Will the U.S. defend at WJC?
U.S. looks like favourite, but it won't be easy
Not necessarily, according to veteran broadcaster Dave Starman, who will serve as color analyst for NHL Network's coverage of Team U.S.'s games for the third straight year.
"If the U.S. can reach the gold-medal game once again, and win it against Canada once again, then you would probably end up with the same type of drama," Starman told NHL.com. "But last year is going to be pretty hard to beat."
When pressed for a prediction, however, Starman did oblige. "I'd be surprised if U.S. isn't playing for gold," he said. "I'd be unbelievably surprised if they weren't facing the Swedes or Canadians in the gold-medal game. I believe Team U.S. is going to be a team this year that's going to be really high octane and really physical. I think you're going to see defensemen stepping into the play like crazy, the goaltending is going to be solid and I think they're playing for an experienced staff and a head coach (Keith Allain) that's no-nonsense and extremely familiar with the international game. I think that's a huge key … he gets it."
Despite all that, Starman also feels that whichever teams survive Group B, which consists of Canada, Sweden, Russia, Czech Republic and Norway, could be better battle-tested.
"If there's one big question, and no disrespect to those teams with the U.S. in Group A (Finland, Germany, Slovakia, Switzerland), where is there a game in that first round where the United States is going to come out of it and say, 'That was a battle, we proved something to ourselves and now we're ready for the next one.'"
Starman doesn't envision revenge being a big factor for Canada, despite last year's memorable 6-5 overtime loss to the U.S. in the gold-medal game in Saskatoon.
"I think when revenge is your motive, your goals can get away from you," he said. "I firmly believe that Team Canada couldn't care if they played this tournament in Buffalo, Montreal, Stockholm or the Middle East -- they just want to play. I don't think Buffalo is that much of a disadvantage anyway because it's so close to the border. Even though they're not the home team, they're as close as you can be. It's sort of like Boston University playing Boston College -- it might not be your home rink, but it's pretty darn close."
While revenge shouldn't be a concern, Starman is wondering who will step into that leadership role for Team Canada. Nashville Predators prospect Ryan Ellis, who will be the seventh player in Hockey Canada history to participate in three WJC tournaments (Jason Botterill, Jay Bouwmeester, Eric Lindros, Trevor Kidd, Martin Lapointe, Jason Spezza), has been named the team's captain.
"The question for them is their leadership more than anything," he said. "I think when you take a look at last year's team with (Stefan) Della-Rovere, (Patrice) Cormier and Jordan Eberle, they had good, tough leadership. Those were the guys who said, 'Hey, if we have to block shots with our head, we'll do it. If we have to take a couple of hits to make a play, we'll do it.' They were the perfect guys to run a room by example because they walked the walk. This year's group is a good group, but I don't know if they are as dynamic as the group that led them last year and the group that led them last year had the advantage of being on a team that won it (in 2009)."
Four players from last year's team will be with Team Canada in Buffalo -- forward Brayden Schenn and defensemen Ellis, Jared Cowen and Calvin de Haan.
In addition to the U.S. and Canada, Sweden is another country that shouldn't be taken lightly. In fact, NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb, the Swedes certainly are in the running for gold this year.
"The Swedes do have several really talented defenders, forwards and strong goaltending," Stubb said. "The leadership is also evident with guys like Tim Erixon, Adam Larsson, Patrik Nemeth and Jonas Brodin."
The tournament starts with four games on Dec. 26, highlighted by Canada facing Russia at 4 p.m. ET followed by the U.S. playing Finland at 8 p.m. Both games will be played at Buffalo's HSBC Center.
After Finland, the U.S. will play three more preliminary-round games -- Dec. 28 against Slovakia, Dec. 30 against Germany and Dec. 31 against Switzerland. Following its game against Russia, Canada will play the Czech Republic on Dec. 28, Norway on Dec. 29 and Sweden on Dec. 31.