If you were to ask pretty much any hockey expert or fan who the best countries are in the world when it comes to level of hockey talent, you are going to get a couple of fairly standard answers. Most folks would agree that Canada and Russia are probably the two most-talent laden nations, and there are quite a few who would cite Sweden and Slovakia in that group as well. Those countries are all excellent when it comes to assembling teams of superstars in order to compete on the international level, but there is one nation that some folks may be a little bit too quick to dismiss, and that would be a serious mistake.
That country, of course, would be the good old United States. Now, no matter what folks like Ryan Lambert and Chris Peters would have you believe, the US isn’t the best hockey playing country in the world bar none, but they are certainly acquitting themselves well as the Stanley Cup playoffs have rolled along. Of the 15 (the Florida Panthers do not have a captain) captains of teams that made the playoffs, four of them were American-born, and three of them made the conference finals. As if that wasn’t an accomplishment in of itself, it is now guaranteed by virtue of Zach Parise and Dustin Brown’s teams making the Stanley Cup Final that the Cup will be hoisted by a team captained by an American for only the second time in history, joining Darien Hatcher of the 1999 Dallas Stars in that exclusive club.
College hockey, which for a long time has been an afterthought in comparison to junior leagues in Canada for talented American youngsters, is also going through a period of upheaval that could generate new interest both here and abroad. The Big Ten hockey conference will come online in 2013, and along with that shift will come a new conference, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, featuring stalwart teams like Miami-Ohio, North Dakota, and Minnesota-Duluth.
These two developments, along with the increased exposure the game is getting on television networks like ESPN and NBC Sports Network, are almost certain to make a new generation of young hockey players more willing to stay at home and advance their skill sets, which will pay dividends for the US internationally in the years to come.
With all of these successes, as well as the potential for rapid expansion of youth hockey and interest in the sport in places like southern California and Phoenix, it is pretty easy to see that hockey in the United States is hitting all-time levels in popularity. Add in all of those factors and the fact that guys like Patrick Kane are becoming the face of the league (despite whatever improprieties he may be accused of during this off-season), and you have a pretty clear path to what could be a run to Olympic gold in 2014.
The question then, of course, is who exactly is going to make up that roster. There is no guarantee that the NHL will even allow its players to participate in the Games in Russia, but judging by the runaway success of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, it’s hard to believe that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement won’t contain a clause that allows players to play for their country. Even if it does, a player no less in stature than Alex Ovechkin has said that he will head over there to represent his home country in the games, even if it means missing NHL games.
Whether the Russian-born sniper would actually make good on his threat, it does show that NHL players are serious about playing on the biggest of stages for something that transcends a motivation as simple as money. With that in mind, and for the purposes of this exercise, allow us to hit the fast forward button to the winter months of 2014, when a new CBA will be in place and once again NHL players will represent their countries in a battle that will have the hockey masses at each other’s throats in a glorious display of nationalistic pride.
The question, then, is who will make up the roster of the American squad? Yes, there could be a horrific slew of injuries, a horrible intestinal flu that could overtake the entire team and leave Scott Gomez and Craig Anderson as the team’s stars, or the Mayan’s 2012 prophecy could take effect, but for the sake of argument, we will leave all of that out of our projections.
Without further adieu, here could be a potential lineup that you could see iced on the other side of the world in these games:
Zach Parise – Joe Pavelski – Patrick Kane
A team’s top line should have some serious firepower, and this line would be no exception. You have a guy in Kane who is a very talented distributor of the puck (he has averaged nearly 50 assists a season in his five years in the league), and you have two snipers in Pavelski and Parise who are fully capable of filling the net. They would also be tough to stop in the offensive zone, and not just because of their talent with the puck on their stick, as Pavelski also won nearly 60% of his face-offs. A shutdown line would inevitably be assigned to these guys, but even then, they would still get their fair share of chances, and the attention would result in the team’s second line getting more quality opportunities to succeed.
Jason Pominville – Ryan Kesler – Phil Kessel
There are other guys who would fit in well on this line, but they all bring an interesting blend of skills to the table that can be beneficial. Both Pominville and Kessel had a great deal of assists a season ago, and both scored 30+ goals in 2011-12 as well. Couple that with the fact that Kesler has shown a propensity for scoring goals, mixing it up physically, and playing responsible defense, and you’ve got a well-rounded line to follow up your collection of snipers at the top.
Bobby Ryan – David Backes – Dustin Brown
Most teams’ third lines are full of solid two-way players who are noted for their defensive abilities while also maintaining the ability to score goals, and this one would be no exception. Granted, Ryan isn’t the world’s best defender, but his shortcomings are more than made up for by the other two, and the grittiness of this line would be tough to match for any club. Brown and Backes’ scoring touch almost gets lost with the intangible benefits of having them on the ice, which would make them even more dangerous.
Ryan Callahan – Paul Stastny – Blake Wheeler
Fourth lines are the lineup slots reserved for grinders and a team’s more goonish players, but on Team USA in 2014, that isn’t likely to be the case. Stastny is solid in the face-off circle, but is a good facilitator, and Callahan should be the primary beneficiary of that. Wheeler also had the most assists of all American players last year in the NHL, so he is perfectly capable of finding his way out on the ice as well. This line may not have the grit of the third line, but they would be a matchup nightmare.
Extra Forward: Derek Stepan
Keith Yandle – Ryan Suter
In terms of guys who have vaulted from the “no-chance at the roster” club to the big leagues, perhaps no leap is more impressive than that of Mr. Yandle. He is a dynamic offensive player on a club that is surprisingly blessed in that area, and pairing him with a responsible two-way threat like Suter would only increase his potency. Just like he does with Shea Weber, Suter would complement Yandle’s game in all the right places, and would make up for all his shortcomings too.
Dustin Byfuglien – Matt Carle
This duo would be an interesting one, with Byfuglien providing a great balance of physicality and scoring ability and Carle providing some solid two-way play of his own. Matt has experienced a good deal of success in playing alongside Chris Pronger in Philadelphia, so he’s used to playing second fiddle on the offensive side of the puck to his partner, meaning there’s a great chance he could find himself working so well with Big Buff.
Kevin Shattenkirk – Jack Johnson
The temptation was incredibly strong to pair up Shattenkirk with fellow youngster John Carlson, but it was resisted in large part thanks to Johnson’s experience from the previous Olympics. He was a solid bet in that tournament, and his veteran presence would contribute greatly to Kevin’s effectiveness. Shattenkirk was instrumental to the St. Louis Blues’ success despite his young age, and he is going to be a bona fide star on the blue line for years to come.
Extra Defensemen: John Carlson, Justin Faulk
Perhaps the biggest no-brainer in the history of the word “duh”, Quick is probably going to vault from third stringer on the 2010 Olympic team to the unquestioned starter in a matter of four years. His game has improved by leaps and bounds, and if there has been a goalie more instrumental to his team’s successes in this year’s playoffs, then it’d be news to the world.
Miller almost has to be guaranteed a spot on the roster, simply because of the fact that he was so integral to Team USA’s silver medal run in 2010. Despite having an off-year, he is still one of the league’s elite netminders, and Brian Burke is not going to overlook him when selecting his squad.
Howard didn’t have the best World Championships this year, but the kid showed a flat-out ability to play with Detroit this season. He is developing very nicely, and he is fully capable of beating out other more experienced goalies, as well as other youngsters like Cory Schneider, for this final spot on the team’s roster.
Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty, TJ Oshie, Kyle Okposo, Nick Leddy, Ryan McDonagh, Cory Schneider, Tim Thomas
Canada and Russia will still be the favorites, with Canada’s roster being insanely loaded and Russia looking to defend their home ice with guys like Ovechkin and Malkin doing the heavy lifting. Despite the star power on the two teams, however, expect Burke and Team USA’s management to assemble a team that works well together, and they will be right there in medal contention throughout.
If the US was to take down the gold medal this time after coming oh so close in Vancouver, then it wouldn’t be that big of a shock, and that perhaps is the biggest testament to how far the team has come in terms of depth of talent in a mere two years time. It’s going to be a fascinating ride to see not only whether the Olympics will remain part of the NHL schedule, but how young guys like Leddy and McDonagh could press more veteran players for roster spots as we enter a new golden age in American hockey.