For the first time in years, there is a new defending gold medallist heading into the world junior hockey championship.
The Americans ended Canada’s run of five straight gold medals last January and are considered the team to beat at this year’s tournament, which gets underway Sunday in Buffalo, N.Y.
But U.S. head coach Keith Allain says being the favourite makes no difference to him or his team.
“Favourites and all that stuff is outside noise as far as I’m concerned,” Allain said Wednesday after naming his team. “We have a job to do within the team and that’s where our focus will be.”
Allain’s 22-man roster features a few familiar faces. Eight players return from the squad that beat Canada 6-5 in overtime in last year’s tournament final.
Among the returnees is goaltender Jack Campbell, a player Allain says will figure prominently in the team’s fortunes.
“Jack is going to be a key component for us,” he said. “The best word I can use to describe him is he’s a winner and he’s found a way to come up big in games his whole career.
“He’s got a great deal of experience, he’s got confidence. I really like our goaltending. I think Andy (Andy Iles) is going to push for ice time as well but we feel really good about Jack Campbell.”
Also returning is forward Ryan Bourque, the son of Hall of Fame defenceman Ray Bourque who plays for the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts.
The other returnees are defenceman John Ramage and forwards Jerry D’Amigo, Chris Kreider, Jeremy Morin, Kyle Palmieri and Jason Zucker.
The roster also includes several players from gold medal-winning under-18 squad. They are Zucker, goalies Campbell and Andy Iles and defencemen Justin Faulk, Derek Forbort and Jon Merrill.
The roster features 16 first or second-round NHL draft picks, including nine first-round selections.
“I think the fact people think we have a chance to win is exciting,” said Allain. “We want to come to this tournament with an opportunity to win and we feel we have that opportunity.”
The Americans begin their title defence against Finland on Boxing Day.
Allain said speed will be one of his team’s trademarks.
“We also have good size and a tremendous amount of versatility, which is important in a tournament of this nature,” he said. “We’ve got some experience and we’ve got good, solid goaltending.
“I definitely think we have the building blocks for a very successful tournament. Our expectations as we go through the tournament, first and foremost, is that we need to improve as a hockey team while winning hockey games and that’s the real challenge in the early part of the tournament.”
American officials were quick to suggest this year’s event is more than a two-team race between Canada and the U.S. In fact, Allain said the Americans will have a big challenge with Finland in their opening game.
“They compete extremely hard,” he said. “They play more of a North American game.
“They’re going to be in your face, they’re going to battle for every puck and they’re going to get good goaltending.”
Jim Johannson, the assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey who is also the junior team’s GM, said while the club brass has high expectations, so do the players.
“Do we come in with high expectations? Yes, we do,” he said. “But our players come in with expectations in of themselves as well.
“I say that from a respect of all of our opponents and how hard and difficult it is to have success in this tournament but also from the mindset of players coming in expecting and knowing full well they have to perform to have success but also believe in their abilities and skills to have that success.”
The Canadians are in unfamiliar territory heading into the tournament. With no dominant star players for the first time in several years, many believe they will have to rely heavily on balanced scoring to be successful.
But Allain, for one, isn’t buying Canada as an underdog.
“I can’t get in somebody else’s mind but someone told me they have 15 first-round picks on that team,” Allain quipped. “I don’t see where you become underdogs with that kind of a roster.”