Tuesday, January 04, 2011

USA Hockey Has a Ways to Go

While UMD was busy taking care of business at Clarkson Monday night, we were getting texts and Twitter updates on a game that wasn't going terribly well.

Unless you're Cody Danberg or one of the other six Canadians on the UMD roster.

None of us had a chance to watch Canada thrash the United States 4-1 at the World Juniors. We had the texts and tweets to tell us what was going on. From the sounds of it, we didn't miss much, and we didn't have to see the game. This dance has been danced before.

Pure Canadian domination. An American team that wasn't ready to play, even if they were talented enough to compete.

There's a reality that comes with a whipping like this. For the United States, it's another sign of both the progress that's been made, and the work that remains.

There is undeniable progress for USA Hockey. After all, they entered this tournament as no worse than a co-favorite, and many thought they could pick off Canada and win a second straight gold. The fact that sober, sane people could say this is a sign that USA Hockey has come a long way.

But getting beat 4-1 by a Canadian team missing at least six age-eligible players who could have made a difference is an unmistakable sign that much more progress is needed.

While Cam Fowler is patrolling the Anaheim Ducks' blue line, Canada is missing, yes, six players who were eligible by birthdate to compete in this tournament. Among them are Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, the top two picks in the 2010 draft. Evander Kane and Matt Duchene are also playing in the NHL and weren't released to play in the World Juniors.

More than any other country, Canada is stuck playing more of a "B" squad in this tournament. Sweden has guys like Magnus Paajarvi and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but they're not missing the bodies Canada is.

This happens every year, and it's not meant as an insult to any other country who misses players in this tournament because of pro commitments. Instead, it should be taken as a sign of Canada's superiority at this level.

Get to the national team level, and the Olympics proved that Canada doesn't have some sort of ridiculous advantage. As players get older, the gap narrows. When you pick teams of adults and have no restrictions on the players you can select, the United States can totally compete. They beat Canada in the Olympics last year before losing to them in overtime for the gold medal. As great as Ryan Miller was in the gold-medal game, final shots were only 39-36 in favor of Canada, hardly a dominant performance where they were simply thwarted by a hot goalie.

But at the U-20 level, Canada has a ridiculous edge in talent. Is it better youth development, or is there just an age where Canada has the talent and numbers to dominate the world?

If the U.S. is that capable of competing at the Olympic level, is it simply a matter of their players getting better at older ages? What's closing that gap?

There are a lot of questions, but again, we're back to the basic. When you look at this U-20 tournament, there's no question the United States has a way to go to become competitive on an annual basis.

A medal Wednesday would be huge for the Americans. Yes, the bronze sucks. It's not as pretty as the gold, and third place isn't nearly as sexy as first place. But it means you ended the tournament with a win, and it's a win that will mean something for an American squad that has never medaled in back-to-back World Juniors.

Canada will play for their 16th gold in this event later Wednesday, but you aren't going to magically start competing with the big dog on an annual basis. You have to build to that, and consecutive medals are a significant step in that build.

Just don't mistake last year's gold as a sign that the build has been completed.

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