2010 Winter Olympics: Team USA, Men's Hockey: The Defensemen
Team USA has won just one ice hockey medal at the Winter Olympic Games since the "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid 30 years ago.
If they really want to challenge the superpowers of Sweden, Finland, Russia, and Canada, the puck has to stop here.
The defense is actually fairly offensive-minded with good overall size, and it features a mixture of veterans (Brian Rafalski, Brooks Orpik) and talented up-and-coming stars (Erik Johnson).
Team USA will undoubtedly miss the New Jersey Devils' Paul Martin, who was forced to pull out of the Olympic squad on Tuesday after failing to recover from forearm surgery at the end of last year. His replacement Ryan Whitney will have a difficult job filling the void Martin leaves, but his experience at the World Juniors will serve him well.
News out of the Team USA camp on Wednesday revealed Mike Komisarek also lost his battle with a shoulder injury, giving the American team two key personnel decisions to make. Tim Gleason of the Carolina Hurricanes is his replacement. I have included both men in this slideshow, along with information about the men who will be taking their roster place in Vancouver..
For news on these injuries click here.
Here are the defensemen who will be protecting Ryan Miller and the Team USA net.
Current Team: St Louis Blues
In just his second season in the NHL, Johnson is the least experienced of Team USA's defensemen in terms of professional playing time.
That said, the top overall pick in the 2006 entry draft will add strength to the United States' defensive line with a sought after combination of size and speed through the neutral zone.
After missing the whole of last season recovering from knee surgery after a freak golf cart accident tore his ACL and MCL, the 6’4” defenseman from Bloomington, MN., has averaged just over 21 minutes of ice time in the 2009-10 season. He has played in all but two of the Blues’ 55 games this year, and he has recorded 25 points on four goals and 21 assists.
Johnson helped America to the bronze medal at the 2007 World Junior Championships in Sweden, and he won the Best Defenseman Directorate Award after racking up 10 points in seven games. He scored the game-winning goal against hosts Sweden in the third place game, and he became the first defenseman to lead the tournament in scoring.
Johnson played more than 100 games for the National Team Development Program between 2005 and 2006, and he was a part of America’s U18 team which went undefeated in winning back-to-back World Championships in 2005 and 2006.
Current Team: Los Angeles Kings
Hard-hitting Jack Johnson, now in his third full NHL season, is one of three LA Kings to make the Team USA Olympic roster.
A first round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, the rights to Johnson—who was still committed to college—were traded to the Kings in a move that sent Tim Gleason and Éric Bélanger away from the west coast.
The University of Michigan alum is one of the more experienced defensemen on the Olympic roster. He won a silver medal at the 2004 U18 World Championships in Minsk, and he was a member of the 2005 team that won gold the following year in the Czech Republic.
He was also named to the All Star team in the World Junior Championships four years ago in Vancouver, and he took a bronze medal home from the WJC in 2007. More recently he led Team USA with five goals in the 2009 World’s.
Johnson was the most penalized player in the 2005 tournament, averaging almost six penalty minutes per game, reinforcing the aggressive game he displayed as a freshman at Michigan that same year when he set a single-season school record for penalty minutes with 149 in 38 games.
Last season, Johnson missed 41 games with a shoulder injury, but still tied all Kings’ defensemen in goals (six) and powerplay goals (three). He also scored three shootout goals, tied for the most by any NHL blueliner.
The 23-year-old from Indianapolis is averaging 23 minutes of ice time per game this year. He is a capable passer with soft hands as well as a d-man not afraid to land a big hit. Couple that with his two-way style of play and he is an important part of Team USA’s plans in Vancouver.
Current Team: Pittsburgh Penguins
Orpik was fittingly named after Olympic coach Herb Brooks who led America to their “Miracle on Ice” 30 years ago. Now, eight Winter Games and three decades later, Orpik will try to help Team USA to another gold medal.
The first round pick by the Penguins in the 2000 draft is currently just one assist shy of his career high mark of 17 (set last year), and he ranks sixth among all NHL defensemen with 178 hits.
But despite decent ice time, Orpik has only three multi-point games this season. On an Olympic team that is pretty aggressive offensively though, this may not necessarily be a bad thing. He will likely compliment the shooters on the squad well.
Orpik, one of just four Stanley Cup Champions on the Olympic roster, represented Team USA at the 2006 World Championships, and he skated with the team in the Junior Championships in 2000.
Current Team: Detroit Red Wings
Rafalski is the veteran blueliner of the Team USA squad. He is the oldest member of the hockey team at 36 years old, and, at 5’10”, is the smallest of all the American defensemen.
He has won three Stanley Cups in five finals appearances, twice for the New Jersey Devils in 2000 and 2003 and once for the Red Wings in 2008. He is also a three-time Olympian, having played on the 2006 team that disappointed in Torino and the more successful silver medal team that competed at Salt Lake City in 2002.
In between the Winter Olympics, Rafalski contributed three assists in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, but the American team fell 2-1 to Finland in the semifinals. In the 1990s, Rafalski, from Dearborn, MI., represented Team USA at the World Championships and World Junior Championships.
This season he played in his 700th career game at Pheonix, and he will enter the Winter Olympics in good form having recorded six points (2-4-6) in his last 10 games dating back to Jan. 16.
Rafalski, who played in Finland and Sweden before coming to the NHL 10 years ago, sees a lot of ice time for the Wings (24:20 average in 2009-10) so expect him to be a key figure leading the Olympic line in front of Ryan Miller.
Current Team: Nashville Predators
Suter comes from a strong hockey background, bringing international experience and an eye for goal to the Olympic lineup.
The son of gold-medal winning Bob Suter, Ryan was drafted seventh overall in the 2003 entry draft by the Predators.
He first represented Team USA at the U17 level in 2002, and he really shone in the U18 World Junior Championships that same year, recording seven points (1-16-7) in eight games. Suter and Team USA won both tournaments.
After a second consecutive U18 call-up the following year, Suter went on to skate for the United States in the 2003, 2004, and 2005 World Junior Championships. In 2004, Team USA took home the gold medal from Finland with a 4-3 victory over Canada. In 2003 and 2005, the USA lost in the bronze medal match, first to Finland and then to the Czech Republic in overtime.
This season for the Predators, Suter ranks inside the top 10 defensemen with a +14 plus/minus rating, and inside the top 20 for minutes played. He has skated at least 20 minutes in 102 consecutive games, dating back to the 19:53 he played against Dallas on Dec. 18, 2008.
He is not a prolific scorer, but he will put in a large number of shifts for Team USA. Suter is one of the more decorated defensemen on the roster, and NHL.com reports that in addition to 58 international games, he has also appeared in 121 games with USA Hockey’s Team National Development club.
Paul Martin (Injured)
One person who we know won't be competing for Team USA is 28-year-old puck mover Paul Martin. The New Jersey Devils' defenseman was selected to the Olympic team with the hope that his forearm would have recovered quicker from surgery than it actually did.
He still hasn't played a game since the surgery last December and he announced on Monday that he would have to pull out. It is sad news for Martin who was looking to make his first Olympic appearance after being named as an unused reserve in Torino four years ago.
Unfortunately for Team USA, he has the international experience that could have been a difference maker at the Winter Games. He led all US defensemen with eight points in the 2008 World Championships, and he also skated with Team USA at the 2001 World Junior Championships, the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, and the 2005 World Championships.
Current Team: Anaheim Ducks
Paul Martin was replaced this week by Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Whitney. Whitney has four years of NHL experience behind him as well as an impressive international resume that includes scoring five points in seven games in the 2002-03 World Junior Championships, 20 games in the National Team Development Program, and a series of appearances at the 2001 U18 World Juniors.
The former first round pick from the 2002 draft class already has as many assists this season (21) as he did last year with Pittsburgh and Anaheim, and he will provide another attacking option for Team USA in Vancouver.
He ranks second among Ducks' d-men in goals, tied second in points, and he ranks shots (100).
He turns 27 years old during the Olympic Games, so he'll be looking for more than just reason to celebrate when the puck drops.
Mike Komisarek (Injured)
The second d-man to pullout of the Olympic team is Mike Komisarek.
Komisarek has not played since injuring his shoulder in a game a month ago at Calgary. Team GM Brian Burke had not given Komisarek a definite timeline to be ready by, but with only four Maple Leaf games left before the trip to Vancouver, time was always against the Maple Leaf.
A final test on Wednesday knocked Komisarek out of the Team USA squad, and the news that he needed surgery on his shoulder also puts him on the shelf for the rest of the season.
The long-time Montreal Canadien moved west last summer, choosing to ply his trade as an alternate captain in Toronto.
Now in his seventh season in the NHL, Komisarek is known for his stay-at-home brand of defending that revolves around hard hits and few offensive forays.
He has never scored more than 19 points in a single NHL season, so people weren't expecting him to contribute much in the way of goals or assists in Vancouver anyway. That said, what he lacked in scoring, he would have made up for in experience and leadership on Ron Wilson’s Olympic team.
Komisarek, who would have been a first-time Olympian, skated for Team USA at the U18 World Junior Championships in 2000, and he was also a member of the American squad at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships that lost in the quarterfinals to Canada in 2001 and Russia in 2002.
In 2006 the then-Canadien represented Team USA at the World Ice Hockey Championships in Latvia where the United States finished seventh, getting shut out 6-0 by Sweden in the quarterfinals.
Current Team: Carolina Hurricanes
Gleason was named as the second replacement to the red, white, and blue this week. He's in his sixth year in the NHL, his fourth full year in Carolina after a move from the Kings in 2006.
Like Whitney, Gleason has international experience to draw on in Canada, most notably his participation in the World Cup of Hockey two years ago. He also played in the World Junior Championships as a 17-year-old, although he received significantly less playing time in the 2003 championships, playing in just one game.
Gleason, who took part in the Team USA Olympic orientation camp last fall, is known as a gritty defender who blocks shots and lands hits. He's more of a stay-at-home defender who is more likely to be racking up minutes in the penalty box than he is to be lighting the lamp at the other end of the ice.
That said, he has improved his offensive awareness over the last few years, and he has already scored as many goals in 48 appearances this season (five) as he recorded in his previous 207 games in a Hurricanes' jersey.