BOSTON -- After last year's IIHF World Junior Championship ended with a disappointing fifth-place finish for the United States, coming home the upcoming 2016 tournament with a medal is all that is on the minds of the Americans.
Team USA's journey to Helsinki, Finland begun on Tuesday with the first of a four-day pre-tournament camp at Boston University's Agganis Arena.
It may have just been the first day of practice, but University of Michigan sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski made this year's goal clear: Don't come home empty-handed.
"You can't come home without hardware," Werenski said when asked to discuss his biggest takeaways from last year's tournament. "Finishing in fifth place, it just wasn't good enough. This year that's in our minds, to come home with a medal."
Werenski is one of seven camp invites from last year's World Junior roster. Defense looks to be a strength with the Tri-City Americans' Brandon Carlo and Minnesota sophomore Ryan Collins among the veteran group.
Their experience, combined with 15 players who won gold at the 2015 Under-18 World Championship in Switzerland, will definitely give the team confidence it can compete on such a big stage.
"Carlo and Collins are returning players, so they've had experience, and other D are great players," Werenski said. "There's a lot of guys that won the U-18 gold last year, so they probably have a lot of confidence going into this. I think it's a big boost for our team."
At this time last year, current Buffalo Sabres phenom Jack Eichel ― then in the midst of a Hobey Baker Award-winning freshman season at Boston University ― was the shining star at U.S. camp.
With Eichel off making his mark in the NHL, Auston Matthews has the opportunity to take on a lead role in advance of his 2016 draft. The Arizona native knows his job is not to follow in Eichel's footsteps, but to carve his own path and help the U.S. achieve its goals.
"I don't think I really focused too much entering this camp as being a headliner," Matthews said. "Obviously the goal is to win a gold medal and not really focus too much on yourself. For me, I just want to do whatever I can to help the team win."
Head coach Ron Wilson, who coached the U.S. to a silver medal at the 2010 Olympic Games, knows that Matthews' experience at World Juniors last year and taking his talents to the Zurich Lions of National League A In Switzerland will serve him well moving forward at such an elite level for a second time.
"I'm sure he learned a lot from that, and that experience (at World Juniors last year) can only make him better," Wilson said. "He's been playing this year with men, so I think that's the real bonus that he has going for him. A lot of what he learned last year, he'll be able to take forward and hopefully play better, so I'm very encouraged."
Wilson was impressed with the immediate chemistry the players showed during the first training session, which included a pair of scrimmage situations.
"I thought I'd just put a lot of guys together I thought would be compatible," Wilson said. "After one practice, I was amazed at how compatible everybody was together. ... We've got a lot of possibilities to put guys together with different people as well."
Here are the lines and defense combinations that were used for the majority of practice:
Matthew Tkachuk - Auston Matthews - Alex DeBrincat
Sonny Milano - Christian Dvorak - Colin White
Kieffer Bellows - Nick Schmaltz - Brock Boeser
Ryan Donato - Ryan MacInnis - Anders Bjork
Scott Eansor - Clayton Keller - Ryan Hitchcock
Zach Werenski - Brandon Carlo
Chad Krys - Charlie McAvoy
Louie Belpedio - Will Borgen
Casey Fitzgerald - Brandon Fortunato