Photo: Jonas Forsberg, Bildbyrån
U18 World Juniors

Speed, skill and goal-scoring: The best forward group Team USA has ever seen at the U18’s

ÖRNSKÖLDSVIK, SWEDEN — Comparisons can be tricky and often lead to disagreements. Sometimes even arguments. Certainly when it comes to sports and especially when putting results from two different eras up against each other. Hell, it is not out of the realm of possibility that a statistical disagreement somewhere, somehow – at some point – has resulted in actual punches thrown.

So at EP Rinkside we figured we’d skip the controversial, era-spanning comparisons and instead direct our attention to recent history.

Specifically, US hockey history. Even more specifially, USA rosters for the U18 Worlds in the past two decades.

All in order to put forth the question; is this the deepest and overall most talented forward lineup Team USA has brought to the U18 Worlds in recent history?

THE BACKGROUND

The USA Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP) feature two teams – the U17 team and the U18 team. Each year, the teams compete in the USHL and also play games against NCAA opposition (U18 team). They also compete as Team USA in international tournaments like the Hlinka Gretzky Cup (Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament) and the U18 Worlds. In the past 20 years at the U18 Worlds the US team has won an impressive ten golds, with seven of those coming in the last ten years.

Its fair to say USA junior hockey is smack in the middle of a golden era. Especially when it comes to the development of their forwards.

Gifted youngsters Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Clayton Keller have all come up through the program in recent years and gone on to enjoy success in the National Hockey League.

Eichel and Matthews, especially.

Whether or not 2019 top name Jack Hughes is on the same level as Eichel or Matthews remains to be seen, but he does look set to become the first American to be selected first overall in the NHL Draft since Auston Matthews (2016) and second since Patrick Kane (2007).

But lets look at the overall forward corps.

Since EP Rinkside wasn’t around, or on location, for any of the previous tournaments we’ll just have to do it the old-fashioned way: statistics.

THE STATISTICS

Using our trusted parent site, Eliteprospects.com, we learn that the US U18 teams’ single season records for goals, assists and points are as follows:

Goals – 12 (Cole Caufield 18-19)
Assists – 10 (Clayton Keller 15-16, Jeremy Bracco & Matthew Tkachuk 14-15)
Points – 16 (Phil Kessel 04-05, Jack Hughes 18-19)

Looking at these records and adding the fact that Auston Matthews 15 points in 2014-15 is second best all-time, with Clayton Keller (14) and Kailer Yamamoto‘s (13) totals from 2015-16 as 4th and 5th – we have three obvious contenders outside of this years squad: 2004-05, 2014-15 and 2015-16.

The 2004-05 team won the gold medal and had Erik and Jack Johnson on defense, but at the forward position it was mostly the Phil Kessel show. Kessel put up 16 points with the next best two scorers, Nathan Gerbe and Peter Mueller, coming in at 8 and 7 points respectively.

So, not the 04-05 squad.

The 2014-15 squad won gold and had Auston Matthews (15), Jeremy Bracco (13), Matthew Tkachuk (12) and Jack Roslovic (11) all contributing double digit point totals, with an “underage” Clayton Keller chipping in 9 Points.

Pretty deep, and some solid names in the mix.

The next year, 2015-16, Clayton Keller was back to lead USA to a bronze medal. He scored 14 points himself while Kailer Yamamoto (13) and Logan Brown (12) were the 2nd and 3rd leading scorers.

Not bad…

THE 2018-19 SQUAD

… but coming up short next to the phenomenal squad from this years tournament.

Not only are Cole Caufield, Jack Hughes and Matthew Boldy – with Alex Turcotte on the way –  already up to double digits in points, late additions Bobby Brink (2+3 in 3 games) and Trevor Zegras (0+7 in 3 games) seems to have put the team over the top.

Looking at it objectively, the current top-six forwards for the US team are all projected to go somewhere in the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft and could potentially all be selected among the first 15-20 players.

Not to mention the fact that both Caufield and Hughes have already set team records for goals and points at the U18 level and now have their sights set on the all-time tournament records

As the US squad are getting set for the semifinals after crusing past Finland in the quarterfinals by a score of 6-0 (!), they have at least two more games to play in the tournament regardless if they get past the semis or not. That should be plenty of time for Caufield and Hughes to go on breaking records and for the rest of the forward corps to keep proving why they are among the best in American U18 history.

Perhaps even among the best in U18 history overall.

Naturally, anything but gold would be a dissapointment to these young men. Both in terms of their own ambitions and expectations, not to mention their strength of roster. Outside of the forwards, defender Cam York and goaltender Spencer Knight have both been outstanding. And they’re not alone in that regard.

But even if the team should come up short of their ultimate goal, it doesn’t take away from the immense talent and creativity that’s been on display in Örnsköldsvik for the past week.

MAXIMIZING THE POTENTIAL

EP Rinkside spoke to head coach John Wroblewski earlier about his forward depth and how you go about maximizing the potential of so many skilled players at the same time.

Now that they’re all finally available, that is.

“We haven’t had a full lineup all season; whether it’s been [Alex] Turcotte missing some time at the beginning or Jack [Hughes] going to play in the World Junior Championships… we haven’t had a full lineup.”

While other teams have mostly stuck with their line combinations, Wroblewski has deployed various different looks throughout the tournament in order to get a feel for what works.

He’s even switched things up mid-game, while winning.

“We’re always tinkering, trying to find what works. We’ll probably continue to throw some guys in the blender, since we know we have combinations that work. For example, we love to put Gilly [Gildon] on the wing with our top guys [Caufield, Hughes] sometimes. We feel he adds a heavy component to give Jack and Cole that net-front presence and some extra help in the corner battles.”

The addition of Boston University-commit Trevor Zegras – who’s also seen time on the top line and can play both center and wing – gives Wroblewski almost unlimited options.

“We love having [Zegras] in the middle of the ice, moving up the ice with the puck on his stick because he’s so dominant there.”

“We’ll see how things go there.”

As for Zegras himself, he says he probably prefers playing center but playing with Caufield and Hughes isn’t exactly a chore either.

“I’d say the only difference [playing wing] is maybe moving the puck a little bit more and faster. But, playing with those two – that kind of suits my game, you know; speed, skill and goal-scoring.”

Speed, skill and goal-scoring.

Those are indeed the three buzz words for what will likely go down as the most talented group of forwards USA has ever put together at the U18 level.

Let’s see how far that takes them.

You may also be interested in: Motivated Caufield off to torrid start at U18 Worlds: “I just love when the puck goes in the net” This article is about:
NHL Entry Draft 2019 NHL Prospects U18 World Juniors USA U18 WJC-18 Cole Caufield Jack Hughes Trevor Zegras Bobby Brink Matthew Boldy Alex Turcotte
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