USA Olympic Hockey Players Most Likely to Excel on the Larger Ice in Sochi

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2014

USA Olympic Hockey Players Most Likely to Excel on the Larger Ice in Sochi

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    Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

    As the NHL prepares to send its players to the Winter Olympics for the fifth time, a pattern has emerged over the past four Games. North American teams have thrived on North American soil, while the Europeans have excelled abroad.

    With this year's games hosted in Sochi, Russia, some believe that the teams from the U.S. and Canada will once again have trouble adapting, especially to the big 200-by-100-foot ice surface, which is 15 feet wider than typical NHL rinks.

    European players grew up and learned the game on the big ice, but the players on Team USA won't be strangers to the dimensions or the playing style.

    As Justin Bourne of Backhand Shelf points out, a good number of NCAA schools play on Olympic-size rinks, especially in the Midwest. Not coincidentally, many of this year's U.S. Olympians spent their formative years in the collegiate system, many on teams with 200-by-100-foot home-ice arenas.

    Bourne points out that it takes more than just speed to play a solid game on the larger surface: 

    On the small sheet, you need players with great instincts who get the puck to the right areas without much deliberation. On Olympic ice, it can be alarming when you get the puck and realize you have a full second or two to figure out just what you want to do...Composed, smart players will take you further.

    Here's a look at eight forwards and a defenseman from Team USA who are poised to excel on the big ice in Sochi.

David Backes

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Big-Ice Experience: 

    • 2003-2006: three seasons college hockey at Minnesota State-Mankato
    • World Championships in 2007 (Russia) and 2009 (Switzerland)

    How He Performed: His college numbers were impressive, averaging just over a point a game in all three seasons. The World Championship performances were just so-so. He had three points in seven games in 2007, where Team USA finished fifth, and five in nine games in 2009, where they lost to Sweden in the bronze-medal game.

    Other Factors: Backes is part of Team USA's leadership group because he thinks the game well. His two-way skills will be important in Sochi, but expect Backes' Olympic contributions to be more about brains than brawn.

Dustin Brown

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Big-Ice Experience: 

    • World Championships in 2004 - bronze medal (Czech Republic), 2006 (Latvia) and 2009 (Switzerland)
    • 16 games with Zurich (Swiss League) during 2012-13 lockout

    How He Performed: Brown had good numbers during all four of his World Championship appearances (he also played for Team USA in 2008 in Canada, on NHL-sized ice). He put up eight goals and 13 points with Zurich during the lockout.

    Brown was held pointless at the 2010 Olympics and has been in a scoring slump for much of the 2013-14 NHL season—could the big ice light a fire under the big winger?

    Other Factors: Quite a few members of Team USA played some Canadian major junior hockey before reaching the NHL, but Dustin Brown is one of the few who didn't spend time at a U.S. college as part of his development. His big-ice background is more limited than many of his teammates, but Brown does have his lockout experience from Switzerland.

    He also has that "leadership intangible" as captain of the 2012 Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings.

Patrick Kane

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    Alex Livesey/Getty Images

    Big-Ice Experience:

    • 2006 Under-18 Championships (Sweden)
    • 2007 World Juniors (Sweden)
    • 20 games with EHC Biel (Swiss League) during 2012-13 lockout

    How He Performed: Very well. Kane led his U18 tournament, where Team USA won gold, with 12 points in six games. He was also named to the all-star team at the 2007 World Juniors, where the U.S. won bronze.

    Kane put up 13 goals and 23 points, many of the spectacular variety, when playing in the Swiss league during the lockout. 

    Other Factors: Kane has limited experience on the big ice, but blossomed in Switzerland last season. Not only did he dazzle on the ice, he gained a maturity that has led him to play the best hockey of his career since the end of the lockout.

    Now a two-time Stanley Cup winner and Conn Smythe Trophy winner at just 25 years old, Kane's a great skater who has had nothing but success when he's played on European-size ice surfaces. Sochi should be no different.

T.J. Oshie

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    Martti Kainulainen/Associated Press

    Big-Ice Experience: 

    • 2005-2008: three seasons college hockey at North Dakota
    • World Championships in 2009 (Switzerland), 2010 (Germany) and 2013 - bronze medal (Finland/Sweden)

    How He Performed: T.J. Oshie had an impressive college career and received a number of individual accolades. Though his offense hasn't always been there at World Championships, Team USA has made it to the medal round in two of his three appearances.

    Other Factors: Oshie's a rising star on a strong St. Louis Blues squad. Some were surprised to see him make the Olympic team over players like Bobby Ryan, but he's having the best NHL season of his career and is barely five years removed from his big-ice experience in college. Oshie's a scorer with a knack for the big-game goal.

Joe Pavelski

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Big-Ice Experience: 

    • 2004-2006: two seasons college hockey at Wisconsin
    • World Championships in 2009 (Switzerland)
    • 17 games with Dynamo Minsk (KHL) during the 2012-13 lockout

    How He Performed: Pavelski led Wisconsin in scoring in 2006 when they won the Division I NCAA Championship. He had 101 points in his 84 college games. He also had a strong showing in the KHL last season, with 15 points in 17 games for Dynamo Minsk.

    Other Factors: Pavelski was part of the 2010 Olympic silver-medal squad in Vancouver. He's great in the faceoff circle, has supreme hockey sense and is a terrific playmaker—all talents that translate well onto the big ice.

Derek Stepan

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    Petr David Josek/Associated Press

    Big-Ice Experience: 

    • 2008-2010: two seasons college hockey at Wisconsin
    • World Championships in 2011 (Slovakia)
    • 12 games for KalPa (Finnish League) during the 2012-13 lockout

    How He Performed: Stepan produced well at the college level but didn't receive the same personal acclaim as some of his Team USA mates. The same is true of his time in Finland during last year's lockout. Stepan did play well at his lone World Championship appearance in 2011, with two goals and five assists in seven games.

    Other Factors: The high-water mark for 23-year-old Stepan's international career so far was when he captained Team USA to a gold medal in 2010 at World Juniors. Valuable experience, but that tournament took place on NHL-size ice in Canada. Stepan's hampered a bit by his size at the NHL level, but his playmaking and positional smarts could be key at the Olympics.

James van Riemsdyk

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    Petr David Josek/Associated Press

    Big-Ice Experience: 

    • 2007-2009: two seasons college hockey at New Hampshire
    • World Championships in 2011 (Slovakia)

    How He Performed: Like most of the other Team USA collegians, van Riemsdyk scored more than a point a game during his two years at New Hampshire. He also has good international experience from his younger days: a gold medal from the Under-18 Championships in Sweden in 2006 and a silver from Finland in 2007, where he was named tournament MVP. Sandwiched in between, JvR won bronze at World Juniors in Sweden in 2007. 

    Other Factors: Van Riemsdyk has great size and good willingness to go to the net—not necessarily the assets at the top of the list for international-style hockey, but he could be an intimidating force. He's also red-hot right now. As of January 22, he has eight points in his last seven games and is on the cusp of setting new career highs in both goals and points.

Blake Wheeler

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    Ronald Zak/Associated Press

    Big-Ice Experience: 

    • 2005-2008: three seasons college hockey at Minnesota
    • World Championships in 2011 (Slovakia)
    • 15 games for EHC Munchen (Germany) during 2012-13 lockout

    How He Performed: Wheeler had a strong college career. In 2007 he was named MVP of the WCHA Final Five tournament and scored the game-winning goal to give Minnesota the championship. Wheeler had a solid five points in seven games at the 2011 World Championships, and an impressive 20 points in 15 games during his time in Germany through last year's lockout.

    Other Factors: For a 6'5" player, Wheeler has fantastic mobility, which should serve him well on the big ice surface. He's also on a hot streak since new coach Paul Maurice took over his Winnipeg Jets, with six points in his last four games. Wheeler's a player who could make a statement in Sochi.

Ryan McDonagh

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    Petr David Josek/Associated Press

    Big-Ice Experience: 

    • 2007-2010: three seasons college hockey at Wisconsin
    • World Championships in 2011 (Slovakia)
    • 10 games with Barys Astana (KHL) during 2012-13 lockout

    How He Performed: During his three years in college, McDonagh was named to the WCHA all-rookie team in 2008 and the second all-star team in 2010. He has a silver medal from the 2007 Under-18 Championships in Finland, but not much to show on the stat sheet from his World Championship appearance in 2011 or his time in Russia during the 2012-13 lockout.

    Other Factors: Ryan McDonagh can skate for days, so he's a solid option to log big minutes on the blue line for the Americans. His mobility and puck-handling are strong, and he's having his best offensive year yet with the New York Rangers in 2013-14. At just 24, McDonagh has plenty of upside. Team USA could benefit from that potential at the Olympics.