Last week, USA Hockey announced their 25-man roster for the upcoming Olympics in Beijing. With the NHL and NHLPA deciding that NHL players will not participate in the Olympics, Team USA had to think outside of the box for this roster.
The team is made up of 15 college players, five Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) players, two Swedish Hockey League (SHL) players, one Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) player, and two American Hockey League (AHL) players.
The only player on this team with Olympic experience, Brian O’Neill represented Team USA at the 2018 games previously. Currently playing great hockey for Jokerit in the KHL, O’Neill will be expected to take on a big role for this team, both as a player and a leader. The diminutive winger has spent the last five seasons playing for Jokerit, but before heading to the KHL, he was an AHL superstar. He led the league in points during the 2014-15 season and was an important piece of the Manchester Monarchs team that won the Calder Cup in the same season.
The 5-foot-9 winger has fantastic foot speed, hands, and playmaking abilities. While his small stature can sometimes hurt him in puck battles along the boards or down low, he does not shy away from these battles. He’s a gritty forward who plays bigger than his size and isn’t afraid to play in the dirty areas. With 42 points in 41 KHL games so far this season, O’Neill will be looking to bring an offensive spark to this USA team.
The second overall pick at the 2021 draft, Matty Beniers was poised for a huge World Junior Championships this year before the IIHF canceled the tournament, but he’ll be looking to make up for lost time at the Olympics. The University of Michigan forward is putting together a strong sophomore season, proving why he was taken so high at last year’s draft.
Even at just 19 years old, Beniers might be the most complete player at the tournament. He is a player who can fill any role asked of him, shutting down the other team’s top players, scoring goals, or acting as a playmaker. He can do it all. I would expect head coach David Quinn to lean heavily on Beniers, possibly even deploying him as the team’s number one center. It would be asking a lot of the young forward, but he would likely rise to the challenge. As a second overall pick, he doesn’t need a coming-out party, but this could be a time to prove he is ready for the next level.
Perhaps no player from the 2021 draft has seen their stock rise like Matthew Knies. The late second-round pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs has several teams kicking themselves for letting him slip through their fingers. Like Beniers, Knies was set to have a huge World Junior Championships a month ago before the cancellation of the tournament, so he’ll be itching to throw on the USA jersey once again.
A big-bodied forward, standing at 6-foot-3, 205-pounds, Knies pairs fantastic puck skills with his size, turning him into a nightmare to defend against. He’s made noticeable strides in his skating over the last six to eight months as well, improving on one of the weakest aspects of his game. Knies has the tools to be an offensive force in this tournament, and he should play a big role in whatever success Team USA finds.
Brendan Brisson, Beniers’ Michigan teammate, is an intelligent player who is tied with Beniers for the team lead in points. Brisson can play multiple roles because of his high hockey IQ and motor. He’s a player that coach Quinn will enjoy having on the roster. Kenny Agostino and Andy Miele are a pair of KHL forwards who should play a big role on this team offensively. Both of them are having strong seasons in the KHL and have previously proven to be prolific scorers in the AHL. As older forwards, they will also be expected to bring some much-needed experience to this young group. Speaking of young players, Sean Farrell is another college player I’d expect to perform well in this tournament.
Rounding out the forward group is Ben Meyers, Nick Shore, Noah Cates, Nicholas Abruzzese, Nathan Smith, and Sam Hentges. This is a strong forward group for Team USA, striking a nice balance between young stars and experienced professionals.
This will be a massive tournament for Ottawa Senators‘ prospect Jake Sanderson, as he will likely be asked to eat up big minutes at this tournament. Fortunately, he looks to be more than ready for this role. An extremely complete player, he can produce offense and shut down the opposition’s best players at the same time. He is an elite skater, and the rest of his game builds on that foundation. It allows him to join the rush and get back into good defensive positions with ease, and it allows him to be a very effective one-on-one defender.
Sanderson currently leads college defensemen in points per game, ahead of stars like Owen Power and Luke Hughes, and he will carry that excellent play into Beijing. It would not surprise me at all to see Sanderson lead this team in average time on ice when the tournament is over; his style of play and immense quality make it a very achievable feat. He will be a joy to watch for USA fans, and possibly even more so for Senators fans.
While he doesn’t have the offensive ability that Sanderson boasts, 2020 second-round pick Brock Faber will still have a big role to play on this team. He is a true stay-at-home defenseman, preferring to shut down the opposition instead of looking to create offense himself. Like Sanderson, his game is built upon his fantastic skating. The University of Minnesota standout will be a big-time penalty killer on this team and will often be used to matchup against the other team’s most skilled players. He will likely fill a similar role to the one he was expected to fill at the World Junior Championships. He is not a player who will wow you, but he will quietly go about his business and be an effective piece for Team USA.
Former Boston Bruin Steven Kampfer will bring much-needed experience to the blue line. The 33-year-old has 231 NHL games under his belt, far more than any other defenseman. With 30 points in 46 KHL games this season, he is proving to be a solid player in his first KHL season. He’ll be hoping to log big minutes for Team USA alongside Sanderson. Current Providence Bruin Aaron Ness will bring a solid puck-moving presence to the back end. The undersized blueliner has carved out a strong AHL career and would be a great partner for the more defensive-minded Faber.
Rounding out the defensemen are Brian Cooper, Nicklaus Perbix, David Warsofsky, and Drew Helleson. This defensive group is less impressive than the forwards on paper, but they have a few players who can make a big impact. Sanderson especially is set for a big tournament and could be a real difference-maker.
In net, it will likely be a battle between Chicago Blackhawks draft pick Drew Commesso and former University of Michigan netminder Strauss Mann. Right now, I’d give the slight edge to Mann. He was fantastic last season for the Wolverines, with a .930 save percentage (SV%) and a 1.89 goals-against average (GAA), and he has continued that stellar play into the SHL. Playing for Skelleftea AIK, he has a .926 SV% and a 1.86 GAA, which leads the league in both categories.
Commesso won’t go down without a fight, I’m sure, as the Boston University goalie is having himself a solid freshman season, with a .909 SV% and a 2.59 GAA. Unfortunately, that’s likely not good enough to take the net from a player leading the SHL in SV% and GAA. Sitting firmly in the number three spot and someone who I’m sure will only get in if there’s an emergency is 34-year-old Pat Nagle. He has spent more time in the ECHL than any other league and is a step behind the other two goalies.
What to Expect From Team USA
Medalling should still be the goal for Team USA despite missing their star players. This is an issue that every team is facing, and they have a roster that should compete with anyone. Their biggest challenges will still be the usual suspects; Canada, Russia, Sweden, and Finland, but they should be confident heading into every game. They will need young players like Beniers, Knies, and Sanderson to step up in a big way if they hope to compete for gold, but that is certainly not out of their capabilities. While it’s unfortunate that NHL players will not be attending, this is still a group of fantastic players that will be fun to watch.
My name is Austin Stanovich, as a lifelong player and fan I’m hoping to bring my own unique perspective on the hockey world, specifically covering the Los Angeles Kings. As a SoCal native I grew up a Kings fan, and after graduating from Long Beach State in 2020 I’ve joined The Hockey Writers crew as a columnist for the Kings.