th Place
2013: Won Gold Medal
2014: 5th Place
Follow me on twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.