Spiritually and psychologically, today is a national holiday in Canada — the day that the Canadian Olympic hockey roster is announced. No disrespect to my cousins to the North, and good luck of course to Greener, but I’m not all hot and bothered by the news. It’s kind of like Hugh Heffner convening a presser to announce the identity of a new girlfriend — we kind of know what she’s gonna look like.
Today I’m giddy about the likely composition of the American Olympic roster.
For it was about just two or three months back that nobody much bothered even discussing the American prospects in Vancouver. And to be fair, they’re still enormously longshot. It would be delusional to posit a likely medals triumvirate that included any nations other than Canada, Russia, and Sweden. The Americans, conventional wisdom’s long been, are putting forward a rebuilding roster for the Vancouver games.
And perhaps so. But a few things have changed the outlook for the Yanks in the opening couple of months of this NHL season. Most importantly, they’ll boast perhaps the tournament’s most swagger-striding netminder, Ryan Miller. In a short tournament, if you’ve got a stud-hot goalie, anything’s possible.
We’ll get the formal announcement of the American roster on Friday, when NBC announces the roster after the Winter (not so) Classic, but why wait for that? Let’s toss about some Tier I names, identify overarching attributes of the likely roster, ruminate a bit over the Americans’ schedule, and see if we don’t agree that American hockey fans ought to be good and jazzed about watching the 2010 Yanks in Vancouver.
American youth will be served in these games, and they will skate well. For me, ID-ing the Americans’ top line is fairly straightforward: Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane on the wings, and Zach Parise in the pivot. There’s high-end motoring and Mojo with that unit, lots of production and high-pressure punch there. Is it keep-you-awake-at-night scary good, relative to say the dream team/fantasy league lines we’ll hear about for Canada’s club, or especially Russia’s? Not quite, but it’s nothing to apologize for either. I will say that I’m of the opinion that Phil Kessel shines brightest on international sheets of ice, although the Olympics’ being contested on NHL-sized rinks with these games could mitigate a bit his big-jet skating. Anyway, I’m really looking forward to watching our first unit.
The Americans’ second through fourth lines then, for me, become a bit muddled, a bit clogged, with candidates, but I see this as a virtue, not a weakness. Colorado’s Paul Stastny would be a lead candidate to center a second line, you have to think, although he could also skate a wing while Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler played pivot. Those are two terrific hockey players. Given the likely youth on the American top line, it will be important I think for head coach Ron Wilson to incorporate some experience for his second unit, and so someone like Jamie Langenbrunner or Ryan Malone might fill it out. Malone, at almost a point a game for Tampa this season, will almost certainly bring 25-to-30-goal production to his candidacy prior to the games. The American second line in these games I think will play a pivotal role in trying to close the gap with the tourney’s favorite teams. If it can forge chemistry and cohesion and take some of the production burden off of the top unit, we may well see the Americans competitive deep into the third periods of even the toughest games.
Likely Wils will come back with even more youth on his third line. Bobby Ryan notched 31 goals for Anaheim last season and is well on his way to bettering that this season. Tim Connolly would bring terrific production and playmaking in the middle there, and some seasoned vet’s experience. Right wing Ryan Callahan had 22 goals for the Blueshirts last season and is offering solid production this year. Plus, he brings more good wheels. Other top-three-line candidates should include the Shark’s Joe Pavelski, St. Louis’ David Backes, and the Islanders’ Kyle Okposo.
A year ago I was so excited about the Americans’ prospects because of the emergence of Florida Panther left wing David Booth (31 goals, and a flyer), but he’s been shelved virtually all this season with a concussion. It’s difficult to fathom the American roster braintrust selecting him even if he’s returned to health early in the new year. He will simply have played too little hockey. A real shame, because Booth I thought was a fantastically fun player to watch last season and a player boosting the overall profile of Team USA for Vancouver.
The sun is seriously setting on Mike Modano’s hockey career, but I love the idea of him centering the American fourth line, still skating well and taking key draws in his own end late in tight games, and generally being a figure of historic importance in the young American room. Maybe flank him with young brawny American hearts named Dustin, Byfuglien and Brown.
The toughest roster decisions Brian Burke et al have come I think with assembling the American defense. And for me the key question is do they have the guts to go with wet-behind-the-ears prodigy Zach Bogosian. He’s a cornerstone of future American national teams, but he won’t be 20 until next July, and with so much youth in general up front, I worry that Bogosian will be forsaken for some comparatively pedestrian rearguard with four or five hundred NHL games under his belt. If Bogosian is on this roster instantly you have some jazz on the back end. He’s got one less goal this season than Mike Green.
Pencil in Brian Rafalski and Ryan Suter and Brooks Orpik; warrior Tim Gleason has to be a leading candidate; Paul Martin’s health is in serious question; Erik Johnson isn’t a lock but still a seriously strong candidate. I see LA’s Jack Johnson as very much a spare part for these games — he’s got a lot of maturing still to do in his game, although I love his banging style for a smaller ice sheet. Ryan Whitney offers strong production as well. But Bogosian would most help ease the offensive production burden that Rafalski would almost single-handedly be asked to carry off, and boy can he skate. If a guy — kid, even — has 100 NHL games under his belt and is making a serious impact on a seriously improved NHL club, he’s got to be in Red, White, and Blue, in my blogging thinking, for these games, when so many other clubs will be so laden with high-end talent. Bogosian is a difference-maker, already, and the Americans need as many of them as possible.
I think it’s a mobile and skilled set of blueliners that possesses in abundance puck movement skills with smarts. But I want Bogosian in there, badly.
Ryan Miller’s emergence this season — he’s near the top of virtually every major statistical category for goalies this season — has radically altered the overall outlook of this team, I think. The Americans have played some scrappy games against elite teams the past 20 years or so, but always with a Tier II netminder backstopping them. Not in these games. And how could you not like what Craig Anderson’s meant to the Colorado Avalanche this season? I like him over Tim Thomas to back up Miller, but Miller’s getting all the big work in these games.
We’ve seen so many Americans make so conspicuous an impact on the first round of the NHL Entry Draft over the past five years or so, and these Olympics are the harvest of that. Make no mistake, there will be quality American talent left off this 2010 team. The Americans open with the Swiss and Norwegians before a showdown with Canada on February 21. Days off between each of those games. Then it’s Miller time in the qualification round. It’s also a pretty big opportunity for Ron Wilson to recast his image in international competition. It’ll be great hockey to be sure, but no miracle I don’t think if we see the Americans competing for a medal.