Team United States Hockey Preview
UPDATE : This article was written over a year ago, as a preview of the Olympic Hockey Tournament. Please check out our updated Olympic Hockey Primer, and our full Podcast Preview of the Olympic Hockey Tournament.
Team United States
Updating our 2010 Winter Olympic Ice Hockey Preview, today we examine the United States. Your opinion of the U.S. Team probably depends on what country you root for. If it’s not the United States, you’ve probably viewed the U.S. team as one of the weaker squads in recent years. If you are from the U.S., you might have bought into a slightly biased media that hypes up the U.S. team for more than it’s worth.
Not that the U.S. has been terrible, as top NHL stars like Brett Hull, Jeremy Roenick, Mike Richter, Brian Leetch, and Mike Modano have helped anchor past squads. The weaknesses have come from a lack of depth, combined with the absence of elite level talent and players not built for the international game. None of stars mentioned above are in the mold of a Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, perennial Hart Trophy contenders. And once you get past those names, the U.S. has been forced to select players a little farther down the depth chart of NHL squads. Most damning might be that past U.S. players have generally been built for power and strength, not speed and skill. International ice often allows for faster, more skilled players to excel. To illustrate the point, the U.S. hasn’t finished higher than third in a World Championship since 1960 (winning three bronzes in the nearly fifty years in between). Makes one appreciate that silver medal from Salt Lake City a little more.
Hopefully that all changes and soon. No country has improved more through the influx of young talent like the United States has in recent years. The country is starting to produce high-end skill players, and we should see the first wave just entering their prime come the 2010 games.
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils
Phil Kessel, Boston Bruins
Paul Stastny, Colorado Avalance
Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings
Scott Gomez, New York Rangers
Patrick O’Sullivan, Los Angeles Kings
Jason Pominville, Buffalo Sabres
Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks
Chris Drury, New York Rangers
Peter Mueller, Phoenix Coyotes
Bobby Ryan, Anaheim Ducks
Tim Connolly, Buffalo Sabres
Here we see the youth movement in full effect, led by budding superstar and defending Rookie of the Year Patrick Kane. He is flanked by a plethora of scoring threats with the likes of Parise, Kessel, and Statsny. All are very young, but all are very talented. What’s gone are the old guard of U.S. Stars, even though Modano and Keith Tkachuk remain solid and productive NHLers. It’s not impossible that either of those players make the squad, but this team’s obvious strengths come from the assorted young guns.
To help balance the youth movement, we should see some Olympic veterans like Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. They can provide crucial leadership and experience, particularly if the old guard is full passed over as projected. The last couple forward spots are a virtual toss-up and should be battled for right down to the wire. Tim Connolly is too talented to leave off and should grab one of the spots if he’s healthy. Admittedly that’s a big if. Other possibilities selections not mentioned include the New York Rangers Brandon Dubinsky, Chris Higgins of the Montreal Canadiens, and gritty Ryan Keslerof the Vancouver Canucks. If more experience is desired, Brian Rolston of the New Jersey Devils is another option, as is Erik Cole of the Edmonton Oilers. Two names I did include are Ryan and Mueller. On a team loaded with youth, it might seem odd to continue to add young names. However, Ryan’s been phenomenal as a rookie, so I can’t leave him off for a lesser player. Mueller’s more debatable, but is as good an option there is and should only continue to improve.
Brian Rafalski, Detroit Red Wings
Mike Komisarek, Montreal Canadians
Paul Martin, New Jersey Devils
Erik Johnson, St. Louis Blues
Ryan Suter, Nashville Predators
Ryan Whitney, Pittsburgh Penguins
Keith Ballard, Florida Panthers
Rafalski is the steady veteran, and leader of another inexperienced group. After Rafalski, it starts to get real young, real fast. Martin is the next oldest, followed closely by Komisarek and Ballard. These guys are just entering the prime of their careers, but are hardly seasoned international veterans. They are at least older than many on the squad, and all provide a much needed defensive presence. If youth becomes too big an issue, you might see and older experienced blue-liner like Jordan Leopold of the Colorado Avalanche sneak onto the team.
Two of the final three spots carry significant question marks. Erik Johnson is coming off an ACL tear, but has the potential to be the best player of this group. And I’m not talking years down the line as it’ll be sooner rather than later. He should be recovered by this summer. Whitney’s the other question mark, coming off a foot injury that plagued him last season and cost him to miss the beginning of this one. If he shows he’s fully recovered, he provides and offensive game that is unparalleled among U.S. defensemen. That offensive spark is a necessity for break-outs and power play performance. The final spot falls to Suter, another young up and comer. There’s simply no room left for a pair of young rearguards that were trade for each other in Jack Johnson of the Los Angeles Kings and Tim Gleason of the Carolina Hurricanes. If injuries keep anyone out, they’ll likely be the first ones called as replacements.
Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres
Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
Rick DiPietro, New York Islanders
Thomas is having an outstanding year sharing goaltending duties for the Boston Bruins, but it’s Miller who should be the starter in goal come 2010. He’s a good, but not yet great goaltender. Of course he almost wins the position by default, as he’s also the only healthy clear #1 goaltender that the United States has. Fortunately he’s a good choice.
DiPietro’s would be another bona fide #1 netminder, but has been plagued by a rash on injuries. If healthy, he should easily make the squad as he’s simply better than the competition. On the other hand, health and potential insurance issues could prevent him from being named. If that’s the case the next name on the list should be Craig Anderson of the Florida Panthers. That’s not going to be a big deal as third goalies rarely see important action in Olympic play, but after the three named goalies, it begins to drop off fairly fast. Anderson has looked good in brief NHL play, but is hardly a proven choice.
Outlook: At a minimum, the United States should at least field a pretty exciting young squad. That’s a great change from years past and leaves U.S. fans something to look forward to, both now and in the future. Many will believe that their lack of experience will their undoing, but I tend to believe the fresh young legs will actually help. In addition, because the Olympics are using NHL style rinks this time, the U.S. team should be better equipped to play on the smaller surface as their players grew up on such rinks. What remains to be seen is how it all plays out. It’s easy to say this country is an Olympics away from really coming together and that the youth isn’t quite ready. But that’s probably the correct assessment, even though there is the potential for something special here.