2014 World Juniors: On the topic of expectations for USA Hockey

Sample size.

It's a fun phrase thrown around by many, but consistently remembered by few. It's meaning is often dismissed in the heat of a short international tournament, where the future of a nation's hockey program is put under the microscope and then forgotten altogether.

In the wake of yesterday's big announcement from USA Hockey and this morning's subsequent loss to Russia that will force the United States to leave Malmo, Sweden without a medal, expectations for the future have furiously fluctuated amongst American hockey fans.

After years of anticipation following 2010's "close, but no cigar" silver-medal finish, hopes and predictions range from a gold medal to a spectacular flameout in Sochi, Russia.

Expectations will undoubtedly rise and fall with the recent successes and failures of the program without much regard for long-term sustainability, which is why this year's group failing to medal will be looked down upon.

In fact, expectations often go through peaks and valleys during the tournament, inflating artificially after games against weaker opponents.

Is that notion silly? Of course it is, but it's also a testament to the growth of USA Hockey. People care. People want to see their favorite team represented. And above all, they want results. Losing to Russia in the quarterfinals despite the fact that you're competing with a fraction of the talent you'd ideally like to have just isn't good enough.

And falling to Canada? How dare I mention such nonsense. We've got the talent and resources to compete with and conquer anyone in the world!

I know, how outlandish of me. While it's true we are a relatively new hockey superpower, it's hard to predict a time when we'll be alone at the top of the mountain. The fact that we've finally solidifed our seat at the table with the Canadas, the Russias and the Swedens of the world doesn't mean we'll always–or even, often– come out on top.

The real victory for the Americans was won before the tournament even started, with players such as Alex Galchenyuk, Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba off to fine starts in their professional careers. Graduating players to the NHL at such a young age is still largely uncharted waters for USA Hockey, and all too familiar for Hockey Canada, Sweden and Russia.

Recently at the World Juniors, we've always had our best talent on display. This time we didn't. But that's no excuse. In fact, it's cause for celebration.

Regardless of the caliber of talent on the roster, most international tournaments still boil down to a series of coin flips, when it gets down to it. Even when a team doesn't play anywhere near the level they're capable, sometimes they can find a way to win. Sometimes they don't.

Measuring these teams by the smallest of margins is a cruel, yet necessary evil. Over time, trends can be identified with a larger base of tournaments at various levels, and subsequent graduation the NHL. Look no further than the meteoric rise of college hockey players turning pro in the past decade.

But if the Americans fail to medal in Sochi, no alarms should be sounded. Prior to the 2010 Vancouver games, only the most patriotic, optimistic hockey fan thought the United States would challenge for gold. And yet, there they were.

While realistically, they will enter the tournament as underdogs once again, there is certainly an expectation they'll be singing the Star-Spangled Banner when it's all over. That sentiment will only grow as the games get closer.

Could it happen? Sure. In a tournament with a tiny sample size, anything is possible. Don't bet on it, but regardless of outcome, know that USA Hockey is in as good a place as it's ever been.