WOODRIDGE, Ill. – The 2003 NHL draft gave the United States three players who have all that Brian Burke likes in a hockey player – skill, size and toughness, not necessarily in that order.
And when he singled out Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks, David Backes of the St. Louis Blues and Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings for praise as the U.S. Olympic hockey team orientation camp closed on Wednesday, it suggested that all three have a good chance to be on the 23-man roster at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
“I went into last season thinking they’ll probably pick the camp on how you did,” said Kesler. “I had a pretty good year.
“I won’t be looked at as a goal-scorer on this team. My job would probably be to agitate and kill penalties.”
All three are in their mid-20s and all were selected in the spectacular draft year of 2003 – Brown 13th overall, Kesler 23rd and Backes 62nd.
They are all big, fast, aggressive and able to score goals. They may not have the slick skills of the world’s elite players like Canada’s Sidney Crosby or Russian’s Evgeni Malkin or Alex Ovechkin, but they should fit in fine with the “strong, aggressive forechecking team” coach Ron Wilson hopes to ice at the Games in February.
They may even find themselves on the same line.
“We’d be a fast line that can hit,” added Kesler. “A lot of big bodies.
“We’d definitely get under the other team’s skin.”
Burke said there were 14 players all but certain to make the team – a group that surely includes goalies Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller, defenceman Brian Rafalski and forwards Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and Paul Stastny. Veteran Mike Modano also likely is a lock.
That leaves nine jobs open, although Burke cautioned that decisions will be made based on how players perform when the NHL regular season begins on Oct. 1.
“We can’t just take the best 23 players,” he said. “We have to take players who can perform specific tasks at a high level.
“Even if it’s a blue collar task, we need people who can do it well.”
He and five other NHL general managers who form the team selection committee are to meet in the first week of October to review their strategy. They’ll meet again in the early December to begin making decisions, and then start scouting games in earnest to nail down the final picks, which are to be announced Dec. 31.
The American team is a match for the best countries in goal, with Vezina Trophy winner Thomas and the solid Miller.
They are far behind Canada, whose four-day orientation camp begins Monday in Calgary, on defence and have nothing close to the offensive guns of Canada, Russia or Sweden.
Instead, they want strong team play and to match any opponent in intensity and grit to try to beat the odds and take the gold, as American teams did in 1960 in Squaw Valley, Calif., and in 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“I think we’ll have the ability to finish,” said Wilson, who is also coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, where Burke is GM. “We’re going to encourage guys to go on the attack and try to score every shift.
“You saw the way we played in Toronto last year and we’re going to take that and crank it up a bit. We do have lots of weapons. Maybe not quite as volatile as some other countries. I don’t think even Canada can compete with the Russians in terms of goal-scoring prowess, but I’m confident that we can score.”
Burke gave few hints of who will make the team, but it was clear he liked his three bangers, who also can score goals.
The six-foot-two 195-pound Kesler had 26 goals and 33 assists with Vancouver last season, the six-foot two 216-pound Backes scored 31 and added 23 assists, as well as 165 penalty minutes, for the Blues, while six-foot-one 203-pound Brown had 24 goals and 29 assists for the Kings.
“As far as guys who play with a high compete-level, I’d say David Backes is one, Ryan Kesler is one and I’d say Dustin Brown is one,” Burke said. “These are guys who play hard.
“I got to watch Brown way too much the last two years in Anaheim. He’s a good player and a big body who hits and plays with a high level of belligerence, which I like. He can play on the fourth line or the first line and we’ll need that element to be successful.”
He called Kesler a “first-ballot guy” when it came to deciding the 34 players invited to the three-day camp.
“There was no discussion about Ryan Kesler,” he said. “He’s a guy who doesn’t get as much attention because he plays on the West Coast, but he’s a valuable guy.
“He’s got tremendous foot speed, he’s ornery, he’s hard to play against, but he’s skilled as well. To me, I wouldn’t say he’s a lock, but he’s a guy that certainly we can expect to see in Vancouver.”
Brown will certainly battle for a job.
“I definitely have a physical game,” said the former Guelph Storm forward. “We’re going to play against skill teams and physical teams and we’re going to need a good combination of both.
“I look at myself as a hybrid player, along with those two guys.”
Another with a chance is Chicago’s Dustin Byfuglien, another product of the 2003 draft, if only because he can be a physical forward or play on defence.
Burke said he prefers to carry eight defencemen, but with Byfuglien they can have seven and move him back to the blue-line if needed, although he remains a longshot choice.
Backes is a winger who was moved to centre last season when Andy McDonald was injured and blossomed in that role.
Others favourites for spots include gritty winger Ryan Malone of the Tampa Bay Lightning and centre Chris Drury of the New York Rangers.
On defence, new Leaf Mike Komisarek, Paul Martin of the New Jersey Devils, Rob Scuderi of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators and Erik Johnson of the Blues are strong candidates.
Then there is old hand Modano, who it appears will make the squad for his veteran presence and his ability to play many roles on a team. Vancouver would be his fourth Winter Games since he played at Nagano, Japan in 1998.