With the Olympic Winter Games looming on the horizon, the U.S. Men’s National Team is witnessing an influx of young, talented players who are not only contributing in the present, but look to help bolster the program’s depth in the future.
The payoff has been immediate. For the first time since 2004, and only the third time since 1963, the Americans brought home a medal at the IIHF World Championships this year.
A big reason for that success was the play of three of its youngest players — goalie John Gibson, forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman Jacob Trouba — each of whom played a key role on the U.S. National Junior Team that captured the gold medal at the most recent World Junior Championship.
Of the 25 players on the roster, 13 of them were 25 years old or younger, and four of them, Trouba and forwards Danny Kristo, Drew LeBlanc and Nick Bjugstad spent the majority of the season playing college hockey.
With the late start to the NHL playoffs brought on by the lockout, it forced team management to call a bit of an audible in terms of who to put on the roster — particularly in goal, with Americans Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Quick and Craig Anderson all leading their NHL clubs in the postseason.
However, according to Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of Hockey Operations, having that many young players on the roster was as much by design as anything.
“I think we felt strong about guys like Trouba, Galchenyuk, Bjugstad, Kristo, about getting them on the team and where their role fell,” Johannson said. “In the end I think in the case of the young guys, if you give them opportunities, they have some measured success, and I think all of them did that.”
It was a whirlwind year for some of the young players, particularly the three who won gold at the World Juniors.
Gibson described the season as a bit of a blur. Beginning the year in Kitchener, Ontario and ending it in Helsinki, with a pit stop in Ufa, Russia, the 19-year-old goalie put his name on the world hockey map while winning the Bob Johnson Award for excellence in international hockey competition along the way.
“Starting out at the World Juniors, the gold medal didn’t have much time to sink in,” he said. “I didn’t really know if I was going to the World Championships, and when I found out … I didn’t really know what to expect and figured I wasn’t going to play too much. But I knew if I got the opportunity I had to make the most of it.”
And make the most of it he did. After winning tournament MVP at the World Juniors and posting a successful second season with the Kitchener Rangers, Gibson shined once again on the world stage.
Starting the tournament as the backup to Tampa Bay Lightning netminder Ben Bishop, Gibson started five of 10 games, posting a 1.56 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage. He notched wins against Russia and Finland, the teams that entered the tournament ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world respectively.
“It was the highest level of [competition] I’d ever played against, so I had to make a couple of adjustments,” Gibson said. “Going into it, I’m just focused on trying to win a hockey game. Obviously when you’re playing Russia, you have to keep an eye out for [Alex] Ovechkin and [Ilya] Kovalchuk, but other than that you just have to go out there and play and enjoy the experience.”
Phil Housley had an up-close look at some of those young players this year. After serving as head coach for the gold-medal winning World Junior team, Housley returned in a supporting role six months later in Finland.
The biggest difference in their games between December and May, he said, was maturity.
“You look at Jacob Trouba, he was a regular on the first power play, and when Galchenyuk came over he was playing regular shifts,” said Housley, himself no stranger to international competition during his 22 years of professional hockey.
“And what can you say about John Gibson? He gets put in the most hostile environment against Finland … and he was outstanding. Those guys made a huge impact and kept developing.”
What made team management so confident in having so many young players on the roster is their versatility; they were comfortable putting players anywhere in the lineup.
“In the case of all the young guys, we were comfortable with them, first of all, being there, but also with them growing into a role, or the role kind of dictating itself based on the performance of themselves and others,” Johannson said.
Getting a roster of so many young players to mesh with the veterans can, at times, be a challenge.
That wasn’t the case here. Team management flew all the players on the initial roster into Newark, N.J. so they would all be on the same flight to Helsinki, which is where the team building began.
“I could see the chemistry of the guys right away,” Housley said. “There weren’t a lot of [separate] groups. Everyone was pretty tight.”
The challenge now for Team USA is figuring out how to whittle down a roster for the Olympics. Several players on the World Championship roster may have punched their ticket to the Olympic Orientation Camp in August.
“It’s just another part of the evaluation,” Johannson said. “The great part about it is the good competition and guys all got to play in situations that helped them. It’s a little bit different hockey on the big ice, so I think a lot of players helped themselves by being in those situations.”