Leaman sees chemistry as key to U.S. winning World Junior Championship

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Nate Leaman, who will coach the United States at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship, believes the team that creates the best chemistry is the one that will skate away as the winner.

He saw how that could work at the 2021 WJC when he coached the United States to a first-place finish.

Now he hopes to help the United States win consecutive tournament titles for the first time.

“Your team has to come together, love one another and buy into the roles, buy into the sacrifice of what it takes to be successful in the tournament,” Leaman said. “That’s one thing that came through throughout 2021, was how much that group really cared for each other. We’re hoping to build that same chemistry with this group. I can tell you, we’ve been talking about it a lot.”

The 2022 WJC will be held Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta.

The United States has won five times (2004, 2010, 2013, 2017, 2021), but never consecutive titles.

The team, consisting of three goalies, eight defensemen and 14 forwards, is training in Red Deer, where it will play its preliminary-round games in Group B at WP Centrium.

Also in Group B are Russia, Sweden, Slovakia and Switzerland.

Canada will play its preliminary-round games in Group A at Rogers Place in Edmonton, against Finland, Germany, Czechia and Austria.

Canada was the last team to win consecutive WJC titles, winning five straight from 2005-09.

The top four teams in each group will play in the quarterfinals Jan. 2. The semifinals are Jan. 4, and the championship and third-place games are Jan. 5.

Leaman is in his 11th season as coach at Providence College. He has reached the Frozen Four twice, and won the NCAA championship in 2015.

Six players from the 2021 team are on the roster for the 2022 WJC: forwards Matty Beniers (Seattle Kraken), Brett Berard (New York Rangers) and Landon Slaggert (Chicago Blackhawks), and defensemen Brock Faber (Los Angeles Kings), Tyler Kleven (Ottawa Senators) and Jake Sanderson (Senators).

Leaman discussed what he learned from the 2021 World Juniors that will help him now, what it will be like to have fans in the stands and which players could make an impact with NHL.com.

What did you learn from your experience at the 2021 World Juniors that you would consider critical now?

“How to be extremely disciplined. I learned that your defensemen have to be versatile; they have to be able to handle hard forechecks and they have to be able to handle traps with their puck play. They have to defend on the rush, and they have to be able to defend in their own end because you’re going to see some teams that are more Russia-oriented and some teams that are more like Canada where they’re going to dump and get after you a little bit.”

Unlike the 2021 WJC, fans will be allowed in the buildings at the 2022 WJC. How do fans bring out the best in these athletes?

“They just bring so much more energy to games. Not that last year’s games didn’t have energy because we could all feel it. It was really evident to feel how many people were watching at home last year and the games were intense. I think the other area fans can play a role in is the officiating. I thought last year was some of the best officiating I’ve ever been around at any level because it was so consistent, and you knew exactly what a penalty was. But part of that may be that there weren’t fans. With fans, when they cheer, they moan, when they boo, sometimes that can sway officials a little bit. They’re humans and I think that can be part of it. I think fans can give teams momentum or pickups, when they really need to be picked up.”

Does Matty Beniers look a year older and a year wiser to you?

“He looks a year older, a year wiser and an inch taller. I would say all those things. He leads with his actions as he did last year [when he scored three points] in seven games. He helps the identity of a team and I think he leads by example.”

Beniers said he advised 2022 NHL Draft-eligible forward Logan Cooley not to defer to the older players on the team and just play his game. Is that what you’ve seen from Cooley during training camp?

“He gets better and more comfortable every day. I thought at the beginning of the [World Junior Summer Showcase], if you were to ask me then, I would have said that he needed to do a little more. But by the end of camp I was saying, ‘Holy cow, look at this kid.’ He wants to make a big play in the big moments of games, so I think Matty’s comment is exactly right. When you go into a corner with a guy, you’re not thinking this guy’s older than me or this guy’s younger than me. It’s just two guys going after a puck or two guys looking to make a play. And I think with Logan, he’s starting to feel more comfortable in the role that we’ve given him. I would suspect by the start of the tournament we’re going to see a pretty confident young man.”

One player that stood out at selection camp from Dec. 13-15 was 2022 draft-eligible forward Dominic James of the University of Minnesota Duluth. Did he surprise you?

“I think him and Ty Smilanic (Florida Panthers) have big speed that can help us be the team that we want to be. He’s someone that we’re still learning more about, but he’s shown the ability to play center, and I think he’s a guy who will play a lot in the exhibition games so we kind of just get him more familiar with international hockey, more familiar with the coaching staff and kind of see what type of role he can bring to the group.”

The United States will repeat as champions if … ?

“Well, every game in this tournament is big. It’s all one-game increments. But you can’t think big. You have to think one step at a time and take it one game at a time. I would defer to finish that sentence and just say, ‘I’m worried about our next practice.’ You can’t get ahead of yourself in this tournament.”

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