The Biggest Questions Facing Team USA Before 2014 Sochi Olympics

Nicholas GossCorrespondent IJuly 29, 2013

The Biggest Questions Facing Team USA Before 2014 Sochi Olympics

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    The United States raised expectations with its silver medal performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

    Instead of being a gold medal hopeful in the field of 12 teams, Team USA will be expected to win the gold medal at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

    Building a roster capable of competing for the gold medal is one of the most difficult challenges that general managers face in their careers.

    It's difficult to determine which players will perform at a high level on the larger ice surface, who will thrive under the Olympic pressure and which coach is best suited to lead the team.

    Let's look at the biggest questions surrounding the 2014 United States men's hockey team ahead of the Sochi Olympics.

Who Will Start in Net?

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    With more goaltending depth than any nation that qualified for the Sochi Olympics (except for maybe Finland), the United States has plenty of quality players who deserve to be considered for the starting goalie role.

    Team USA invited six netminders to its Olympic camp next month, including Craig Anderson (OTT), Cory Schneider (NJD), Jimmy Howard (DET), Ryan Miller (BUF), John Gibson (ANA) and Jonathan Quick (LAK).

    Miller was the starter in Vancouver three years ago and was the MVP of the tournament for his efforts in helping the Americans earn the silver medal.

    But after three disappointing seasons with the Sabres (combined 2.65 GAA and .916 SV% in that time frame), Miller is no longer the clear choice to start in net for the United States.

    That man is Quick, who has become arguably the league's best netminder with his incredible postseason performances over the last two years, including a Stanley Cup title and Conn Smythe Trophy in 2011-12.

    Even though the Kings star is the front-runner for the position, Howard will provide stiff competition next season. The Red Wings goalie became a top-tier player last year and will have an opportunity to make a strong case for the No. 1 goalie role if he outperforms Quick in the first few months of the 2013-14 season.

    Choosing a starting goalie is going to be a tough decision for head coach Dan Bylsma, one that will greatly impact the team's gold medal chances.

    This squad cannot beat the top teams such as Canada and Sweden without consistently strong goaltending because it doesn't have the same offensive firepower as those opponents.

How Many NHL Rookies or Inexperienced Players Make the Final Roster?

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    The architect of the 2010 Olympic roster was former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who made a bold decision to include a lot of young, inexperienced players on the final team.

    Nashville Predators GM David Poile, who is building the 2014 squad, has invited several young players to next month's camp, including a few guys with zero NHL experience (Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba and John Gibson).

    Team USA should have a more seasoned group of players at the 2014 Olympics because many of the younger guys from 2010 (Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Ryan Callahan, Dustin Brown, etc.) are in the prime of their careers.

    With that said, it's important to have some young, motivated players on the Sochi team who will provide important depth.

    A few inexperienced NHLers capable of making the final roster with a strong first half of the 2013-14 NHL season are defensemen Dan DeKeyser, Justin Faulk and forwards Beau Bennett and Brandon Saad.

    The weakest position for the United States is at center, which gives young players such as Alex Galchenyuk a great opportunity to make the squad.

Should Team USA Play the Same Gritty, Defensive Style of Hockey?

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    The United States didn't have the elite offensive skill in 2010 to beat teams like Canada, Russia and Sweden by playing an open style of hockey that creates high-scoring games.

    The strategy by head coach Ron Wilson was to play a smart, two-way game in which the Americans wore down their opponents physically, won faceoffs, blocked shots and worked harder than the opposing team.

    It was a successful plan given the end result of a silver medal, but with the Sochi games taking place on an Olympic-sized ice arena, playing a more physical, defensive type of hockey will be more difficult than it was in Vancouver (where a smaller NHL rink was used).

    A larger ice surface makes guys with elite speed, quickness and puck-moving skills more valuable than slower, tougher, less skilled players.

    If the puck is turned over, not having quick defensemen is going to result in goaltenders having to make world-class saves more often than coaches want to see.

    Where the larger ice surface could really influence roster decisions is on the blue line. Veteran, stay-at-home defensemen who are strong in their own end but lack quality speed and quicknesssuch as Brooks Orpik and Paul Martinmight be at a disadvantage when it comes time for management to select a final team.

    Puck-moving defenseman with strong skating ability and impressive offensive abilitiessuch as Kevin Shattenkirk, Keith Yandle, Jake Gardiner and John Carlsonoffer a skill set that is ideal for an Olympic rink.

    It's important to craft a team around an identity, and it will be interesting to see if Poile opts for a Team USA roster that fits the 2010 style or one that relies on younger, faster, more skilled players for a bigger sheet of ice.

Does Team USA Have Enough Talent/Depth at Center to Win Gold?

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    Center is one of the most important positions at the Olympics because of the playmaking and defensive responsibilities included in the role.

    Other gold medal favorites such as Canada, Russia and Sweden are deep at center, so much so that some players may be forced to play out of position on the wing.

    Team USA would love to have that problem, but depth down the middle is currently the team's most glaring weakness heading into Sochi.

    Ryan Kesler is the team's likely No. 1 center given his impressive two-way game and success at the Vancouver Olympics, but his inability to stay healthy consistently with the Canucks is a real concern.

    Outside of Kesler, Joe Pavelski and Derek Stepan, the United States doesn't have any other top-tier NHL centers with elite offensive skill to bring to Sochi.

    Alex Galchenyuk has a good chance to make the final roster as a skilled center also capable of playing on the wing, but he has just one year of NHL experience.

    The other centers invited to the Olympic camp include Trevor Lewis (not skilled enough for the Olympics), Nick Bjugstad (only 11 games of NHL experience), Craig Smith (48 career NHL points), David Backes (good defensively, but his offensive skills aren't ideal for a larger ice surface) and Paul Stastny (key part of 2010 squad, but his skills have regressed in the last three years).

    The ideal situation for Team USA is someone such as Stastny, Bjugstad or Galchenyuk having a tremendous first half of the 2013-14 season that proves they belong on the final roster.

    If the Americans don't get a goaltending performance similar to Miller's heroics in 2010, the offense may have to carry the team. At the moment, there isn't enough talent or depth down the middle to help the United States beat quality opponents in high-scoring games.

Will the United States End Its Medal Drought Outside of North America?

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    Since the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany, the United States has won only three medals in ice hockey outside of North America, which includes silver medals in Norway (Oslo, 1952), Italy (Cortina d'Ampezzo, 1956) and Japan (Sapporo, 1972).

    The current American medal drought in Olympic hockey held outside North America stands at 41 years.

    The only two gold medal triumphs for the United States happened on home soil (Squaw Valley in 1960 and Lake Placid in 1980) and the Americans haven't been to back-to-back gold medal games since 1960.

    There are also no players from the 2006 USA team that played in Turin on next month's Olympic roster, which means that the entire squad will have no experience playing outside North America on this kind of stage.

    Teams with a majority of their roster made up of players who have lots of overseas experience and are used to larger ice surfacessuch as Russia, Sweden and Finlandwill be at an advantage over teams like the United States and Canada in Sochi.

     

Which Player Deserves to Be the Captain?

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    The United States' captain in 2010 was Jamie Langenbrunner, but the veteran forward will not be part of the Sochi roster.

    With that said, there will be plenty of leadership on the 2014 squad, with two NHL captains (Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan) and several other players who wear an "A" for their clubs expected to make the final team.

    There are five players with a good chance to be named captain: Zach Parise (former New Jersey Devils captain, currently an alternate for Minnesota Wild), David Backes (captain for the St. Louis Blues), Ryan Suter (alternate with Wild), Dustin Brown (captain for the Los Angeles Kings) and Ryan Callahan (captain for the New York Rangers).

    All of these players represented the United States in Vancouver.

    When the coaching staff makes its decision, the two guys who should receive the most consideration for the "C" are Brown and Callahan.

    Callahan embodies everything you want in a captain. He works hard at both ends of the ice, blocks shots, contributes offensively, motivates his teammates and sets a strong example of how to be a professional.

    Brown is a similar type of leader, and he's the best choice for the captain role based on his playoff success in the NHL (only player on USA Olympic camp roster to lift the Stanley Cup as a captain) and impressive experience in international tournaments (two World Juniors, four World Championships, one Olympics).

    Team USA will have its fair share of weaknesses in Sochi, but one important quality it won't be lacking is strong leadership.

     

Is Dan Bylsma the Right Coach for Team USA?

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    The decision to hire Dan Bylsma as the next head coach of Team USA was met with some criticism. The Pittsburgh Penguins' bench boss won the Stanley Cup in 2008-09, but in the last four years, his team has advanced past the second round of the NHL playoffs just once.

    Bylsma also has no previous coaching experience on the Olympic stage.

    If Poile wants to build a defensive-minded team, the better choice to lead the United States in Sochi would have been new Vancouver Canucks head coach John Tortorella.

    The Massachusetts native was an assistant on the 2010 team and has enjoyed plenty of success (including the 2004 Stanley Cup title) as an NHL coach who stresses the importance of defense, shot-blocking and physical play.

    If the decision is to construct a roster with more speed and offensive skill than the 2010 squad, appointing Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette would have been the best decision.

    Laviolette, who will be one of Bylsma's assistants, won a Stanley Cup in 2006 and his Flyers teams have finished in the top 10 of goals scored in all four of his seasons behind the bench. He was also the head coach of the 2006 Olympic team.

    All three of these coaches know how to manage teams with superstar egos and have Stanley Cup rings, but the man chosen to lead the United States is the one with the least amount of international experience.

    Bylsma is a tremendous coach, but he will be under a lot of pressure to help the Americans win a medal in Sochi.

     

    Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.