Friday, April 23, 2010

USA Claims Another International Championship

The United States successfully defended their U18 crown with a 3-1 win over Sweden Friday afternoon in Belarus. Over the last several years, the Americans have dominated the annual April tournament having collected a medal every year but once since 2002. If nothing else, this is a clear sign that USA Hockey's National Team Development Program is working.

The US-NTDP has a U17 and U18 version that shares a regular season schedule in the USHL. The players get to grow and develop together over the course of an entire season and that obviously is paying huge dividends when it comes to a spring tournament like the World U18 Championship.

Only two members of this year's gold medal team we not regular season participants with the US-NTDP; Austin Watson, a likely 1st round pick who played in the OHL, and Connor Brickley who came out of the USHL's Des Moines Buccaneers.

Interesting to note that Americans Jason Zucker and Jack Campbell have both captured 2009 U18, 2010 U18 and 2010 WJC gold medals in the last 12 months.

Sweden's second place finish was their best result at the U18s since 1999.

Finland's 5-1 pounding of Russia earned them the bronze medal, Teemu Pulkkinen potted 3 goals and ended the tournament with 10 goals and 15 points which were highs in both categories. Mikael Granlund ended the event third in scoring with 13 points.

Swede Johan Larsson was the player sandwiched between the highly touted Finns.

Other notable 2010 prospects who finished high on the scoring list include Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov (5-7-12 pts) and Jordan Weal led Canadian skaters with 9 points.

Speaking of Canada, it was a 7th place finish which is the worst record since they nation started participating in 2002. Those outside of the country who will relish in the optics of such a poor finish will consider it an excuse but the fact is that Canada is at a disadvantage for an April tournament.

Simply put, the majority of Canada's top talent that is eligible to play in the U18s are not available because they are still actively playing in the CHL playoffs. If the tournament started even 10 days later, players from the 12 CHL teams eliminated from the 2nd round of playoffs would suddenly be available.

Of course, the American and European teams also have a few players in the CHL playoffs who could help them but the ratio is much smaller. Suffice to say that when all the best players from each country are available, in August at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament (formerly U18 Junior World Cup), the end results are usually quite different; Canada has captured the gold medal in 12 of the last 14 years.

Tournament All-Stars were Jack Campbell (goalie), Adam Larsson (defenceman), Teemu Pulkkinen (forward) with the American netminder earning the overall tournament MVP award.

Canadian forward Brett Connolly was limited to 4 games in the tournament and managed just a single point. While many wondered if he re-aggravated his hip flexor injury and couldn't play or perform because of that, The Pipeline Show has learned that the Prince George Cougar and 2009 CHL Rookie of the Year actually came down with food poisoning. It's a disappointing finish to the playing year for Connolly who was hoping the tournament could secure his place in the top 5 at the 2010 Draft. That may still happen but there are bound to be skeptics now.


Sara said...

Should be noted though at Ivan Hlinka that the US doesn't bring it's top players to Ivan Hlinka as NTDP players are not allowed to go. So the U18 tourneys are kind of a crap shoot since Canada can't take it's best players to the U18s and the US doesn't take it's best to Ivan Hlinka.

Paul @ the Unstable Margins said...

In the full list of international losses (to which we could add the under 18s this spring), the US team is almost always decidedly faster. Demographics does not address this, as far as I can see.

I don't know if there's a difference in basic skills training, or if the overall US system favours speed more than power--as in College styles vs. Junior, for example. But it may be a combination of these, PLUS the fact that the USDP builds international teams around speed, and rewards fast players with elite development opportunities. (If it were just skills training, I don’t think we would be seeing the US outskating even the Swedes, which I thought I saw this year at the World Juniors, as fast as the Swedes were.)

The implication is not that Canada punishes speed, obviously, but that speed may have a lower overall rating in assessing the potential of a player, and the overall value of speed as a team asset.

Whatever the reason, the American style seems much more like a hybrid of European speed and Canadian power. This gold-medal team was faster, bigger and **younger** than Canada's. Bigger in the sense that their bigger players were faster than ours, and their faster players were bigger than our faster players. In fact, I'm not sure that Hall, McMillan and Kadri, our fastest players, were faster than the average US forward.

We learned from the Soviets, albeit reluctantly, after 1972. Herb Brooks was an obsessive student of the Russian game. Time for us to study the Americans--be it hothousing, basic skills training, or the strategy of enriching elite development opportunities for basically fast players.

Do we need to train, select, and build teams to answer this US style that I think has clearly emerged as distinct from ours, Dean Blais's kind comments notwithstanding?

Do we need a hothousing system, with elite regional teams playing in a higher age bracket, as in the US under 18s playing in the US Junior league? Maybe a high school system so our good but not great 16s and 17s are not getting fourth-line minutes in junior?

Guy Flaming said...

@ Sara - great point, I actually forgot that about the US-NTDP and the Ivan Hlinka.

@ Paul - thanks for the read.