The 2015 IIHF World Championships are getting underway in Prague and Ostrava in the Czech Republic. The United States has a complicated relationship with the World Championships. Complicated in that no one cares at all. If you manage to get an American talking about the World Championships, it’s generally just a conversation about how they can’t take the tournament seriously when players from eight NHL teams are excluded due to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
While it’s not an unreasonable point that a Team Canada without Jonathan Toews (or Connor McDavid this year since his Eerie Otters are still in the OHL playoffs) or Team USA without Zach Parise seems like it’s not quite the same product you get in the NHL-era Olympics or the pending return of the World Cup of Hockey, it’s not a small tournament. The U.S. is one of the few countries who doesn’t care all that much.
Team USA’s roster this year isn’t helping garner interest among Americans. With superstars like Anders Lee, Matt Hendricks, Mark Arcobello, and Jeremy Morin leading the way, the US roster pales in comparison to other major hockey nations.
Take Team Russia, which will feature Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Radulov, Evgeni Malkin, and Vladimir Tarasenko for example. Or the Sidney Crosby captained Team Canada that, just looking at forwards, features Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin, Claude Giroux, Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Taylor Hall, Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Ennis, Jordan Eberle, among many more NHLers. Sweden, too, has fielded an impressive team with Jhonas Enroth, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Filip Forsberg, and Loui Eriksson among its notables.
However, the U.S. team has plenty to be excited about.
The Future of American Hockey
With NBCSN broadcasting the U.S. games, it’s easier than ever to watch stateside and you should be watching. The reason to watch isn’t that the U.S. will win. They won’t. They’re outmatched.
But you’re going to get a glimpse some players on the U.S. team who could be the future of American hockey on the international stage. If this was the Olympics, many of these players wouldn’t be getting a shot at playing for the U.S. team, so this is an opportunity to see some of the guys who could be on the U.S. roster in a World Cup or two down the road. It’s a chance to see that the U.S. team is trending in the right direction.
On ForwardUp front, the U.S. team features a number of college talents, as Matthew Bowen pointed out earlier this week. Notably, the presumed number two overall draft pick for 2015, Jack Eichel will be playing center for the U.S. It’ll be our first real look at Eichel playing head-to-head against NHL players. He’ll join Predators draft pick Jimmy Vesey, who just finished up his junior season at Harvard with 32 goals and 26 assists in 37 games.
18-year-old Red Wings prospect Dylan Larkin is another player to watch. He just finished his freshman season at the University of Michigan where he tallied 15 goals and 32 assists in 35 games.
The presumed number one overall draft pick for the 2016 draft, Auston Matthews, also grabbed a little time with the team during an exhibition win — and he looked good. There aren’t many 17-year-old players who can play with men and still hold their own. However, he’s returning stateside for academic reasons and won’t be playing in the tournament.
As has been noted around the already, Auston Matthews won't be joining Team USA at World Championship. He's got a school year to finish.
— Chris Peters (@chrismpeters) April 29, 2015
Late additions of Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Nick Bonino following the elimination of the Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders in the playoffs helps that group look a little better. But even there, the most exciting player might be NHL rookie Anders Lee, who is 24-yeras old. Nelson is also a young player, at just 23-years old.
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On defense the team is lead by international veteran Justin Faulk (23), as well as young defenders Torey Krug (24) and Seth Jones (20), who are clearly some of the team’s best young talent. These three have the potential to be pillars of the U.S. team for years to come.
Former Gopher defenseman — and unsigned Blue Jackets prospect — Mike Reilly is also in the lineup and is a player to watch. He grabbed the opening goal in the U.S. exhibition game this week. He will be interesting to watch, as will whether or not there is a developing relationship with coach Todd Richards, who could be his coach if he decides to sign on with Columbus.
In net, the U.S. team is without a NHL-level goaltender. Last year the team had Tim Thomas in net, along with then 30-year-old AHLer David Leggio. The third string in net last year was NCAA talent Connor Hellebuyck (21), who went pro this year, playing for the Winnipeg Jets’ AHL affiliate, the St. John Ice Caps this season. He’s the presumed starter with Alex Lyon (22) serving as one of the two back-ups. Lyon is coming off an impressive sophomore campaign with Yale University, where he led the team with a .939 Sv% through 32 games this season.
Also joining them is Dallas Stars prospect Jack Campbell (23). Campbell was the #11 overall draft pick in 2010, but had a tough season with the Texas Stars one year removed from their Calder Cup-winning campaign. Campbell finished with a .907 Sv% through 35 games and found himself spending some time with the Idaho Steelheads in the ECHL as well.
Unlike with the forwards and defensemen, it’s hard to say with goaltenders in this age range if they’ll rise to be one of the two or three best netminders from the United States and wind up representing the country in the Olympics or World Cups of Hockey, but it’s certainly more interesting to watch a young player try to carve out a place on the world stage than to watch 40-year-old Tim Thomas help the U.S. team to an early exit.
There’s so much young talent on the U.S. team that any success they have on this stage should be viewed as a victory for the United States program in the long run. The team isn’t likely to measure up to teams captained by some of the world’s elite talent, while the U.S. is without their best goaltenders and many players — like Parise, Patrick Kane, and Ryan Suter — still playing in the playoffs. (Also the U.S. doesn’t seem to get their elite talents at Worlds the same way that other countries do, so there’s no guarantee that they would play if they weren’t in the playoffs. We don’t see guys like Jonathan Quick or Phil Kessel on the roster.)
Many of these young players are getting valuable experience at the international level and there will be some games worth watching this month if you’re a fan of the U.S. team on the international stage.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.