UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Currently sitting on Dan Bylsma’s laptop are 10 NHL games waiting to be watched. They’re not solely for the purpose of scouting upcoming Pittsburgh Penguins opponents; instead, it’s video of players he must evaluate, deciding whether or not they will make the final cut for Team USA's roster in the Sochi Winter Olympics.
In a month’s time, the 12 participating countries in the February tournament will announce their rosters. The IIHF extended the original deadline of Dec. 31 to Jan. 7, but USA Hockey will still be unveiling their squad at the conclusion of the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.
Wearing two hats between his duties with the Penguins and now running the Americans’ bench, Bylsma is aided by his support staff: Team USA general manager David Poile; assistant GM Ray Shero; director of player personnel Brian Burke; and assistant coaches Todd Richards, Tony Granato and Peter Laviolette.
With Laviolette the only member of the staff not currently with an NHL team, he’s been a focal point in gathering information on the pool of players they will choose from.
“We talk as a staff maybe once a week, at least, for maybe a half an hour, 20 minutes here and there,” said Bylsma on Tuesday. “Peter Laviolette is watching a lot of hockey games live and on tape and coordinating a lot of what we see and what we’re doing with our roster in terms of the coaches and the organizing that.”
Coaching three-to-four games a week with the Penguins, plus practices, Bylsma’s time to spend on Team USA matters is obviously limited, but his homework does get done when his schedule allows.
“If it’s a defenseman it might be 20 minutes of hockey,” said Bylsma. “If it’s a forward it might be 15-18 minutes of hockey.”
The scouting doesn’t end with only watching shifts on his laptop. Just this past week he got good looks at Tim Thomas and Ben Bishop during the Penguins’ trip to Florida to face the Panthers and Lightning. On Tuesday night, it was the third time this season he watched Kyle Okposo of the New York Islanders, who scored two goals in a 3-2 Pittsburgh win.
As he’s trying to strategize against those players, Bylsma is also considering how they might fit in with Team USA.
“I think you watch a team differently with an eye on players that you know are in consideration and are a part of the USA group of players,” Bylsma said. “It’s almost been every game that we play there’s someone there. You tend to certainly scout that player in addition to also watching [the opposing team] play as well.”
USA Hockey announced its 48-man orientation camp roster in July and since then, the jigsaw puzzle that is the final 25-man squad has been put together and pulled apart by fans and media. Bylsma said he and his staff already have players who are locks for the team -- Poile recently revealed that they've narrowed the goalie field to six, as well as the defense to 12 players -- and it’s the fringe players who need the most evaluating to determine those final spots.
The benefit of deciding who goes and who stays home is that there are plenty of eyes on the job. It's a thorough examination from Bylsma and his staff of who will end up on on the roster when they open the tournament against Slovakia on Feb. 13.
“A lot of people are watching,” he said. “Our GMs are all watching. We have some scouts watching. The coaches are watching. Some of my own viewing, it’s through other people, reading their reports and where they’re at."
With the expectations high after their silver medal performance in Vancouver in 2010, the Americans will face a daunting task having to overcome the usual hockey super powers, along with exercising some demons in regards to previous Olympic tournaments in Europe.
But as Poile said during orientation camp, USA Hockey is at a point where whenever they enter a tournament now they expect a gold medal.
For Poile, Bylsma and the rest of the staff, the path to gold begins with some very difficult choices.
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