By Andrew Imber
For a couple of weeks, every four years, the world’s greatest hockey players come together on the biggest stage and compete for their respective nations. With so much on the line in such a short amount of time, every single play is magnified. One wrong move can sink a country’s entire hopes, and when your next shot is in 2018, that is a tough reality to fathom.
Those are the stakes, and that is why each individual country dedicates so much time and effort into selecting the perfect squad. What defines a perfect squad ultimately varies from country to country; where Canada probably sends four top lines, Russia must find a delicate balance between KHL and NHL, and our own United States mixes talent with toughness. In addition, the fact that this tournament is being held on international ice throws a wrench into the plans, especially for the North American sides. Both the United States and Canada have suffered mightily on the big ice surface in the past, and it will take expert roster placement to construct a team that can thrive on it.
In just a few days, we will know the players who will decide the fate of the Stars and Stripes. Enemies on NHL ice will trade their normal colors for the red, white, and blue, and share a bond that will surely last a lifetime. So, while we wait for the official announcement, here is my final projection on the forward core that will be heading to Sochi in just a matter of weeks.
Zach Parise – David Backes – Patrick Kane
James van Riemsdyk – Joe Pavelski – Phil Kessel
Max Pacioretty – Ryan Kesler – Bobby Ryan
Dustin Brown – Paul Stastny – TJ Oshie
Extras: Ryan Callahan, Blake Wheeler, Brandon Dubinsky
Locks (7): Zach Parise, David Backes, Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski, Phil Kessel, Ryan Kesler, Bobby Ryan
When you talk about ‘locks’ to make the Sochi roster, you have to take a look at past production, current production, and International history. If you don’t have all three, it is really hard to consider a player a guarantee at this point. Patrick Kane is easily the biggest lock on the American roster, and is the type of talent that makes even the Canadians jealous. The extra space will only make him more dangerous, and the same can be said for Phil Kessel. Though very streaky (currently one point in five games, following 11 in 10, which followed 3 in 11, after 10 in four), Kessel’s blazing speed and wicked shot will be primed for a big role. David Backes is one of those players that bleeds red, white, and blue, and is enjoying an incredible season offensively, to go with his physical prowess. If healthy, Zach Parise is an obvious lock, and his game tying goal in the gold medal game in 2010 remains one of the more incredible moments in recent international memory. However, watch out for a nagging foot injury that has been recently re-aggravated. Hopefully, for our sake, the Wild let Parise recover this time.
Another one of those leadership guys, Ryan Kesler has to be seen as a lock, too. After struggling with injuries for a while, Kesler is enjoying a very nice bounce back season, and is currently on pace for over 30-goals this season in Vancouver. Not to mention, he’s one of those guys that would stop a puck shaped bullet if it meant gold for the United States and his two-way play is Selke quality. Joe Pavelski is far too versatile to consider leaving behind, and his 33 points despite a lot of third line time speaks volumes. Bobby Ryan is probably the least safe of these locks, but his 17 goals and 34 points on a struggling Ottawa squad is impressive, and he also appeared in six games in Vancouver during the 2010 games.
Probable (3): James van Riemsdyk, Paul Stastny, Dustin Brown
The probable list features talented players that all have at least one intangible reason for being there. James van Riemsdyk has existing chemistry with Phil Kessel, and may be worth sticking with him during a short tournament where chemistry can make the difference. He’s also a superior athlete capable of taking a game over. Paul Stastny has struggled at times over recent seasons, but his history with USA Hockey could give him an extra chance. Also, he’s a center, which is a position that the Americans aren’t extremely deep. Dustin Brown has struggled more than most players this season, mostly offensively, but his leadership, physical play (top three in hits for five of the last six seasons), and past success make him a solid option.
Bubble (9): Max Pacioretty, TJ Oshie, Ryan Callahan, Jason Pominville, Derek Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky, Blake Wheeler, Brandon Saad, Kyle Okposo
On the bubble, we basically have eight players fighting for two spots in the active roster, and maybe a handful of invites overall. Max Pacioretty is probably in, though his extremely slow start to the year is a concern. TJ Oshie is the kind of quick and energetic winger you want, and he has plenty of experience playing with David Backes. Ryan Callahan, though suffering through an injury plagued and brutal season, is part of that leadership core that keeps him in the picture. He’s another one of those guys that will break his leg to help you win. Jason Pominville boasts 17 goals, but doesn’t have much of a history with USA Hockey. Still, he can slot in on any scoring line, and can play the point on the power play.
The only reason a guy like Derek Stepan hasn’t played himself out of the picture is because of his position. Centers are very valuable, and that alone keeps him in the mix. His rough season has opened the door for another center, Brandon Dubinsky. The tough center was seen as a huge long shot even a short time ago, but does everything well and even has a four point game this year. I’ve recently changed the extra center spot on the team from Stepan to Dubinsky. Blake Wheeler‘s size and speed make him an interesting wild card choice for the large ice surface. Brandon Saad is putting up impressive numbers, but his role on a juggernaut in Chicago is tough to analyze. Kyle Okposo seems to be finally realizing his potential, but spending a lot of time with John Tavares on Long Island isn’t hurting his play.
The fact that guys as talented as Pominville, Saad, and Okposo could be on the outside looking in speaks to the incredible depth the United States can finally boast. It’s a far cry from even a decade ago. Next up, sorting out the loaded defense.