Sunday, January 1, 2012

Going For The Gold: Big Ten Players In 2012 World Junior Championships

By Jessi Pierce

If you're looking for great hockey action--and another way to support Americuh-- during the holidays, look no further than the IIHF's 2012 World Junior Championships in Alberta, Canada.

World Juniors showcases a country's best U20 players and proves to be instrumental in many players development from college hockey to the next level. Take former Badger and current New York Ranger, Derek Stepan for instance, as described by The United States of Hockey's Chris Peters.

"Players that accept and excel in the roles their given at the World Junior Championship are probably more likely to accept and excel in roles at the next level. A player has to prove he is adaptable and versatile in this tournament to play for most teams at the WJC. If he can do that at this stage, there’s a good chance he can do it at the next.

The other big factor is that a player can certainly gain a lot of confidence and/or take a gigantic step forward at a tournament like this.

At the 2010 World Juniors, Derek Stepan likely played his way into forcing the team that drafted him to offer him an NHL contract earlier than expected. He continued to have a stellar season at Wisconsin after captaining Team USA to gold in 2010 and ended up signing on the dotted line that summer. Now he’s playing significant minutes on a good New York Rangers squad in his sophomore season."

Stepan is just one of many Big Ten hockey players to participate in World Juniors. As a Gopher fan I remember getting annoyed at the loss of our top-notch players during seemingly easy holiday tournaments and opening weekends that would have been a guarenteed win had we held on to our best performers. While the loss of a team's best are noticable, representing your country on the national level can't be beat.

This year, three Big Ten players will don the red, white and blue:
  • Jon Merrill (University of Michigan)
  • Nick Bjugstad (University of Minnesota)
  • Kyle Rau (University of Minnesota)

Photo Credit: USA Hockey
Jon Merrill (D, University of Michigan)- A member of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program since 2008-09, the 2012 World Junior Championships marks the 10th time that Merrill will wear the USA crest, including on Team USA's bronze medal finish in Buffalo, NY, last year. Despite being named one of the top three players on the 2011 World Juniors team, many worried that Merrill's off-ice problems would hinder his roster spot on this years squad but leading the blue line last year with five points and tied for a team leading four assists in six games, it's no wonder the Wolverines defenseman will be back on the ice this year. Even while missing half of the season at Michigan due to suspension, I see no reason that Merrill will not perform at his best and will be one of the top players out there for Team USA.

Photo Credit: USA Hockey

Nick Bjugstad (F, University of Minnesota)- Like Merrill, Bjugstad has suited up with Team USA numerous times before dating back to 2009. The Minnesota forward netted two game-winning goals for the bronze-medal 2011 World Junior team and came into camp ranked second in the NCAA with 26 points in 18 games. Bjugstad is a gritty scorer and a great lock for Team USA. While he was restricted to no-contact during practice and sat out during exhibition play, Bjugstad hasn't been slowed down and looks to be one of Team USA's top performers.

Photo Credit: USA Hockey
Kyle Rau (F, University of Minnesota)- Coming off an outstanding start to his freshman campaign at Minnesota, Rau continues to explode on the ice. Awarded the 2010 Mr. Hockey--given to Minnesota's most outstanding high school hockey player-- Rau is a scoring force to be reckoned with. Netting the game-winner for Eden Prairie in last year's prestigious Minnesota State High School Hockey Championship in triple overtime, he has already tallied five game-winners this season at Minnesota, tied for the most in the NCAA. It's that kind of play that will help lead Team USA and will put Rau on some outstanding top lines.

Games will be aired on both the NHL Network and as USA Hockey looks to get out of its three game slump in a must-win situation tomorrow against Lativa at 1 pm EST. Check in at USA Hockey as well as The United States of Hockey for all your World Junior Championship needs.