Initially, the USA Hockey National Junior Team was all set to defend its IIHF World Junior Championship gold-medal in December. In fact, the U.S. beat Slovakia 3-2 in its first preliminary-round game.
But due to a surge in COVID-19, teams were forced to forfeit games and eventually the tournament was abruptly canceled, with players not knowing if they would get another shot at the 2022 event.
The 2022 World Juniors is back on now, rescheduled to begin today at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, with a refreshed roster eager to win a second-straight gold-medal and sixth overall.
Usually the World Juniors happens during the season, which means players are already in game shape. But due to the rescheduling, a summer of tuning up has turned into getting into the type of shape to compete at an elite level.
“I think the challenge is getting the guys to play good, detailed playoff hockey,” said U.S. head coach Nate Leaman, who also coaches at Providence College. “Normally for this tournament, guys are in the midway part of their season so they’re already geared up, they’re in shape. There’s a lot more detail to their game. We've got to get there. We’ve got to get there quick.”
The U.S. opens group play with Germany tonight, then faces Switzerland on Thursday, Austria on Saturday and Sweden on Sunday.
In two pre-tournament games as a run-up to the tournament, the U.S. had starkly different results, losing 5-2 to Finland on Friday and bouncing back to defeat Switzerland 6-1 Saturday. Part of that could be attributed to trying to find a rhythm in what are the first games for the players since their previous season ended.
“That’s really unusual, having such a short summer, usually it’s in the winter, but stuff happens,” said U.S. defenseman Luke Hughes, who plays for University of Michigan and was the fourth overall pick by the New Jersey Devils in the 2021 NHL Draft. “We’re all really excited to be here. Yeah, it impacts your summer like crazy. It shortens your summer, shortens your training, so you’ve got to prepare your body to make sure you don't get injured.”
There seems to be a good balance on this roster, with good speed among the forwards and a defensive group that should make it tough to get shots on goal.
“I think we have strong goalies, strong D-corps, strong forwards up front,” said U.S. forward Matthew Knies, who played in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and was a second-round draft choice of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2021. “I think our D-corps is huge for us. Having [Brock] Faber back there and him being our captain it is really big for him to come back to this tournament all over again. [Sean] Behrens, [Wyatt] Kaiser, kind of list goes on back there. Those guys are definitely going to keep us in games and kind of raise the level of competition for us.”
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Leaman is still evaluating his goaltender situation. All three — Remington Keopple, Kaidan Mbereko and Andrew Oke — saw action in the two pre-tournament games. Keopple and Mbereko played in the USHL last season and will be freshmen at Cornell and Colorado College, respectively, while Oke is with the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL.
“I think that position is pretty wide open for us,” Leaman said.
While still getting a feel for his team, Leaman was clear about one thing that will be key to the U.S. defending its gold medal.
“I think we have to buy into an identity,” Leaman said. “I think we have to be an extremely disciplined team as far as penalties. Special teams plays a huge part in this tournament. Our penalty minutes need to be among the fewest in the tournament and I think we have to get to the best version of ourselves. If we can get to the best version of ourselves and be a disciplined group, I think we have a chance.”
Hughes and Knies are among four players who have experience at the senior level that should help keep the U.S. on track. Faber joined Knies at the Beijing Olympics, while Hughes and Thomas Bordeleau played in the IIHF Men’s World Championship in May.
“It was great to watch guys like Seth Jones and Nate Schmidt and all those guys and how they treat their bodies and what they did on and off the ice,” said Hughes, who had a goal and three assists in that tournament. “To see that was really good for me and it was a real learning experience.”
“I think just the level of play,” said Knies, who had a goal and an assist in Beijing. “It was a very physical and fast-paced game. That's something I want to bring here. We obviously had Justin Abdelkader, who had quite a bit of NHL experience, on our team, and he had a lot of leadership qualities.”
It could be a special few months for some of these players as the 2023 World Juniors will be in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Moncton, New Brunswick, from Dec. 26-Jan. 5. But of course, the focus is on winning a second-straight gold medal, a quest that begins today.
“I think we're just all excited,” Knies said. “We’re all fired up to get going. Obviously it’s been a long wait. We had a long camp to kind of get ready for this. I think the boys are really itching to get on the ice for our first game. I’m going to try to bring that speed and power and produce some offense and get the guys going for sure. We're all super-pumped up.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.