Not since NHL players started going to the Olympics 12 years ago has the U.S. team featured so many fresh faces.
Of the 23 players chosen Friday for next month’s games, only New York Rangers captain Chris Drury, New Jersey counterpart Jamie Langenbrunner and Detroit defenceman Brian Rafalski have Olympic experience.
Aging stalwarts such as Mike Modano, Bill Guerin, Keith Tkachuk and Scott Gomez will all be able to rest during the long break in February because they were left off the team that will head to Vancouver.
The infusion of up-and-coming players is hardly a surprise. Team USA general manager Brian Burke made it clear last summer is was time to turn the page on those who represented the United States time and time again.
“We’re going there to win,” said Burke, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ GM.
He thanked those “warriors” when most veterans weren’t invited to the team’s orientation camp in August. Modano, the longtime Dallas Stars forward, and Montreal’s Gomez were in attendance, but didn’t do enough during the first half of the NHL season to earn a spot on the team.
The roster announcement was made at Boston’s Fenway Park following the Bruins’ 2-1 overtime victory over Philadelphia in the Winter Classic.
“We tried to pick a team based on the body of work, rather than how a team is playing now,” Burke said. “We tried not penalize players off to a slow start.”
The average age is 26.5 years. Rafalski is the oldest player at 36, while 21-year-old Chicago forward Patrick Kane is the youngest. That is quite a change from the former foundation that included then-44-year-old defenceman Chris Chelios four years ago.
Modano played in three Olympics, and Gomez was on the team for the 2006 Turin Games. Langenbrunner will be making his second appearance, but first since 1998, and will be joined by Devils teammates defenceman Paul Martin and forward Zach Parise.
Martin started the season as a virtual lock, but a broken left forearm curtailed his chances. Just when it seemed he would return last week, Martin had a setback in his recovery that made surgery necessary. When it was revealed he would be out another month, it seemed likely he would be kept off the roster.
The Los Angeles Kings are the only other NHL club to place three players on the squad: goalie Jonathan Quick, defenceman Jack Johnson and forward Dustin Brown.
The Americans’ greatest strength could be in goal, where Buffalo’s Ryan Miller is expected to be the No. 1 netminder. Should he falter, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas of the Bruins will be there to pick up the slack.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life for this,” Thomas said after beating the Flyers. “To be named at your home park in front of your home crowd, I think this is a story that will be told the rest of my life.
“I found out this morning. I had to keep quiet or I would have been a blubbering mess.”
The goalie trio should match up favourably with host Canada’s formidable goalie crew of Martin Brodeur, Marc-Andre Fleury and Roberto Luongo.
“You can argue Ryan Miller is the best goaltender in the National Hockey League, but Tim Thomas is playing as well as anyone,” Burke said. “The goaltending position was probably the easiest one for us to get through. It’s one where we’ve got some depth.
“We’re excited about our chances.”
Miller missed the Olympics four years ago because of a thumb injury that kept him out early in the 2005-06 season, but he is making up for that. He beat Atlanta in overtime Friday night to improve to 22-8-3.
“He has played really well, unfortunately several of those games have been against us,” Burke said.
The 25-year-old Parise will be counted on for offence. He is coming off a season in which he had 45 goals and 94 points. So far this season, Parise has 17 goals and 25 assists.
He will be joined up front by St. Louis’ David Backes, Drury’s Rangers teammate Ryan Callahan, Ryan Kesler of Vancouver, Toronto’s Phil Kessel, Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone, San Jose’s Joe Pavelski, Bobby Ryan of Anaheim, and Colorado’s Paul Stastny.
The remaining defencemen are Erik Johnson of St. Louis, Toronto’s Mike Komisarek, Brooks Orpik of Pittsburgh, and Nashville’s Ryan Suter.
Suter’s father, Bob, was a defenceman on the 1980 U.S. “Miracle on Ice” team that won gold at Lake Placid. His uncle, Gary Suter, played on the 2002 squad at Salt Lake City.
“It means a ton with the family tradition. I don’t think it has sunk in yet,” Ryan Suter said. “I will be able to sit at the same table with those guys if I bring some hardware home.”
The United States hasn’t captured the gold since 1980, and has only a 2002 silver medal since NHL players started going to the Olympics for the 1998 Nagano Games. The Americans finished eighth in Turin.
The team will be led by Toronto coach Ron Wilson. His assistants are Rangers coach John Tortorella and the Islanders’ Scott Gordon.
Burke was joined by fellow NHL GMs David Poile (Nashville), Paul Holmgren (Philadelphia), Don Waddell (Atlanta), Dean Lombardi (Los Angeles), Ray Shero (Pittsburgh), along with Jim Johannson, the assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey, in choosing the roster.
“We had some difficult decisions to make, but that’s a credit to USA Hockey and depth of the player pool in our country,” Burke said.