Back to back. It’s not just the name of Drake’s 2015 diss track, it’s the challenge facing Team USA heading into the 2022 World Junior Championship. After stunning Team Canada in the gold medal game at last year’s tournament, this year’s team faces the tall task of doing what the United States has never done before, and what no nation has been able to pull off since 2009: win the gold medal two years in a row.
Last year’s team rode incredible performances from Anaheim Ducks forward Trevor Zegras and Florida Panthers goaltender Spencer Knight en route to the gold medal. It was the United States’ fifth gold medal in the tournament, and their first since 2017. Head coach Nate Leaman and his staff from last year’s tournament will return to defend the gold medal this year.
The coaching staff aren’t the only ones from last year’s team set to return and defend the gold medal, however. In fact, this year’s team projects to feature some players from last year’s team playing in key roles. That begins at the top of the lineup as the American’s projected top center is all but assured to be a player who has already made history….
Beniers, Pastujov Headline the American Forwards
As the first player drafted in Seattle Kraken history, Matty Beniers already has a certain level of hype surrounding him – and that’s without factoring in the fact that he was the second player off the board in the 2021 draft. A two-way center that shows flashes of a younger Jonathan Toews, Beniers is currently enjoying a fruitful Sophomore campaign at the University of Michigan where he has, as of this writing, 11 goals and 19 points through 16 games this season. While he wears an “A” on his sweater as an alternate captain for the Wolverines, he may very well wear the captain’s “C” on his sweater for the Americans during this year’s World Juniors tournament. During last year’s tournament, he recorded three points through seven games.
Beniers may very well use this year’s tournament as a stage to announce himself in the same way that Zegras did last year. While Beniers and Zegras play different styles, they both have enormous upside, and Beniers has the ability to impact any given game to the same magnitude as Zegras. He can play a shutdown role against the other team’s top players, or he can be deployed in a way that opens him up to play more of an offensive role. Regardless, he should have a solid group of wingers to create offense with.
If Zegras was the top-notch offensive player from last year’s group, another Ducks prospect could fill that role this year. Sasha Pastujov, the 66th pick of the 2021 draft, projects to join this year’s group and provide some serious scoring power from the wing. With the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) this season, he has an eye-popping 18 goals and 31 points through 20 games as of this writing. As a member of the Americans’ U-18 World Junior team last season, he recorded five goals and eight points through five games. Maintaining those levels of scoring during this year’s tournament would go a long way towards making a lot of teams regret letting him fall all the way to the third round of the draft.
The 2021 draft should have plenty of representation on this year’s team. Chaz Lucius (18th overall, Winnipeg Jets), Matt Coronato (13th overall, Calgary Flames) and Tyler Boucher (10th overall, Ottawa Senators) should all make this year’s squad, with Lucius and Coronato potentially playing a role in the team’s top six forward group. Thomas Borderleau (38th overall, 2020, San Jose Sharks) projects to join his Michigan Wolverines teammate Beniers as one of the team’s top offensive players as well.
Americans Will Lean on Sanderson & Hughes on Defense
The Americans’ colors are red, white and blue, but it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if they adopt maize as a secondary color as well. That’s because on top of Beniers and Borderleau, Wolverines defenseman Luke Hughes looks like a safe bet to patrol the blue line for Team USA as well. The fourth pick of the 2021 draft, Hughes – a New Jersey Devils prospect – will be looked at to provide offense from the back end, something he has done for the Wolverines so far this season. As of this writing, he has seven goals and 15 points through 16 games with Michigan this season.
Should coach Leaman opt to unite them as the team’s top pairing, Hughes will be joined by Senators prospect Jake Sanderson, the fifth pick of the 2020 draft. With a plus-7 rating at last year’s tournament, Sanderson didn’t light the world on fire offensively (he had just two points through seven games) but he played a sound two-way game that created more good than bad whenever he was on the ice. As a Sophomore for the University of North Dakota this season, he has a strong six goals and 16 points through 13 games, suggesting that the Americans can expect the offensive side of his game to pop a bit more during this year’s tournament. As a top prospect that isn’t far away from making his NHL debut, he is Team USA’s presumptive top defenseman.
After Hughes and Sanderson, the rest of the spots on the Americans’ defense could come down to coach’s preference. There are a number of players that should feel good about their chances of joining Team USA. Senators prospect Tyler Klevin, Sanderson’s teammate with North Dakota, was a member of last year’s team, though he only saw action in two games. He should have the inside track on a roster spot. Los Angeles Kings prospect Brock Faber (45th overall, 2020) is another returning player that should secure a roster spot, especially after impressing with five points through seven games during last year’s tournament.
Related: Senators 2021-22 Prospect Pyramid
Jacob Truscott (Vancouver Canucks, 144th overall, 2020), Scott Morrow (Carolina Hurricanes, 40th overall, 2021) and Wyatt Kaiser (Chicago Blackhawks, 81st overall, 2020) are among a handful of defenseman who could fill out the rest of the Americans’ blue line.
Commesso Leads the Way in Goal
There was a ton of goaltending talent across every team at last year’s World Juniors. The Americans, however, boasted arguably the best starting goalie in Knight, who followed up a dominant performance at the WJC by joining the Panthers late in the NHL season and going undefeated in four regular season games, and then going 1-1 in two starts against the Tampa Bay Lightning during Florida’s brief playoff run. It’s going to be tough to fill his shoes entering this year’s WJC; just don’t tell that to Drew Commesso.
A Blackhawks prospect, Commesso was selected with the 46th pick of the 2020 draft. After a promising Freshman season with the Boston University Terriers last season, he has struggled a bit in his Sophomore campaign, holding a 4-7-2 record, a 3.11 goals-against average (GAA) and a .889 save-percentage (SV%) as of this writing. While the Terriers are a flawed team, he hasn’t done enough to this point to help them overcome their flaws. As the likely starter for Team USA, he’ll look to use the tournament as a way to turn his season around and inspire confidence for his NHL future.
Commesso is the likely starter because there aren’t any established players ready to challenge him. Tucker Tynan, Aidan Campbell and Kaidan Mbereko are all 2022 draft-eligible goaltenders that have a shot at securing the backup and third-string goaltender roles. Tynan, who went undrafted in the 2021 draft, currently holds a 3.88 GAA and a .894 SV% with the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL this season, and seems like the early favorite to earn the backup role.
Needless to say, if Team USA has a weakness entering this year’s WJC, it’s between the pipes. It is incumbent upon Commesso to prove that notion wrong.
The Americans should boast a lineup that features top-tier talent, a good mix of offense and defense, and the potential for some surprise performances down the lineup. This could be the tournament that makes a lot of people jump on board the Beniers bandwagon, and it could also be the tournament that convinces Senators fans that Sanderson is going to be the next big thing on Ottawa’s blue line. With gems like Pastujov and Faber potentially playing down the lineup, this team should have the depth to go toe-to-toe with the best teams at this year’s event.
If Team USA can overcome the perceived weakness in goal, this is a group that has the goods to go back-to-back. It’s going to take an all hands on deck approach, and a breakout performance or two would go a long way towards getting it done, but the Americans have almost never accomplished anything on the international stage without overcoming a bit of adversity. This year looks to follow that trend as well.
Here is THW’s final prediction for who makes the final 25-man roster for the Team USA:
Goalies: Drew Commesso, Tucker Tynan, Kaidan Mbereko
Defense: Jake Sanderson, Luke Hughes, Brock Faber, Tyler Kleven, Wyatt Kaiser, Scott Morrow, Jacob Truscott, Sean Behrens
Forwards: Matty Beniers, Matt Coronato, Sasha Pastujov, Thomas Borderleau, Chaz Lucius, Brett Berard, Josh Doan, Tyler Boucher, Ty Smilanic, Matthew Knies, Landon Slaggert, Mackie Samoskevich, Logan Cooley, Red Savage
All the 2022 World Junior Championship Team Information:
Austria – Team Preview – Roster
Canada – Team Preview – Roster
Czech Republic – Team Preview – Roster
Finland – Team Preview – Roster
Germany – Team Preview – Roster
Russia – Team Preview – Roster
Slovakia – Team Preview – Roster
Sweden – Team Preview – Roster
United States – Team Preview – Roster
All Your THW 2022 World Junior Championship Coverage
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.