Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Not this year

(USA Hockey)
As the World Under-20 Championships get underway in Ufa, Russia the question is where Team USA fits in at this year's tournament. The answer is they will need some help to make the medal round but thinking gold medal is asking a bit too much from this year's entry.

This is not going to be a bash USA Hockey piece but rather an acknowledgment that Team USA is not very experienced with just 3 returning players from last year's team. While one might make the argument considering last year's major disappointment this is a good thing at the same time, reality is much crueler.

Russia is almost going all out to make sure that as the host that they bring home the gold. The Russians return 10 players from last year's squad and their recent performance during the Subway Super Series in Canada has to give them a huge psychological boost.

Canada on the other hand got the services of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins which also is a huge boost but their goaltending has been a bit shaky. If Germany or Slovakia can give them a scare before Canada faces the USA or Russia, then they might be had.

I happen to think I would give the starting goalie job to the very under-rated Jake Patterson. He just might be the guy who by the medal round is in goal for Canada.

Slovakia has mastered winning the relegation round during the last 2 years and while they have invested in their youth program; Slovakia has not seen dividends but one would be wise not to overlook them with 16 players (including 2 goalies) all coming from Orange 20 Bratislava.

New York Ranger prospect Peter Ceresnak (2011 6th) is making his 3rd appearance on the Slovakian team but he has never really made a big splash before. His stock would get a huge boost if he plays well here.

Germany is here for a cameo appearance before returning to Division 1 as they simply don't have the talent level to play against the teams in this group. If they can take anyone in this group to a regulation tie then that might be their highlight of this year's efforts.

On the other side in Group A, is Sweden last year's winners and really the role model for the various European youth programs on why they need to invest in the junior programs. Sweden showed that any country wanting to win at any international level must invest in their youth programs or see their adult teams suffer down the road.

Finland who I think can sneak in and steal the gold has followed Sweden's blueprint as their younger talent level has improved over the last couple of years. I like several of their players and so far they have gotten a huge confidence builder defeating the USA in the pre-tournament games.

The Czech Republic is a team that many expect to do well but I don't in a large part because of their failure to invest in their own juniors program. Yes they have 12 players who play in North America but that doesn't mean they are a team.

There is no real identity with their native country when it comes to playing at this age. The Czechs finished 6th at last year's tournament and that is about where I have them this year.

Switzerland has been the master of the preliminary round upset but this year's team might not be able to pull that off. They are in a group that won't overlook them as has been the case in the last couple of years.

Their matchup with the Czech Republic could wind up being for a berth in the medal round. Then there is Latvia who like Germany is here for a 1 year cameo before returning to Division 1.

Latvia dropped their opener 5-1 to Finland as I was writing this which did not help their cause to be seen as a medal round contender. And that bring us back to Team USA and why I don't see a medal in their future at this year's tournament.

Yes Team USA has a solid goaltending trio (although TSN might want to change John Gibson's draft rights to the Anaheim and not the Rangers), they have some talent on the blueline, and some offense but they are really inexperienced as a team.

They want to use J.T. Miller with Rocco Grimaldi (5'7) and John Gaudreau (5'8) as their top line so my question is which line will this unit stop on Canada? Canada as this is being written is in the 3rd period up 7-3 with goals from 6 different scorers.

Break this line up and move Miller to Right Wing or have him center Ty Biggs and Mario Lucia. This is a more legit first line than Miller with 2 smallish forwards.

It would also spread the offense around as right now there doesn't really look like the USA brought along many scorers. You are not going to beat Canada Seth Jones or not if you don't have some kind of offensive firepower.

If the USA winds up in the relegation round for a 2nd year in a row then someone's head should roll at USA Hockey. All that domination with the Under-18 team is not translating into winning at the Under-20 level.

I really do hope that I am dead wrong on this but right now I just don't see where.

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