The U.S. men's hockey team will announce its roster for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi on Wednesday after the conclusion of Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.
There are plenty of easy decisions for the brain trust that is led by David Poile, the Nashville Predators general manager—Zach Parise, Phil Kessel and Ryan Suter will be back after winning silver at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver—but he has his fair share of tough choices, too.
Injuries to several players make the process of picking 25 players a little more difficult. Defenseman Brooks Orpik and goaltender Jimmy Howard were thought to be contenders for a spot at the start of the season, but both players have dealt with injuries during the first half of the NHL season.
Team USA also has a stellar crop of defensemen that will make Poile's job extremely difficult. After Suter and perhaps one or two other defensemen, it's anyone's guess who will man the blue line for the United States.
The following is one man's best guess as to what Team USA's roster will look like when it is released on New Year's Day. This isn't a list designed to show what the roster should be—it's designed to show what it will be. It's alphabetical and concludes with potential line combinations.
So scroll through and check out our projection for Team USA's 14 forwards, eight defensemen and three goaltenders for the upcoming Olympics.
All statistics through Friday's games via NHL.com.
In the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, David Backes went on a rampage against all things Canadian. During a two-week span in January, he dropped the gloves with Jonathan Toews, Corey Perry and Rick Nash, three prominent members of Canada's Olympic ice hockey team.
Backes hasn't thrown down with any Canadians this season, but he's been hurting opponents with his offense and overall play.
The 29-year-old is second on the Blues in scoring with 16 goals and 30 points in 34 games. He's also not afraid to throw his 6'3", 210-pound around, as he ranks among the league leaders in hits with 116.
Backes wears the "C" for the Blues, and he just might wear it for Team USA in Sochi.
There were six goaltenders invited to Team USA's orientation camp in Washington this past July, and Ben Bishop wasn't one of them. But his play during the first half the season has made it impossible for him to be left off the roster.
The 27-year-old has fought for years to become a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL, and he's made the most of that opportunity with the Lightning. He ranks fifth in goals-against average (1.93) and save percentage (.935) and is second in wins (20).
Bishop has benefited from Jimmy Howard's poor play and injury-riddled season, but he has thoroughly outplayed Cory Schneider to earn a spot on the roster as Team USA's third goaltender.
While David Backes face-punched Canadians on the way to the 2010 Olympics, Dustin Brown kneed San Jose Sharks forward and Czech Republic native Tomas Hertl out of the 2014 Games. There's still six weeks before the Sochi Olympics, so perhaps Radim Vrbata and Martin Hanzal should watch out.
All kidding aside (Brown is not intentionally injuring Czechs), Brown will bring a physical presence and goal-scoring touch to the American lineup. He has had a down year by his standards with seven goals and 13 points in 37 games, but he's a lock to play for Team USA.
Brown had a disappointing 2010 Olympics, as he failed to register a point in six games. But he's proven himself to be a big-game player since then, as he had eight goals in 20 playoff games in 2012 when the Kings won a Stanley Cup.
Much like David Backes and Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan is a consistent 20-goal scorer who is not shy about throwing around his body. But unlike his fellow Americans, Callahan does it with a diminutive 5'11", 190-pound frame.
Unfortunately for Callahan, he has been dealing with injuries throughout the season. He missed the first game of the season as he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, then was forced from the lineup for two separate stints with a broken finger and sprained knee.
Callahan is currently out now but should be back a few weeks before the Olympics.
During the 2010 Olympics, Callahan had just one assist in six games, but he has developed into a threat to score 25-30 goals a season. He had six goals in 20 games during the 2012 postseason when the Rangers made a run to the Eastern Conference Final.
Callahan's health is an issue, but if he can avoid injury, he'll be an important piece for Team USA.
John Carlson hasn't played internationally since 2010, when he won gold at the World Junior Championships as a 19-year-old. Not only was he a member of that championship team, but he scored in overtime of the gold-medal game to defeat the Canadians on their home soil.
Team USA will hope that experience carries over onto the Olympic stage in Sochi.
The American hero has developed into a top-pairing defenseman for the Capitals, routinely facing the best of the best when he takes the ice. He's blossoming into a better offensive player this year, too, with seven goals—four on the power play—in 38 games.
At 6'3" and 212 pounds, he will be able to match up against the biggest and best in this tournament as well.
Erik Johnson faces some of the toughest competition among defensemen and still puts up positive possession numbers, according to ExtraSkater.com. That bodes well for what he'll likely face when he takes the ice in Sochi.
Despite his difficult defensive assignments, Johnson has found a way to be effective on offense. He has six goals and 15 points in 36 games, which doesn't rank him among the league leaders, but is quite impressive considering his role.
Johnson has lent his services to Team USA at two world championships and the 2010 Olympics, and he'll do the same in Sochi.
This will likely be the most controversial selection for Team USA, as Jack Johnson doesn't possess the impressive numbers. But he will very likely find himself in Sochi after consistently answering the call for international competition throughout his career.
Johnson was a member of Team USA at the 2010 Olympics and has suited up for his country at five World Championships. He served as team captain at the 2010 and 2012 World Championships. Including world juniors, Johnson has appeared in 57 games for Team USA.
While it is admirable that he has given up valuable down time to play for his country, the reason he has been able to do so is because his NHL teams have rarely made the playoffs. Johnson has only tasted the NHL postseason twice, which frees him to play for Team USA during the summer.
Johnson, however, does possess traits Team USA covets. He is a great skater, gifted offensively and is an asset on the power play. But he hasn't been much of a threat in those areas this season, as he has just two goals and nine points in 38 games.
Making matters worse, his Corsi and Fenwick numbers leave a lot to be desired.
There are a lot of strikes against Johnson, but his dedication to the sweater will likely earn him a spot over defensemen with slightly more impressive numbers.
Patrick Kane could be the most improved player for Team USA since the last Olympics, which is saying a lot since he was one of the best in the world four years ago.
Kane, now 25, has become bigger and stronger. He's won two Stanley Cups (2010, 2013) and a Conn Smythe Trophy (2013) since the Vancouver Games. This season, Kane has to be considered one of the favorites for the Hart Trophy with 22 goals and 50 points in 38 games for the Blackhawks.
Kane has elevated his game and proven there is no stage too big for him. How he performs in Sochi will go a long way toward determining Team USA's fate.
A hip injury during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs hampered Ryan Kesler for the better part of the following two seasons. He also battled shoulder and foot injuries during that time, turning him into a real question mark after a 41-goal season in 2010-11.
This season, Kesler is healthy and looking more like his old self. That's good news for Team USA.
He has 15 goals in 39 games, which isn't quite a 40-goal pace, but it still has him on track for 30 goals. The U.S. team isn't very deep at center, so Kesler avoiding injury between now and February is crucial for their success in Sochi.
Kesler had just two goals in six games at the 2010 Olympics, and he'll need to be better if Team USA wants to win gold this time.
Phil Kessel is perhaps the best pure scorer on Team USA's roster. The only time he has scored fewer than 30 goals over the past five seasons was last year, when he had 20 goals in 48 games.
He is well on his way to another 30-goal campaign with 18 goals in 40 games this season, and he'll need to be that threat in Sochi. The tournament will be played on the larger international ice, which could be a benefit to Kessel and his elite skating ability.
As a 22-year-old, Kessel didn't have the best Olympics in 2010. He had one goal in six games, something on which he must improve in Sochi.
Ryan McDonagh has been excellent defensively since coming to the Rangers in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens before the 2010-11 season. He ascended to the team's top pairing and is now adding an offensive dimension to his game.
The 24-year-old has six goals and 21 points in 39 games this season for the Rangers. He's done it against some stiff competition, according to the numbers compiled by ExtraSkater.com.
McDonagh is lacking in international experience, as his only Team USA stint was at the 2011 World Championships. But he will be relied upon heavily in Sochi, and his top-notch skating ability and size (6'1", 213 pounds) should serve him well.
It's not very often that the starting goaltender on the NHL's worst team earns the right to take part in the Olympics, but that's the case with Ryan Miller.
Miller, who guided the U.S. team to a silver medal four years ago, is 9-17-1 with a 2.76 GAA this season. That's not impressive, but his save percentage of .924 ranks him in the top 10 among starters.
The Sabres have been allowing about 34 shots per game, the third-worst mark in the league. Miller has been backstopping the worst team all season, and he should be better with an improved team in front of him in Sochi.
He likely won't get the starting nod, but he would be a solid backup option should Jonathan Quick falter.
The one thing standing in the way of Brooks Orpik once again playing for Team USA is health. But he was activated off injured reserve Friday after missing several weeks with a concussion.
As long as the 33-year-old is fully recovered, he should again play the shutdown role he has played for the Penguins over the years. He's not going to bring much to the table offensively—he has never scored more than two goals in a season—but his size and strength will be key against sizable forwards.
This will be a tough decision for Team USA brass. But even if Orpik doesn't look like his old self over the next month, he could be carried as an extra defenseman in Sochi. The more likely scenario is Orpik proves he's fine and will play regularly for the team.
Max Pacioretty doesn't have much in the way of international experience, but his one trip to the World Championships in 2012 showed what he can do on big ice.
The 25-year-old delivered two goals and 12 points in eight games in the tournament, finishing as the leading scorer for Team USA. The competition will be stiffer in Sochi, but his offensive ability should be coveted.
Pacioretty has 15 goals in 29 games for the Canadiens. He ranks eighth in the NHL in goals per game among players to appear in at least 25 games.
He will probably be featured in a bottom-six role for Team USA if he makes the team, but he can be an effective two-way forward in Sochi.
Zach Parise was a temporary hero at the 2010 Olympics, scoring in the final seconds to send the gold-medal game against Canada to overtime.
It was short-lived, however, as Sidney Crosby won it in overtime.
Parise is by far Team USA's best two-way forward, a threat to score 30 goals every season while being a force on the forecheck and backcheck. He can kill penalties and score on the power play and will likely log more minutes than any Team USA forward.
A cause for concern—Parise didn't make the trip to Winnipeg for Friday's game because of a foot issue that has been lingering since late November. If Parise isn't healthy for Sochi, it does immense damage to Team USA's hopes for gold.
Joe Pavelski had an assist on Zach Parise's game-tying goal in the gold-medal game in 2010, a highlight in what was an otherwise unforgettable tournament for the Sharks center.
The 29-year-old should better his zero-goal, three-assist showing when he gets to Sochi.
Pavelski has always been a smart two-way player, but he's evolved into a 30-goal asset as well. He scored 31 goals in 2011-12, had 16 goals in 48 games last season and has 16 goals in 38 games this season. He should be a much more consistent threat this time around for Team USA.
He will very likely find himself as the team's second-line center, which means another three-point showing won't be good enough.
Jason Pominville wasn't invited to orientation camp, but he has very likely played his way onto Team USA's roster.
The 31-year-old is tied for 10th in the NHL with 17 goals, a massive improvement over last season when he had 14 goals in 47 games. Team USA GM David Poile said in November that he should have invited Pominville to the camp and will be back in the mix if he plays well this season.
Pominville has done just that and has earned the right to play for Team USA in Sochi.
If there was one thing the U.S. team had going for it before the season, it was goaltending. Jonathan Quick was arguably the best goaltender in the NHL, and his quickness and explosiveness in net would be a huge boon against top competition at the Olympics.
But Quick got off to a slow start and suffered a groin injury that has kept him out of the lineup since the end of November. Before the injury, Quick had a .905 save percentage, which ranks him 34th in the NHL.
Quick having poor regular-season numbers is a reason for concern, but he had a similar regular season in 2013 and was dominant in the playoffs. He had a .902 save percentage in 37 regular-season games but had a .934 save percentage in 18 postseason games as the Kings reached the conference finals.
If Quick isn't up for the challenge, the Americans can fall back on Ryan Miller. But the job is Quick's to lose.
Bobby Ryan took his goal-scoring prowess from Anaheim to Ottawa during the summer and hasn't slowed one bit.
The 26-year-old is on his way to the fifth 30-goal season of his career with 17 goals in 40 games for the Senators. Along with Kessel, Ryan will be relied upon for his pure goal-scoring ability and not necessarily his two-way play.
Like many of the U.S. team's young players, Ryan didn't produce in 2010. He had one goal in six games and will look to avoid a second Olympic disappointment.
Kevin Shattenkirk will be the top offensive defenseman on Team USA's roster, as he is fifth among all NHL blueliners with 26 points in 35 games. He will likely serve as the team's No. 1 choice to man the point on the power play.
Shattenkirk hasn't played all that much on the penalty kill for the Blues this season, averaging about 30 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game. But Team USA has plenty of other options for penalty-killing duties.
The 24-year-old has represented Team USA at the World Championships once, posting a goal and two assists in 2011 when the team finished eighth in Slovakia.
Paul Stastny has 24 points in 35 games this season, putting him on pace for his best season since 2009-10 when he had 79 points in 81 games. He represented Team USA at the 2010 Olympics and will very likely do the same in 2014.
The 28-year-old will be in Sochi to provide depth at the Team USA's thinnest position—center. Stastny is an excellent playmaker but can be an asset in the faceoff circle as well. He's sixth among Americans in faceoff percentage at 53.7 percent.
In his most recent international competition, Stastny had seven goals and 15 points in 10 games as Team USA won bronze in Sweden at the 2013 World Championships.
Derek Stepan has steadily improved during his four seasons in the NHL and owns an impressive international resume as well, making him a lock for the American Olympic squad.
Stepan was a member of the world junior championship team that won gold in 2010 and led all scorers in that tournament with 14 points in seven games. He was also impressive in his one World Championship appearance when he had seven points in seven games in 2011.
The 23-year-old is a solid two-way player who will be a reliable defensive presence as a bottom-six center in Sochi.
Ryan Suter plays 30 minutes per night for the Wild and faces the best of the best on just about every shift, so that should have him prepared to be the No. 1 defenseman for Team USA.
The 28-year-old will be counted upon to shut down the best players in the world throughout the tournament. There's even a chance his life could be easier in the tournament; with so many top-notch defensemen, he may play a few fewer minutes in Sochi than he does with Minnesota.
Suter has had a weird season offensively, as he ranks in the top 10 in scoring among defensemen with 22 points, but he has yet to register a goal.
There's a chance Suter will wear the "C" for Team USA. But even if he doesn't, he'll be part of the club's leadership group.
James van Riemsdyk is on his way to a career season with the Maple Leafs, as he has posted 14 goals and 28 points in 38 games. He will very likely shatter his career best in goals (21) and points (40), both set in 2010-11 with the Flyers.
The 24-year-old is lacking in international experience, however. He joined Team USA at the World Championships in 2011 and appeared in two games. He also took part in the world juniors, but that's the extent of his international competition.
Van Riemsdyk could find himself functioning as an extra forward in Sochi, but he has the tools to contribute if need be.
Keith Yandle is yet another excellent puck-moving defenseman to be employed by Team USA in Sochi, although the 27-year-old has just six games of international experience under his belt.
Yandle played in six games at the 2010 World Championships and that's it. He never participated in a world junior championships and didn't make the cut for the Vancouver Olympics. Still, he has all the tools necessary to be an asset at the 2014 Olympics.
The 27-year-old ranks in the top 10 in scoring among defensemen and plays nearly 24 minutes per game for the Coyotes. He can skate and distribute the puck, traits that will be important on the larger Olympic ice.
Zach Parise — David Backes — Patrick Kane
Dustin Brown — Ryan Kesler — Phil Kessel
Max Pacioretty — Joe Pavelski — Ryan Callahan
James van Riemsdyk — Derek Stepan — Bobby Ryan
Paul Stastny, Jason Pominville
Ryan Suter — Kevin Shattenkirk
Ryan McDonagh — Erik Johnson
Keith Yandle — John Carlson
Jack Johnson — Brooks Orpik
Dustin Byfuglien, D, Winnipeg Jets: It will be tough to leave the NHL's leading scorer among defensemen home, but his lack of speed makes him a liability on the larger ice. He's not as bad defensively as his reputation suggests, but the right-handed shots ahead of him on this list have more complete games.
Justin Faulk, D, Carolina Hurricanes: He serves as the Hurricanes' No. 1 defenseman and has the capability to log large minutes. But at 21, there are more experienced defensemen with better offensive tools that are ahead of him for Sochi.
Paul Martin, D, Pittsburgh Penguins: No one has had worse Olympic luck than Martin. He was taken to Torino as an extra defenseman in 2006 and never saw the ice. He was chosen for Team USA four years ago, but a broken arm prevented him from playing. Now he's out with a broken leg, although he should be healthy enough by the time Sochi rolls around. It's a tough decision for Team USA general manager David Poile.
Alex Galchenyuk, LW, Montreal Canadiens: The future is bright for the 19-year-old, but the 2018 Olympics are when he'll be ready.
Kyle Okposo, RW, New York Islanders: The 25-year-old is having his best NHL season (12 goals, 33 points), but it's largely the result of playing alongside world-class center John Tavares. It would be unfair to expect him to play at the same level for Team USA.
T.J. Oshie, RW, St. Louis Blues: The 27-year-old has represented the United States at the World Championships and has a real chance to don the jersey in Sochi. He has four goals and 30 points in 36 games and should Ryan Callahan's injury woes prove to be a concern, Oshie could fill his spot.
Brandon Saad, LW, Chicago Blackhawks: The 21-year-old has done nothing to play himself out of consideration for a roster spot, posting 12 goals and 28 points in 40 games. The only drawback is his minimal international experience, but Team USA brass could decide to carry him over Jason Pominville as an extra forward.
Blake Wheeler, RW, Winnipeg Jets: The 27-year-old has nice numbers (14 goals, 29 points), but the right wings ahead of him are all better options.
Jimmy Howard, G, Detroit Red Wings: Entering the season, he looked like a strong candidate to be one of the three goalies at Sochi. But a nightmare season that has included a pair of injuries and poor play has him way outside of the picture now.
Cory Schneider, G, New Jersey Devils: There's no denying he has been very good this season, but he has taken a back seat to Martin Brodeur. It's possible Schneider goes ahead of Ben Bishop, but it seems unlikely.