Building the Best Team USA for a World Cup of Hockey in 2023

Adam GretzMarch 28, 2023

Building the Best Team USA for a World Cup of Hockey in 2023

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    NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 21: Jack Hughes #86 of the New Jersey Devils skates in the first period of the game against the Minnesota Wild on March 21, 2023 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images)
    Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

    The success of the World Baseball Classic this spring has reignited the thirst for a best-on-best international men's ice hockey tournament.

    We have not seen a World Cup of hockey since 2016, while NHL players have not participated in the Winter Olympics since the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. So it has been a while since we have seen something like that take place.

    Just for fun, let's pretend for a little bit that there was going to be a World Cup of Hockey this year and what a Team USA roster might look like.

    This might be the deepest talent pool the Americans have had in years, if not ever, and it is loaded with stars at forward and in goal, with a couple of Norris Trophy-caliber defensemen to lead the blue line and a trio of outstanding goalies to back them all up.

The Forwards

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    BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 19: Tage Thompson #72 of the Buffalo Sabres skates onto the ice against the Boston Bruins during an NHL game on March 19, 2023 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
    Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

    First line: Matthew Tkachuk - Auston Matthews - Alex DeBrincat

    Second line: Jason Robertson - Jack Hughes - Kyle Connor

    Third line: Brady Tkachuk - Tage Thompson - Jake Guentzel

    Fourth line: Johnny Gaudreau - Jack Eichel - Clayton Keller

    Extras: J.T. Miller, Joe Pavelski

    This group would be by far the strength of the roster, and would probably be the best overall position group outside of whatever forward combinations that Team Canada puts together.

    The United States would be especially strong down the middle with Auston Matthews, Jack Hughes, Tage Thompson and Jack Eichel going four deep.

    Matthews is the easy answer as the top center as he is one of the best goal scorers and offensive players in the league when he is 100 percent healthy. Behind him, Jack Hughes has rapidly blossomed into a superstar for the New Jersey Devils while Tage Thompson is a force a player that blends a nearly unmatched combination of imposing size and sublime scoring talent.

    On the left side, the Tkachuk brothers, Matthew and Brady, are easy choices for spots on the top-three lines. Matthew is the perfect combination of skill, production, physical play and that little bit of an edge that makes him so absolutely infuriating to play against. Brady is just a slightly lesser version but still a sensational player in his own right. He is now a 30-goal winger and has scored at a point-per-game rate this season.

    Things get a little thinner on the right side where Alex DeBrincat is a strong choice for top-line duty. We are also going to play Kyle Connor and Jake Guentzel on their offside to get more scoring punch in the lineup. Connor is not scoring at the same rate he did a year ago when he hit the 47-goal mark, but he is as steady of a 30-goal scorer as you will find in the league. He has averaged a 38-goal pace per 82 games since the start of the 2017-18 season.

    Guentzel is known for riding shotgun next to Sidney Crosby for most of his career, but he is an outstanding player in his own right independent of his center. He deserve a spot on this roster.

    Clayton Keller might be the most surprising name on the roster, but he has been a hidden gem in Arizona the past couple of years. Since the start of the 2021-22 season he has 64 goals, 79 assists and 143 total points in 141 regular season games played. That is a 37-goal, 83-point pace over 82 games without the luxury of having a legitimate top-line center to play alongside. Put him next to playmakers like Johnny Gaudreau and Jack Eichel and he could really excel.

    J.T. Miller and Joe Pavelski also bring a lot of flexibility as extra options that can play up and down the lineup, down the middle, or on the wing if needed.

The Defensemen

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    NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 21: Adam Fox #23 and K'Andre Miller #79 of the New York Rangers react after the third period against the Carolina Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden on March 21, 2023 in New York City. The Hurricanes won 3-2. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    First pair: Jaccob Slavin - Adam Fox

    Second Pair: Quinn Hughes - Charlie McAvoy

    Third Pair: Zach Werenski - John Marino

    Extras: Mattias Samuelsson, K'Andre Miller

    This might be the weak link of this roster, but it is still very good. Especially when it comes to the top defenders on the right side where Adam Fox and Charlie McAvoy are as good as you will find in the NHL.

    Fox already has one Norris Trophy on his resume, and it is not hard to imagine a scenario where he wins another one at some point in his career. He play in every situation, bring a ton of offense from the back end, and run a power play. A top pairing of Fox and Slavin would be a tremendous top-pairing that could log huge minutes against any team's top line.

    McAvoy might not have the same scoring punch as Fox, but he is one of the best defensive players in the league and would be a wonderful complement to Quinn Hughes on the second pair. Hughes takes heat for his play defensively at times, but he is way better than he gets credit for being (he is far from a liability back there) and is as productive as any other defensemen in the league.

    There is a bit of a drop-off from the top-four to the second half of the defense, which is where the U.S. roster might get exposed a little bit.

    Zach Werenski is a very good and productive player when healthy, while John Marino has really started to reach his full potential with the New Jersey Devils. Honestly, you could probably slot in any of Werenski, Marino, Mattias Samuelsson and K'Andre Miller into a third pairing and have it produce similar results. They are all very good players, even if not All-Star level players.

The Goaltenders

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    LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 25:  Connor Hellebuyck #37 of the Winnipeg Jets in the second period at Arena on March 25, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    No. 1. Connor Hellebuyck

    No. 2. Jake Oettinger

    No. 3. Jeremy Swayman

    This is another position of strength for a hypothetical U.S. team, and one that would give them a chance pretty much every night.

    Connor Hellebuyck has spent most of his career playing behind a sub-par defensive team that exposes him to one of the league's heaviest workloads on a yearly basis. He faces a ton of shots, he plays a ton of minutes, and he is still consistently among the most productive goalies in the league.

    Of the 62 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games since the start of the 2017-18 season (Hellebuyck's first year as a full-time starter) his .917 all-situations save percentage ranks ninth in the NHL during that time. He also has a Vezina Trophy on his resume and two other top-four finishes (including a runner-up in the voting during the 2017-18 season).

    He is a worthy starter for this squad.

    Behind him the U.S. could have two the league's top rising star goalies in Jake Oettinger and Jeremy Swayman. Neither has quite the track record that Hellebuyck does in terms of games played or experience, but they are both off to sensational starts to their careers.

    Both are in their third year in the NHL, and are already looking like top-tier NHL goalies.

    Oettinger really burst onto the scene in the first round of the playoffs a year ago when he nearly single-handedly stole a first round series for the Dallas Stars, posting a staggering .954 save percentage in the seven game matchup with the Calgary Flames. Nobody should ever expect him to maintain that sort of play long-term, but he has been a key part of the Stars' climb to the top of the Western Conference.

    Swayman is one half of Boston's game-changing duo alongside Linus Ullmark. He has only played 83 regular season games in the NHL, but his .920 save percentage during that time puts him among the league's elite.

    If any of these three had to start a game for the U.S., they would give the team an excellent chance no matter what else is happening with the roster around them.