When Team USA takes to the ice in February 2010, it will be exactly three decades since their predecessors embarked on a journey that culminated with Olympic gold. While the current entry for men’s ice hockey is obviously seeking the same results, the similarities do not end there.
One of the reasons the 1980 American victory over the Soviet Union was considered nothing short of a miracle is that captain Mike Eruzione and his teammates showed some promise, yet were ultimately pegged as an amateur group lacking in experience. The rag-tag team stood little to no chance of keeping up with elite organizations like the USSR squad, let alone defeating them.
Today, similar things are being said of the 2010 installment of the team, one featuring only six players over the age of thirty.
Brian Burke wouldn’t have it any other way.
The outspoken GM acknowledged the general lack of faith in his team by most pundits and actually embraced it. While he admits his club is a “dramatic underdog” and that the players “do lack a lot of experience,” Burke remains optimistic that his group has that special something that has been absent since Olympic teams have been permitted to ice NHL players.
Perhaps the secret behind Burke’s confidence is the approach he took when assembling the preliminary squad, one not unlike the methodology coach Herb Brooks used thirty years ago in selecting who would don the red, white and blue. Both men resisted the temptation to simply construct an all-star team by focusing more on character than pure skill.
As he did to much success in Anaheim and appears to be doing now in Toronto, the American GM is following a plan that involves each player being assigned specific responsibilities and hinges on each one of them embracing these roles.
While it is too early to predict actual lines and pairings with factors such as injuries and rising or declining performances between now and February, we can still determine what these roles will be and speculate who the top candidates are to fulfill each one.
In recent years, Burke has employed an almost 1A-1B goalie tandem, where there is a consensus starter who must keep his game up to par or risk losing time in the blue paint to a capable backup.
We saw this in Anaheim with Ilya Bryzgalov’s footsteps creeping closer and closer to Jean-Sebastien Giguere until the time of his waiver release to Phoenix and we may even be witnessing Jonas Hiller relegating the latter to 1B status.
Many expect the same scenario to play out in Toronto, where incumbent starter Vesa Toskala will face strong competition from the much-heralded Swedish monster, Jonas Gustavsson.
With both the late-blooming Vezina winner Tim Thomas and fellow Michigan native Ryan Miller invited to camp, it is less clear who the 1A is and who must settle for 1B, and probably won’t be until round-robin play has concluded.
Kings rookie Jonathan Quick cannot be forgotten, but with a youthful team seeking leadership from the net out, he will most likely be on standby once elimination is at stake.
Fortunately, it seems that the team can’t go wrong with handing the reigns to either netminder, as whoever is chosen will be pushed to play his best by his partner.
With the luxury of deploying either one or both of arguably the NHL’s best defensive duo for almost the entirety of every game, Burke set up his defensive pairings in Anaheim much like his goaltending, with two almost equal units and a third pairing simply providing a reliable stopgap while the top four rested.
The Maple Leafs may not have a Scott Niedermayer or Chris Pronger-caliber defenseman, but they do have more overall depth, meaning the bottom duo should receive more ice time.
Similarly, while the US may not have a truly elite defenseman on their side, they do have good overall depth.
Anchoring the American blueline is veteran Brian Rafalski, who has shown the past two seasons that he can hold his own while playing over twenty-three minutes a night with a top tier partner in Nicklas Lidstrom.
Other prime sources of offense from the backend include Nashville’s Ryan Suter, New Jersey’s Paul Martin, Atlanta’s Ron Hainsey and Edmonton’s Tom Gilbert, who are all capable of manning the point with the man-advantage.
They’ll face competition for those four power play positions from Anaheim’s Ryan Whitney and St. Louis’ Erik Johnson, two players who had off years statistically due to injuries (with Johnson missing the entire season), but posses something the previous group is generally lacking – imposing size.
The general lack of mass is more than made up for by a stay-at-home squad led by recent Stanley Cup Champions Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi. The now former NHL teammates provide a steadying influence by keeping their games simple. Like Orpik, Mike Komisarek has a hard shot but an even harder hit ready for any opposing player who crosses his path.
Burke is a notorious fan of this physical brand of hockey, though the bruising duo may have to be reigned in every now and then with their penchant for taking themselves out of position by chasing a check.
Rounding out the defensive corps are Jack Johnson and Tim Gleason, who can not only play shutdown roles, but are also capable of the occasional offensive contribution.
The most intriguing group going into orientation camp is the mixed bag of forwards that’ll likely follow Burke’s structure of two scoring lines, a checking line and a utility line, though he did allude to the possibility of having three offensive trios.
Vying for the six to nine scoring positions are a wide variety of skaters, including a lineup of centers with great hockey sense.
The most offensively-gifted of these pivots are Scott Gomez of the Habs, Joe Pavelski of the Sharks, Paul Stastny of the Avs and the Canucks’ Ryan Kesler, who has already boldly predicted an American victory over its rival to the north. The latter two are equally adept on the defensive side of the puck and will likely join veterans Chris Drury and Mike Modano as candidates for centering the bottom two lines.
Perhaps the fiercest competition for roster spots will be amongst the deep well of wingers.
Leading the goal-scoring department is a trio of fleet-footed forwards from the East in Zach Parise, Phil Kessel and David Booth. Coming out of the West and using more of a gritty style to put the puck past the goalie are Bobby Ryan and David Backes.
One of them will have a great setup man on the opposite side in the form of Patrick Kane, who is as good as it gets as a playmaker on the wing.
Jamie Langenbrunner and Ryan Malone have both shown glimpses of offensive talent, but their production tends to be inconsistent and their versatility may better suit them for the bottom half of the forward lines, anyway.
While the remaining flankers are also capable of putting up points, they’ll likely have to gear their games towards taking advantage of their other talents.
Ryan Callahan and T.J. Oshie are tireless workers who use their constant hustle to make them two-way threats despite their general lack of size.
Kyle Okposo is just as tenacious yet less proven, though that may change if he is paired with John Tavares for the first half of the season in Long Island.
Finally, Dustin Brown and Dustin Byfuglien share more than just first names, as both love to lay on the big hits.
A quick glance at the 34-man squad that partook in Team USA’s Olympic orientation camp this past week in Illinois may lead one to believe that the only similarity it has to the legendary group that earned both a literal and symbolic victory almost thirty years ago is the simplistic yet classic-looking uniforms.
Looking closer reveals another story, however, as this team has the same mix of heart, hunger and promising skill to overcome both its own general lack of experience and the better-on-paper clubs that they will face in Vancouver.
While the 2010 games may not have the same level of political intrigue as 1980s Miracle on Ice, the torch has clearly been passed on to a group who could have as much influence on the next generation of stars that will one day wear the stars and stripes.