WOODRIDGE, Ill. – Only three goaltenders were invited to the U.S. Olympic hockey team orientation camp and since three will make the team, things are looking very good for Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, Ryan Miller and youngster Jonathan Quick.
But none of them is making assumptions about having the team made.
“A lot of it will depend on how you play in the regular season,” Thomas said Tuesday, the second day of the three-day camp at Seven Bridges Ice Arena. “It’s just that they wanted to keep the group relatively small and that’s how it worked out.”
Coach Ron Wilson said Rick DiPietro of the New York Islanders remains very much in the picture, although he was left off the list of 34 players invited to camp because of a serious knee injury. There are doubts he will be ready to play by February, when the 2010 Winter Games open in Vancouver.
Scott Clemmenson, Craig Anderson, Brent Johnson, Brian Boucher and Robert Esche, who now plays in Russia but who played for the Americans at the world championships, are among the U.S. goalies left off the list of invitees. But Wilson warned they may not be entirely out of the picture.
He said about 70 players, including some goalies, will be asked to join the pre-Olympic anti-doping program to make them eligible to compete in Vancouver.
But for now, the three in camp look safe, and it is difficult to dispute their selection.
Thomas, 35, the ultimate late bloomer, is coming off a spectacular season with the Boston Bruins. Miller, 29, endured injury last season, but is generally a rock in goal for the Buffalo Sabres. Quick, 23, had a promising debut campaign for the Los Angeles Kings and may be the American goalie of the future.
But despite his flashy numbers from last season, when he led the Bruins to first place in the Eastern Conference, Thomas won’t call himself an Olympian until is name is called when general manager Brian Burke and his staff announce the roster Dec. 31.
“When I found out I was nominated for the Vezina, I never really thought about winning it, seriously,” said Thomas. “I wouldn’t let myself believe I was winning it until it was actually announced.
“And I think it’s the same as it’ll be with the Olympics. It would be a dream come true, but there’s still four months. You have to stay injury-free, there’s still a couple of hands of fate that have to fall into place, so the best thing to do is not to think about it to much. Just worry about playing your regular-season games.”
Most likely, it will be Thomas or Miller who will be the starting goalie in Vancouver, or a rotation of those two, with Quick there as a backup and to learn from the experience.
Much will depend on how well the goaltenders play in the first three months of the NHL season. But none said they will lose sleep over it.
“You guys ask me about competing with Ryan Miller but I honestly haven’t thought about it at all,” said Thomas. “I have more thoughts that if I play like I did last year, hopefully I’ll get the chance.
“It’s not about how Ryan plays, it’s about how I play.”
“Right now, that’s the least of my concerns,” he said. “I’m focused on getting to know the guys, getting a good feel for them, getting on the ice and getting my hands ready for the season.
“The legs feel pretty good but the hands need to catch up. Right now I’m just taking the opportunity to be around some great shooters.”
At camp, the players are split into two 17-man squads for one-hour sessions of skating and drills. There are no scrimmages or other situations where there is a chance of a player being injured.
The point of the camp, as it will be when Canada holds its own next week in Calgary, is for players to get to know each other and begin the process of bonding and team-building.
For Miller, it is also a chance to get to know the defencemen he will play behind. Other than veteran Brian Rafalski, it is mostly a young group that includes Tom Gilbert, Erik Johnson of the St. Louis Blues and Jack Johnson of the Kings, plus some veterans like Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mike Komisarek of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“We can at least the communication part down where we’re yelling and they get used to our voice,” Miller said. “I’ve been making a point of yelling every chance I get.
“That’s what I like to do in training camp. I try not to freak them out. Just simple stuff, like on a 2-on-1 I’ll say, ‘Leave me the shooter.’ Things like that.”
The U.S. squad is also short on scoring when compared to high-powered offensive teams like Russia and Canada.
Zach Parise and Patrick Kane look like the top guns, while young talent like Dustin Brown, Bobby Ryan, David Backes and Paul Stastny will be battling for jobs.
That will put extra pressure on the Americans to play strong defence and makes goaltending, perhaps their strongest position, doubly important.
“I think there’s always pressure on the goaltenders to keep the games close, especially in a tournament like that,” said Miller. “So we just have to do our jobs.
“If we can’t score goals, we can’t concern ourselves with it. Our job is completely independent of scoring goals. If you have any say in the game, it’s in our zone.”
With only three goalies, Thomas and Miller have each gone on the ice for an hour, while Quick has done double duty skating in both.
He may be in an even better position than Miller was for the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
Many felt Miller was the Americans’ best goaltender, but due to a hand injury, DiPietro, Esche and John Graham went to Italy. All three saw action as the U.S was ousted in the quarter-finals by Finland.
Miller was named to the taxi squad, but never even travelled to Italy. There is no taxi squad this time around.
“Other people got more angry than I did,” said Miller. “I didn’t take it as a slight, I took it as a business decision.
“It was a situation where I was injured, and really proving myself for the first time as an NHL goaler. I had 10 games in and I got hurt. Even though I had a good season prior in the AHL, that wasn’t what they we looking for.”
He likes what he’s seen of Quick.
“It’s hard not to make the pun, but he’s quick on the ice,” said Miller. “He’s very agile.
“He’s strong. You see a lot of good instincts in him. It’s going to be fun to see him progress.”
Quick is rooming with Thomas at the team hotel, no doubt a good mentoring experience.
“I’ve been on his end of the spectrum at world championships when I was younger,” said Thomas. “Garth Snow was my roommate once, and Pat Jablonski.
“I’ve never been on this end (as a favourite) really. Goalies in the NHL don’t have roommates. Even at the world championships sometimes we don’t have roommates, so this has been unique.”
Then he added with a laugh: “It’s been nice though. If he could just quit yelling in his sleep, we’d be fine.”
Quick played 44 games for the Kings last season, posting a strong 2.48 goals-against average and .914 save percentage.
“He came in last year and stood on his head for us,” Los Angeles forward Brown said. “I think this is a huge confidence booster for him to be invited here.
“He came in last year in L.A. and nobody knew who he was. He’s a pretty good goalie and I think he’s going to surprise some people.”