After a heartbreaking loss to Canada in 2010, the Americans are seeking a return to the gold medal game, but this time with a different result.
When Team USA announced its team for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the omissions of Bobby Ryan and Kyle Okposo raised a few eyebrows. In many ways these reactions demonstrate how much American hockey has grown and players have developed to a point where omissions from the team can lead to a debate about roster composition.
This team features 13 Olympians, a stark contrast to the team four years ago that had only three players with Olympic experience. Not only did Team USA bring back important players, they worked to build a leadership core.
Last summer five players were identified as part of their leadership group. David Backes, Ryan Callahan, Dustin Brown, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise formed that inner circle.
“When we looked at our team we looked at strength of our team and the quality of leadership we had.” Said General Manager David Poile. “As the team came together, we looked at players who have been captain or assistant captains of their team.”
USA officials also moved in a different direction than was expected in appointing Dan Bylsma head coach. He is making his international coaching debut. Team USA bypassed other notable candidates, including John Tortorella, Ron Wilson and Peter Laviolette. All three have international experience at the World Championships and Olympics whereas Bylsma does not. Laviolette, Todd Richards and Tony Granato will assist Bylsma behind the bench.
Goaltending will be the key to success for the Americans but also the one area that will be met with plenty of scrutiny. All three goaltenders are playing exceptionally for their NHL teams at the moment. Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller will vie for the top spot but potential third string Jimmy Howard is also in the mix. Miller was the starting goaltender in 2010 and the face of USA Hockey at the time. Since then, Quick’s star has been on the rise, including a Stanley Cup under his belt. Both are enjoying a strong January in the push towards Sochi.
“All three goaltenders are playing well at the moment.” Said Bylsma of his goaltending options. “Since coming back from injury, Jonathan has played some of his best hockey.”
Team USA boasts a talented group of forwards whose skill, speed and size are impressive, including Phil Kessel, Zach Parise and Patrick Kane. Timely scoring and ultimately team success will come through the production of these USA skaters.
This talented trio for USA Hockey has scored over 70 goals so far during the 2013-14 season. Each will be tapped to provide the firepower for the American offense.
Parise believes there were lessons learned from the experience four years ago.
“I think we have so many returning players who established a good identity (in Vancouver) and saw how we needed to play to be successful.” He said. “One of the things in a short tournament is to get better in every game.”
There is incredible depth upfront. Six forwards have scored over 20 goals this season and another four have scored over 15. There are also character players like Callahan and Brown who can provide offense but also toughness and shot blocking when needed.
On defense, there are puck-moving d-men like Kevin Shattenkirk who will help. Provided Paul Martin can come back from a tibia injury, he can play whatever role is expected. Stud blueliner Ryan Suter has significant international experience going back to his time as a junior player. He’s entering his prime and playing his best hockey, which is good news for Team USA. Shutdown defenseman Brooks Orpik will likely be deployed against the opposition’s best forwards.
Key, of course, throughout the tournament will be the play of special teams.
“Teams that were effective in Vancouver were successful on the special teams.” Said Parise. “We need to make less mistakes thank our opponents. These are the keys to winning.”
Projection: Since NHL players have been participating in the Olympics since 1998, Team USA has won silver twice (2002, 2010) but finished 6th and 8th (1998 and 2006 respectively). With strong competition not only from Canada and Russia but also the Scandinavian countries, it will be an uphill battle to repeat a return to the gold medal game. Still, it is not out of the possibility and with so many experienced and talented players the Americans will mount a challenge to all comers in their quest for gold.
Top Three Players:
Paul Stastny has represented Team USA at three World Championships and one Olympic tournament. Stastny was impressive in scoring seven goals and fifteen points in leading Team USA to a bronze at the 2013 World Championships.
Patrick Kane is 25 and already has two Stanley Cups to his credit. Kane was not afraid to shoot the puck in his first Olympic tournament, leading the team with 22 shots on goal. He will be a valuable presence on special teams. His creativity on the power play will be essential.
Zach Parise has played an important part in Team USA at every level of international competition, including the U18 and U20 World Championships; Men’s World Championships and Olympics. He scored the equalizer late in the third period of the gold medal game at the 2010 Winter Olympic that gave the USA a huge momentum swing. On Friday, Parise was named captain of the team, further solidifying his credentials with the national team.
Joe Pavelski has raised his game this season with San Jose, producing on a near point-per-game rate with 53 in 50 games. He has been a major factor in the Sharks’ success in recent years and a clutch performer during the team’s annual playoff runs. Russia offers him an opportunity to shine on an even bigger stage.