It's a good thing few people in the United States follow the Under-20 World Junior Championship, given the way the highly touted American squad spit the bit in the Czech Republic over the weekend. After going 4-0 through the preliminary round of the annual tournament that features the best young players in the world, the U.S. was outclassed 4-1 by Canada in the semifinal and then mailed it in, losing 4-2 to the Russians in the bronze medal game. After winning a bronze a year ago, the Americans were hoping to win back-to-back medals for the first time. Sadly, for those few who care, this year's failures have a maddeningly familiar ring to them.
The U.S. has become a fertile ground for developing top-notch hockey talent in the past decade. For the first time, U.S.-born players were selected 1st and 2nd at last year's NHL entry draft (namely, Patrick Kane and James vanRiemsdyk) and the American contingent at last year's draft represented a record 29.9 percent of all players selected. Ten Americans were taken in the first round each of the last two years. In short, the U.S. is producing top-level hockey talent in unprecedented numbers. Not that you'd know it looking at the results at the WJC. In spite of icing deep, talented squads for the past four or five years, American teams have one gold medal and one bronze to show for their efforts. All of which makes you wonder if the millions of dollars spent housing the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., are worth it.
Lewis Mongelluzzo, a longtime NHL scout now with the Ottawa Senators and a former USA Hockey talent evaluator for the national junior team, told ESPN.com on Sunday that while he has the utmost respect for the men who run USA Hockey, he thinks there has to be a dramatic change in culture within the national hockey body before American teams begin winning.
"Until they create a cultural environment that makes players accountable, they will vastly underachieve," Mongelluzzo said.
Mongelluzzo was involved with the seminal gold-medal win by the Americans in 2004 against Canada. It marked the last time the Canadians did not win gold at the tournament. Indeed, until the preliminary round this year, the Canadians had not lost a single game since that gold medal defeat at the hands of the Americans.
But therein lays the difference.
The Canadian program under coaches like Craig Hartsburg and his predecessor, Brent Sutter, is run like an NHL team. Players, although predominantly 18- and 19-year-olds, are treated as pros, which is commensurate with the expectations that surround the Canadian team each December. It is not a huge stretch to suggest that the pressure on the Canadian junior team each year is almost as great as the pressure on the Canadian men's Olympic teams. The tournament regularly draws enormous television ratings in Canada, and the players are feted as heroes when they win and are subject to scathing reviews when they don't.
The American program, while icing squads that matched up well with the Canadians on paper at least, have little external pressure on them to perform and clearly little internal pressure or motivation to make up for that.
Those who knew that 2004 American team, a team that erased a 3-1 third-period deficit in beating Canada, suggest Mike Eaves was that kind of coach, demanding accountability from his players throughout the tournament. It is a dynamic that has yet to be repeated, creating the impression that the NTDP coddles players as much as it develops them for international competition.
Why does it matter?
With the World Junior Championship coming to North America for the next four years (three times in Canada, once in the U.S. at a site yet to be determined), the ground is fertile for USA Hockey to build a following for the junior program, to create buzz around the team. But until USA Hockey can find a way to avoid what has become its annual malaise come WJC time, there will be little chance at traction.
We took some delight earlier this season with the struggles of the Calgary Flames under new head coach Mike Keenan. It's only fair, then, that we acknowledge grudging admiration for the work done by Keenan and his troops in turning a rather significant corner. Following their 6-4 victory over Los Angeles on Saturday, the Flames have picked up at least a point in 16 of their last 17 games. They have gone from a playoff bubble team to the top of the Northwest Division. Jarome Iginla is playing himself onto MVP ballots with a career year and the Flames are lighting it up regularly with the 7th-best offense in the league. One of the most pleasant surprises is that Kristian Huselius, a former Keenan whipping boy when both were with the Florida Panthers, is on pace for about 90 points and was named Monday as one of the NHL's Stars of the Week. That the Flames have managed to not just stay competitive but become an elite team with all-world netminder Miikka Kiprusoff having an off-year statistically (2.83 GAA and surprisingly ordinary .896 percentage) suggests that whatever Keenan speed bumps there might have been during the first half of the season, the Flames are right where they had hoped to be heading into the second half -- thinking Stanley Cup.
The Buffalo Sabres looked like they were rounding into form just before the Christmas break with a six-game winning streak. But the Sabres have failed to win in regulation in six straight games since the break. Two of those losses were in shootouts, including the loss to Pittsburgh in the Winter Classic, but in the four regulation losses the Sabres have shown an uncharacteristic sloppiness in their own zone, giving up 17 goals in those four contests. Netminder Ryan Miller was yanked in the team's 5-3 loss to Ottawa on Friday, although that didn't seem to help motivate anyone much as the Sabres were then spanked 5-2 by Atlanta on Sunday, with Miller giving up four goals on 29 shots. Worse, the Sabres are starting to take a beating in the media and from fans for their inability to lock up potential unrestricted free agent defenseman Brian Campbell. Management took it on the chin in the offseason when they failed to return either of their co-captains, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, and were forced into matching a seven-year, $50 million offer sheet presented by the Edmonton Oilers. Vanek scored for just the 12th time this season in Sunday's loss. The team's apparent failure to make headway with Campbell, one of the most attractive of defensemen who could be on the market this summer, has folks in Buffalo a tad bit nervous.
Stuck in Neutral
The Toronto Maple Leafs could only wish to be stuck in neutral, given their play of late (they have won just twice in their last 10 outings and are mired in 13th place in the Eastern Conference), but defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo certainly knows about being stuck in professional limbo.
After missing the first 37 games of this season with a knee injury, the talented if injury-prone defenseman had to be helped off the ice Saturday night after a knee-on-knee collision with Philadelphia's Jim Dowd. Colaiacovo, the 17th overall pick in 2001, was back on crutches Sunday. Luckily for the Toronto native, the injury appears less severe than it first looked Saturday, and he told reporters in Toronto he expects to be back in less than two weeks. Maybe.
Our top story lines of the week
1. Not only do the New York Islanders continue to surprise on the ice -- the team was expected by most analysts to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but is tied for the final playoff berth -- they continue to think outside the box off the ice. Earlier this year the team welcomed legendary coach Al Arbour back behind the bench, where he coached his 1,500th NHL game (a win over Pittsburgh). The Isles also continue to be at the cutting edge of promoting grassroots hockey in China. Owner Charles Wang was born in Shanghai, and the team for the past three years has been helping to establish rinks and youth hockey in China. This week the team will host two teams born of that project (dubbed Ice Hockey Project Hope) that will travel from Qiqihar and Harbin to take part in a massive youth tournament on Long Island. Some 2,500 kids aged 3 to 18 are expected to take part in the first-ever tournament hosted by the Islanders' children's foundation. The two China-based teams (players are aged 9-12) will also play a mini-game between periods at an Islanders game and be recognized during the opening ceremonies.
2. Hmm, maybe that tank isn't dry just yet.
Things looked pretty bleak when veteran Mark Recchi showed up in Atlanta last month having been put on waivers by the Pittsburgh Penguins. After all, if you can't cut it with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, et al., who can you cut it with? The answer, when the Pens parted way with the two-time Cup-winner, seemed to be "no one." Well, the soon-to-be 40-year-old has been clipping along at a point-a-game pace for the Thrashers (seven goals, seven assists in 14 games), often playing alongside Ilya Kovalchuk, who is having an MVP-type season. Atlanta continues to flirt with a playoff position in spite of an 0-6 start. With its 5-2 victory over Buffalo on Sunday, Atlanta is 10th in the Eastern Conference, one point out of a playoff berth. The dilemma for coach and GM vis a vis Recchi is that having surrendered no assets to bring in Recchi, he might yield something come trade deadline time in late February. Of course, he might just be too valuable to give up at that point.
3. Physical intimidation has always been the calling card of Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher, yet Saturday his physicality ended up costing his team dearly. In an attempt to deliver what would have been a devastating head-high open ice hit on Toronto Maple Leafs' Alex Steen, Hatcher ended up leveling teammate Joffrey Lupul as Steen ducked out of the way a moment before impact. Lupul had to be helped off the ice and reports out of Philadelphia on Sunday indicated he suffered a concussion and a bruised spinal cord and will be out indefinitely. Lupul has been a key part of the Flyers' renaissance this season with 35 points in 39 games. The former Anaheim Duck prospect, who regained his game after a forgettable season in Edmonton last year, had three game-winning goals and was a mainstay on the power play. The incident came one game after Hatcher was accused by New Jersey Devils' Travis Zajac of biting Zajac during a scrum. No action was taken by the league, which has suspended five Flyers this season and promised broader sanctions against the team for further transgressions. In a related matter, NHL officials were also looking into a punch thrown by the Flyers' Steve Downie at Toronto's Jason Blake.
4. Hard to imagine that Teemu Selanne won't soon be following Scott Niedermayer's skate-steps and rejoin his former teammates with the Anaheim Ducks. Selanne, 37, has resumed skating in the Anaheim area, and if you've played 1,041 regular season games and think you've had enough, the last thing you do is lace 'em up just for fun. Although he's 37, Selanne has enjoyed two terrific seasons since the lockout, scoring 88 goals and collecting 184 points as the Ducks have become a league power. Selanne's return wouldn't make the Ducks any younger (they recently picked up Doug Weight, who turns 37 in a couple of weeks) but it will help buoy an offense that has struggled in his absence.
At the start of the season, the Colorado Avalanche looked like a team that could challenge for the Northwest Division crown based on their offensive depth. Now, the Avs are struggling to stay in the playoff hunt and must try to manufacture offense without mainstays captain Joe Sakic and free agent acquisition Ryan Smyth. Sakic, who has played in just 24 games this season, underwent hernia surgery last week and is lost for another eight to 12 weeks. Smyth, meanwhile, is out for eight weeks after fracturing his ankle New Year's Eve against Phoenix. The Avs have one win in their last four games and are struggling to score, and there will be pressure on GM Francois Giguere to make a move by the trade deadline. The problem facing the Avs is that years of free-spending before the lockout has left the prospect cupboard bare and Giguere will be loathe to give up any prospects or picks, in spite of the short-term pain his team is enduring.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.