Johnny Gaudreau skates at a friendly game between Germany and USA on May 07, 2019 in Mannheim, Germany.
In many ways, the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship is the oddball of men’s ice hockey. Teams are assembled during the NHL playoffs, with only certain players available for Team USA. Meanwhile, many European leagues have already concluded their playoffs, allowing the bulk of their non-NHL professional players to take part in the tournament.
Team USA, which opens this year’s tournament against host Slovakia on Friday, features a collection of NHL players whose teams have been eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as well as a sprinkling of some collegiate talent ready to make the jump.
Managing that talent is the responsibility of coach Jeff Blashill, who is coaching the men’s national team for the third straight season. The Detroit Red Wings’ coach led Team USA to a 6-2-0-2 record last season and the bronze medal; in 2017, Team USA went 6-0-0-2 in the tournament and finished fifth.
Blashill has familiarity with this tournament format, and he understands where Team USA’s focus needs to be as it prepares to open the tournament later this week.
“The biggest challenge for any team in a tournament like this is to get on the same page,” Blashill said. “We need to get on the right systems and establish how we want to play. You’ll see us build throughout the tournament. We’re not going to be the same team in our first game that we are in our second or third game. The more we play, the more guys get comfortable with each other and within the system.
“One of the biggest things we’re looking for with our early games is that progression. We need to come together as a team and get better with every game.”
Forging a team identity can be tough over such a short time period. The tournament began earlier this week with some practices in Slovakia and a pre-tournament game — a 5-2 win over Germany on Tuesday. If the U.S. advances to the medal games, it’ll play until May 26. With such a shrunk timeline, if a team fails to find its identity early, it could mean an early exit.
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That being said, Blashill knows exactly how he wants Team USA to play. The Americans will have some of the most skilled players in the tournament, which is something he feels they need to make full use of.
“The identity of our team should be simple, and that’s to play fast,” Blashill said. “We want to play fast, think fast, skate fast ... everything should be fast. We need to counter fast, which should allow our skill to open up and take over.
“At the same time, we need to score dirty-area goals. That gets lost a lot in these tournaments. We need to play fast and get shots on net, and then go to the net. With so much NHL talent in this tournament, you’re going to see a lot of pretty plays but more often than not, it’s the team that goes to the net that gets the most goals. We’re not going to forget that. Let’s make sure we get the puck there fast, but we need to get ourselves there as well.”
Team USA is stacked at the forward position, with the roster including several stars like Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres), Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames), Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) and Clayton Keller (Phoenix Coyotes). USA Hockey also added youth to the mix, including the potential first-overall pick in this summer’s NHL Entry Draft, Jack Hughes, who played with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Michigan this season.
“We have a lot of depth up front and a lot of first-line NHL talent,” said Blashill. “We need to find the right chemistry with that group. We trust the skill we have up front.”
Team USA’s defense will be led by veteran Ryan Suter (Minnesota Wild), who has a long history of international competition with USA Hockey, including the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Alec Martinez (Los Angeles Kings), Noah Hanifin (Calgary) and Brady Skjei (New York Rangers) round out a solid top-four of a D core that also includes stud Harvard defenseman Adam Fox and Michigan star Quinn Hughes — two collegiate players who recently signed NHL contracts.
“Our D will be efficient with the puck,” Blashill said. “You’re not going to see that group taking many big, high-risk chances because they don’t have to. They’re all very efficient and smart players. We have enough depth in that position that we don’t need to play any one-guy big minutes. That’s a huge plus for us. We have a lot of big-minute defensemen on our roster, so those minutes can be spread out.”
In goal, New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider is projected to be the starter; he’ll be backed up by Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks). Recent Mike Richter Award winner Cayden Primeau (Northeastern/Montreal Canadiens) will serve as the team’s third goalie.
“Cory Schneider is an elite NHL goalie, and he was playing very well at the end of the year,” Blashill said. “Thatcher Demko, everyone believes he could have a career similar to Schneider’s. He has a lot of great years ahead of him. Then finally, we’re confident in Cayden Primeau as our No. 3 goalie after he had a terrific college season. He wouldn’t be here if he didn’t deserve it.”
Blashill will be assisted on the coaching staff by 2014 Olympic coach Dan Bylsma, John Hynes and Kevin Reiter.
Team USA opens play on Friday against the host country, Slovakia, at 2:15 p.m. ET, and then faces France, Finland, Great Britain, Denmark, Germany and Canada in the preliminary round. All of Team USA’s games will air live on NHL Network.
Mike McMahon is a Boston-based writer who has covered hockey for College Hockey News and other outlets since 2006. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.