The United States World Juniors team is in Malmo, Sweden, looking to defend last year's gold medal at this year's tournament. But taking home another gold medal will be no easy task. Oddsmakers have the United States tied with Russia and hosts Sweden as the second-most likely to win the tournament, all trailing tournament favorite Canada.
So what does the US team need to do to beat the odds and take home the gold? Here's a look at four keys for the United States heading into this tournament that will give them a chance at winning gold.
1. Get Excellent Goaltending
The United States didn't field their strongest team last year, but were able to steal the gold because they had the best goalie in the tournament in John Gibson. This year, the United States looks to be a bit behind the likes of Canada and Russia again in terms of overall talent on the roster, but have the potential to make up that difference in goal.
Jon Gillies has played incredibly well for Providence this season, and he certainly has the potential to get hot and steal a tournament in the same way that Gibson did last season. The sample size of one tournament is so small though that it's tough to know exactly what you're going to get. Anthony Stolarz is also in the goaltending picture for the United States, but if Gillies is having the type of tourney where there's even any question of him starting a big game, the US is probably in some deep trouble.
2. Keep Things Simple on Defense
The two stars of the US defense, Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones, are both playing in the NHL and not available for the tournament--not that the US will get much sympathy from other countries, notably Canada, who are also missing some really good players.
The absence of Trouba and Jones leaves the United States without a true go-to defensive pairing heading into the tournament. The good news is that defensemen 1-7 should all be pretty solid for the Americans. Last year's group, headed by coach Phil Housley, was a more freewheeling bunch of defensemen, consistently taking daring plunges into the offensive zone. This year, the Americans placed more of a heavy emphasis on reliability at the blue line. Even in their final cuts before heading to Sweden, the US chose to send home arguably their top offensive threat from the blue line in Anthony DeAngelo in favor of keeping some less exciting, but more defensively sound players like Brett Pesce and Steve Santini. Pesce was eventually sent home as well, but overall, this should be a group that doesn't make many mistakes on the defensive end.
3. Win Games with Special Teams
That may sound very cliche, but winning the special teams battle will be particularly important for the Americans this year. Up front, Team USA doesn't have the type of high-end forwards that are going to dominate and score a lot of goals five-on-five, and as mentioned above, their defensemen aren't likely to be overly active in the offensive zone 5-on-5.
They'll have to score goals somewhere though, and their best opportunity will likely be on the man advantage. Their power play should feature some legitimate snipers like Riley Barber and Nic Kerdiles, and some excellent puck distributors in Danny O'Regan and Vince Hinostroza. There's a lot of good pieces to work with, it's just a matter of them all gelling together at the right time.
Meanwhile, the US is also very focused on limiting opportunities when they are shorthanded. A huge priority in selecting the last few forwards on the roster was making sure those players were able to contribute something on the penalty kill. Tenacious workers like Tyler Motte and Tommy DiPauli could be huge factors for the US in that department.
4. Take Care of Business Early
The United States opens up the tournament with games against the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Germany before closing out pool play with a New Year's Eve showdown against rival Canada. The Czech and Slovak programs have struggled in recent years, but can always be wildcards at international tournaments like this. The Germans are always a pesky opponent that is going to try to keep a game low-scoring and hope they can get a bounce to go their way late to steal some points.
With the top four teams in each group now advancing to the quarterfinals of the tournament, the US isn't in any real danger of finishing last in the group and ending up in the relegation round. But it would be nice if the Americans have a top two finish in the group secured by the time they face Canada on December 31st; allowing them to just play the game and prepare for the medal round, rather than needing to rely on a good result against the tournament favorites. Finishing in the top two of the group means they'll likely face Finland/Switzerland in the quarterfinals, which is a much more favorable match-up than facing Russia/Sweden, and greatly increases the shot of Team USA bringing home a medal.
The Canada game could be a circus with big storylines like Adam Erne meeting Canada after injuring Jon Drouin in QMJHL play just before the tournament, a big head-to-head match-up between 2015 Draft favorites Jack Eichel and Canada's Connor McDavid, and the fact the Americans are the defending champions of a tournament that Canada feels is their birthright. It would be greatly beneficial if the US could just use that Canada game to get all that stuff out of the way, and cleanse their palates for the really big games in the backend of the tournament.