If you are looking for the favorite to win gold at the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championship in Buffalo, look up, way up.
Because, on paper anyways, it's hard to imagine a bigger or better team than defending champion Team USA, with eight returnees.
Up front, the Americans boast six returnees from last year's gold-medal team in Saskatoon.
The first three spots on each wing are spoken for with Leaf prospect Jerry D'Amigo, Chicago prospect Jeremy Morin, Anaheim prospect Kyle Palmieri, Minnesota prospect Jason Zucker and New York Ranger hopefuls Chris Kreider and Ryan Bourque. There's lots of speed and skill there. Calgary prospect John Ramage is the defensive anchor and only returnee on the blue line.
But the Americans have a bevy of talented newcomers, both on the blue line and in the middle up front, with tremendous size, speed and skill. Six of the 10 defencemen trying out are 6'2" or bigger but even the sub-six footers are high-end talents with speed and puck-moving ability, like Chicago prospect Nick Leddy, one of four U.S. invitees who have been playing in the American Hockey League this season.
The Americans also have size and skill in the middle with Florida first rounder Nick Bjugstad, who is 6'4", Panther second rounder Drew Shore, who is 6'2", San Jose first rounder Charlie Coyle, who is 6'2", and New York Islander first rounder Brock Nelson, who is 6'3".
They also have potential 2011 first rounders Brandon Saad, Matt Nieto and dynamic 5'6" Rocco Grimaldi up front with Adam Clendening on the blue line.
Factor in home-ice advantage, assuming Canadians don't buy up all the tickets in Buffalo, and there's every reason to cite Team USA as the team to beat at this year's World Junior.