After a heartbreaking silver medal finish in the 2019 World Junior Championship, the United States return with another skill-loaded roster that should compete for yet another medal. They will join Russia, Canada, Czech Republic and Germany in Group B for the round-robin play.
The United States has medaled in four straight years, including a gold medal in 2017. They’ll look to keep that trend going and become the first United States U20 team to medal in a Czech Republic-hosted WJC.
Scott Sandelin will take a break from his coaching duties for the University of Minnesota-Duluth and make his return behind the U.S. bench as this year’s head coach. He’s led the U20 United States team in 2005 when they finished fourth and he was an assistant coach for the 2012 team that failed to make it into knock-out play. He’ll be joined by a handful of returners from their silver medal effort last year.
The United States will be tested directly out the gate, facing a back-to-back against Canada and then Germany. They’ll then get an off day before jumping back into another back-to-back against Russia then the host country, Czech Republic. They went undefeated in regulation during 2019’s preliminary play, but they’ll have a tall task of repeating such a feat considering their group competition.
THW breaks down the United States preliminary roster and what to expect from them in the tournament.
If there’s any guarantee for the United States, it’s their stalwart goaltending returning for another performance in 2020. Spencer Knight, the 13th overall selection of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, is the obvious favorite for netminder duties. He was the third option last year, backing up Cayden Primeau and Kyle Keyser but did not appear in a game. Knight is joined by Dustin Wolf and Isaiah Saville to round out the goaltending options.
In his first season with Boston College, Knight (also known as Squidward) has logged a commanding 1.73 goals-against-average (GAA) and .940 save percentage (SV%) in 15 games this season. Amongst the NCAA, he ranks seventh in GAA and sixth in SV% and leads freshmen by a wide margin in both categories. He was equally impressive during his U18 stint, posting a 1.51 GAA and .936 SV% in six games.
Should Knight struggle, the United States still have a very reliable option in Wolf. The Californian netminder is in the third year with the Everett Silvertips of the WHL, posting impressive numbers yet again. He leads the WHL with a .943 SV% and his 1.86 GAA is second only to Joel Hofer. Wolf was a seventh-round selection by the Calgary Flames in the 2019 Entry Draft.
Wolf will be pressured by Saville for the tournament’s back-up duties. The Alaskan native has struggled to find the same consistency that made him a fifth-round selection by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2019 Entry Draft. He’s started 12-games in his freshman year for the unranked University of Nebraska-Omaha, logging 2.96 GAA and .890 SV%. Considering the team in front of him, those numbers could be drastically worse. Nebraska-Omaha ranks last in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
Backed by Knight, the United States enter the 2020 tournament with one of the most promising goaltending groups. Expect them to go with all three options but rely heavily on Knight to defend the cage.
The U.S. will turn to their two returning defensemen to carry their blue line for the tournament. K’Andre Miller and Mattias Samuelsson are back for their second go at gold, serving as the two anchors for the defense. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Samuelsson is the largest player on the roster. He won’t be quarterbacking the offense, but he’s fully established himself as a very responsible force in his own zone, something that the U.S. will desperately need for this tournament.
Miller, on the other hand, will be handed full responsibility as the United States’ offensive defenseman. The University of Wisconsin product leads his team’s defensemen with six goals in 18 games this season. Miller has 33 total points in the 44 games he’s played at the NCAA level. He should be quarterbacking the first power play and logging plenty of minutes on a nightly basis. He is one of four Wisconsin Badgers who should make the final roster.
Along with Miller, the U.S. team should also have fellow Wisconsin defenseman, Ty Emberson. The 2018 third-round selection is one of two right-handed defensemen on the preliminary roster. For that fact alone, he should have no problems making the final roster. As a more stay-at-home defender, he won’t be driving the offense such as his teammate Miller, but he could find plenty of usage on the penalty kill and in a shutdown role.
The U.S. should expect some offense from their only other right-handed defenseman, Alex Regula. He’s posted 26 points in 25 games with the London Knights as the only representative for junior hockey from the U.S. blue line. Cam York could also headline the blue line and could challenge for top-line minutes alongside Miller. Despite his left-handedness, York can play on the right side to either Miller or Samuelsson. The U.S. boast one of the smaller sized blue lines in the tournament, but there may not be a group that’s more equipped for a consistent offensive attack.
As things stand, the U.S. will have just one returning face for their forward corps. Jack Drury will be playing in his second WJC after playing in all seven games in last year’s tournament. Jack Hughes, Joel Farabee, and Oliver Wahlstrom are all eligible for a return but are either playing in the NHL or AHL. The New York Islanders have yet to determine whether Wahlstrom will be available or not. Should he be allowed, they’ll insert him into the United States’ roster immediately.
Despite missing three of their more proficient scorers, this U.S. roster has still managed to build a lethal combination of attack and physicality. Wisconsin teammates, Alex Turcotte and Cole Caulfield, will undoubtedly work their chemistry even on the international level. Caulfield leads all freshmen with 12 goals in 20 games and Turcotte has a respectable 6-9-15 line through 16 games.
The United States may not have a definitive tournament MVP on their roster, but their depth all throughout the lineup should be enough to make up the lost offense. Between Arthur Kaliyev, Bobby Brink and Caulfield, they possess plenty of scoring options on the wing and that’s without Wahlstrom.
The ’01’s of the team will likely take up their top-six while the older ’00 group will round out in the bottom six. Jack Drury, Shane Pinto, and John Beecher should provide the U.S. with plenty of skill and size even in a bottom-six role.
The Bottom Line
The United States hopes for a medal almost entirely ride on Knight’s play in net. He’ll enter the tournament as the undisputed top goaltender and the U.S. will heavily rely on him given their young and undersized roster. If their 18-year-old forward phenoms prove their worth on the defensive side of the puck, they should find plenty of success in the tournament.
Scoring shouldn’t be a problem for this roster, as Caulfield has a real chance at posting more than Ryan Poehling’s five goals from last year. Their natural goal scorers set them up for a potent power play and deadly counter-attack. Maintaining defensive responsibility will emerge as this squad’s most pressing issue. Their opening game against Canada will provide plenty of context to their defensive structure and how they hope to counter.
The goal for this group should be nothing less than medaling on Czech soil. If they are to meet those expectations, they’ll need defensive adaptability, power-play success, and elite play in net from their superstar goaltender.
Here is THW’s prediction as to who makes the final 23-man roster:
K’Andre Miller – Ty Emberson
Mattias Samuelsson – Cameron York
Zac Jones – Alec Regula
Arthur Kaliyev – Alex Turcotte – Cole Caulfield
Nicholas Robertson – Trevor Zegras – Bobby Brink
John Beecher – Jack Drury – Shane Pinto
Robert Mastrosimone – Jacob Pivonko – Trevor Janicke
The final roster will be announced on Dec. 24.