DETROIT – When the United States chose the Winter Classic for its Olympic roster announcement, it brushed off the later deadline other countries will take advantage of to name their teams for Sochi.
While Canada and the European nations will wait until Jan. 7, the U.S. team will be announced in Ann Arbor on Wednesday immediately following the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings.
The Americans believe giving up a whole week to decide the roster won’t be a problem, given general manager David Poile’s approach to building the team.
“We, in our process, used sort of a game plan as the body of work that player has done to this point, and also how well the player has been playing this year,” Poile said on a conference call earlier this month. “We’ve been doing ghost rosters, we’ve been talking about individual players, we’ve watched games, scouted games, we’ve watched video. We’re working on line combinations, defence pairings and it’s getting closer and closer and we know we’re going to have to make these decisions pretty soon.”
The actual decisions have already been made by now, barring a catastrophic injury to a key player before the Winter Classic. Even then, the U.S. has injury exceptions to use, just in case.
Goaltending is one place that could be tested, if Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings isn’t fully recovered from a groin injury. According to the Detroit Free Press, Quick, Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres and Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings will be the goalies named to the team.
“We’re certainly hoping that’s going to be one of our strengths,” Poile said of goaltending.
Miller led the U.S. to a silver medal in Vancouver, and coupled with his 2.69 goals-against average and .927 save percentage this season for the Sabres, that makes him the favourite to start in Sochi.
“With Ryan in goal for almost all the games in 2010, he gave us every chance to win every game and obviously was a big reason why we came within one goal from winning the gold medal,” Poile said. “He’s played really well this year. Body of work is really important, and Ryan has that. The other criteria was how they’re playing this year, and Ryan has played very well. …
“We think we have some quality guys to chose from, but specifically Ryan’s done a real good job and we’re looking very hard at him.”
There are a handful of locks among skaters, too, including Leafs winger Phil Kessel, Chicago Blackhawks winger and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Patrick Kane and Vancouver Canucks centre Ryan Kesler. Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk is also among those who should feel very safe about making it.
Poile also singled out his leadership group as far back as the summer, saying “in all likelihood” defenceman Ryan Suter and winger Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild, Dustin Brown of the Kings, David Backes of the St. Louis Blues and Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers will be going to Sochi. Parise and Callahan are hurt, but that’s where the injury exemption comes in because the U.S. will be built around this core that grew out the silver-medal effort four years ago.
“In 2010 the roster was a turnover, if you will, from the previous generation of great U.S.A. stars,” Poile said. “We found out a lot about our players in 2010 and we found out a lot about our leadership potential.”
The 2014 group is expected to feature plenty of turnover on defence from Vancouver, with Brian Rafalski retired and Tim Gleason of the Carolina Hurricanes and Ryan Whitney of the Florida Panthers not expected to return. Players like Ryan McDonagh of the Rangers, John Carlson of the Washington Capitals and Justin Faulk of the Hurricanes could be part of the next generation.
“No question there’s going to be a little bit of a change in our defence, the core from 2010,” Poile said.
Rafalski is gone but is still making an impact on this team, courtesy of some advice he gave Poile recently about the balance between left- and right-handed defencemen.
“He was emphasizing to me that it really wasn’t as important to get caught up in (lefty-righty) shots because the ice surface being a little bit wider, the defencemen actually had a lot more time to pivot and what have you,” Poile said. “I thought that was a really good point and something obviously that I’m going to pass along to the coaches.”
The bigger ice is something every management team is undoubtedly paying attention to when constructing Olympic rosters. Olympic-sized rinks are 200-by-100 feet, whereas it’s 200-by-85 in the NHL.
“When we get to Sochi, the kind of team we’re going to have, we have to be respectful of the fact that it’s a different ice surface, the bigger ice surface,” Poile said. “Obviously there’s going to be a premium on speed and because of that we’re going to be taking a few different types of players.”
Kane and Kessel would be on the team regardless, but more space to work with should help them. Someone like Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens could be a beneficiary of the bigger ice surface.
Pacioretty would be a newcomer, and Poile emphasized that the U.S. team would be built on the “foundation” of Vancouver in 2010.
“We won the silver medal there, we came within a goal of winning the gold medal, and a lot of those players are right in their prime,” he said. “There’s going to be some new players, up-and-coming younger players, that are just too good to keep off the team.”
Count Blues defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk in the latter group, along with other forward possibilities like Derek Stepan of the Rangers, Alex Galchenyuk of the Canadiens and Brandon Saad of the Blackhawks.
The management team, led by Poile and associate GM Ray Shero of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has been charged with making the tough borderline decisions. Poile considered the coaching staff, led by Dan Bylsma, important when it comes to constructing special teams “units.”
“We have to know who’s going to play. It’s not only selecting a player but who’s going to get ice time,” he said. “What I asked the coaches is, ‘Who’s going to play on the power play together? Who would you have penalty killing together?’ And just sort of get their best ideas as far as defence pairs. So for example you have in Pittsburgh (Brooks) Orpik, who played in 2010, and (Paul) Martin, who would’ve played except for injury, who play together as a pair and they kill penalties together. So that type of chemistry, they’re the things that we’re looking for.”
More than anything else, the U.S. wants the best players. Poile and 2010 GM Brian Burke are confident that’s happening based on those who will be left behind.
“We felt that (picking the team) is much harder this year, and that’s a good thing because the U.S. has done a great job in developing players,” Poile said. “The most important thing, for USA Hockey specifically, is our talent pool is so much better, so much more in quantity (and) most importantly in quality.”
U.S. Olympic roster projection
Zach Parise (injured) – Ryan Kesler – Patrick Kane
James van Riemsdyk – Joe Pavelski – Phil Kessel
Dustin Brown – David Backes (injured) – Bobby Ryan
Max Pacioretty – Paul Stastny – Ryan Callahan (injured)
T.J. Oshie – Brandon Saad
Ryan Suter – Kevin Shattenkirk
Paul Martin – Brooks Orpik (injured)
Ryan McDonagh – John Carlson
Jack Johnson – Justin Faulk
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.