Here's a projected line-up, based on the last exhibition against Finland:
Matthew Tkachuk-Auston Matthews-Alex DeBrincat
Sonny Milano-Christian Dvorak-Colin White
Ryan MacInnis-Nick Schmaltz-Brock Boeser
Ryan Hitchcock-Scott Eansor-Anders Bjork
Zach Werenski-Brandon Carlo
Louie Belpedio-Will Borgen
Chad Krys-Charlie McAvoy
Alex Nedljkovic-Brandon Halverson
The forwards were always going to be the focal point of this US World Juniors team. It's a talented group, led by the consensus number one pick in next June's NHL Draft. They still are, but roster decisions the past two weeks have taken some the focus off the players in Finland, and put it on the players that are still at home in the United States. This US team won't just be judged against the other countries they face in the tournament. They'll also be judged against the team this could have been.
To understand why a line of Hitchcock-Eansor-Bjork is facing off against Canada on Sunday while Kyle Connor prepares for the Great Lakes Invitational at home in MIchigan or Jeremy Bracco scores his 1.4 points per game in Kitchener, one must understand that USA Hockey wanted a pro-style roster and that the large majority of NHL forward rosters are constructed in a certain way. There is the first line: the most skilled players counted on to carry the majority of scoring. The second line: scorers, but not quite the caliber of the top line guys. The third line: usually a checking line, that can sometimes score, but mostly serves to slow down the other teams top line. And the fourth line: grinders that are used sparingly with the hope that they don't lose the game while the top guys rest.
The thing is, NHL teams don't do that because it is the ideal way to construct a hockey team. They do it for three reasons. One: there is a scarcity of talent. There are 30 NHL teams and mechanisms like the NHL Draft spread out the talent making it hard to acquire that many top line talents. Two: There is a scarcity of resources. Mechanisms like the NHL's salary cap--and prior to the cap, basic economic limitations-- limit the amount of top dollar skill players a team can sign on their roster. Three: There's only one puck and sixty minutes of ice time per game. Over a long season, a good player is likely to grow frustrated if they're not seeing power play time or seeing the ice in key moments.
With eight first round NHL Draft picks at their disposal, not to mention five other future first round picks, and a couple other small, extremely skilled high-scoring forwards, all of whom were willing to work for free and only had to accept their role for seven games, none of those problems should have affected this team. And yet USA Hockey chose to keep many of those highly-drafted, high-skill players at home in favor of traditional "bottom six" forwards. This team is worse than it could have been by choice, and not a particularly well-reasoned choice either.
The less that is said about the US defense this year, the better. Many people consider the US blue line to be Zach Werenski and not much else, and none of those people are Michigan fans that have watched Werenski struggle through much of this year. If there's a strength of this group, it's that it is a very mobile group. Outside of defensive defenseman Brandon Carlo, all six other defensemen are capable of bringing the puck forward and attacking offensively if given the opportunity. Those six are also prone to defensive lapses and big mistakes, so it will be worth watching how much freedom those players are given to be aggressive and use their best assets. There's a best case scenario where this relatively young, unheralded group comes together and plays great hockey for two weeks, but there's also strong potential for things to go very, very wrong here.
This doesn't mean the United States can't or won't have success in this tournament. The strategy of putting players on the ice whose entire purpose is to make sure nothing happens while they're on the ice is all about shortening the game and increasing the level of variance. In a single elimination tournament that already has an extremely high rate of variance, that's enough to give the United States a fighting shot, even if they're admitting from the jump that they don't stack up talent-wise with the tournament's best. It would be a surprise if this team took home a gold medal, but it wouldn't be a miracle.
The path to victory seems very clear for the United States. Their keys to victory:
1. They need a huge tournament from Auston Matthews.
Leaving so many potential scorers at home means the US will rely very heavily on their top line, led by Auston Matthews, to carry the scoring. They tried a similar strategy last year with Jack Eichel, and whether it was the pressure of the tournament, or the fact that other teams were able to key on him because the US had limited other scoring options(huh, interesting), Eichel wasn't able to produce in that role when it counted. Matthews has the potential to be a dominating player in this tournament and make people forget about all the players the US left at home.
2. They need to play with the lead.
The US wants to make these games feel as short as possible. Last year, the US fell behind in their games against Canada and Russia, and weren't able to find the offense necessary to come back. If they can get a 1-0 lead, they can play a more defensive style, which has multiple benefits. First, they could settle into a more conservative style of play, which should aid a defense that looks shaky on paper. They won't need to take as many risks, and should have extra support from the forwards Second, they can play a lower scoring game, mitigating the need for scoring depth.
3. A goalie needs to get hot at the right time
Regardless of who starts the Canada game, it would be nice to see both goalies get an opportunity to play meaningful minutes in the preliminary round with the hope of finding the hot hand for the medal round. There may be a bit of a gap in terms of talent between the US and some of the best teams in the tournament, especially when you factor in the US blue line, but a goalie that can steal a goal or two in a game can close that gap very quickly. If nothing else, they at least a goalie to be average. Things could get ugly very quickly if the US ends up giving up a few soft goals, because I don't think they have the talent to overcome that.
Finally, a Tournament Prediction
The US keeps things close for a while against Canada before the Canadians pull away late for the win. They don't look impressive against Sweden but manage at least a point, then blow out Switzerland and Denmark. They draw either the Czech Republic or Slovakia in the quarterfinals and win that game, but lose in the semifinals and drop the bronze medal game for a fourth place finish and third year without a medal.