As stated before, as the tournament progresses, it will be less and less likely that the Americans can out skate their opponents. The US needs to play a physical game low on style points, and high on toughness. The smaller North American rink will encourage that to some extent, but the team needs to force such an approach.
In these low scoring games, fewer mistakes beat more great plays. Special teams will be extremely critical, as will experience and leadership. Here is a look at the forwards that should get a passport ready for February.
1. Dustin Brown – LA
The captain for the 2009 World Championships, Brown has amassed 20 points and 36 penalty minutes for his international career (including Juniors). The Kings captain might well be wearing the “C” again for Team USA. It’s hard to imagine Brown not being one of the first players on Burke’s list.
Brown is second among US born NHL players in hits this season, and will be used to set the tone for the type of game the US wants to play. With the use of a North American sized rink this year, look for more physical games that international play usually provides. This will suit Brown as well as anyone.
2. Patrick Kane – CHI
Perhaps the most skilled player on the potential roster, Kane could be groomed to be a captain in 2014 if his game continues to progress.
Kane was successful in international play at the 2007 World Juniors and in the 2008 World Championships. If there is plenty of grit and toughness around him, which there should be, Kane could be the player to make the highlight plays for Team USA. It’s hard to imagine a lot of success for the United States without a solid contribution from Kane.
3. Zach Parise – NJ
Parise is already halfway to another 30-goal season, which would be his fourth straight. An impressive feat anywhere, it is even more impressive in a system like New Jersey’s that emphasizes defense and puck control versus taking a lot of shots. Last season, Parise was third in the NHL in goal scoring. Expect him on the powerplay unit for Team USA.
4. Ryan Malone – TB
If the Red, White, and Blue are truly seeking toughness, just watch the puck Ryan Malone took to the face in game five of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals in Detroit. Then remember that he came back, still without a visor. If Team USA wants to win ugly, he could be the most attractive candidate at forward.
While not the most skilled on the team, there’s no one better available to plant in front of the opposing goaltender on the powerplay. His 18 goals thus far aren’t always highlight material, but they have all gone in the scoresheet. Malone should be a perfect fit for the type of team being assembled.
5. Jamie Langenbrunner – NJ
The New Jersey captain is a two-time Stanley Cup winner and a former Olympian (1998). He also played international hockey as recently as 2004 on the World Cup team. He’s saved his best for the biggest moments through the course of his career, emphasized by his 12 career game winning goals in the playoffs.
Langenbrunner is a candidate to be a captain on this year’s squad, although probably a dark horse candidate behind Dustin Brown.
6. David Booth – FLA
If Booth doesn’t make the roster, it would only be due to the Mike Richards induced concussion that has had him on the shelf since October. If he returns as expected in January, it shouldn’t be an issue. However, since the selection will be made before his return, it might way into the minds of the power brokers. I would suspect his talent makes him worth the gamble, particularly since he should be 100 percent by February.
Booth had a 31 goal season last year, and was a member of the 2008 World Championship roster.
7. Bill Guerin – PIT
While some have suggested that Guerin wear a “C” for the Olympics, I can’t really see him taking the honor over Brown, Langenbrunner, or Rafalski. Guerin does add a bit of professionalism, and can mentor the young leaders in the same way he has assisted Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. He’s lifted cups and played internationally at the highest level. That combination is tough to find and puts Guerin on the roster.
8. Ryan Kesler - VAN
We need at least one Vancouver player on our side, right? Kesler makes this team for many reasons, but none more important than his ability to take face-offs. No American born player has won more this year, and his percentage is impressive from either side of the goalie.
Kesler also brings a physical presence and will be placed against the opposition’s scoring lines as often as possible. He will be another fixture when the Americans are shorthanded.
9. Phil Kessel – TOR
Kessel simply has too much offensive skill to be left off the squad. He’s been in a bit of a slump the past two weeks, but he netted 36 goals last season and should come close to that number again this season in Toronto. He is no stranger to international competition, having scored six goals in seven games in the 2008 World Championships,
Additionally, if needed, Kessel, Kane, Langenbrunner, and Parise would be my shootout selections in that order.
10. Paul Stastny – COL
Like teammate Anderson, another very pleasant surprise on the most surprising team in the NHL. Arguments can be made that other forwards are better hockey players and are left off, but the US team is deeper at wing than at center. Finding a center who can distribute is a necessity, and that makes Stastny a logical selection.
11. David Backes – STL
Another prototype of what this team needs to look like to win in Vancouver, Backes scores goals and is not afraid to stick his face into dangerous places. He won’t back down going against the best defensemen in the world, and will bring energy and grit to the roster. Naturally a wing, he can also take a key face-off if needed.
I expect Backes and Malone to log major shorthanded minutes as well. If Backes can stay out of the penalty box himself, he’ll be an asset to the quest for a medal.
12. Tim Connolly - BUF
Another creative playmaker on the team won’t hurt, and Connolly’s nine powerplay assists have captured some attention. He can play shorthanded and take draws, but he probably won’t be asked to do either on this team. With more focus allowed to him on the offensive end, he should be able to take the puck cleanly into the zone, and set up his powerful wingers for a few ugly goals.
13. Dustin Byfuglien – CHI
The Blackhawks might as well host their own Olympics. Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp could all end up representing team Canada, and Patrick Kane is a lock for the US squad. Cristobal Huet would be a lock for the French team, if only they were participating. With all of that talent skating around, it can be easy to overlook (or misspell) Byfuglien, despite his ten goals thus far.
He has very quietly had a fantastic season at the offensive end, and would be my pick to slip into the last roster spot. If Ryan Callahan or Chris Drury slip into this slot instead, which is not impossible, I would read that as a move for shorthanded depth. However, with Langenbrunner, Backes, Kesler, and Malone already on board with good penalty killing prowess, I’ll take Byfuglien’s offense over either the two struggling veterans.
With this roster, the Americans will hardly be favorites, but they’ll have achieved the goal of being a team that no one wants to play against. If they can get a few bounces, avoid key mistakes, and get some solid goaltending, this group might return to their NHL clubs with stories, bragging rights, and a little heavier around the neck.