Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Post-Gold Medal Euphoria..er- Observations

The United States World Junior (Under-20) Team is no doubt still basking in the afterglow of their stunning overtime upset of Team Canada in Saskatoon last night, so I'll do a quick post mortem on some of the key aspects of that game and how the Americans nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, only to see the one player with more pro experience than anyone on the roster win it for them in sudden death.

Here are five of my key themes that helped to propel Team USA to gold in Saskatoon.

1. The Carlson Factor.

The Natick-born blueliner whose family left Marlboro, Mass. for New Jersey at age 10 has made quantum leaps in his development since 2008, when the Washington Capitals drafted him late in the first round with the 27th overall selection, six spots after they used their first of two picks on Swedish forward Anton Gustafsson. So far, Carlson has far outpaced Gustafsson in their development, with Carlson blossoming from a prospect with excellent size and mobility and some offensive upside when he was picked, to a legitimate two-way defenseman and solid No. 2 candidate in Washington someday paired with Mike Green. Carlson made the right choice to decommit from his scholarship at UMass-Amherst and go the major junior route with the London Knights, where he scored 76 points in 59 OHL games after his 43 points withthe Indiana Ice of the USHL the year before in as many games. Last spring, Carlson jumped to the Hershey Bears of the AHL after his season ended, winning a Calder Cup ring in the process. This season, he leads the AHL in scoring for defensemen and has even seen three NHL games with the Capitals.

Carlson was a force in the tournament, but he saved his best performance for the championship game, the true sign of a top player. The two goals last night aside, he made the right decisions with and without the puck all night, and was an excellent defensive partner for the slower but game John Ramage, who set up Carlson's winning goal with a textbook perfect breakout pass that allowed Carlson to corral the puck at full gallop and getting a step on the Canada defense.

It was Carlson's first and last chance to skate for the Under-20 team; he won gold five days before his 20th birthday, making that opportunity count.

2. Dean Blais and his coaches

Moral courage is an essential quality of any coach of a team sport at a high level, and USA head coach Dean Blais demonstrated it in spades last night when he pulled struggling starter Mike Lee from the lineup after what had been a heroic tournament for the former Roseau H.S. Rams and Fargo Force (USHL) star. Lee surrendered three goals on just seven shots, all of them of the "eminently stoppable" category, and the third having come off the stick of uber prospect Taylor Hall, who simply threw the biscuit on net from near the left wing boards and watched it some how hit Lee, pop into the air, over and behind the USA netminder and into the cage behind him. Blais did not hesitate, yanking Lee, with whom he has a solid a personal connection as any player on the team, and putting in the squad's second-youngest member, Jack Campbell, who had last seen action when he gave up Brandon Kozun's shootout goal in USA's 5-4 loss on New Year's Eve.

That kind of decision takes guts, especially since Lee had been so good up until last night. But, Blais possessed the moral courage to recognize that Lee didn't have "it" in this most important game and trusted Campbell to stop the bleeding. The 17-year-old (who turns 18 in three days) did just that, making a flurry of stops to keep the game at 3-3 going into the final period. While Campbell did give up a pair of late tallies to the tournaments most lethal goal scorer Jordan Eberle to send the game into overtime, he slammed the door and stopped everything he faced, allowing Carlson to seize the moment.

I don't know of many coaches who would have had the moral courage to do what Blais did last night. He could see his team's spirits flagging with the kind of letdown Lee was giving them and he made the switch, knowing full well that if Canada blew up Campbell, then he would be skewered relentlessly and likely second-guessed the way pundits excel at doing when coaches make decisions that don't work out.

Blais and his assistant coaches, especially goalie coach Joe Exter, who comes out of this tournament as one hot name for bigger and better things after the job he did with his duo of puckstoppers and the supreme demonstration of poise and hockey knowledge he showed during interviews on the NHL Network, kept Team USA focused and playing together and for each other throughout the tournament.

The team was not hampered by some of the me-first, look-at-me garbage that other recent USA entries had exhibited, contributing to their demise in the tournament and earning USA Hockey a good deal of global scorn for their petulance. This USA team eschewed all of that for the collective- much as their counterparts in Canada have made a science out of doing over the past decade. The coaches set the tone: they are responsible for their team's preparation and discipline. In so many years when the inmates ran the proverbial asylum on other Team USA WJC entries, Blais left no doubt as to who was in charge, and that whole squad of 22 players will forever be the better for it.

3. The Role Players Played Their Roles...And Then Some

When a seventh-round NHL pick like Jerry D'Amigo finishes in the top-five of the tournament in scoring, then you know you're getting mileage from the kinds of players you didn't expect to carry you offensively. D'Amigo, Tyler Johnson, Jason Zucker and Ryan Bourque were all players who, entering the tourney were expected to play more of a secondary role, yet at various points, all emerged with important plays to keep their team rolling. NHL Network analyst Dave Starman perhaps said it best last night when he quipped, "I know Zucker's from Vegas, but if I'm going there, I'm bringing D'Amigo with me." The scrappy forward and freshman at RPI was supposed to be an energy/checking player for Team USA, but all he did was lead them in goals (tied with Chris Kreider at six apiece) and finish second to captain Derek Stepan in points with 12 in seven games. One thing often overlooked in hockey is that while your stars have to do their thing, if you don't get production from the middle and bottom of your lineup, your chance of winning goes down significantly. In the Americans' case, their role players stepped up and made things happen, paving the way for gold.

4. Cam Fowler Is Who We Thought He Is

And that is- a top-three NHL draft pick next June. Now, to the unitiated, Fowler's two assists in the seven games don't seem like a great deal of success, but to watch him in action as the squad's third youngest player behind Zucker and Campbell was to see a defenseman who can do everything at a high level. He's a plus-skater with superb balance and the size and strength to go with. He's got a very good shot (though he could stand to keep improving it), but his decision-making throughout was solid. One scout I've talked to about him has noticed that Fowler tends to defer on the ice to his more experienced partner, and we saw that when he was playing with David Warsofsky and later Matt Donovan. I remember one play in OT last night when Fowler took the puck at the point and had a chance to shoot, only to pass it over to Donovan who took it (and missed the net just wide). Fowler's skills are what are going to see him drafted high because he does things that most of his peers can only dream about. And, he'll grow out of that tendency to defer to his seniors- the same scout said that when Ryan Ellis was out of action in Windsor earlier this season, Fowler's game took on a whole new sense of urgency and purpose. Fowler is a modern day Midas: everything he touches turns to gold. He won gold on the Under-18 squad in Fargo last spring, and he's won gold again in Saskatoon. Chances are, he'll be in the thick of what could be a second consecutive Memorial Cup in May for Windsor. Don't get fixated on the lack of production at this tournament; He shut down opponents when he had to (including a brilliant performance against Windsor teammate Taylor Hall on New Year's Eve), and showed off the skillset that has had scouts drooling for some time now. He's got the goods, and will only get better as he continues to develop.

5. Goaltending Was The Ultimate Factor

Team Canada came oh-so-close to an unprecendented sixth consecutive gold medal, but at the moment of truth, their goaltending, namely Jake Allen, failed them. The difference is,while Lee also did the same, his coach pulled him before it was too late. Canada coach Willy Desjardins did not, waiting until Allen muffed D'Amigo's pop fly that Stepan converted on the backhand to give USA a 5-3 lead to make the switch. That decision will likely haunt Canada for some time.

If the WJC was a series, USA likely would not have stood a chance against a more talented and much deeper Canadian squad, who enjoyed the home ice advantage in Saskatoon. However, in a one game, winner-take-all scenario, top goaltending is a must. The teams were lucky in that both starters were shaky early, but at the end of the night, it was Campbell's heroics, to the tune of 32 saves, that made the difference.

Martin Jones tried his best, but he had sat on the bench too long, and then wasn't tested all that much when he came in, as the ice tilted in Canada's favor and Campbell was under siege. Yes, he gave up the late goals to send the game to OT, but when Carlson roared down the ice and pivoted his hips, raising his stick, it was Jones who flinched and gave up the decisive goal. Campbell on the other hand, kept his cool and as Exter said confidently before the start of OT, "Took it save by save."

Make no mistake- the loss does nothing to tarnish Canada's reputation. They'll be back and hungrier than ever in Buffalo next year. And, with that city's proximity to the Canadian border, the USA's home ice advantage won't carry nearly as much weight as Saskatoon did. But, as was the case in 2004, when Marc-Andre Fleury picked the wrong time to be mediocre, so was the Canadian tandem last night. And it cost the better team the chance to win it all.

***

I'll be back with individual scouting reports on some of the 2010 draft eligible players from the various countries based on what I saw. Remember- I was watching the games on television, so there is a lot you miss. But, hopefully, my observations will give those of you who didn't get a chance to see the games a feel for what these players bring to the table.

Oh, and while the Toronto Maple Leafs beat Florida last night 3-2 and now have 39 points, Boston beat Ottawa and maintain that 12-point lead on the Leafs in the standings. My focus has been on the WJC's, but now that the event is done, we'll shift back to the NHL.

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