As I was preparing to watch my Maple Leafs play the Buffalo Sabres last week I was sure of one thing: no matter what happened I was going to be a frustrated fan if Ryan Miller was playing. Having watched my fair share of Sabres games over the years, both against the Leafs and on NHL Centre Ice, I have come to know Ryan Miller’s profile quite well. I know he was born almost a month before I was. I know he played for Michigan State. I know he was drafted as an absolute steal in the fifth round. What I am also acutely aware of is that Ryan Miller has the ability to steal hockey games. On a roster that is constantly changing due to players going elsewhere for big money, only great scouting and drafting, Lindy Ruff’s ability to get players to buy in and Ryan Miller’s consistent larcenous acts against opponents keeps the Sabres in the mid to upper level of the NHL.
As I watched the game something started to dawn on me; this guy could be an absolute difference maker for team USA at the Olympics to the point where they might develop into a serious threat to the ‘big three’ hockey nations of Sweden, Russia and Canada. The Leafs played the majority of that game in Buffalo’s end, out shot the Sabres and most importantly generated some quality scoring chances and second efforts as opposed to a hail of perimeter shots. Indeed the Leafs followed the same game plan the very next night and earned an entirely opposite result against the Habs right down to the score. I realize that aside from Phil Kessel and perhaps Nick Hagman, most Leaf forwards couldn’t hit the side of a barn from ten feet away so one might see Ryan Miller robbing the Leafs being as easy as The Rock defeating a baby in an arm wrestling match. What is clear though is that the Leafs are not the only team to be frustrated this way. At the time of writing this Ryan Miller has a 1.84 GAA and a .940 save % which is absolutely stunning. If Miller performs like this in the Olympics other teams need to watch out.
Brian Burke and Ron Wilson have done an impeccable job of deflecting attention from themselves onto the ‘hockey superpowers’ of the world: Canada, Russia and Sweden. But is the USA really not ready to compete at that level? I think Burke and Wilson are playing possum. The most valuable piece of any team, goaltending, is already in place. Having goaltending that includes the aforementioned Ryan Miller being backed up by Vezina winner Tim Thomas makes their goaltending arguably as good as anybody in the tournament.
What about Team USA’s depth everywhere else?
I subscribe to Brian Burke’s theory of having a very skilled top six with a bottom six that are tough to play against and do all the dirty jobs it takes to win like killing penalties, shutting down the other team’s top scorers, playing physically, blocking shots and contributing offensively from time to time. I assembled what I think would be a very good USA roster at the Olympics based on that template.
Here’s what I came up with:
Parise Stastny Kessel
Ryan Gomez Kane
van Riemsdyk Kesler Langenbrunner
Malone Drury Brown
As far as I’m concerned this forward corps is as dangerous offensively as any team in the Olympics. What intrigues me though is that players like Parise, Kane and Stastny also play with the kind of heart and winning attitude required to succeed. Kesler is as good of a third line centre as one will find in the NHL while Malone, Langenbrunner and particularly Drury bring big game and championship experience for leadership on and off the ice. Players like Malone, Drury, Langenbrunner, Kesler and Dustin Brown are physical, defensively responsible, and tough to play against and are always a threat offensively. These guys are the kind of players you want on your bottom six if you are a USA fan. I put James Van Riemsdyk on the third line as his speed and skill will be a constant threat while playing with defensively responsible veterans like Kesler and Langenbrunner will keep his game in check.
Aside from Gomez, the top six are very young and Scott Gomez can hardly be called a grizzled old veteran. Youth brings inexperience but it also brings youthful exuberance which can be tough to contain especially if exuberance is laced with creativity. I truly believe that Ron Wilson is a good coach and can get the best out of these players despite his record in Toronto with what amounts to a roster made up mostly of inexperienced and/or marginal forwards. The top six I propose here are all incredibly fast and skilled. Gomez is not the most impressive centre this year and has yet to prove that his New Jersey years weren’t the best we’ll see from him but he’s a good set-up man and playing with goal scorers like Bobby Ryan, Patrick Kane or Phil Kessel will certainly exploit his abilities as a set-up man to the fullest. My ‘Taxi Squad’ consists of Dustin Byfuglien and Kyle Okposo for the simple reason that they are tough to play against. While Byfuglien will never fly by Chris Pronger or pick the top shelf from forty feet out, he will fight Chris Pronger for space in front of the net and tip shots in from forty feet out without fear. This guy gives goalies and defensemen fits in front of the net and is a good agitator who can contribute offensively. On paper anyways, the forward that could make up team USA are a lot more lethal than most are letting on.
Komisarek Erik Johnson
Jack Johnson Wizniewski
Team USA’s defense will be serviceable at worst but have the potential to be very dangerous. Brian Rafalski and Ryan Whitney would be my top two as Rafalski is a proven veteran who knows how to win and can be counted on for 30 plus minutes per game. Ryan Whitney is a veteran in his own right and should have his name on the Stanley Cup as he was a huge part of the Pens success up until he got traded in February for Chris Kunitz. Both Rafalski and Whitney can play big minutes, both are defensively responsible and both can contribute offensively. Mike Komisarek had a brutal first ten games or so with the Leafs but in the games leading up to his injury, and the games since coming back, has looked to be a steady, physical reliable defensive defenseman which will be essential when playing the likes of Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin etc. Komisarek may not be the best defensive defenseman in the league and at 27 is a young veteran but he’s certainly the best the USA has to offer in that area and can also log big minutes. Erik Johnson leads all American defensemen in points at the time of writing so I figured having him play with Komisarek would give him the chance to roam a little more freely like Kaberle has been doing for the Leafs all year. The other two and the ‘taxi squad’ are physical, point producing defensemen. What is the common theme? Offense from your defence. What the USA defense may lack in physical abilities and experience when compared to the likes of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermeyer they certainly make up for in their potential ability to produce offense.
In short I expect team USA to be a young, fast team that will prove very difficult to play against. Having a solid ‘d’ corps with potentially stellar goaltending could give a dynamic forward unit all the freedom they need to create chances offensively. Team USA’s motto should run along the lines of: ‘The best defence is a good offense’ as this team has the ability to log a lot of minutes in the zones of opposing teams. I think that team USA are dynamic enough to end up surprising a lot of teams this Olympic Games. Look for Wilson and Burke to continue to channel media attention to team Canada, Sweden and Russia to keep the pressure off of their young players. If the USA medals many will say they came out of nowhere but I think whatever team Burke chooses is going to be far from your ‘Miracle on Ice’ underdog type of team. I will not be the least bit shocked if this team shows very quickly that they can compete with the ‘big boys’.