After winning its first gold in tournament history at the 2004 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland, the USA finished a disappointing fourth last year. The Americans come to Vancouver in search of just their fifth World Junior medal ever. Boasting an explosive roster, the USA has high hopes of erasing the disappointment of losing key games to the Russians and Czechs and watching Canada claim the title on American ice.
Coaching: Bench boss Walt Kyle is working with the USA’s World Junior team for the fourth time in his career. His biggest success came in 1992 when the US picked up the bronze medal in Fussen, Germany. Kyle, who is also the head coach at Northern Michigan University, is known for building his teams around puck pressure.
Goal: Vancouver fans will keep an eye on the American nets throughout the tournament, as the Canucks’ 2004 first-round pick, Cory Schneider, is expected to carry the load. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound goaltender has an impressive 13-1-4 record with a 1.90 GAA and a .916 save percentage with Boston College this season. Jeff Frazee, an 18-year-old second-round draft choice of the New Jersey Devils who plays for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, will also see action.
Defence: On the blueline, the USA is led by Carolina Hurricanes first-rounder, Jack Johnson. The 6-1, 210-pound defenceman from Indianapolis, IN, is known for his solid physical play and his offensive abilities. With the University of Michigan, the kinesiology major has 21 points in 17 games this season. And this year, another defenceman named Johnson will look to catch the eyes of NHL scouts, just like Jack did in 2005, although at the Under-18s: Erik Johnson. It’s not hard to spot the 17-year-old Mercyhurst College star on the ice, towering at 6-foot-4, 220-pounds, Erik, like Jack, plays a mean physical game, but also has good hands, as witnessed by his puck movement. The two Johnsons could provide one heck of a tandem for Coach Kyle.
Forward: Most of the hype surrounding Team USA 2006 centers on the 6-foot, 190-pound Phil Kessel. One of 17 US college players on this year’s roster, the University of Minnesota center stands out as the likely #1 overall draft pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. He’s been compared talent-wise to the likes of fellow Americans Mike Modano and Pat LaFontaine, but he also has the explosiveness of Russians such as Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. A pair of 2004 Phoenix Coyote draft picks are also expected to have a large impact for the red, white and blue: speedy right-winger Blake Wheeler (fourth overall) and dependable two-way forward, Kevin Porter (fourth-round pick).
Projected Results: With 18 NHL draft picks, this may be the most stacked team in the tournament on paper. But how will the Americans react while playing in front of a wild pro-Canada crowd in Vancouver? Players like Kessel and Frazee, who took part in the USA’s 5-1 win over Canada in the 2005 IIHF U-18 World Championship final, will hope to carry over some of that good karma. With all the hype, overconfidence could be the Americans’ biggest enemy.