We’ve a few days between games again, and a topic I think worthy of address is that of the year-out look of the potential roster for the Americans in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. There’s a fair bit of encouraging news, I think, delivered by the NHL’s first half of play. I’ll share with you my impressions and prognostications and by all means encourage you to share yours. Be fun I think to see how close we can come to pinning down an American roster for the Games.
First, we’d do well to remember the blight of 2006. The Americans then finished a shocking 1-3-1 — good for eighth place in the Games, gone before we could even get to know them. It was revolting, and that performance almost certainly led to USA Hockey ushering in a conspicuous youth movement beginning with the very next World Championships. Names from those last Olympic games include Doug Weight, Derian Hatcher, Bill Guerin, Craig Conroy, Keith Tkachuk, Mike Modano, Jason Blake, Mark Parrish, Bret Hedican, Jordan Leopold, Robert Esche, John Grahame, John-Michael Liles. The roster seemed a mish-mash of old and not so impressive new, and it showed. It was distinctly veteran and distinctly place-holding — for the next generation of international American talent.
That next generation, this morning, is looking pretty damned good: Patrick Kane. Phil Kessel. Zach Parise. Ryan Miller. Paul Stastny. Joe Pavelski. Dustin Brown. Ryan Suter. Mike Komisarek. Among others.
Indisputably they’ll be young; indisputably they’ll be fleet and skilled. They’ll need to be well-coached. With hot goaltending, I think they could steal a bronze.
I’ll start my roster formation-assessment where it appears easiest — in net. There are two clear standout talents for the Americans right now — Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller. Rick DiPietro could be mended come next winter, but has he shown enough to date to unseat either of Thomas or Miller? I don’t think so. I don’t know who should start next February, but I know that the tandem of Thomas and Miller represents a marked upgrade relative to 2006.
There is also clear strength at center. Who’s no. 1 — Zach Parise or Paul Stastny? There are veterans at that position too — Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. I can’t see both of the Rangers making the American roster next year, unless one moves to a wing. Things get fun, too, when you think about potential third- and fourth-line centers. Joe Pavelski is sure staking a national team claim out in San Jose. And we in Washington saw what R.J. Umberger could do in big games; imagine him centering a havoc line of skill alongside say Dustin Byfuglien and David Booth. I also think Brandon Dubinsky has to be considered for a grit role in the middle.
I fell in love with left wing David Booth’s game last season. He seemed to come out of nowhere. He is mega-fast, a skilled pest, and he just happens to lead the Florida Panthers in scoring these days. Erik Cole has suffered through some tough injuries of late, but I think his experience bodes well for top-line consideration, the moreso were the Americans to skate particularly young on the top line’s other two positions. Cole’s not exactly a geezer, and he has a lot of international experience. Other names for left wing: Christopher Higgins (27 goals last season), Ryan Malone, Brian Rolston, and Patrick O’Sullivan.
The American candidates on right wing are real interesting to me. Kessel and Kane are mortal locks on the top two lines. No apologies needed there. But then there’s a slew of extremely young and extremely promising prospects: Dustin Brown you have to think is a leading third-line candidate. But what happens if one or both of Kyle Okposo and Blake Wheeler get off to seriously strong sophomore campaigns? Don’t laugh at the prospects of either. Wheeler for instance is a gaudy +27 in his rookie season with the Bs, and he’s a giant body. The ’10 Games of course will be contested on North American-sized ice, where bigger power bodies help.
Speaking of big bodies, Byfuglien seems to be just entering his big-framed prime. And another NHL season for Bobby Ryan could make for a true glut of candidates on the right side.
On the back end four or five names seem certain: Mike Komisarek, Ryan Suter, Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin, almost certainly Ryan Whitney. Keith Ballard could be in the mix. The big question marks are two youngsters named Johnson, Erik and Jack, that three years ago a lot of folks who follow American hockey thought would be locks for 2010. Both have had their early NHL development seriously thwarted by injuries. Have they missed too much time for 2010? I also wonder how good a look Pittsburgh’s Alex Goligoski will get — he’s got a lot of talent. Do we even mention the possibility of a near 50-year-old Chris Chelios?
Remember, when you factor in play this spring and in the autumn, there’s a full season of NHL play with which to audition all of these young (and old) bodies.
One of the biggest questions coming out of 2006’s massive disappointment was: will there be quality talent to emerge, in numbers enough, to replace a fair portion of an aged and underperforming American entry at the Olympics, in time for 2010? I think a reasonable evaluation has to conclude a resounding yes. Kane and Kessel are game-breakers. There’s quality netminding. Komisarek is a franchise blueliner, and Erik Johnson ought to be. There is quality depth.
These young American NHLers should continue to develop in 2009, and they’re already fun to watch. That in itself is a vast improvement.