Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses for US Olympic Hockey Team in Sochi
On January 1, USA Hockey announced its men's team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics at the conclusion of a snowy Winter Classic game at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
After a heartbreaking overtime loss in the gold-medal game back in 2010, general manager David Poile and his team are looking to build on the solid foundation that was established in Vancouver and take the elusive next step to gold.
This time around, challenges will include dealing with injuries, generating offense and adapting to the European style of game on the bigger ice surface in Sochi.
Based on the lineup as it's been announced, here's a look at the biggest strengths and weaknesses of Team USA.
Strength: Gritty Leadership
Going into the roster announcement, Team USA general manager David Poile made no secret of his commitment to his five-man leadership group—David Backes, Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
All five are veterans of the silver-medal-winning squad from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, while Brown, Parise and Suter were alternate captains for Team USA. In their NHL worlds, Backes, Brown and Callahan captain their teams while Parise and Suter each wear the "A" in Minnesota. To a man, they're miserable for opponents to play against.
Team USA's identity is immediately set by the in-your-face attitude of its leadership group. Rivals will know there are no easy wins against this bunch.
Weakness: Injury Uncertainty
Other Olympic hockey nations are waiting until next week to make their roster announcements. David Poile decided to go ahead as planned on January 1, saying he'll make adjustments as necessary if injuries are an issue.
Wednesday's roster list includes four players who are currently on IR: goaltender Jonathan Quick, defenseman Paul Martin and forwards Ryan Callahan and Zach Parise.
Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is reporting that Parise's injury may be a fractured foot, which is more serious than initially thought. There's no definite timeline for his recovery, but Parise has been dealing with this issue since November and his Olympic status could be in jeopardy.
Americans remember his big goal with 24 seconds left that sent the gold-medal game to overtime in Vancouver—he'll be sorely missed if he's out of action.
As for the rest of the group. Quick, Callahan and Martin are all expected back with their teams well before it's time to travel to Sochi, while Jimmy Howard, David Backes and Brooks Orpik have returned to their teams after missing time with various ailments.
An optimist says that all these players will be back in February, playing near the top of their games. For the moment, the pessimist sees a lot of question marks as he scans the U.S. lineup.
Strength: New Blood
Team USA has a strong core of returning veterans from 2010 and has augmented the group with more impressive young talent.
A player like Cam Fowler has flown under the radar out in Anaheim, but has been a critical part of the Ducks' improvement over the last two years. At just 22 years old, Fowler leads the Ducks in ice time with nearly 24 minutes a game. He's already in his fourth full NHL season and has developed into a solid two-way defenseman. Fowler has good speed, great mobility, a flair for offense and can quarterback the power play. He could be a real asset on the blue line.
Other first-timers with good wheels and offensive flair who could impress include James van Riemsdyk, Max Pacioretty, T.J. Oshie and Blake Wheeler.
Weakness: Offensive Punch
David Poile left a lot of goals on the bench when he finalized his roster.
Not included in today's announcement were the hot sticks of Kyle Okposo, Bobby Ryan, Brandon Saad, Dustin Byfuglien and Keith Yandle.
Up front, Okposo's a strong skater who's currently second in the NHL among all U.S. players with 40 points, behind Patrick Kane. As a New York Islander who has often missed the playoffs, Okposo also has valuable international experience in three World Championships.
Bobby Ryan is fifth among U.S. players with 36 points and was a member of the 2010 Olympic squad, while Brandon Saad has already won a Stanley Cup and proven himself to be a consistent offensive force in just his second full NHL season.
On the blue line, Poile elected to leave Dustin Byfuglien's big body and 29 points at home. He's the leading scorer among all U.S. defensemen but isn't the most mobile and has some defensive liabilities, so that's understandable. Keith Yandle's more of a surprise—he has 27 points in 39 games and can skate and quarterback the power play.
Team USA is full of grit and character. Does it have enough offensive punch to win games in Sochi?
Strength: Patrick Kane
Patrick Kane was a dynamic and important member of Team USA in Vancouver. As a 21-year-old, he had five points in the six-game tournament and assisted on both American goals in the gold-medal game.
Since the end of the 2010 Olympics, Kane's list of accolades has grown by leaps and bounds. He won his first Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks that spring, then won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player when the 'Hawks repeated in 2013.
This season, Kane has moved to another level. With 53 points in 42 games, he's on pace to reach career highs in goals and points. He's second in the NHL scoring race to Sidney Crosby and his team remains perched near the top of the league standings.
His problem-child reputation is behind him and he's currently playing the best hockey of his life. Patrick Kane looks poised to break out as an Olympic MVP in Sochi.
Ryan Miller was the tournament standout in net in 2010 and was named most valuable player in Vancouver, but plenty of questions surround the trio of netminders who have been selected for Sochi.
Miller is having a strong season, but has been playing behind a terrible team, the Buffalo Sabres. He ranks 12th in ice time among all goaltenders, but has faced the second-highest number of shots. As a result, his current save percentage is only .002 below what he posted during the last Olympic year (.927 vs. .929), but his goals-against average is nearly half a goal higher (2.22 vs. 2.69).
Will Miller thrive behind an all-star team, or is he so shell-shocked from all the rubber he's seen in Buffalo that he'll have trouble finding his A-game?
The questions don't stop there. Jonathan Quick has just begun to skate after suffering a serious groin injury back in November, while Jimmy Howard has played only two games since returning from a knee injury. Quick and Howard weren't playing up to their usual standards before they were hurt, either. If Miller falters, which one will be ready to run with the ball?
Strength: Olympic Experience
The 2010 Vancouver Olympics marked a changing of the guard for Team USA.
After finishing a dismal eighth in Turin in 2006, the era of Chris Chelios, Mike Modano and Keith Tkachuk drew to a close. With no returning players from the 2006 team, a completely fresh crop of young stars claimed silver in Vancouver.
The five-man leadership group made its mark, while goaltender Ryan Miller was the tournament MVP and will be making his second Olympic appearance in Sochi. Other returnees include Jonathan Quick, Brooks Orpik, Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski and Paul Stastny.
The shared 2010 experience of this cadre of 13 will provide a valuable foundation for the 2014 team when it hits the big Russian ice in February.
Weakness: Big-Ice Experience
When Team USA won silver in 2010, it was on an NHL-size 200-by-85-foot playing surface in Vancouver. In Sochi, teams will be be skating on a European-size rink, which is 200 by 100.
None of the American players has Olympic experience on the big ice. A few have represented their country at past World Juniors or World Championships, but their experience level will pale in comparison to players from countries like Russia, Sweden and Finland, who grew up playing that style of game.
David Poile has emphasized speed and mobility when selecting his roster. His players will need to be quick studies in the nuances of the big-ice game once they strap on the blades in Sochi.