By Dan Scifo | May 03, 2017, 12:39 p.m. (ET)
Members of Team USA celebrate a goal during the bronze-medal game against the Czech Republic at the IIHF Men's World Championship at O2 Arena on May 17, 2015 in Prague.

 

The 2017 IIHF Men’s World Championship opens Friday in Paris and Cologne, Germany, as top professional hockey players in the world from 16 different countries compete for the gold medal.

Team USA comes into the tournament after finishing fourth last year, and with a lineup filled with top young talent.

Here are some of the biggest storylines to watch for heading into the competition:

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Making History

No country has ever swept gold medals in all five IIHF world championship events in a given season, and the United States will have that opportunity this year. U.S. teams have already won world titles at the women’s senior and Under-18 levels, as well as the men’s U18 and junior levels.

Winning at the men’s senior level could be the most difficult, at least based on history.

Team USA is fifth in overall tournament history with 19 medals, trailing only Canada, the Czech Republic, Russia and Sweden. But it hasn’t won a gold medal since 1960 or a silver medal since 1956.

The team has been trending up, though. The Americans do have five bronze medals since then, including three in the last 13 tournaments and two of the previous four. Team USA has finished among the top four in three of the last four years, a stretch that has only been equaled once in the organization’s history, from 1931 to 1934.

Buffalo Sabres’ star forward Jack Eichel was part of the 2015 team that won the organization’s seventh, and most recent, bronze medal. Joining him were Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings), Connor Hellebuyck (Winnipeg Jets), Anders Lee (New York Islanders), Connor Murphy (Arizona Coyotes), and Brock Nelson (Islanders).

“It’s great any time you get a medal in a tournament,” Eichel said. “You play so many games, it’s hard to get one. It would be a huge deal for our country.”

 

Youth Is Served

This year’s U.S. team features 19 of 23 players who are 25 years old or younger. The lone exceptions are Red Wings’ goaltender Jimmy Howard (33), his teammate Danny DeKeyser (27) and Islanders forward Lee, who is 26.

Though the players are young, they are experienced and highly decorated, as 19 players have won a combined 38 medals — including 19 golds — while skating for a U.S. national team.

“I think that it’s important for us as a young group of guys, and a lot of us have represented the U.S. before,” said Eichel, a member of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program from 2012 to 2014. “We all know the pride you take in doing it and what it means to put that sweater on.”

It plays in part to the rapid growth of USA Hockey at the grassroots level in recent years. The United States has won more World Junior Championship titles (3) in this decade than any other nation, and the Americans have also won the under-18 world title six of the last eight years.

“I think USA Hockey is on the upward scale, and there’s a lot of young players in our country and a lot more to come,” Eichel said. “You see the success at the younger levels, and a lot of the credit goes to the national team, the (NTDP) and USA Hockey, which puts in a lot of time and effort and when you’re able to reward that, it’s a good thing.”

 

Offensive Attack

Though the U.S. team is young, the Americans are full of offensive firepower.

Eichel has 48 goals and 113 points in two NHL seasons, while Johnny Gaudreau, of the Calgary Flames has scored 72 goals and 203 points the previous three seasons. Lee has 74 goals and 129 points the last three seasons, while his Islanders’ teammate Nelson is right behind with 66 goals and 127 points in three seasons. Larkin has also tallied 40 goals and 77 points in two seasons.

Others, including Florida Panthers forward Nick Bjugstad and Coyotes forward Christian Dvorak, have shown scoring ability as well. Meanwhile, defensemen Jacob Trouba of the Jets and Trevor van Riemsdyk of the Chicago Blackhawks have proven dangerous from the blue line.

“I think we’re all going over there pretty hungry to win and prove ourselves,” Eichel said. “There’s a lot of energy and I think that’s a good thing.”

 

Leading Team USA

Murphy was named captain of the 2017 team, while Nelson and Larkin will serve as alternates. Murphy, making his fourth appearance on the U.S. team, has played 38 games for Team USA, the most of any player on the roster. He also helped the 2015 team to a bronze medal, as well as gold medals at the 2011 U18 world championships and ’13 World Junior Championship.

Jeff Blashill, of the Red Wings, will be making his debut as head coach of the U.S. team. Jack Capuano (Islanders), Rand Pecknold (Quinnipiac University) and Seth Appert (U.S. U18 men’s world championships assistant) will serve as assistant coaches.

 

Revisiting Last Year’s Tournament

Team USA placed fourth during the 2016 world championships. After going 3-0-1-3 in the preliminary round, the Americans edged the Czech Republic 2-1 in the quarterfinals but lost to Canada 4-3 in the semifinals and Russia 7-2 in the bronze-medal game.

Canada won its 26th gold medal, defeating Finland 2-0 in the championship game.

In goal for Team USA, Hellebuyck finished 7-1 with two shutouts, and his seven wins equaled a U.S. record for most in a single tournament since 1939.

 

How to Watch

All Team USA games during the tournament will be televised live across the NBCSN and NHL Network, and streamed live on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Team USA begins play at 2 p.m. EST Friday against host Germany live on the NHL Network from Lanxess Arena in Cologne. The U.S. team will also face Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Latvia, Slovakia and Russia in preliminary-round play.

The two networks will combine to televise 29 games in the preliminary round in addition to all four quarterfinal games, both semifinals and the medal games, which take place May 21.

Dan Scifo is a sportswriter from the Pittsburgh area. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.