The U.S. National Junior Team has a rare luxury this year at the World Junior Championship. The team boasts not one, but two players with National Hockey League experience under their belts already.
Forward Stefan Matteau and defenseman Connor Carrick have each scored goals at the highest level of hockey despite their relative youth. Now they’re both playing prominent roles for Team USA and showing why they were able to make their NHL debuts so quickly.
Matteau, who was a first-round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2012, made New Jersey’s opening night roster last year and played in 17 games as a rookie during the 2012-13 season. Carrick, meanwhile, has been a big surprise for the Washington Capitals this year. The 2012 fifth-round pick made Washington’s opening night roster and scored in just his second NHL game.
Their experience in the NHL in particular piqued the curiosity of their U.S. teammates early in camp.
“Guys are a little more curious and they’ll ask questions,” said Carrick, who played in three NHL games with the Capitals this year. “I don’t talk about it much, because it could come off the wrong way pretty easily and it’s in the past. I don’t like talking about myself. I know what I’ve done. I want to know what they’ve done.”
Both Matteau and Carrick have spent most of this season plying their trade for their respective teams’ American Hockey League affiliates, with Matteau playing for the Albany Devils and Carrick suiting up for the Hershey Bears.
Despite their advanced careers, neither Matteau nor Carrick claim to be better than their teammates or opponents.
“That was something I discussed with Washington before I came and with coach [Mike] Haviland in Hershey,” Carrick said about how to approach the tournament as a pro player. “You have to go in with the right mindset. If you’re going in thinking you’re better than the tournament or too good to be there or you’re pro so you should be the premier guy, you’re going to end up looking pretty silly pretty quick.”
“A lot of these guys are elite players in our age group,” Matteau said of his U.S. teammates and opponents. “A lot of these guys could play in the American League. It’s just where I am and what the timing is.”
Even though neither player wants to come in thinking they’re automatically better because of where they are in their playing career currently, they know the pro experience is to their benefit in this tournament.
“It definitely helps,” Carrick said of playing against pros and having some success. “It definitely helps confidence wise, but at the same time, there are a lot of players that are very talented hockey players here.”
With the speed and skill level of the opposing teams in the tournament, which goes until Jan. 5 in Malmo, Sweden, having to find ways to contribute in the more grinding pro game is another big asset to tournament preparation.
“The maturity level being with those older guys and playing a pro style game, I can use my physical side for sure,” said Matteau, who was Team USA’s player of the game in the tournament opener, a 5-1 win over the Czech Republic on Thursday. “I think it’s definitely a plus.”
Matteau also has the added bonus of having a father who played for a long time in the NHL. His father is Stephane Matteau, who scored one of the biggest goals in NHL history — the overtime game-winner in Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals for the New York Rangers.
“My dad being a hockey player for a long time, he’s taught me never to get too comfortable because that’s when you can crash,” Matteau said. “When things are going better, you’ve got to work even harder.”
For the younger Matteau, making the U.S. team this year offers a bit of redemption as well. He was the very last cut among the forwards for last year’s team, missing out on a chance at World Junior gold.
“I really wanted to be a part of this team last year,” Matteau admitted. “I think discipline and consistency is a big part of being champions in this tournament. They did a great job last year. That’s what I’ve got to bring this year. [Being cut] really took a hit to my confidence level and ego, but I made up for it a few weeks later.”
Indeed he did. Just two weeks after the U.S. skated off with the gold medal, Matteau made his NHL debut with the Devils. Even though he achieved that dream, he remains motivated to help Team USA in any way he can.
“I’ve grown a lot as a person as a player, and I’ll bring whatever I can to help us win,” he said.
Both Carrick and Matteau have already played big roles for Team USA through their first three games at the World Junior Championship. Matteau scored in Team USA’s 6-3 win over Slovakia on Saturday and has been a big part of the team’s energy line with Andrew Copp and Hudson Fasching. Carrick has recorded three assists while logging big minutes on the blue line.
Though humble, both Carrick and Matteau have achieved a pretty special accomplishment in reaching the NHL. Having two guys who have put the work in to get to that level is a big benefit to Team USA.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.