Team USA announced their roster for the upcoming Women’s World U18 Championships, which this year will be held Japan.
As some background, like most women’s international events, this tournament should be the US vs. Canada, and then everyone else. A strange set of circumstances last year led to those two meeting in the semifinals, but it’s easy to acknowledge that the shootout thriller between the US and Canada in the semis was more than the gold medal game than the 9-1 blowout of Sweden in the actual, technical gold medal game.
The US will be looking to continue their unprecedented streak of four consecutive gold medals in this event dating back to 2015. A gold here would also extend a streak of the US winning every major international event dating back to 2014.
The US will be under the direction of a new coach this year, however. Minnesota Duluth head coach Maura Crowell takes over the ship from Minnesota assistant Joel Johnson, who led all four gold medal winners and is now working as an assistant coach with the senior national team.
Additionally, the US lost their U18 Summer Series against Canada two games to one, marking their first loss in the event since the summer of 2015.
Gold is always the goal for Team USA, and it’s certainly within reach for this year’s team, but they’ll face a tough challenge if they want to keep their streak alive.
Let’s look at the players tasked with the challenge, and some of the decisions made in choosing this final roster.
We’ll start at the top. The majority of the scoring load for this team will likely be handled by the star duo of Makenna Webster and Abbey Murphy. The small, but speedy and talented duo emerged as the team’s top line last year as double-underagers and ended up amongst the scoring leaders for the entire tournament.
Having those two scoring weapons is a huge plus. But ultimately, success in this tournament is likely to be determined by the ability to generate secondary scoring behind them.
It will be interesting to see how the US handles it. Last year, they went with Murphy and Webster on a line centered by Casey O’Brien, but it’s a little easier to do that when the second line(really, more like a 1B line) is centered by Taylor Heise. I don’t think the US has that luxury of depth this year.
If they do split up Webster and Murphy, it’s pretty likely that O’Brien stays with Webster. Those two—both Wisconsin commits—have developed impeccable chemistry together playing at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. Through the fall, Shattuck experimented throughout the fall putting Hannah Bilka and Lacey Eden, who both made this team, on a line with them, though neither seemed like quite a perfect fit. Bilka is more effective when she can use her skating to freewheel with the puck in open ice and Eden is more of a grinder that can hard into the corners to win pucks, but was never quite able to move the puck as fast as the other two, causing the offense to bog down a little.
My gut feeling is that you see a lot of experimentation in the preliminary round by splitting up Webster and Murphy, but they end up on the same line together at the first sign of trouble in crunch time.
The other big thing to watch with the US forward group is the status of Harvard forward Dominique Petrie. Petrie is already a two-time gold medal winner at this event, and was a huge part in anchoring the US second line last year at this tournament. She also got some run in a camp for the senior women’s national team this fall, and after enrolling in Harvard at age 17, she’s been very effective, scoring four points in five games. The bad news is that Petrie hasn’t played in a game for Harvard since November 3rd(though the USA camp was after this in mid-November) with an apparent injury. Women’s hockey news being what it is, I haven’t found much on nature or length of said injury, but if she’s not 100%, that’s a huge loss for the US. She’s likely this team’s captain if she’s healthy.
The bottom half of the roster is where the really interesting decisions are made. It’s worth noting here that the US selected 12 forwards and eight defenseman, as opposed to the more traditional 13/7. Reading between the lines there, if a forward gets hurt, they’ll grab somebody from a fourth line that otherwise isn’t playing much.
Comparing the final roster to the Summer Series roster, Katy Knoll appears to have worked her way back into the mix after making last year’s gold medal team, but not playing in the Summer Series. The team also adds hard-working grinder Audrey Wethington. Players from the Summer Series that didn’t make the final roster include Addie Burton, Elle Hartje, and Brooke Bink.
Looking at the bubble players they did take, it feels like the experience Knoll and Sydney Shearen bring to the table having been part of last year’s team may have been a deciding factor. Beyond that, I see favoring youth a little bit. Wethington, Kiara Zanon, and Clara Van Wieren can all come back for next year’s tournament. Sydney Bard is the other forward, and from the little I’ve seen, she’s probably a solid mid-line player, but haven’t seen enough of her to form a real strong opinion.
Among the snubs, I’m really surprised Burton and her linemate Lily Delianedis didn’t make the team after what I thought was an outstanding fall Elite League. They’re both scoring about double what their teammate Audrey Wethington is at Blake so far this year too. But Wethington brings more of a tough, defensive game, which it seems like the US is looking for out of their lower lines. I argue every year that you can never have enough scoring at these events, but sometimes it works the other way too.
Hartje was on the bubble this fall, and even got a call-up to play with a Minnesota Elite League team at their National Invitational Tournament for a final look in front of USA Hockey. I thought she played well, but ultimately it wasn’t enough to outweigh taking some of the younger players.
After the Summer Series loss to Canada, there was some considerable grumbling from certain sectors connecting the dots between a new head coach, what seemed to be far fewer Minnesotans than past years, and a worse result than prior years. For better or worse, this final roster doubles down on that strategy rather than correcting it, and a less than ideal result will probably be viewed from that lens.
I can see it from both sides. There was always bound to be some drop-off once the trio of Gracie Ostertag, Taylor Heise, and Madeline Wethington, who were fixtures on this team for like a decade, aged out. And the general consensus, which I mostly agree with, is that the ‘01 and ‘02 birth years weren’t as deep in Minnesota. But comparing the level of girl’s hockey being played in Minnesota to elsewhere in the country....I still think there’s a bit of a gap. In addition to Burton and Delianedis, I probably would have taken Sydney Langseth over some of the forwards here.
But tough choices will always have to be made on these rosters, and I think this pretty fair. Whether it works or not is to be determined, but you can at least see the thought process.
Overall, I don’t think this group is as strong as year’s past, and if this team has a weak point, this is probably it. This group was always going to have a tough time replacing the big minutes played by Madeline Wethington and Gracie Ostertag. Top-to-bottom, they’re probably good enough, but I’m not sure there’s a star player one would have a great amount of confidence in late in a game protecting a slim lead.
They do have one player on the blue line that might be in the legacy of an Ostertag/Wethington/Barnes/Dunne, but it might be another year before her impact is really felt. The lone ‘03 skater on the roster is Clarkson commit Haley Winn. Prior to the Summer Series, I punted, saying I hadn’t seen Winn play, but if she was getting U18 looks as a double-ager, she must be pretty good. After having seen her play: Yeah, she’s pretty good. Winn is a very elite skater with exceptional poise on the blue line. Think a female version of Quinn Hughes. I’m excited to see what she can do in this tournament, and how big of a role she can play.
Maggie Nicholson made last year’s team as a double-underager to gain some experience, and actually ended up playing some decent minutes. I sometimes forget she’s still an ‘02 that can return next year because she is one of only two returning blue liner from last year’s team. She’s a big defenseman that the US will try to get involved on the power play with her big shot from the point.
As a top pairing, I think Winn-Nicholoson makes sense. That’s a young pairing, but there’s a reason there’s only one returning defenseman from the ‘01 age group.
For the second pairing, I like Caroline Harvey’s size and skating ability, which should hold up against whatever Canada has to offer. Probably the biggest weakness is a lack of assertiveness offensively, so it would make sense to pair her with one of the US’ more puck-moving defensemen, likely Hadley Hartmetz.
Bernard is another more quiet defensive defenseman that could play with a puck-mover like Uihlein or Samoshkevich. I don’t know much about Monihan, but if she can contribute, all the better.
Taking eight defensemen might make it easier to roll through all four pairings in the preliminary stages and really get a feel for who is playing their best, and who works well together. I’d expect all the D to get good run early on before they pare things down late in teh tournament.
Skylar Vetter and Natalie Ferenc return from the Summer Series and Hannah Hogenson is the third goalie.
Between Vetter and Ferenc, Vetter is the clear-cut starter. Vetter had an outstanding first game against the Canadians at the Summer Series, stealing a win for the US, and she looked better than Ferenc in the bits I saw this fall. Hogenson is the wild card since I haven’t seen her, but it’s clear through the opportunities she has gotten for USA Hockey that she’s talented.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that goal is a huge strength for the US, but I’d be comfortable rolling with Vetter as the starting goalie, and if Hogenson is playing better and can beat her out, that’s just a bonus.