Jim Neveau, Blackhawks Beat Writer
When Ryan Kesler guaranteed that the United States would win a medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver in a recent interview, it showed more than a simple abundance of moxie.
It also showed a new attitude that has permeated the entirety of USA Hockey.
After an eighth place finish at the Torino games, the folks over at USA Hockey are going in a radically different direction. Out are stalwarts and veterans of multiple Olympics like Chris Chelios, and in are players who are young and explosive, like TJ Oshie, Patrick Kane, and others.
With these struggles and overhaul of the team’s image in progress, there are five questions that will be on the minds of observers as these players meet at the USA Hockey Orientation Camp in Woodridge next week.
1. What Style Will This Team Adapt?
It has been said in many sports that defense wins championships, but with the construction of the roster invited to Woodridge, it’s apparent that the US may be going for a high scoring attack rather than a muck up passing lanes and the neutral zone approach.
Players who are pure scorers, like Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, and Phil Kessel are going to be relied upon to rack up goals, and help the team keep up with tandems like the Kovalchuk-Ovechkin-Malkin wrecking crew that the Russians will throw at the US.
In addition to offensive skill in the group of forwards invited, the team has also invited several great offensive defensemen to the camp, like Ryan Suter, Brian Rafalski, and Paul Martin.
Granted, guys like Mike Komisarek and Dustin Byfuglien are there to be physical, but for the most part, the US seems to be gearing toward playing a wide open offensive game.
2. Will the Change to an NHL-Sized Sheet of Ice Benefit the US?
When kids are growing up in the United States, they grow up playing on an NHL style ice sheet, which isn’t as wide as the international sized ice that the rest of the world favors.
The IOC’s decision to have an NHL sheet in Vancouver not only saves them quite a bit of money (in the ballpark of $10 million), but also makes the NHL players more comfortable. Playing with 13 less feet of ice may not seem like a big deal, but it compacts the game a little bit more, and will allow teams to clog up the neutral zone with bigger bodies.
The aforementioned Byfuglien and Komisarek, as well as Jack Johnson, will be critical in this area of the game for the United States.
The more compact ice surface could also benefit players like Kane and Ryan Callahan, who are smaller guys who can maneuver through the more compacted traffic and create scoring opportunities for themselves and their teammates. Granted, more wide open ice would allow them to exploit their speed more, but being that they’re already used to the NHL sheet, this should not be a problem.
3. Will the Controversy Over the NHL’s Insurance Practices Hinder Players at Camp?
There has been a lot of hubbub recently over the NHL’s decision to allow teams to suspend and fine players who are hurt at Olympic Orientation camps. It is highly likely that some of the players will be more tentative in drills than they would be with their NHL teams, keeping under consideration the threat of suspension or fines.
Will players who are recovering from injuries take it so easy that the US scouts will not get a true picture of their abilities, or will their competitive nature take over and allow them to not think about the potential consequences? Only time will tell on this issue.
4. Who’s Gonna Be the Man in Goal: Ryan Miller or Tim Thomas?
No disrespect intended to Jonathan Quick, who will also be attending the camp, but the biggest position battle will likely be between Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas, both of whom are goalies ranked among the top 5 US-born players in nhl.com’s ranking.
Both men put up very impressive stats last year. Miller, 29, started 58 games last season for Buffalo, racking up a 34-18-6 record, a 2.53 GAA, and .918 save percentage. He also notched five shutouts, which isn’t bad for a team that didn’t make the playoffs.
Thomas, at age 35, had an even more incredible season, starting 54 games and finishing with a blistering 36-11-7 record, an excellent 2.10 GAA, a .933 save percentage, and five shutouts. His Bruins also made the playoffs, where he continued to play well.
Looking at statistics alone, people would assume that Thomas is likely to get the starting gig. There are other subtle things, however, that could work to Miller’s advantage.
For instance, the defense in front of Miller last season wasn’t nearly as effective as the defense in front of Thomas. Also, Miller’s season was shortened by injury last year, and his ankle wasn’t completely healed when he came back to help bolster Buffalo’s dwindling playoff hopes. He played through the pain and still compiled very good statistics, a testament to his toughness.
Not only did he play fewer games (which could equal more freshness than Thomas at the outset of camp), but he is also six years younger than his Boston counterpart, and weighs 35 less pounds than Tim, which could help his mobility. He also is two inches taller, which translates into a wider reach and theoretically more range.
Needless to say, the US team could do a heck of a lot worse than these two players in net, and it should be an interesting positional battle.
5. Is Ryan Kesler’s Guarantee of a Medal/Defeat of Canada A Bunch of Hot Air, or a Likely Outcome?
When being interviewed by Greg Wyshynski’s Puck Daddy blog on Yahoo!, Kesler guaranteed not only that the US would beat Canada at the Vancouver Olympics, but that the US team would also get a medal out of the 12-team field.
These words may seem overly bold for a team that finished 6th out of 12 teams in Torino, but they very well could be backed up. A new crop of American players have begun to come into their own in the NHL, and with youth hockey flourishing in this country, the flow of players will continue to grow.
Granted, a lot of the teams will be boasting All-Star caliber starting line-ups, like Canada and Russia, but outside of those two teams, the competition is at a pretty even level with the US. Defending gold medalists Sweden will provide a daunting challenge, and Norway and the Czech Republic will also provide an interesting competition for the young US team.
Now that I’ve gone over five of the questions surrounding the upcoming Orientation Camp, this is the time where you, the reader, have the ability to ask your own questions.
I will be representing The Hockey Writers at this camp, and will have full press access to players, coaches, and front office personnel. If you have questions that you would like me to ask of anyone at the camp, feel free to either comment on this article, or email me at email@example.com. Make sure to put “Olympic question” in the subject line so that I know you’re not a spam artist. Thanks for the help!