The semifinal round of the World Juniors was played on Sunday and for the second consecutive year, the United States did not participate after being bounced in the quarterfinals by Russia. It's a disappointing result, no doubt. The United States has enough talent that they should be at least competing for medals every single year.
So what went wrong?
If we're being fair, some of it has to be chalked up to poor luck and things out of the control of the US team. The may have looked less than impressive in wins against Finland and Slovakia, but they were very clearly the second best team in their group. And yet somehow, they ended up with what I would argue was the toughest crossover quarterfinal match-up. Slovakia-Czech Republic was a game that could have been--and probably would have been if not for some shenanigans by Russia and the Edmonton Oilers-- played in the relegation round. Even the Sweden team that the US put 10 goals up against in pre-tournament exhibition play would have been a better match-up. Russia was a very good team, despite what they showed in the preliminary round, and was going to be a tough team for the US to beat regardless.
But the fact still remains that Team USA couldn't get the job done against both Canada and Russia when they really needed to. The US has the talent and resources that they shouldn't need a lucky draw to advance in the tournament. This team wasn't good enough to overcome the obstacles they faced.
It's pretty clear that most of the blame falls on a lack of offensive production. Though it ended up not mattering much, the US team struggled to just one goal against Finland despite controlling the play, and they let Slovakia hang around way longer than they needed to because they couldn't put the puck in the net.
They survived against over-matched opponents, but when it came time to face the best in the tournament, they came up short. Just one goal in the first 57 minutes of the game against Canada. Just two goals against Russia. If you need to hold the best players from the best hockey countries in the world to a single goal in order to win, good luck.
What's so disappointing is that offense should have been a strength for this US team. On the first day of December, the day before the US announced their preliminary roster, I wrote this:
Overall, I'm excited about this squad. I can't remember another year where the US had this much offensive talent to choose from. If the US really opens things up, they could score a lot of goals this tournament, because they've got some very good talent at their disposal.
That wasn't the direction USA Hockey chose to go however. Among the notable omissions from the pre-tournament camp roster were high-skill players like Kyle Connor and Justin Bailey. I also made this proclamation that would look prophetic if it wasn't so predictable:
Jeremy Bracco is also on the list. If he makes the team, great. If he gets cut because he "can't play a bottom six role," well, USA Hockey better hope Anthony Louis and John Hayden score a lot of goals in the tournament.
Bracco was indeed one of the last forwards cut, despite making the scoresheet in the team's first two exhibition games. Meanwhile, Hayden scored one goal in the tournament, a garbage time goal in the final minute of the game against Slovakia. Louis didn't register a point in five tournament games. The only reason Miles Wood wasn't included in that group is because I thought there was no chance he'd make the roster. He had a 5-0-0-0 scoring line too.
The US insisted on creating a team that looked like an NHL team: two scoring lines and two checking lines that just tried not to get scored on until the big guns were ready to go again(Mostly. Their third line with Dylan Larkin ended up as arguably the most productive, but that came at the sacrifice of putting some dead weight on the top two lines). But NHL teams don't design their teams like that because it is optimal. They do that because there is a scarcity of talent, and cost considerations with a salary cap make it impossible to put together three or four talented scoring lines. The US, in theory, shouldn't be bound by either of those restrictions for the World Juniors.
I can't say for sure that players like Bracco or Connor or Bailey or any of about a half dozen other waterbug-type forwards would have had more success in the tournament. The US was certainly hoping for more scoring from Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews, and they struggled to an extent because they're still young kids in a tournament for 19-year-olds. Adding even more youth to the roster might not have been the best solution.
But if the fantastic 5-4 gold medal game between Canada and Russia proved anything, it's that you need to be able to score goals to win big games in this tournament. There's too much talent on the other squads to hope that you can block enough shots to win 2-1 hockey games consistently. You need players that can move the puck and create offensively, and players that can hurt the other team in transition. The US just did not have enough players that could do that.
It's a lesson I really hoped USA Hockey had learned after last year's tournament. Hopefully after a second straight poor showing, it finally gets through.
Other final thoughts:
-What's even more disappointing is that the US wasted an above average effort in goal from Thatcher Demko. Holding Canada and Russia to three goals, especially given the iffy third goal by Canada and Russia getting a billion power plays. That's good enough to win both those games if the US has a decent offense.
As for the back-ups, picking Nedeljkovic over Evan Cowley was a mistake, but one that didn't matter, since Demko played every meaningful minute of the tournament as expected. Brandon Halverson got the opportunity to prove he's the goalie of the future for the US.
-The defense was what it was. Ryan Collins and Brandon Carlo showed their youth in the Canada game, but there weren't any better options. Having Steve Santini probably would have made a difference there. Anthony DeAngelo had his ups and downs, but at least provided some offense on a team that desperately needed it.
-I've seen a lot of blame placed on the power play, and while it wasn't very good percentage-wise in the tournament, it wasn't terrible in the two games that mattered. The bigger issue is not being able to put enough pressure on quality opponents to get more power play opportunities. The US had one power play goal in about three minutes of power play time against Canada. It's hard to draw penalties when you're running around in your own defensive zone.
-Another forward held completely off the scoresheet for the tournament was JT Compher. Compher was a highly-drafted '95 that should have had a huge tournament. But he was marooned to the fourth line due to the US depth at center, and never really got much going. Any time a player of his caliber is held that quiet, you have to question how effectively he was used.
-Picking Miles Wood for the team was a bit of a head-scratcher, but fine, he had some nice pre-tournament exhibitions. Playing him on the second line in the game against Canada goes down as one of the most baffling coaching decisions I've seen. What was the largest crowd he'd ever played in front of prior to this tournament? The speed and intensity of playing Canada in Canada definitely seemed to overwhelm him, and when the US finally decided that scoring goals might be helpful in the third period of that game, he was back to being the 13th forward.
-Auston Matthews' tournament wasn't as strong as expected, in part because he never seemed to find the right chemistry with his linemates. Yet another reason I would have loved to see how he would do with the guy who helped him tear up the U18s last year, Kyle Connor.
-Canada's five goals in the gold medal game came from five different players spread out over three different lines.The US might not necessarily have the depth that Canada does, or the ability to spread out their scoring like that, but that seems like a good model to follow.