The 10 Biggest Questions About the 2014 US Olympic Hockey Team
The men's U.S. Olympic hockey team was announced in dramatic and adorable fashion following the Winter Classic on Wednesday, as children skated toward an NBC camera in a U.S. jersey and turned to reveal the name on the back.
That's probably not how Bobby Ryan imagined finding out he wouldn't be back with the team after representing his country four years ago, but it made for great television.
There are 13 players returning from the team that won silver in 2010 in Vancouver, losing the gold-medal game in overtime to Sidney Crosby and Team Canada. The group should be motivated to take the next step when it takes the ice in Sochi for the 2014 Games, which get under way Feb. 12.
There are a few questions surrounding this incarnation of the team. Is it good enough to win gold? Will Jonathan Quick return to form before the Games start? Why in the world would Team USA general manager David Poile leave Bobby Ryan and Keith Yandle off the team?
We will look at all those questions and more in this primer for the U.S. Olympic squad.
1. Why Is Bobby Ryan Not on the Team?
With every Olympic team, there are always questions about why certain players were chosen and why others were passed over. Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan, a member of the 2010 Olympic squad who has been one of the most consistent and deadly scorers in the NHL the past five years, is by far the biggest snub.
Ryan ranks 11th in the NHL and second among U.S.-born forwards this season with 18 goals. He has scored at least 30 goals in a season four times and is likely to reach that mark again in 2013-14. Since 2008-09, Ryan ranks 11th in goals scored.
According to ESPN.com's Scott Burnside, who was embedded with the U.S. team brain trust, Ryan was considered a "sleepy skater" by one member of the group. I always thought a guy being able to score 30 goals in his sleep was a good thing, but I guess it's not for Ryan.
General manager David Poile decided he wanted someone with more versatility in a bottom-six role, as Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel will be the top two right wings on the squad. T.J. Oshie can kill penalties and also has a rapport with David Backes, his linemate in St. Louis.
Blake Wheeler was also chosen over Ryan as the fifth right wing on the team and likely will not dress unless an injury occurs in Sochi.
It’s a questionable move to be sure and one that will be rightfully thrown back at Poile should the Americans struggle to score goals.
2. Will Jonathan Quick Rediscover His Form?
Before the start of the season, Quick was universally considered the No. 1 choice to start in net for the Americans. But he faltered in the early going and suffered a serious groin injury that has sidelined him for the past month, opening the door for Ryan Miller to receive consideration as the starter.
But the job continues to be Quick’s to lose. If he struggles between now and Sochi, Team USA will have to consider going with Miller, who was the MVP of the tournament in 2010 when the Americans won silver. But there’s little doubt that if Quick is on top of his game, he gives the U.S. team the best chance to win gold.
Quick has been outstanding the past two postseasons, guiding the Kings to a Stanley Cup in 2012 and the Western Conference Final in 2013. He needs to find a groove in the next month to put coaches and management at ease before the Olympics begin.
3. Why Is Keith Yandle Not on the Team?
If Bobby Ryan was the biggest snub, Keith Yandle wasn't far behind in that category.
The term “puck-moving defenseman” is tossed around ad nauseam, but Yandle is one of the best in the business in that regard. He can skate like the wind, start breakouts and generate offense from the back end like few can. Since 2008-09, he is fourth among all defensemen and first among American blueliners in points with 230 in 402 games.
It’s not as though Yandle is a defensive liability, either, as he has routinely logged 26 minutes per night for what is annually one of the best defensive teams in the league.
As was the case with Ryan, Yandle proved to be the odd man out when Poile decided he wanted to bring the Penguins’ shutdown pair of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik. Team USA had a plethora of options when it came to left-handed defensemen, and Yandle's lack of international experience likely hurt him—his six games at the 2010 Worlds are the only times he has worn the American jersey.
4. Was Too Much Emphasis Put on Bringing NHL Teammates?
A case can be made that David Poile’s decision to bring players with familiarity with NHL teammates made the team weaker as a whole.
T.J. Oshie has been part of the one of the league’s best lines with David Backes and Alexander Steen in St. Louis. But in Sochi, Oshie and Backes will play with a different winger, and there’s no guarantee that chemistry will be there with whoever plays on the left side.
Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan are teammates with the New York Rangers but are not necessarily regular linemates. But if Stepan doesn't dress—it's possible, as the four centers ahead of him on the roster are likely to see the most action—is it really worth bringing him to Sochi?
Poile’s logic in his decision to bring Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik is a little more sound. They have served as the Penguins’ shutdown pairing for several years and have excelled in that role. In a short tournament with little practice time, the fact that they know each other so well is a huge asset.
But is Orpik or Martin a better overall defenseman than Keith Yandle? Does Oshie bring more to the table than Ryan?
Those combinations will be under a microscope in Sochi.
5. Why Is Cam Fowler on the Team?
Based on the rest of the defensive corps, Fowler looks like he’ll be the extra defenseman who won’t dress in any games. After three less-than-stellar seasons with Anaheim, the 22-year-old Fowler has been outstanding this season. He has four goals and 21 assists in 42 games while serving on the top defense pair.
Poile’s other seven defensemen are all more likely to see ice time while the young Fowler gains experience being around the team. It’s not that Fowler couldn’t handle himself if called upon due to injury, but he is clearly the least experienced blueliner on the team.
Among the other defensemen who were left off the roster—Keith Yandle, Erik Johnson, Dustin Byfuglien—taking the younger Fowler with an eye toward the future makes a lot of sense.
If Fowler continues to grow over the next four years, he will have a much larger role when the Olympics roll around again in 2018.
6. Does Team USA Have Enough Offense to Win?
Leaving Bobby Ryan off the team will make many wonder if Team USA has enough weapons, but offense shouldn’t be an issue.
Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Dustin Brown, Max Pacioretty and Ryan Kesler are 30-goal scorers, while Kane and Kessel could hit 40 this season. Blake Wheeler, Ryan Callahan and David Backes can fill the net as well.
The Americans don’t possess the talent of Team Canada or the flash of Team Russia, but they have plenty of deadly scorers. This team will live and die by its goaltending and defense, but it is sufficiently stacked with gifted scorers.
7. Who Is Next Up Should Someone Get Injured?
Poile would not reveal who the alternates are should someone suffer an injury between now and the Olympics, but it’s not hard to figure out who is next in line for a chance to go to Sochi.
Bobby Ryan would likely be next up if a top-six forward goes down, but his lack of penalty-killing ability and toughness could keep him out if a bottom-six forward is injured. Poile may choose to replace Ryan Callahan or T.J. Oshie with someone who has a similar skill set, like Kyle Okposo of the New York Islanders.
Keith Yandle makes a lot of sense if a puck-moving defenseman or a left-handed shot is befallen with a malady. The same can be said for Jack Johnson, too, but Yandle has to be higher in the pecking order.
Erik Johnson is a big, physical, right-handed defenseman, so he would likely need an opening on the right side to find himself on the team.
In net, Cory Schneider or Ben Bishop would appear to the obvious choices as backup plans.
There’s plenty of reasons for these players to be on alert. Callahan is out with a knee injury, his third different ailment that has cost him time this season. Left wing Zach Parise is out with a nagging foot injury that has been lingering for more than a month. David Backes is sidelined with an upper-body injury.
It’s not unprecedented for a player to go down after being selected to Team USA. Four years ago, Paul Martin broke his arm and Mike Komisarek needed season-ending surgery on his shoulder, costing both spots on the roster. They were replaced by Ryan Whitney and Tim Gleason.
8. Who Will Serve as Captain?
There are plenty of fine candidates among the leadership group. Zach Parise and Dustin Brown served as assistant captains to Jamie Langenbrunner four years ago and have experience in that role with their NHL clubs.
Ryan Suter also wore an "A" in 2010 and will likely be wearing a letter in Sochi as well.
It’s almost standard operating procedure for a new captain to say the letter on his chest doesn’t matter because there are so many leaders in that locker room, but it’s really the case with Team USA. Regardless of its decision, the coaching staff can’t go wrong with the player it tabs as captain.
9. Did Jack Johnson Belong on the Team?
The short answer is no.
The slightly longer answer is if Keith Yandle wasn’t good enough to make the team, then Jack Johnson wasn’t good enough to make the team.
The lengthier answer is Johnson has served as a captain for Team USA in multiple World Championships and always answered the call to represent his country, but he’s just not good enough to make the club when all Americans are available. They could have brought him as an eighth defenseman as a gesture of appreciation, but David Poile did the right thing by leaving Johnson home.
10. Can Team USA Win Gold with This Group?
Four years ago, the U.S. team played the deepest, most talented team in the world on its soil twice, winning once and losing in overtime. This team is better defensively and its forwards have grown by leaps and bounds since losing to Canada at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. There's nothing stopping it from taking the next step in Sochi.
Team USA’s success will come down to goaltending and defense, just as it did four years ago when goaltender Ryan Miller carried the Americans to a silver medal. That will be the job of Jonathan Quick this time around, and while he hasn’t been himself this season, he is plenty capable of doing the same thing.
If the defense and goaltending remain sound and the offense is more dangerous, a gold medal is well within reach for the U.S. team.
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