August 19, 2009
The roster's not set yet, which defuses many of the fan debates about the 2010 Olympic hockey squad the Unites States will send to Vancouver to win a medal and beat Canada (per Ryan Kesler). But even now, it's clear that the hottest argument is going to be between the pipes.
Ryan Miller(notes) vs. Tim Thomas(notes). Buffalo Sabres vs. Boston Bruins. The 6-2 goalie from Michigan State with the Brodeur-like game vs. the 5-11 goalie from Vermont who with the scrappy, sometimes unpredictable game. Twenty-nine years old vs. thirty-five years old.
For Thomas, that's his dream, telling NESN:
"It will be one of the biggest moments in my life if I get a chance to play in the Olympics. I was an Olympic hockey player in my mind when I was playing in the garage or on the pond -- I wasn't an NHL player."
For Miller, it's his destiny, after a thumb injury in 2006 derailed his chances to make the team for the Torino Games. Michael Farber of the SI called Miller "the only player who might have made a difference" had he been on the medal-less team in that tournament.
As orientation camp nears its conclusion this week, the goalie debate is starting to pick up steam. So, with that, we ask you: If you had to select a starter right now for the Vancouver games, who's your guy?
Coming up, both goalies address their competition for the starting gig.
Both Thomas and Miller said all the right things to Shawn Roarke of NHL.com, one of the few writers at orientation camp that decided to bring the battle front and center.
Miller on the competition:
"I haven't even talked to (Wilson) about it," Miller added. "Right now that's the least of my concerns. I'm focused on getting to know the guys, getting a good feel for them, getting on the ice and getting my hands ready for the season. The legs feel pretty good but the hands need to catch up. Right now I'm just taking the opportunity to be around some great shooters."
Thomas on the competition:
"It's August and that's February."
Roarke writes that U.S. Coach Ron Wilson will alternate goalies in pool play and then go with the hottest keeper during the elimination tournament; which means Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings (or, if you believe he's still in the running, Rick DiPietro(notes) of the New York Islanders) could see time as well.
In 2006, DiPietro, John Grahame(notes) and Robert Esche(notes) were all given starts by Coach Peter Laviolette. Grahame staggered in a 3-3 tie with Latvia at the start of group play and was done. Esche played in a meaningless loss to Russia at the end of pool play. DiPietro defeated No. 1 exporter of potassium Kazakhstan, and lost one-goal games to Slovakia, Sweden and finally Finland in the medal round.
Scott Burnside of ESPN believed back then that Miller could have made a difference:
In hindsight, it might have made more sense to take a flyer and include Miller on the original roster given the uncertainty of the goaltending situation. If he didn't recover from the thumb injury, he could have been dropped in favor of Esche or Grahame. He is, at least at this point in time, the future of American goaltending.
For many fans, the future is now for Miller. But Thomas offers more than just a compelling case on the ice, where he won the Vezina Trophy last season behind a stout Bruins team defense.
I called him "one of the greatest comeback stories in recent U.S. hockey history," and Leahy called him "the kind of guy who you can't help but root for" in our early Olympic roster picks column. There's no question a guy who went from journeyman palooka to starting Olympian is a story that will resonate with the casual fan.
But biographies don't earn you starting gigs ... well, unless you're the Minnesota Vikings.
What Thomas also brings is that vibe of blue-collar, dirt-under-the-fingernails grit that this Brian Burke roster is going to ooze all over the NHL-sized rink in Vancouver. He'd be the embodiment of that philosophy. And if this U.S. team is going to enter the tournament as an underdog, why not have a goalie that plays every game like one -- even when his team's on top of the conference?
Perhaps it's too early in the process to really raise the level of rancor about the U.S. Olympic roster at any position. Perhaps, in the end, pool play and the goalies' health will make this decision for Ron Wilson.
But if I had to pick right now, I'd pick Thomas, because I'm intrigued to see his style in an Olympic tournament and because, admittedly, I'm enchanted by his back story. Plus, should he falter, brining in a fundamentally sound keeper like Ryan Miller ain't half bad.