Updated Projection for Team USA's 2022 Olympic Men's Hockey Roster

Franklin Steele@SteeleOnIceFeatured Columnist IIINovember 10, 2021

Updated Projection for Team USA's 2022 Olympic Men's Hockey Roster

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    It would be an understatement to say Team USA's roster outlook has changed dramatically since we last took on this exercise in February. At that point, Jack Eichel's neck was healthy, and he was a lock to center one of the squad's top two lines. Now that seems like a long shot, as NHL insider Scott Burnside told The Daily Faceoff Show earlier this month.

    Adam Fox was only beginning to emerge as an electric offensive talent on the blue line for the New York Rangers and appeared to be set for, at best, a supporting role. Now he might be one of the most important players on the team as a defenseman who can play in all three zones, run the power play and work on the penalty kill.

    Seth Jones was still skating alongside Zach Werenski with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it still made sense for Ben Bishop to be involved in conversations as a goalie who could make the roster.

    That's a dizzying amount of change over a nine-month span. Toss in the likely shift to Bill Guerin as the team's general manager—there's no question he'd piece together a different roster than Stan Bowman would have—and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are shaping up to be one of transformation for Team USA.

    These projections leave off usual mainstays like John Carlson and Bishop. In their place are younger, more exciting players whom Guerin could prefer over the so-called old guard.

    These lines are our best guesses as to where these players would slot in. Olympic rosters are incredibly fluid, and injuries have made Team USA alarmingly thin down the middle, with Jack Hughes joining Eichel on the long-term injured reserve list because of a dislocated shoulder.

    Here's how we see this roster shaking out when the final team is announced in January.

Goaltenders: Connor Hellebuyck, Thatcher Demko, John Gibson

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    In short tournaments such as the Olympics, a red-hot goalie can be all it takes to win a medal. So to say that Connor Hellebuyck is Team USA's most important player is a bit of a no-duh statement.

    But this roster won't be quite as loaded with offensive talent—at least not compared to who Canada will take to China, a group that will likely include Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid. Team USA won't win any track meets and instead will rely on an outstanding defensive group and stellar netminding in its attempt to win its first gold medal since 1980.

    To wit: If Hellebuyck isn't playing up to his lofty standards, the Red, White and Blue could be in trouble. He's just two seasons removed from winning the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie, though, and finished fourth in the voting a year ago. If that's the netminder who shows up in Beijing, Team USA could surprise despite being the sixth-ranked squad heading into the tourney.

    Backing him up will likely be John Gibson and Thatcher Demko.

    The former has been stuck playing on bad Anaheim Ducks teams for the last few seasons, but they've been surprisingly solid early in 2021-22. There's still a ton of hockey left to be played this year, but Gibson has looked strong in the early going.

    His 5-2-2 record is better than most expected from this team, and his 3.25 GSAA is good for 12th among all goalies this season.

    In September, Eric Stephens of The Athletic wondered if Gibson, 28, could lose his spot to a younger option such as the 20-year-old Spencer Knight. That still seems like a possibility, with the Florida Panthers netminder posting four wins in six games. Still, we think Gibson's track record and veteran status will make a difference.

    That will especially be the case if Team USA calls on 25-year-old Thatcher Demko. He plays with a contagious kind of swagger and knows how to deliver in high-pressure moments. He'd be the perfect No. 3.

Defensive Pairing 1: Zach Werenski and Seth Jones

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    Olympic teams don't have a lot of time to figure out their line combinations, so familiarity can go a long way toward deciding who will play where. That is why Seth Jones and Zach Werenski could skate together during the tourney.

    When the Blue Jackets traded Jones last offseason, much was made about Werenski finally getting to play outside his shadow. We're still hearing a lot about that idea as 2021-22 progresses. Brian Hedger of the Columbus Dispatch wrote about it earlier this week.

    Either way, they should have an opportunity to medal together at the Olympics.

    Both are playing immense minutes for their respective teams. Werenski ranks fourth in average minutes skated, with Jones sitting in sixth. That doesn't figure to change as the year moves forward, either.

    Werenski has evolved into an all-situations defender, quarterbacking Columbus' top-power play unit and killing penalties with the second group. That mirrors the responsibilities Jones has taken on in Chicago.

    Both teams have been in the middle of the pack in power-play effectiveness, while the Blackhawks' No. 4 penalty kill has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise abysmal start.

    The pair also highlight what will likely be Team USA's biggest strength, which is the ability to corral the puck and break it out of the zone quickly. That's always been a hallmark of Werenski's game, and Jones has been strong off the rush in Chicago this year.

    One of the key storylines to watch early on for Team USA when the Olympics roll around will be who the power-play quarterbacks will be. The nation is stacked with offensive-minded defensemen, and Jones has been at his most effective this year while skating on while up a man.

    Five of his 11 points through 13 games have come while playing in this scenario, which is just shy of the eight power-play points he had through 56 contests a year ago.

Defensive Pairing 2: Charlie McAvoy and Adam Fox

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    The prospect of Charlie McAvoy and Adam Fox skating on a pair should be enough to get your blood pumping if you're rooting for Team USA.

    They both play the right side, but there is too much offensive firepower at stake for the Americans to pass on. McAvoy and Fox, both 23, are two of the brightest young defensive stars in the NHL and represent the new wave of blueliners and how they approach the game. 

    That is to say: Neither is afraid to jump into the play, and both are capable rovers who know when to pinch and know when to hold the blue line.

    Fox is the defending Norris Trophy winner as the league's top defenseman and has helped propel the Rangers to near the top of the Metropolitan Division. And he's proving that last year wasn't some flash-in-the-pan performance, either, skating a point-per-game pace through New York's first 12 contests, topping last season's 47 points in 55 games (0.85).

    He plays the right side on New York's power play and spends time on the team's top penalty-kill unit. Fox gives Team USA another defender who can play minutes in all situations and can break the puck out of the defensive zone with the best of them.

    Ditto for McAvoy, who plays the left side on Boston's power play, which has been a top-10 unit in the season's early going. That's also why we have him playing on the left side at five-on-five.

    This probably wouldn't be the pair the Americans would roll out against the opposing team's top lines, with McAvoy, in particular, playing sheltered minutes with the Bruins. As of Nov. 9, he's started 58.9 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. 

    Still, the offensive fireworks that these two could bring make that risk worth it. Along with Jones and Werenski, McAvoy and Fox round out what would be a dangerous, dynamic top four.

Defensive Pairing 3: Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce

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    The 9-1-0 Carolina Hurricanes have been an absolute force this season, and their defense has been a large part of that, allowing just two goals per game. So why not bring two of their best defensemen to Beijing?

    On some other international rosters, Jaccob Slavin's offensive talent would be noteworthy too.

    With the top four we have in place, though, Team USA would lean on him to play tough minutes alongside Brett Pesce. Carolina relied on them heavily against elite competition a year ago, according to PuckIQ.com, and they've been counted on to do the same as their team pushes into Stanley Cup contender status in 2021-22.

    Slavin has received Norris Trophy votes in five consecutive seasons, plays on Carolina's top-10 penalty kill and top-10 power play, and perhaps most importantly, is left-handed. He might be the most well-rounded defenseman we have slated to play for the USA, which is saying something when you consider the talent the team has on the back end.

    Pesce is probably the least known among these blueliners, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't get a spot. Like Slavin, he's versatile and can anchor Team USA's penalty-killing unit on defense.

    The two don't generally play together in Carolina, but they are still familiar enough that it'd make a lot of sense to pair them at the Games. It can't be all offense all the time, and while skaters in the top four are solid in their own ends, this duo has generally been asked to do different things for their team.

            

    Spares: Jeff Petry and Jacob Trouba

    Having these two as spare defensemen would give Team USA a few options to lean on if going all-in on quick transitions isn't working. Jeff Petry has established himself as a fantastic two-way skater for the Montreal Canadiens and had a bit of a coming-out party during the Habs' miracle run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago.

    He notched six assists while throwing 51 hits and blocking 31 shots across 20 playoff games while maintaining positive possession numbers

    The 6'3", 208-pound Jacob Trouba, meanwhile, is a physically menacing presence who would add a good deal of sandpaper to the lineup should the Americans need it. He's among the 20 most active body-checkers in the NHL this year, according to QuantHockey, and plays a dramatically different game from the six defenders we have as the starters.

Forward Line 1: Kyle Connor, Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane

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    It took Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs some time to get rolling, but they appear to have found their footing after a 2-4-1 start. Their No. 1 center has been in the thick of their turnaround amid a 5-1-0 stretch, finding his scoring touch with four goals in his last four contests after notching just one in his first six games.

    Matthews is Team USA's posterboy and is likely a slam dunk as its most complete offensive player. He's one of the most creative shooters in the history of the game, able to fire off wrist shots from angles that bewilder goalies and defenses alike.

    This is why it would make so much sense for him to center a line with Kyle Connor and Patrick Kane.

    Connor is slept on a bit in the United States because he plays for the Winnipeg Jets, but over the last three seasons, only five players have scored more than the wing. And, naturally, one of those skaters is Matthews, who has scored more than anyone in the NHL over that span.

    This setup gives Team USA two of the league's most effective finishers on one line. Canada and Sweden might be deeper, but this trio could be one of the toughest to handle because of its speed and overall skill sets.

    Patrick Kane is one of the game's most creative passers and can find teammates even when it looks like there's no way a seam exists. His 0.81 assists per game over the last three years are good for sixth, making him the perfect complement to Matthews and Connor.

    Speed will be the name of the game at the Olympics as well, and this trio has plenty of that to burn.

    These are three top-line players who skate against the opposition's top lines almost every night, so there's no reason to believe they'd be out of their depth against Team Canada or Russia. And they are also dynamic power-play options.

Forward Line 2: Johnny Gaudreau, Dylan Larkin, Matthew Tkachuk

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    Sticking with the idea that Team USA will look to build around speed, we have two remarkably quick players to go with one of the game's best young power forwards.

    As the season began, it was fair to wonder how the 5'9" Johnny Gaudreau would adapt to new head coach Darryl Sutter's systems.

    He's hit the ground running, scoring at a better than-point-per-game pace while skating on Calgary's top line. Gaudreau has been involved in trade rumors for a while, but currently, it's impossible to think about him playing for anyone but the Flames.

    We have Matthew Tkachuk in place because, along with Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, he's created one of the most effective lines in the NHL this season. Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic recently dove into the league's top lines to start the season, and the Flames trio ranked eighth. 

    If you're Team USA's brass, you can't ignore that kind of chemistry and effectiveness. 

    "A playmaker, a sniper and a power forward—it's the perfect combo and led to 59 percent of the expected goals last season when together," Luszczyszyn wrote when breaking down the Flames' top line. Team USA can't bring the Swedish Lindholm to the Olympics, but it can slot Dylan Larkin into that role and realistically hope for similar results.

    Over the past three years, Lindholm's 0.50 assists per game rank 49th in the league. Larkin is within striking distance of that spot with 0.47, which is good for 55th over that same span. They also have similar goal-scoring rates, with both scoring roughly every third or fourth game they play in.

    They aren't carbon copies of each other as players, but Larkin's speed and vision should give him all the tools he needs to hang with the pair of Flames wings.

Forward Line 3: Alex DeBrincat, J.T. Miller, Max Pacioretty

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    With familiarity binding our Team USA together, we'll hear arguments that Alex DeBrincat belongs on the top line alongside Kane instead of Connor. We love the idea of Kane threading passes to Connor as they blaze through the neutral zone, but he does that with DeBrincat on a nightly basis for Chicago.

    Still, we love the speed, energy and overwhelming shot volume that a DeBrincat-J.T. Miller-Max Pacioretty trio would bring to the ice. 

    Since 2018, only nine players have fired more pucks on net than Las Vegas' Pacioretty. DeBrincat is just shy of cracking the top 25 in that regard, sitting 27th. Miller is the perfect foil for these high-volume shooters, bringing a ton of energy and, yes, anger, to the rink on a nightly basis.

    As Wyatt Arndt recently wrote for The Athletic: "I don't quite know what the term is for what he brings, but it probably lies somewhere within the realm of passion. Angry passion. He's mad when teammates fail. He's mad when he fails. He's mad when the puck ignores him."

    He's the competitive engine that drives the Vancouver Canucks, and if you're Team USA, he's a player you strongly consider giving a letter to—especially in lieu of the longtime American staples we're imploring management to leave at home. That he can play center or wing is a boost to his value as well.

    Miller gives the United States a bit more sandpaper in its middle six, while both Pacioretty and DeBrincat can control play and whip pucks on the goal with the best of them. We love the look of this third line and think it could give opposing coaches fits with its ability to drive play and generate energy.

    A lingering lower-body injury could prevent Pacioretty from competing in the Olympics. If that's the case, Brock Boeser, Miller's linemate in Vancouver, would slot in nicely here.

Forward Line 4: Chris Kreider, Joe Pavelski, Brady Tkachuk

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    The United States has a ton of wings we could see landing on the third and fourth lines. We're trying to imagine an identity for each trio, but it wouldn't be surprising to see USA's management dream up units that look different from these.

    Still, we like what a Chris Kreider, Joe Pavelski, Brady Tkachuk line would bring.

    Pavelski would likely be this team's captain and is called Captain America for a reason. He's been playing wing for the Dallas Stars but spent the majority of his career at center. If Eichel and Hughes are healthy, it'd be difficult for Pavelski to make this team.

    As it stands, though, he might be the best option to work on the fourth line with two players who bring a lot of jam to the ice.

    Tkachuk provides a ton of leadership with his power forward game as well, recently being named the captain of the Ottawa Senators. He'd give head coach Mike Sullivan another forward who knows how to be physical and wear down opposing players with his size, which is important because the defensemen we have selected aren't necessarily the roughest in the league.

    Both of the Tkachuk brothers are, though, and Kreider is a terror in front of the net for opposing goalies. 

            

    Spares: Boeser and T.J. Oshie

    As mentioned, Boeser could slot onto a line alongside teammate Miller and click immediately. That's an option the United States probably isn't sleeping on. And then there's T.J. Oshie, hero of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

    There are other, younger players Team USA could bring, but can the squad really leave that shootout prowess at home, knowing that advancing could come down to his ability to dangle and score? Maybe, but we don't think so.

                

    Statistics accurate heading into play Tuesday and are via Pro Hockey Reference and NHL.com unless otherwise noted.

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