We're now just a year out from the start of the Olympic hockey tournament, and as such, now is as good a time as any to begin projecting who exactly will be lucky enough to represent the United States of America, greatest hockey nation on Earth, in Sochi.
Don't let that mediocre 2010 roster that still beat Canada on aggregate fool you -- the Americans will be sending a very good team halfway around the world to beat the absolute brains out of everyone they face, as well as crack open the skulls of the Canadian team and find to their dismay that there are no brains to be found.
In just the last four years, a lot of detritus has been flushed from the pool of Olympic contention — guys like Chris Drury, Erik Johnson, and Ryan Malone, for example, won't have to wait by their phones — and been replaced by a crop of very good young players who are all but assured to win gold, as the Americans did in Ufa at the World Juniors just a few months ago.
Don't recall how Canada did in that tournament, as Wikipedia will only tell me who won medals. Too bad.
Here are my picks for the 2014 U.S. men's Olympic team.
Let's start up front. You'll recall that apart from Drury and Malone, the US also brought Jamie Langenbrunner to Vancouver as a sort of international victory lap, and you can basically count all those guys out this time around.
Zach Parise - Joe Pavelski - Patrick Kane
Ryan Callahan - David Backes - Phil Kessel
James van Riemsdyk - Brandon Dubinsky - Dustin Brown
Jason Pominville, Paul Stastny
All these lines are pretty straightforward in my opinion. Parise is one of the premier two-way forwards in the game, Kane is as high-quality an American scorer as there is, and Pavelski not only scores 25 or 30 goals a year, but also wins faceoffs at an elite level. This, like all the American lines listed above, can play well in all three zones.
Putting Phil Kessel with two outstanding defensive forwards who can also fill the net will hopefully make up for the fact that he's dreadful in his own end, and one would expect that either Callahan or Backes would also captain this team. They're both great at everything that is involved in hockey. Wow I love them.
Kesler between Pacioretty and Bobby Ryan comes with the obvious caveat that we don't know how effective Kesler will be as a player once he comes back from injury, and how that will all affect him going forward. But this line has the potential to score in bunches without being anything resembling a defensive liability. Pacioretty in particular has been scoring a lot in these last three seasons, and obviously you can pencil Ryan in for 30 goals every year like clockwork. If Kesler can be anything like his previous self, this line could be a tough matchup for pretty much everyone in Sochi.
Finally, when your fourth line has van Riemsdyk with two ultra-responsible and occasionally mean forwards in Dubinsky and Brown, that's a lot better than the bottom forward group the US brought to the 2010 games. Pominville and Stastny, who were both fixtures for that team (though I wrestled with including Derek Stepan in Stastny's place), feature here as extra forwards, and both provide decent options.
The US has always lived and died by its versatility up front, and these 14 guys represent the ever-improving mix the American talent pool provides in all areas of the ice. Woe be unto those who line up across from them.
Whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, the American defense is very strong and very deep. They're only going to bring seven blue liners to Sochi, and in doing so they're going to leave behind a number of solid options most teams at this tournament would love to get their grubby little foreigner mitts on.
As with the forwards, guys who got onto the 2010 team, like Erik Johnson, Ryan Whitney, Jack Johnson and Tim Gleason, won't get a sniff thanks to the quality of American defenders who came of age in the last four seasons.
Ryan Suter - Kevin Shattenkirk
Keith Yandle - Dustin Byfuglien
Paul Martin - Justin Faulk
Shattenkirk has become one of the finest offensive defensemen in hockey today (as of this writing he's on a point per game pace for the Blues and playing 22 minutes a night), and Suter's slow start to this season is likely to get corrected sometime soon. He's still among the best at his position on earth.
Byfuglien and Yandle will provide significant offensive pop, both on the power play and at even strength, and aren't the defensive liabilities they used to be. I also made sure to partner Yandle and Byfuglien because I'm not entirely sure Big Buff is suited to the international ice, and Yandle is an excellent skater who will be able to cover for him in many situations.
Paul Martin with Justin Faulk on the third pairing just seems like something that makes sense. Martin is strong in his own end, no matter what Penguins fans think of him, and Faulk is a very good young player getting big-time minutes in Carolina, but who is also still learning the game to some extent. His offense can't be ignored, either.
Brooks Orpik as the extra defenseman, meanwhile, is there solely to bring in if you feel like a game's going to get physical, because he'll put someone through the glass if he has to. I'm a little gutted to leave out a number of very good young defensemen, including Ryan McDonagh and American Hero John Carlson, but they've got plenty of Olympics ahead of them.
I acknowledge that only Suter and Orpik come back from the 2010 team, but look at the quality of defensemen replacing the two Johnsons, Gleason and Bryan Rafalski. Upgrades across the board.
This is all very straightforward and easy, but as with the defense and in contrast with the forwards, there's a lot of turnover from the 2010 team.
I don't see how any of that is up for debate. I can be convinced that Ryan Miller is a more legitimate option than any of these three guys only if one of them falls off a cliff, either figuratively or literally.
It seems to me that the US will come in without a lot of hype. Sweden will be great, particularly on defense and in net, though forward depth will probably be an issue. Russia will be great, particularly up front and because they're playing on home ice. Canada will be… I don't want to say "great" because I can't mentally process a sentence like that, but they'll have some very good players, maybe. People will also probably like Finland better than the American team, just because that's how these things tend to go.
And that all suits the US fine. No one thought they'd do much in Vancouver and they pushed the home team — widely considered vastly superior for some horrible reason — to overtime, and took home a silver medal that could very easily have been gold. This team is actually significantly improved from the 2010 roster, at every position.
The rest of the world has 360-something days to prepare themselves for the crushing disappointment of seeing America destroy all that come before them. Might want to get started now.
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