World Juniors 2020: Four reasons the United States was handed an early exit

Sporting News

The 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship is over for the United States after it fell to Finland 1-0 in the tournament quarterfinal.

It is the earliest exit for the Americans since they finished fifth in 2015; this defeat ended an impressive run of four straight years with a medal. Although the strength of a preliminary-round group that included Russia, Canada, Germany and the host Czech Republic made the Americans' road to another world junior crown more difficult than in previous years, this year's roster on paper looked strong enough to be considered one of the top candidates to win.

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The Finns, however, ended any chance at another American championship by smothering them at even strength via an aggressive forecheck and held them to only seven shots in the final frame. Additionally, Finland gave the U.S. only two power-play chances for the entire game — the second coming within the last two minutes of regulation.

So what exactly happened in the Czech Republic? Here are four reasons why the Americans are coming home empty-handed.

Defense Scoring

Apart from the involvement of Zac Jones in multiple high-quality scoring chances, the American defensemen did not have a productive tournament from an offensive standpoint. Of the 10 competing nations, only Kazakhstan received fewer points (two) from their defensemen as the U.S. (five). Conversely, the four advancing teams — Canada, Finland, Sweden and Russia — received 17, 17, 19 and 12 points, respectively.

One can make a strong argument that the best U.S. defender in terms of playmaking and generating chances off the rush is Philadelphia Flyers prospect Cam York, who averaged a team-low 5:55 per game and was barely used at even strength. The group as a whole was strong defensively, but New York Rangers draft pick K’Andre Miller’s ill-advised turnover late in a tie game against Canada led to Alexis Lafreniere’s game-winner. That opening-game loss prevented the Americans from winning the group and gaining a higher seeding in the medal round.

The stats will show that this defense corps allowed only five goals at even strength, but their inability to handle the Finnish and Canadian forechecks had a profound impact on their ability to help tilt the ice in their favor.

The Penalty Kill

Make no mistake — the hard work displayed by the likes of Jack Drury, Spencer Stastney and Parker Ford while down a man was borderline heroic. But in the end, the penalty kill let the Americans down, specifically in the critical Boxing Day game against Canada where they were victimized three times. They did a solid job killing off an opening four-minute power-play early in the first period of their quarterfinal match against Finland, but the lone goal came off a Joonas Oden one-timer while Jack Drury was in the box for hooking.

Miller was on the ice for five of the eight power-play goals surrendered, and both he and Wisconsin teammate Ty Emberson made questionable decisions in coverage. For the tournament, the U.S. penalty kill operated at a disappointing 65.2 percent success rate — their worst in the last decade.

Depth Scoring

For whatever reason, only five American forwards in the quarterfinal match against Finland played over 14 minutes, and both Alex Turcotte — the fifth-overall pick in last year’s draft — and leading goal-scorer Arthur Kaliyev, played less than four minutes in the final period. While it’s common practice for a coach to ride his top players in a close game, head coach Scott Sandelin’s reliance on two lines throughout the tournament, including the final 15 minutes of regulation against Finland, was puzzling given the resumes of the teenagers he was keeping on the bench.

In retrospect, the intensity and importance of this year’s play in Group B may have made it easier for Sandelin to justify leaning on his preferred group, but he has to be held partly responsible for not finding the right combinations for his bottom two lines.

Not enough goals from goal scorers

Raise your hand if you predicted that three of the most prolific scorers in the history of the U.S. National Team Development Program — recent first-round picks Oliver Wahlstrom, Turcotte and Cole Caufield — would combine for one insignificant five-on-five goal in five games.

Although Turcotte and Caufield teamed up to score the winner in overtime against the Czechs, they were unable see enough ice to impact play at even strength. Granted, they were on the roster’s younger side and are eligible to return next year; but zero goals in regulation between the two of them was a development few, if anybody, could have foreseen.

Wahlstrom, on the other hand, didn’t have any excuses. He’s a goal scorer who saw plenty of ice time in all situations, and although he had four assists, his lone goal was an insurance marker in the third period against Germany. Wahlstrom led the team with 21 shots and hit the post a few times, but he could have been better when he was needed most.

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