World Junior 2015 Preview: Jack Eichel and Team USA hope to crash Canada's party yet again

Scott Sepich
Buzzing The Net

GROUP A: USA

2014 finish: fifth place
2014 round-robin record: 3-0-0-1, 21 GF/7 GA

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The United States and Canada have only faced each other three times in the gold medal game at the World Junior Championship, yet the Americans have won the last two (in 2004 and 2010). In fact, Team USA has captured two gold medals since Canada last won in 2009.

In other words, the U.S. isn’t quite the little brother in the North American junior hockey rivalry anymore, though both the Americans and Canadians were left off the medal podium last year for the first time since 1998.

As always, the Americans will bring a roster this year that is heavy on NCAA players, with a smattering of CHLers and a 17-year-old national development team phenom.The tournament still struggles to make much of a dent on the American sports landscape, but it’s a big deal for NCAA hockey fans, who get to see the brightest young stars from U.S. universities on a big stage while reveling in rooting against the perceived arrogance of Canada’s roster of CHL stars.

That makes things a bit awkward for the niche market of American CHL fans, who are just as likely (if not more likely) to have one or more of their favorite players competing for Canada or another country.

For them, the tournament is an exercise in split loyalties, leaving followers of NCAA hockey as the one group of fans who feel no conflict in throwing their full support behind the U.S. team.

America’s team is perhaps most notable during the tournament as the target of speculation by the hockey media over who might defect from the college ranks to join the CHL. This year, the lucky winners of that contest have been Boston University centre Jack Eichel, who’s considered the consensus No. 2 NHL draft prospect behind Connor McDavid, and Boston College goaltender Thatcher Demko, whose WHL rights were dealt by Spokane to Calgary last week with a disproportionate amount of fanfare.

Both went on record as saying they have no interest in heading to the CHL (Eichel’s rights are owned by the Saint John Sea Dogs), but that hasn’t stopped a bunch of “are they going to leave school?” stories from circulating over the past couple of weeks.

The Americans return six players from last year’s team, which fizzled out in the quarterfinals against Russia. Demko, a second-round pick of the Canucks in the most recent draft, was on the team last year but didn’t play. He should be the goalie of choice this time around, joined by the OHL’s Brandon Halverson (Sault Ste. Marie) and Alex Nedeljkovic (Plymouth), who are both 18 years old and also second-round NHL picks.

Four other CHL players are in the mix for Team USA: forwards Sonny Milano (Plymouth) and Chase De Leo (Portland); and defencemen Brandon Carlo (Tri-City) and Anthony DeAngelo (Sarnia). Returning player Adam Erne (Quebec) was cut during training camp, as were Mike McCarron of the London Knights and Cole Cassels of the Oshawa Generals.

Aside from Milano, who was picked 16th overall by the Blue Jackets this year, there are three other 2014 first-round NHL picks in the forward group: Dylan Larkin, Nick Schmaltz and Alex Tuch.

The defense brings a blend of youth and experience, and is full of high-end prospects. Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski are likely to be drafted in the top 10 of the upcoming NHL draft, and there are four other guys who have already been picked in the first or second round. Ironically, the one lower-round pick in the unit is alternate captain Will Butcher, a returnee who may be the team’s top two-way defenceman.  

Mark Osiecki, a former head coach at Ohio State and coach/GM of the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, will be leading the team behind the bench. He served as an assistant for the gold medal winners in 2010 and 2013, and has assembled a staff with significant experience in international play.

Osiecki preaches the importance of possession, and operates with the philosophy that the best defence is an offence that keeps the puck away from the other team.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Auston Matthews (F, USNTDP – USHL)

Matthews turned 17 in September, but could emerge as a star as the youngest player in the tournament. He’ll also have NCAA and CHL fans salivating (and perhaps bickering), as he hasn’t decided which route he’s going yet. The Arizona native’s WHL rights are owned by the Everett Silvertips, so wherever he ends up, his hockey future is in the U.S. Matthews has 14 points in eight games with Team USA in the USHL this season.

Jack Eichel (F, Boston University – NCAA)

As Team USA’s captain, no other American will be under as much scrutiny than college hockey’s top scorer, who has 27 points in 16 games as a freshman. It also might be his last chance at the WJC, if he makes the NHL jump next year at age 19. Eichel had five points in five games last year in the tournament. 

Noah Hanifin (D, Boston College – NCAA)

Hanifin doesn’t turn 18 until late January, but the freshman at BC is mature beyond his age and now considered to be the No. 3 prospect in the 2015 NHL draft. He’s one of five BC players on Team USA, along with Demko, Tuch and returning defencemen Ian McCoshen and Steve Santini. Santini’s been out since October with a wrist injury, and may not be able to play in the WJC.

Sonny Milano (F, Plymouth Whalers – OHL)

Milano made headlines in August for backing out of Boston College commitment to head to the OHL. With 31 points in 20 games for the Whalers, he’s excelled there after a stint with the USNTDP. Last year, he and Eichel each put up 10 points in seven games in the world under-18 championship, and Milano had three points in the gold-medal win over the Czech Republic. His skill makes him ideal for the puck-possession game the U.S. wants to play in this tournament

MUST WIN GAME: Finland (Dec. 26)

The New Year’s Eve matchup against Canada will get the most publicity, but the tournament opener against Finland is probably the most crucial game in the group for the Americans. A loss to the defending champs would put the U.S. in catch-up mode for the remainder of the group stage, and could leave them staring at a third-place finish and a difficult quarterfinal matchup against Russia or Sweden.  

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