Goalies: Goaltending is often a position of excellence for Team USA’s entry in the World Juniors, but this go-around has observers concerned. Carolina Hurricanes second rounder Alex Nedeljkovic just got traded within the Ontario Hockey League from Flint to Niagara, and early returns for the Ohio native look promising after three high-quality starts to date after a tumultuous start. He watched last year’s tournament in street clothes as the club’s third goalie, while Boston College star Thatcher Demko was brilliant. Nedeljkovic’s running mate this year is Brandon Halverson, a New York Rangers’ second-round pick. The big Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound backed up Demko last year, starting in an American rout of the Germans with little to do; but his poor start to this OHL season has some worried about whether either of them are fit to run with the ball. Nedeljkovic was solid at the U18s back in 2014 as the starter, while last year was Halverson’s only Team USA experience. Who will get the job is truly a mystery at this point.
Defencemen: Head coach Ron Wilson was truly hoping to get Noah Hanifin, last year’s fifth overall pick in the draft, back from the Carolina Hurricanes; but the Americans will have to make do without him. The result is a group that is very solid, if not overly exciting. That being said, Team USA fans should not at all be concerned about this corps. Columbus Blue Jackets’ first rounder and World Junior returnee Zach Werenski will shoulder a heavy workload in all situations, and is in fine form as an elite two-play presence in his sophomore season with the University of Michigan. Tri-City Americans (Western Hockey League) monster Brandon Carlo strikes a strong Zdeno Chara resemblance as a future Boston Bruin (second round in 2015) and is a perfect, physical and hard-working fit beside Werenski. Boston University’s Brandon Fortunato, who is an undrafted free agent, is an exciting, creative offence-firs type. The draft eligible 17-year-old Chad Krys is a joy to watch skate with the puck and is having a strong season with the US National Development Team.
Forwards: Make no bones about it, this American group of forwards will score in bunches. A ton has already been written about Auston Matthews, the draft-eligible recently turned 18-year-old scoring machine that is dominating high-quality adult competition in Switzerland with the Zurch Lions this year. That being said, Team USA has far more weapons than just the man all but guaranteed to go first overall in next year’s draft. Returnee Sonny Milano is a half-point-per-game with the Blue Jacket’s American Hockey League affiliates in Lake Erie, while the diminutive, dynamic, and draft-eligible Alex Debrincat is proving he was not just a by-product of Connor McDavid’s success last year in Erie, as he is shredding the OHL so far this campaign. The London Knights are well represented by snipers Matthew Tkachuk (a Top 5 pick next summer) and Christian Dvorak (Arizona second rounder), who are both ripping the OHL apart as well (both enter the tournament with more points than Team Canada star Mitch Marner, for example). It is generally a pretty young group, so North Dakota star Nick Schmaltz, a Blackhawks prospect, will be looked to for leadership, along with Milano. Ryan MacInnis, the St. Louis-born son of Blues’ great and Hall of Famer Al, is a versatile player with excellent size, and should help fill out the Americans’ bottom six. Watch for Ottawa Senators’ first rounder and Boston College star Colin White to be a breakout two-way player for this group, as he does a lot of things very well.
Projection: Getting long-time NHL head coach Ron Wilson on the bench should help this explosive, youthful, group of Americans. If the goaltending stands up, which is a big ‘if’ at the moment, they should certainly be battling for a medal when it is all said and done. A third-straight quarterfinal exit would no doubt be absolutely devastating to this American machine that keeps building elite players.
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