Team USA needs change as Canada-Russia play for World Junior gold
Quick thoughts ahead of Monday night's battle for gold between Canada and Russia at the 2015 World Junior Championship (8 p.m. EST; NHLN-US):
• One scout speaking to SI.com ahead of the tournament said it wouldn’t matter what happened at the World Juniors. The battle for the top spot in this summer’s NHL draft was a foregone conclusion. “No one wants to be remembered as the guy who passed on Connor McDavid,” he said. Two weeks later, it seems unimaginable that anyone would. McDavid hasn’t been the best player in the tournament, but he’s been in the mix. That’s almost unheard of for a 17-year-old. It took him a game or two to find his comfort level—which was expected since he hadn’t played in almost six weeks due to a broken hand—but he got steadily better with each passing game. He showcased the full range of his gifts in the semifinals, when he made something happen on almost every single shift. Blanketed by the Slovak defense he finished the night with three spectacular assists, each of them the result of second effort. His ability to create prime scoring chances in the face of tight coverage makes him the player to watch against Russia, and the no-doubt-about-it top prospect for the 2015 draft.
• Jack Eichel of Team USA did nothing to hurt his draft stock in Montreal. But the clear-cut No. 2 also did not do anything to improve upon it with his performance. His inability to make an impact will be remembered as one of the big reasons for the American team’s early departure. Eichel had his moments, but he never dominated the way McDavid did, instead settling for spurts of effort rather than stretches of inspired play. “He was fine,” a scout told SI.com on Sunday. “This is a 19-year-old's tournament. It's not easy for a 17-year-old to steal the show. I can’t imagine there’s anyone who thinks any less of him because of this. He’s still a great prospect and I’m sure he’ll be great when he goes back [to Boston University]. But the stage looked a little big for him at times.” McDavid was a piece of the machine for Canada, and that allowed him a certain freedom that Eichel didn’t have as the No. 1 center for Team USA. Eichel also didn't have a linemate with the talent, or composure, of Canada’s Curtis Lazar. No doubt that hurt Eichel’s chances for success, but no one will hold it against him in June. He's still the consensus second pick.
• The most impressive part of Canada’s 5–1 semifinal win on Sunday was the team’s ability to stay on point while nursing a 1–0 lead over Slovakia for most of the first 40 minutes. No panic, no frustration, no taking-on-the-world individual play. The Canadians pressed hard for that second goal through the middle frame, but never took their eyes off their 200-foot game or their responsibilities within coach Benoit Groulx’s system. The discipline eventually paid off with a couple of late markers that gave Canada a 3–0 lead and broke the game open. It also laid the blueprint for them for Monday night’s game. Discipline will be critical against a Russian team that’s loaded with the speed and creativity it needs to make fast work of any Canadian breakdowns. But if the kids can maintain their composure as they did on Sunday, this is Canada’s game.
• Netminder Zach Fucale gets the start for Canada tonight, as expected. The Canadiens prospect is a perfect 4-0-0 with a 0.50 goals-against average and a .971 save percentage in the tournament. He had no chance on the one goal scored by the Slovaks, but also made several big stops, including one on a breakaway, while Canada clung to a slim one-goal lead. Igor Shestyorkin, a 2013 fourth-round selection of the Rangers who stopped 39 of 41 U.S. shots in the quarterfinals, and 26 of 27 against Sweden in the semis, could get the call for Russia. He’ll have to be much sharper if he hopes to leave Canada with gold, though. Shestyorkin has shown a tendency to cough up some fat rebounds, especially in the game against Sweden. That could be a fatal flaw against a Canadian team that has shown a knack for passing the puck off a goalie’s pads to create easy tap-ins. There’s a chance though that coach Valeri Bragin will go back to Ilya Sorokin with the gold medal on the line. The Islanders prospect was sensational against Canada in exhibition action, stopping 52 shots in a 2–1 Russia win. Relying on that mojo wouldn’t be the worst idea.
• Seems likely that Groulx will stick with Nic Petan on Canada’s second line with McDavid and Lazar. The trio, first united on the power play, was a constant threat against Slovakia. Petan finished with three goals but easily could have doubled that if not for some remarkable goaltending by Denis Godla.
• Just a hunch here: Look for a big game from Canada’s Anthony Duclair. The Rangers prospect has shanked more Grade-A scoring chances during the past two games than most players do in a season, but the fact that he’s getting those chances speaks to his ability to navigate defenses and get to the right places. And after finally getting on the sheet with a fluky bank shot from behind the goal line, his luck may be changing.
• Look for another Rangers prospect to be the catalyst for Russia. Pavel Buchnevich is a high-skill player, but his ability to use his size and strength to win board battles and maintain possession under attack make him a tricky matchup for the Canadians.
• USA Hockey’s approach is open to some second-guessing in the wake of the team's 3–2 loss to Russia in the quarterfinals, which dropped the U.S. to 0–6 in elimination games against its rivals. The Americans got good goaltending and blue-line play, allowing just nine goals (including two empty-netters) in five games, but came up short in several other areas, starting with the coaching. Mark Osiecki struggled with his in-game management and did little to adjust his lines. He shouldn’t expect an invite to return as the team’s coach in the future. The frustration of his players was clear as their tournament wound down, with their play deteriorating into fruitless individual efforts. The team’s inability to maintain its composure is on Osiecki as well, especially during the first period against Russia, when the U.S. took five minors. But the bigger issue was the makeup of the club. The play of kids like Miles Wood, Tyler Motte and Anthony Louis illustrated clearly that this team lacked the depth of the top contenders. Team USA was the second youngest team in the tournament behind Switzerland, dressing just 11 19-year-olds. Age shouldn't keep truly talented youngsters like Eichel—or even Auston Matthews, who won’t be draft-eligible until 2016—off the team, but he U.S. might need to reconsider the type of players with which it surrounds its kids in order to maximize the chances of success.
• On the bright side of icing such a young team, there are 11 players who are eligible to return for Team USA for next year’s tournament in Finland. Eichel is almost certain to be in the NHL, but the U.S. should have Dylan Larkin—the team’s best player by a mile this year—Sonny Milano, Alex Tuch, Nick Schmaltz and Matthews to lead the forward corps, with Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski, Ryan Collins and Brandon Carlo on the back end, and Alex Nedeljkovic and Brandon Halverson between the pipes. Augmented by such players as Ryan MacInnis, Christian Dvorak, the Americans should be in mix to return to the medal hunt in 2016.