I know hockey is a niche sport. But if you can’t get excited about Olympic hockey, then I question your sports fandom. It’s the best Olympic team sport out there. Far superior to basketball, which is basically a three-team tournament (and that’s only a new occurrence).
On paper, the United States hockey team doesn’t stand a chance in Vancouver at the 2010 Winter Olympics. The American pool of players simply lacks the star quality other nations can roll out.
Canada has the likes of Joe Thornton, Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis – on their second line! Names like Sidney Crosby, Dany Heatley, Vincent Lecavalier, Jerome Iginla are just plain scary.
Russia has unrivaled firepower with Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.
Slovakia should be tricky with Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik.
Sweden has the Sedin twins, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Nicklas Backstrom, Johan Franzen and Daniel Alfredsson to name a few.
All names you’ve heard of before (maybe).
Team USA? Not so much. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Remember it was a rag-tag group of Americans that produced Team USA’s greatest Olympic hockey triumph in 1980.
The U.S. is coming off a vastly underwhelming performance in the 2006 Turin Olympics, finishing eighth (right ahead of those dastardly Kazakhs).
The Americans won just one of their five group matches, barely qualifying for the knockout stage, which saw them bow out 4-3 to Finland.
Team USA tried to repeat the formula of 2002’s surprising silver medal run, which saw the Americans shock the experts with a team filled with grizzled NHL veterans. So, they sent a similar group (four years older, mind you) to Turin and got blitzed.
I’d say it’s time for some new blood. Luckily for the U.S., there is a great crop of young Yanks ready for the challenge.
The 23-man Team USA will be coached by Ron Wilson and will be announced Jan. 1 during the Winter Classic at Fenway between the Bruins and Flyers.
If I were picking the team, and Lord knows I wish I was, I’d only bring four of the same players who represented the U.S. in the 2006 Olympics (Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski and John-Michael Liles).
Here’s the rest of TheBaker’s Team USA:
RW – Jamie Langenbrunner
C – Paul Stastny
LW – Zach Parise
Langenbrunner and Parise have been awesome so far this season on the Devils’ top line flanking Travis Zajac. Langenbrunner has 7 goals and 21 assists, while Parise has scored 15 goals with 20 assists.
Parise just might be the best American player going right now. The Devils’ leading scorer this year, Parise is the complete package, and lucky for the U.S., he plays the position the Americans are weakest at. He’s tenacious, predatory and isn’t shy to pull the trigger. He’s 25 and just entering his prime. Parise is a 40-goal scorer waiting to happen.
His New Jersey teammate Langenbrunner isn’t the Americans’ best right wing (a position the U.S. is loaded at), but there’s no point in breaking up a good thing. Drop budding superstar Paul Stastny in the middle of the Devils’ duo and the Americans have a potent first line combination.
At 34, Langenbrunner is one of the elder statesman I’ve included in this team. His experience should be a big help to a youthful American setup, though Langenrbunner hasn’t been an Olympian since the 1998 Games. He’s been passed over twice before, but you can’t ignore his production this season and the rapport he has with Parise (the U.S.’ best player).
Stastny was born in Quebec, but holds dual citizenship. His older brother, Yan, chose to represent the U.S. at the junior level and luckily, younger bro followed suit. The Colorado Avalanche playmaker is an outright stud. Injuries slowed him down last season, but now healthy, Stastny has locked up a spot as the top American center. In 33 games this year, he’s got eight goals and 25 assists (top 10 in the NHL in assists)
RW – Patrick Kane
C – Ryan Kesler
LW – Dustin Brown
The average age on this line would be 23.3 years old. Ryan Kesler and Dustin Brown are both 25 and Patrick Kane is a baby-faced 21.
Kesler is a premier two-way forward as evidenced by his candidacy for the Selke Trophy last season. Entering his prime, the former Ohio State Buckeye is nearly a point-per-game player this season (27 points in 32 games). He’s fast, a gifted passer and isn’t afraid to use his 6-foot-2 frame. The Vancouver center has represented the U.S. at four IIHF events, helping the States win gold medals at the 2004 World U18 Championship, the 2002 World Junior Championships (where he was named the tournament’s best player) and the 2001 World U-17 Hockey Challenge. I like that track record.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Kane has scored at least 21 goals in each of his first two years and he’ll more than likely post a number in the 30s this season. Kane, the 2008 Calder Trohy winner (rookie of the year) will never be confused with a bruiser, unless of course you’re a Buffalo cabbie short on change. Kane is 5-foot-9 and 160 lbs. So he’ll need some protection in Vancouver. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you Dustin Brown.
Brown plays on the right side for the Los Angeles Kings, but left wing is a little shallow in the U.S. pool, so I’m putting him on the left on this line. He plays one of the most physical brands of hockey in the game today, currently tied for second in the league with 109 hits. Last season, he was third in the league with 285 hits. Oh yeah, and he added 24 goals and 29 assists. Brown, who has 25 points for the Kings through 34 games this season, captained the U.S. contingent at this year’s IIHF World Championship, in which the Americans took fourth. He’s been a key cog of the last three U.S. teams at the World Championships, scoring 11 goals and adding nine assists in 23 games.
RW – Phil Kessel
C – Joe Pavelski
LW – Ryan Malone
Chris Drury has been a fixture for Team USA, competing for the Red, White and Blue in each of the last two Olympic Games. But the New York Rangers captain has had an awful start to the season (nine points in 25 games), and is shaking out the cobwebs from an early season concussion. His experience at the international level most likely lands him on the team that Ron Wilson picks. But I’m not Ron Wilson.
In Drury’s place, I decided between three players: Patrick O’Sullivan (Edmonton), Joe Pavelski (San Jose) and Tim Connolly (Buffalo). Of the trio, only Pavelski was brought into the USA Hockey Olympic Orientation in August. Meaning the head honchos at USA Hockey think a great deal about the 25-year old.
The Sharks center missed all but two games in October, but Pavelski, a Wisconsin boy, has come back with 11 points in his last 17 games.
O’Sullivan, another youngster (he’s just 24), was one of the stars for Team USA at the 2009 IIHF World Championship, in which the U.S. finished fourth. In nine games, O’Sullivan scored four goals (second most on the team) and added three assists.
Connolly is the veteran among the bunch at 28, and is really, really fast. Injuries have slowed him throughout his career, but he appears healthy now. However, Connolly has picked an awful time to go in a scoring drought. He has scored just twice in the last 18 games (both goals came against Philly Nov. 27), and hasn’t registered a point in 11 of his last 16 games. So Pavelski gets the nod.
Kessel missed the opening of the season with injury, but since returning to the lineup he’s been vintage Kessel. Meaning, he’s been a baller. Boston fans don’t need me to tell them how good Phil is. He scored 36 goals in 70 games last season, and is scoring at an equally impressive clip this season with Toronto with 11 goals in 20 games. The 22-year old former Minnesota Golden Gopher has a nice story (cancer survivor) and could become an U.S. Olympic favorite if the Americans make a deep medal run.
Finishing off the third line is Ryan Malone. A hard-nosed goal scorer, Malone is on pace to have his best season of his career, with 16 goals already this year. His career best single-season total is 27. The Pittsburgh-native is a big (6-foot-4, 225 lbs.), tough presence and could be a possible power play force (22 power play goals the last three seasons). He’s been through the wars of the Stanley Cup playoffs with the Penguins and the 30-year old’s experience will come in handy. He’s also an important checking body, currently sixth in the league with 97 hits.
RW – Bobby Ryan
C – Scott Gomez
LW – Brian Gionta
Much like the Americans’ top line, I’m going to stick with an old tried and true formula. Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta enjoyed a fruitful partnership (along with Patrick Elias) in New Jersey and now they’ve been reunited in Montreal this season.
Gomez always finds his way onto Team USA. But I’ll be honest, I’m not the biggest Scott Gomez fan. I always thought he was a little overrated. He’s only scored 20 goals once in a season (2005-06 when he netted 33 times). His assist numbers, however keep him a handy player.
Gionta had a ridiculous 2005-06 season (48 goals and 41 assists), but since then he’s fallen back to Earth as little more than a steady 20-goal scorer. Last year, Gionta posted his lowest goal total (20) since his second-year in the league when he scored just 12. But the diminutive New Yorker has the requisite speed needed to help unlock European defenses and he’s one of the few Olympic veterans I’ve decided to bring back. In addition, Gionta led Team USA in scoring last Olympics with four goals.
Going along for the ride with Gomez and Gionta should be Bobby Ryan. The Anaheim Ducks 22-year old right winger has a lot of competition for this spot. Kyle Okposo (New York Islanders), Dustin Byfuglien (Chicago), Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers), Jason Pominville (Buffalo), Lee Stempniak (Toronto) and Blake Wheeler (Boston) all could stake a claim as Team USA’s fourth right winger. Ryan brings a more explosive scoring dynamic than the aforementioned group and still boasts a big body (6-foot-2, 213 lbs.) that causes opponents trouble. He scored 31 goals last season in just 64 games and is on pace for another 30-plus goal year this season with 14 tallies in 32 games.
Okposo, Byfuglien and Callahan each bring a physical, intimidating presence and could find their way onto Ron Wilson’s roster. But none are better than Kessel, Kane and Ryan and Langenbrunner. Hence their omission.
If you’ve picked up on one thing about these roster picks yet, it’s that I’m not huge on bringing back retread veterans. Well I’ll happily make an exception for Brian Rafalski. I know he’s 36-years old, but he’s a power play presence and a steady hand.
Brooks Orpik has never featured for Team USA, but he was called into camp for a U.S. Hockey Orientation. And for good reason. The Pittsburgh Penguins bruiser definitely deserves his shot. Offense isn’t Orpik’s game. Body checks, and plenty of them, are. Plus, he was named after 1980 U.S. Olympic coach Herb Brooks. Works for me.
Defense Pairing 2
Call this The Hoosier Pairing. Both players were born in the Indianapolis-area (the very same area code I inhabit). In fact, Liles played little league baseball with my roommate, so we’re slightly biased over here. But the Colorado Avalanche defenseman has been a Team USA fixture in recent tournaments. He’s a smooth puck-handling blue-liner and he could be key on the power play.
Jack Johnson was Team USA’s top goal-scorer at the IIHF 2009 World Championships with five goals. The former Michigan Wolverine is a big-time hitter and as close to a complete defenseman the U.S. has. Erik Johnson, no relation, could also work for me.
Defense Pairing 3
USA Olympic hockey is in Ryan Suter’s blood. His dad, Bob, was on the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team, and his uncle, Gary, was a two-time Olympian playing for Team USA in 1998 and 2002.
The Nashville Predators’ 24-year old defenseman has played for the U.S. in seven tournaments, winning three gold medals at the World Junior Championships.
“I feel it’s an honor to wear the Team USA jersey and every time I’m on the ice I play hardest and give everything I have. Playing for Team USA is one of the those thing you look forward to. When I got the call and was asked to play on this team, it was an easy answer. It didn’t matter who was on the team or who the coach was. It’s just an honor to wear the jersey and compete for your country.”
Bogosian is an offensive whiz kid from the blue line. The 19-year old upstate New Yorker – along with Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson – is the future of Team USA’s defense. His eight goals so far this season tie him for first in the NHL among defenders with fellow 2008 top-3 pick, Drew Doughty.
Miller is the obvious No. 1 choice, despite Thomas coming off a Vezina Trophy winning season a year ago. Miller is downright unbeatable right now. The Buffalo netminder leads the NHL in goals against average (1.83) and save percentage (.939).
If the Olympics were last year, then Thomas might be the No. 1. But the Bruins shot-stopper is 22nd in save percentage (.911) and 18th in GAA (2.51).
Quick has been solid this season for the Kings and gets the nod over an injured Rick DiPietro.
RW Kyle Okposo
D Ryan Whitney
Both could and possibly should make Ron Wilson’s 23-man roster. Okposo is a budding star and brings a nastiness that could come in handy. Whitney is a gifted offensive defenseman, and might actually be better at this point than Liles. But Liles has been battle-tested at the international level and Whitney hasn’t done enough, in my opinion, to overtake him.
LW Brian Rolston
D Erik Johnson
G Jimmy Howard
Rolston won a silver medal with Team USA in 2002 and is a natural lefty, two things that make him valuable. He’s scored 11 times this season, but he’s 36-years old. One of those is enough (Rafalski) is enough in a tournament where quick turnarounds are vital.
Johnson, a former No. 1 overall pick, very well could make Wilson’s team. The 21-year old has four goals and 17 assists in 30 games this season and has proven to be a future star. I wouldn’t be disappointed if he made the team. I had to go with one of the Johnsons, and I went with Jack because he’s a tad more well-rounded at this point.
Howard has been a nice surprise for the Red Wings this season, posting modest numbers (2.42 GAA and .914 save percentage). He’s young (25) and is probably the best American keeper going (besides the top-3). He’s never been through an NHL postseason, so that’s a concern. But he’s fourth on the depth chart, so I’m not tripping.