Wednesday, December 8, 2010

u20 Days and Ready to Go

The USA should be favored to repeat in the 2011 WJCs
The month of December is about waiting.  It is about counting down.  That's because, at the end of the month, we get the most festive day of the year, one where people celebrate and appreciate the greatest gift of all, while seeing new gifts that they will enjoy for years to come for the first time. 

And Christmas.  Christmas is at the end of December too.  I’m not talking about that, though.  I’m talking about the best sporting event of the year.  The World Junior Hockey Championships.

God, just typing that gets me excited.  I really can’t wait.  That’s because, with due respect to the Olympics, Super Bowl, college football season, world cup, Tour de France and Stanley Cup Playoffs, which, among others, are events to circle on the sporting calendar, the WJCs are the event that is brining the most anticipation in 2010.  Well, for me, anyways. 

I tried to explain how much I loved World Juniors, as they’re known in the hockey world, last winter, and found it difficult.  There are tangible aspects of the tournament, which I described, and while it fails to capture the whole thing, the best I could come up with was this:

So this tournament was great, but I knew it was appointment viewing, one of my favorite events of the year, long before I knew that the United States would pull it out in dramatic fashion. What is it, then, about the World Juniors that is so appealing? There is a lot, but two things stick out.
First of all, this is the only tournament in any of the major American sports that features the best available players, representing their country, in the most important event of their season. The level of talent in the Olympic hockey tournament is staggering. The “Dream Team” in the basketball tournament is great. The problem is, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, despite what some have insinuated, would trade their gold medals in Beijing for NBA championships in an instant. Conversely, none of the players for Canada would have accepted silver had they been given CHL Memorial Cup championships instead, like the USA players wouldn’t trade their Gold’s for NCAA Frozen Four titles (or, if we’re honest, Memorial Cups).
There really is only one tournament that can say this, apart from World Juniors. The soccer World Cup is likely the defining moment of the player’s seasons, but it is neither annual, nor a major sport in America. While it is growing in popularity, soccer still just isn’t up there in terms of interest for Americans.
Add the passion of having a season defined by a tournament, like the playoffs for professionals, with the eyes of the entire NHL on these young players looking to break into the league, and the inherent rush anyone would get playing with for their country, and the result is a brand of hockey the intensity and passion of which is nearly unmatched, even in the NHL playoffs.
There is another thing that is great about the World Juniors, though. Like no other event in the world, the World Juniors give hockey fans a glimpse into the future of a league. Canada’s team was made up almost exclusively first and second rounders. Most guys on the Swedish Russian and continental teams will play in the NHL. Most of the USA team projects to be top 6 forwards. The talent level is insane. You could watch the CHL and college hockey for months, but you wouldn’t match the level of insight gained when you see when the best come together, not for nothing, to face the best.
There is a telling commercial that played during the games. It was of NHL stars, including Ovechkin, Nash, Crosby and Getzlaf, among others, raising their arms after goals. The punch line: “Raise your hand if you got your start in the World Juniors.” Truth in advertizing.

The greatness of the tournament goes beyond what I described, though.  Those are the things that I can enumerate, but in order to appreciate the tournament, you have to take my word for it, and tune in.  Last year, the crux of that column was that America had largely failed to take notice of the tournament, thus far (as evidenced by the fact that the games were on NHL Network in the US).  There is good news, though, America.  This is the year that you can check it out!

You know how everyone kind of concedes that the world cup is an awesome event, but no one really feels like getting too into it, since we know that a good tournament for the Americans would be to not get knocked out before the championship round even begins (also, as much as we build it up, the tournament is actually just a bunch of soccer games, which either end in zero-zero ties or own goals)?  The World Juniors were a little bit like that before.  USA Hockey was much more of a contender than US Soccer, but Canada had more or less owned the decade, winning five in a row.  The United States had just one win, in 2004.  This year, though, that has all changed.  Last year, the USA pulled off a huge upset, knocking off a historically good Canada team and taking gold.

Now, perhaps for the first time, the United States comes into the tournament as the favorite.  Winning last year certainly helped to that end, but that isn’t really why they get the nod over the Canadians. One of the things that is unique about the World Juniors is just how much rosters turn over from year to year.  The tournament is open to players under 20.  For teenagers, a lot of development takes place year to year, so guys in their last year of eligibility usually take up most of the roster spots.  On top of that, a lot of the guys who are good enough to play at a younger age are in the NHL by the time they are in their last year of eligibility, and don’t get released from their teams to play (Taylor Hall, the Oilers’ rookie being an example). 
This year, the USA returns 8 from their 22 man roster.  That is a ton.  The United States holds their camp during the summer, whereas Canada has a training/tryout camp right before the tournament, so it is unofficial, but the most Canada can return, by contrast, is 3 (Jared Cowan, Ryan Ellis and Calvin de Haan).  In addition to the experience that the Americans bring back, they have an incoming class of ‘92s (I feel old) that contains more high draft picks than any before.  It should lead to the most talented USA squad that we have seen (and for what it is worth, the most geographically diverse.  The team has kids from California, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Texas, Nevada, Missouri and Colorado mixed in with the traditional New York, New England, Michigan and Minnesota boys). 

Of course, that cursory explanation won’t do, so let’s take a look at the team that will wear Red White and Blue, and defend the gold on home ice in Buffalo (that advantage should be huge.  I’m sure no Canadians will make the grueling 2 hour drive from Toronto).

Returning Players

Jack Campbell is the big one here.  Perhaps the top goaltending prospect not playing pro yet, the Windsor Spitfires (OHL) backstop is going to take the reins once again for the USA.  He will likely give the USA the strongest goaltending in the tournament. 

On defense, the United States has the most turnover.  Losing guys like John Carlson (thriving this year the Washington Capitals), John Carlson (who scored the game winner in last year’s championship), and John Carlson (perhaps the strongest player in the tournament last year), in addition to Cam Fowler, Cam Fowler and Cam Fowler (equally deserving of superlatives), leaves a big hole to fill on the blueline.  The lone returner is University of Wisconsin defenseman John Ramage, who played with Carlson on the number 1 pair for most of the tournament last year. 

Up front, the United States brings two things in spades; speed, and experience.  Maple Leafs prospect (and current farmhand for the Marlies) Jerry D’Amigo is the biggest impact forward that the US brings back.  He trailed only New York Rangers rookie Derek Stepan with 12 points last year.  Chris Kreider, of Boston College  and Kyle Palmieri, who saw time in Anaheim before being demoted to the Duck’s AHL squad this season, were both top 6 guys last year, and will be impact players for the States this year.  My dad got mad at Jason Zucker for playing like it was a tryout last year (over-stickhandeling), but really the kid just has silky mitts, and he has the potential to step up this year.  Ryan Bourque and Jeremy Morin round out the group of 6 forwards returning, all of whom had substantial impacts on last year’s gold medal win.


Andy Iles, a Salisbury product who is a frosh at Cornell got the invite as America’s second goaltender.  Coach Keith Allain elected not to take a third goaltender for this year’s team.  I don’t know much about Iles, other than that he was really, really good in prep school (started for Salisbury as a sophomore), and that I keep thinking he was a returner, because I know the name.

On defense, the US adds one AHLer and 6 college players to round out a core that won’t have a single junior hockey player on it.  Nick Leddy, left off of the team last year, highlights the incoming class, having already garnered some NHL experience this season in Chicago.  Derek Forbert also has a chance to be the number one defenseman for the USA.  A student at North Dakota, Forbert was the 15th pick in the 2010 draft, going to Los Angeles. 

Up front, the US brings in a ton of early round talent.  Emerson Etem, a Ducks draft pick and California native playing for Medicine Hat (WHL) may be the fastest player in the tournament.  Brock Nelson of the Islanders and UBD, Nick Bjugstad of Minnesota and the Panthers, and Charlie Coyle of BU and the Sharks are the first round picks from 2010 that are new to the roster. 

If none of that meant anything to you, I’m sorry.  Take my word for it, though, we are STACKED.  Last year, I wrote that “Canada was stacked. Not, ‘every player is pretty good’ stacked, more like ‘every player has a chance to be a star in the NHL’ stacked. In fact, 15 of the 22 players on the Canada roster have been taken in the first two rounds of the NHL draft, and two of the seven that haven’t will be first round picks in 2010, their first year of draft eligibility.”  They were.  This year, that is us.  If you know nothing else about the United States roster, know this: Beau Bennett (20th overall), Austin Watson (18th), Jarred Tinordi (22nd), and Kevin Hayes (24th) were all Americans that were drafted in the first round last year, who DIDN’T make the team.  AND THEY HAVEN’T EVEN MADE FINAL CUTS YET. 

GOD we are loaded.  I’m fired up, because USA HOCKEY IS DO OR DIE!

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