While the rest of the hockey world appears to believe that the World Under-20 Championships is basically just a two team race for the gold. I hope they forgive us if we choose to disagree.
See while people are talking up both Canada and Russia because of the talent level both teams are coming to the World Under-20 Championships, what they are perhaps overlooking is how inexperienced as a team both squads are.
There is no questioning that there are several future NHL superstars playing for both Canada and Russia like John Tavares and Alexei Cherepanov but Team USA is coming to the Czech Republic with several highly regarded prospects of their own.
See I think Canada's run of gold medals is going to end here. The Canadians are bringing perhaps one of their most inexperienced teams in a long time. The Canadians may have a lot of talent but they are very young and very green at the world level. They will make the medal round and should come away with a medal just not the gold.
The Russians on the other hand are in my eyes the favorites, they have shown they can play with the Canadians by sending a "B" team that defeated WHL and QMJHL All-Stars last month. Now they add Ranger prospects Alexei Cherepanov and Artem Anisimov to an already loaded roster and they are going to be tough but I believe they only view Canada as their only threat and that will be their downfall.
The way I am seeing things is that Team USA is being overlooked by everyone and despite the loss earlier this week to the Czech Republic has the horse to win. The keys is what always seems to hurt the US teams and that is believing in themselves.
USA Hockey has been building via their Development and Training programs like the Under 17 and Under 18 teams, players who know each other and grow up together. USA Hockey is coming off perhaps their best performance at the last NHL draft with a record 10 American born players being first round picks.
Ranger fans who read this place already know about Bobby Sanguinetti but this version of Team USA is very well stocked with talent in our eyes as well. Let us start with the fact that 20 of the 22 players on this roster have already been drafted by NHL teams. The two who's rights have not been selected yet are expected to be Top 10 picks when it is their time to be selected.
Let us start in goal as Jeremy Smith (Plymouth OHL/Nashville) and Joe Palmer (Ohio State CCHA/Chicago) bring international experience to the position. Smith won a silver medal in 2006 with the Under-18 team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial. and Palmer (who admires Mike Richter) was a member of the USNTDP Under-18 that won the gold in 2006 Under-18 Championships.
On defense, Team USA may not have the biggest corp of defensemen but they are some talented players. Besides Sanguinetti, I really like Jonathan Blum (Vancouver WHL/Nashville) who just like Sanguinetti is the leading scorer among defenders in his league.
Smart and very dependable, Blum is the first California born player to be a first round NHL pick and when you see him in action you will understand why. A member of last season's Memorial Cup Champions, Blum will not rattle and is solid at both ends of the ice.
Add in USA captain Brian Strait (Boston U HE/Pittsburgh) and Assistant Chris Summers (Michigan CCHA/Phoenix) both will bring international experience, having been a part of the Gold Medal winning Under-18 team in 2006. We know Summers quite well as he is a teammate of Carl Hagelin at Michigan and he is a stopper on the blueline.
Up front we got to start with the 2 players who are not current draft picks but in our eyes will be top 10 picks when at their drafts. First Colin Wilson (Boston U HE/2008) is already gaining notice by the various draft services as one of the top possible picks (TSN has him at 7 in their mid-season rankings) in the 2008 Entry Draft.
Wilson is the son of former NHLer Carey Wilson, he is a player that we expect will be either the first or second line center but when USA Hockey needs someone stopped they will turn to Wilson. Wilson will not back down when Canada tries to play their physical game and he will dish it out just as much as anyone tries to give it.
Now write this name down, Jordan Schroeder who is the only member to come directly from the US Under 18 training and development program. A smaller version of Patrick Kane with all the tools but one concern which is lack of experience. Schroeder just might open a lot of eyes at this tournament as if he gets going then Team USA has a serious offensive weapon.
Among the rest of the forwards, you have the grandson of former Ranger Blake Geoffrion (assistant captain), Michigan's amazing freshman Max Pacioretty, the monster sized James vanRiemsdyk, and the even bigger Ryan Flynn who are going to match anyone both in size and skill.
Then blend in players like Kyle Okposo (Islanders), Matt Rust (another Michigan Wolverine Freshman) and assistant captain Tyler Ruegsegger (Denver WCHA/Toronto) and you will have enough offense to match up against anyone.
IF TEAM USA
plays it's game and does not let themselves be intimidated by Russia or Canada's reputation then they have a chance. Team USA has be in a way like the Rangers meaning playing a team wide supportive defense to limit the chances on the bigger ice surface.
Use their experience to play a smart agressive game that forces others to play at the USA tempo. Do not allow themselves to be dragged into the chess game counterattacking styles of some European teams.
Team USA will play in this order Kazakhstan, Switzerland, Russia and then Finland during the preliminary round. It will be a minor upset to steal the pool bye from Russia but Team USA could do that and avoid having to play Canada until the final then the chances of a shot at the gold up that much more.
A gold medal for Team USA on top of having 10 first round draft picks in the last NHL draft could do a lot to help the sport grow in the United States. The system is not perfect and we have our own concerns but for now it is working and we will support something that helps ice hockey in the United States.
Team USA will get underway at 1o AM EST and our friends at USA Hockey are also offering a free audiocast of the game here along with box scores and other info. The NHL Network is going to offer HD TV coverage.
And as the World Under-20 Championships gets underway, the rest of the North American hockey world is also returning from their holiday break so we will once again cover those events as well.
(World Under-20 logo courtesy of www.worldjuniors2008.com)
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