After losing to Team Canada in the gold-medal game at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, American hockey went through quite a dry spell. Most of the great American players were on their last legs, so there were certainly some growing pains over the next several years.
The USA achieved some success in the World Junior Championships, though, and that eventually translated to the senior level as the United States earned silver yet again in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
One tournament that Team USA has never really excelled in, though, is the IIHF World Ice Hockey Championships. This is an annual tournament that begins during the second round of the NHL playoffs and largely features NHL players whose respective seasons are over, as well as professionals and amateurs from across the world.
For whatever reason, the American selection committee generally tends to treat the tournament as a proving ground for young and unestablished players rather than a competition that they truly want to win. That is bolstered by the fact that they haven't medaled since winning a bronze in 2004, and haven't done better than that since winning the gold way back in 1960.
Since this is the last chance for teams to improve their world ranking ahead of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, though, it appears as though the United States is taking things a bit more seriously. They finished fourth in 2009 as a tuneup for the 2010 Olympics, so there is some hope for American hockey fans.
Here is a complete breakdown of how the red, white and blue can realistically expect to fare in the 2012 World Hockey Championships in Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden.
More Top-Flight Talent Than Usual
As mentioned previously, Team USA generally likes to use the World Hockey Championships as a means of breaking in young players and giving established NHL players who have never played for Team USA a chance to do just that. Although there is certainly still some element of that on this year's roster, there is also a lot more top-level talent than fans have grown accustomed to seeing.
The forward group is headed by Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche, Bobby Ryan of the Anaheim Ducks, Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens and Kyle Okposo of the New York Islanders. All of them have had a lot of success at the NHL level, and both Stastny and Ryan were on the 2010 Olympic team. Also, not only are they all skilled, but they're all at least 6'0" and 200 lbs., so they will be able to impose their will physically too.
On defense, good soldier Jack Johnson of the Columbus Blue Jackets will captain the team as he is never one to turn down an international tournament. Along with him, the blueline boasts rising star Cam Fowler of the Ducks, as well as the Dallas Stars' Alex Goligoski, who has become one of the league's better puck-moving defenders.
To round things out, the goaltending depth is a bit weak, but Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard will hopefully be the only backstop the Americans need.
Best Goaltending in Tournament?
Segueing off that point, there is a very real chance that the Americans will best the tournament's best goalie in the form of Howard. The Syracuse, N.Y. native was spectacular for the Red Wings and was a big reason for their regular-season success. He posted a record of 35-17-4 with a 2.13 goals against average and a sparkling .920 save percentage.
He and his team didn't get the job done in the playoffs as they were knocked out in the first round by the Nashville Predators, but Howard's loss is Team USA's gain. Looking at the other rosters, Team Canada's Cam Ward is the only other goaltender who really compares, and his numbers were a far cry from Howard's this season.
Other NHL goaltenders include Finland's Kari Lehtonen, Sweden's Jhonas Enroth and Russia's Semyon Varlamov, but Howard has a better pedigree than any of them. The United States proved in the Olympics that a hot goaltender can carry you a long way in a tournament, as the Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller was fantastic for them, and they'll look for a similar effort from Howard.
Lunch-Pail Players Will Go to Work
A team made up exclusively of grinders isn't going to do too well in this tournament as most nations boast a ton of talent, but a good mix can certainly go a long way. I already discussed who the key offensive players will be for the Americans, but there are also plenty of hardworking players who will occupy the third and fourth lines and will need to make life difficult for the opposition.
Justin Abdelkader of the Red Wings, Joey Crabb of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Patrick Dwyer of the Carolina Hurricanes, Jim Slater of the Winnipeg Jets and Nate Thompson of the Tampa Bay Lightning are all gritty players who are willing to hit, kill penalties and do whatever is asked of them to win a hockey game.
Abdelkader and Crabb are big guys who love to lay the body, while both Slater and Thompson are excellent face-off guys who will come in handy in big moments. The Americans also have a wildcard in Ryan Lasch. He is the only non-NHL player on the team, but he was the leading scorer this season in SM-liiga (Finland's top league) with 62 points in 59 games.
He'll be comfortable on what amounts to home ice in Helsinki and will be accustomed to the larger, international ice surface, so he is another anonymous player who could pay big dividends.
Intriguing Reinforcements Waiting in the Wings
Team USA currently has a 23-player roster, but they will be permitted to add two more players over the course of the tournament to make it a grand total of 25. They already have their three goaltenders, so they can bring in two skaters of any kind. Those players are almost certain to come from teams knocked out in the second round of the NHL playoffs, and there are some solid options.
The most pressing need for the Americans is another top-six forward with scoring punch. Assuming the three teams that are currently trailing in their respective series are knocked out, they could provide some much-needed talent to the American squad.
The St. Louis Blues have David Backes and T.J. Oshie, the Nashville Predators have David Legwand and Paul Gaustad, and the Washington Capitals have a good young defenseman in John Carlson who would add some good depth to the back end.
Also, regardless of what happens in the series between the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils, there is talent galore as the Flyers boast James Van Riemsdyk and the Devils could provide a bona-fide star in Zach Parise.
There's no telling who will or won't accept an invitation, but Team USA is all but guaranteed to add two important pieces over the next week or so.
Considering that the Americans had to play to avoid relegation in this tournament two years ago, they should consider baby steps to be a success. They were able to make it to the quarterfinals last season before losing to the Czech Republic, so the semis should be their target in 2012.
Playing in the semi-finals guarantees a medal game of some sort, and that would be a major win for Team USA. There are other teams with more all-round talent such as Canada, Russia and Sweden, and both Finland and the Czech Republic will be tough to get past as well, but there is no doubt that the USA is in the medal mix.
That is a lot more than you could say about them over the past couple years, so this should be a fun tournament to follow. I'm picking them to finish fourth and to lose to Russia in the bronze-medal game. While missing out on the medal would be somewhat disappointing, it would be yet another stepping stone toward becoming a perennial contender in this tournament.