By Allan Muir
In a perfect world, the 48 hopefuls who will attend Team USA’s Olympic orientation camp in Arlington, Va. (Aug. 26-27) would get at least one session together on the ice. Maybe two.
But with insurance rates skyrocketing, and no one rushing to pick up the tab, the U.S. brain trust will have to settle for informational meetings and team-building exercises at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in suburban Washington, D.C.
That won’t whip up fan fervor the way, say, it would to watch Patrick Kane finish off a sweet saucer pass from Zach Parise, but this week’s meetings are important nevertheless. The 25 players who make the roster, after all, must be prepared to deal with transportation, drug testing, family accommodations, ticket distribution and hundreds of other small details before they jet off to Sochi next February.
And even though no one at the gathering will either make or be cut from the squad, there is already plenty of speculation as to how the U.S. might shape its roster as it looks to improve on a silver-medal finish in Vancouver.
Team USA has enviable depth in goal and plenty of speed, if not a lot of experience (or right-handed shots) on the blueline. Up front, there are some real questions. The Americans don’t have the centers to match up with Canada, Russia or Sweden, and while there’s plenty of depth on the wings, team management faces a real challenge in determining which players will be able to make the most of the big international ice.
Who might those players be? Here’s a look at the camp roster and how Team USA stacks up:
• Craig Anderson (Senators): An alternate in 2010, his game has progressed to the point where he should challenge Jonathan Quick for playing time in Sochi. When at his best, Anderson gives off a Hasek-like aura of invulnerability. How do you keep him off the team?
• John Gibson (Ducks): Not one team in Vancouver decided or was forced to use its third-string netminder, so having Gibson tag along for practice duties is a low-risk move. He’s already proven that he can win on the big ice, having backstopped the Americans to gold at the world Juniors last January, and then to a stunning bronze at the World Championships in May.
• Jimmy Howard (Red Wings): He’s a solid performer who would do an admirable job in a pinch, but Team USA has better options.
• Ryan Miller (Sabres): There will be plenty of sentiment to reward Miller with a spot on the team because of his heroic efforts in 2010, but the way his game has deteriorated during the past couple of seasons, can he be trusted to step in? Don’t think so.
• Jonathan Quick (Kings): With his 2012 Conn Smythe-winning performance still fresh in mind, Quick is the prohibitive favorite to win the starting job. He has that big-game ability that breeds confidence in his teammates and he’s proven that he can carry a team, much like Miller did in Vancouver.
• Cory Schneider (Devils): He hasn’t had the struggles of, say, a Marc-Andre Fleury, but Schneider didn’t exactly distinguish himself in the playoffs last spring, either. Like Howard, you could throw him between the pipes and he’d be fine . . . but Team USA doesn’t need to settle for fine.
• Zach Bogosian (jets): He’s a kid with everything the Americans are looking for: size, speed, offensive touch and a nasty edge that makes him tough to play against. He’s a right-handed shot, too, a quality that’s in short supply on this team.
• Dustin Byfuglien (Jets): Team USA GM David Poile called Byfuglien a “wild card,” which was a polite way of saying he deserves a look, but they aren’t expecting much. He’s too fat and too slow for the international ice.
• John Carlson (Capitals): His consistency might be an issue, but Carlson can play a shutdown game and he has an explosive offensive upside. He could play himself into in the mix.
• Dan DeKeyser (Red Wings): His skating and puck-moving ability made an immediate impact on the Detroit blue line, so he has the tools to play on the big ice. What he lacks is experience, and that makes him a long shot unless the U.S. goes with nine defensemen.
• Justin Faulk (Hurricanes): He’s just 21, but Team USA’s brass won’t hold his youth against him. Faulk has shown deft skill at the last two World Championships, picking apart opposing defenses to score four goals and 14 points in 18 games. He knows how to take advantage of the big ice. It’ll be a surprise if he doesn’t make the cut.
• Cam Fowler (Ducks): He’s a terrific skater and brings an undeniable ability to move the puck forward, but Fowler makes too many bad reads, turns the puck over too often, and lacks the muscle to win battles down low. He’ll need a remarkable start to the NHL season if he’s to crack the top six.
• Jake Gardiner (Maple Leafs): He proved he was ready for the bigger stage with a stunning performance in the playoffs last spring. The small sample size (six games) means he still has something to prove during the season’s early months, but his aggressive, confident offensive play hints at a player who could be a difference-maker.
• Erik Johnson (Avalanche): He’s been a good soldier through the years, but there are better players to choose from now.
• Jack Johnson (Blue Jackets): He’s a different player when he puts on a Team USA jersey — smarter, tougher, heroic. Johnson’s a lock for this squad and a good bet to wear the C.
• Seth Jones (Predators): It would be easy to say that Jones is here for the experience only, but it’s never been wise to underestimate him. The wheels are there and so is the physical game. If he gets off to a good start with the Predators, he might fit in for the U.S. in a 7-8 role.
• Nick Leddy (Blackhawks): He earned the opportunity to attend camp but . . . no, he won’t make the team.
• Paul Martin (Penguins): Ask anyone who watches Pittsburgh regularly and they’re likely to tell you that Martin, not Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang, was the team’s best all-around defender last season. He’ll be in Sochi.
• Ryan McDonagh (Rangers): One of those guys who’ll do whatever it takes to get the win. He can start making travel plans for Sochi now.
• Brooks Orpik (Penguins): He’s that relentlessly physical defenseman every coach in the NHL needs, but whose value is diminished by the big ice and the quicker play of international hockey. If the Americans choose to bring nine blueliners, he might be the extra body, with an eye on possible games against Team Canada.
• Kevin Shattenkirk (Blues): He has the ability to make the rapid transition from defense to offense that Team USA requires, and he thinks the game as quickly as he skates it. Being a right-handed shot further helps his case.
• Ryan Suter (Wild): Put it in ink: The Norris finalist will play 25 minutes per night as the anchor of the U.S. defense.
• Jacob Trouba (Jets): His presence at orientation is strictly an observation mission for young Trouba, who will be challenged to crack Winnipeg’s roster this season.
• Keith Yandle (Coyotes): A veteran presence who can play heavy minutes, he’s all but a lock.
• Justin Abdelkader (Red Wings): The speed. Oh, the speed. Abdelkader can fill a specific depth role, killing penalties, playing with energy and wreaking havoc on the forecheck. But is that reason enough to leave another, more offensively gifted player off the roster? Probably not.
• David Backes (Blues): St. Louis will probably play him on the wing this season, but with Team USA starved for talent up the middle, Backes is almost sure to be used as either the third- or fourth-line pivot. They need his size and full-on commitment.
• Beau Bennett (Penguins): He struggled to secure a full-time job in Pittsburgh during his rookie season, so a roster spot for Sochi is not happening. His turn is still years down the road.
• Nick Bjugstad (Panthers): The big winger has great potential, but this camp is strictly a learning opportunity.
• Dustin Brown (Kings): Great leadership, physical play and a 25-goal touch. Brown is one of those rare players who could impact the game from any line.
• Ryan Callahan (Rangers): He has great chemistry with invitee Derek Stepan and a switch that’s always set to high speed. He’s miserable to play against.
• Alex Galchenyuk (Canadiens): He’s still wet behind the ears, but Galchenyuk has blistering speed and the kind of creativity that could spark a struggling offense. It says here that he’ll make the team, and he’ll be an impact player before the tournament is over.
• Patrick Kane (Blackhawks): Few players will make better use of that extra 15 feet of ice than Kane. He’ll be the team’s offensive catalyst.
• Ryan Kesler (Canucks): It shows how shallow the talent pool is at center if Kesler is viewed as a first-line option. If he ever was that guy, he’s not anymore. And his health issues have to be a real concern for the U.S. brass.
• Phil Kessel (Maple Leafs): Like Kane, he has the speed and shiftiness to make the most of the wider rink.
• Trevor Lewis (Kings): The gritty winger plays the game with passion, but it’s tough to see him breaking through the log jam on the wings.
• Kyle Okposo (Islanders): After three lackluster seasons, it’s hard to imagine why he was invited, and tougher still to imagine the misfortunes that would have to befall this group for Okposo to have a chance to make the team.
• T.J. Oshie (Blues): The Americans seem to have four right wingers who bring more to the table than Oshie, but there’s a good chance they’ll shoehorn him in just the same. He has great speed and is no pleasure to play against. He’s also versatile enough to take one of the two extra forward slots.
• Max Pacioretty (Canadiens): Montreal’s top scorer has the big body and breakaway speed that’s needed to fill a top-six role.
• Kyle Palmieri (Ducks): Another sightseer with his eyes set on 2018.
• Zach Parise (Wild): A good bet to line up opposite Kane, Parise will bring some edge (and some goal mouth presence) to the first line.
• Joe Pavelski (Sharks): Versatile forward can skate center or wing and adapt his style from a shutdown role to an offensive spark plug. Brian Burke called him the Swiss Army knife of Team USA in 2010, and he’ll be just as important to this team.
• Bobby Ryan (Senators): A reliable 30-goal scorer, he has the game-breaking ability the U.S. will need.
• Brandon Saad (Blackhawks): Good kid, big body, plays the game the right way, but who do you leave home to get him on the roster?
• Craig Smith (Predators): He was lousy with Nashville last season, but no one’s forgotten how well he played at the 2011 worlds. The big ice brings out the best in him.
• Paul Stastny (Avalanche): He salvaged a lousy season in Denver with a Team USA-high seven goals and 15 points in 10 games at the worlds last spring. With a dearth of talent at center, he’s a sure thing.
• Derek Stepan (Rangers): A crafty playmaker with high-end speed and some finishing touch, he’s a lock to make the team. The only question is how to use him. Stepan lacks the size and strength to be an ideal No. 1 center, but Team USA might be looking in his direction.
• James van Riemsdyk (Maple Leafs): A positive player whose energy rubs off on others, JVR can beat you with a heavy shot off the rush or by crashing the net and burying the trash.
• Blake Wheeler (Jets): The big-bodied winger, who’s coming off a career offensive year, appears to be a long shot to make the team because of the U.S.’s depth on the right. If Kane moves to center — or injuries strike — he’s a viable option for the first three lines.
First line: Zach Parise–Derek Stepan–Patrick Kane
Second line: Bobby Ryan–Paul Stastny–Phil Kessel
Third line: Max Pacioretty–Joe Pavelski–Ryan Callahan
Fourth line: James van Riemsdyk–David Backes–Dustin Brown
Extra forwards: Alex Galchenyuk, T.J. Oshie
First pair: Ryan Suter–Jack Johnson
Second pair: Paul Martin–Justin Faulk
Third pair: Ryan McDonagh–Keith Yandle
Extra defenders: Kevin Shattenkirk, Jake Gardiner
Goaltender: Jonathan Quick