We are now less than one year away from the 2014 Olympics in Sochi Russia. The crown jewel of the games will undoubtedly be the Men’s Hockey Tournament. While it is not yet confirmed that the NHL will allow their players to compete, it does seem very likely. Previously at Last Word on Sports we had Grant Alexander project the lineup for defending gold medalist Team Canada. We also had Maksim Vasilyev project the roster for the hosts, Team Russia. Today I will continue through the tournament, putting together an early projection for Team USA’s 2014 lineup, who lost the gold medal final in Vancouver in heartbreaking fashion on Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal. Team USA will head to Sochi looking to capitalize on recent success at the Under 18 and World Junior Championship levels, and win their first Olympic Gold since the 1980 Olympic Miracle on Ice.
Note that the announcement has been made that teams can carry 25 man squads instead of the old 23 (but only 22 can dress for any game). With this format I have gone with 3 goalies, 8 defencemen, and 14 forwards. 1 goalie, 1 defenceman and 1 forward will find themselves in the press box in each game.
Starter – Jonathan Quick
#2 – Ryan Miller
#3 – Craig Anderson
Winning teams are built from the net out, and team USA will have a great headstart in goal. They will have the deepest goaltending in this tournament as we have cut players like Jimmy Howard, and Cory Schneider as there is just too many quality American goaltenders right now for them to make the team. In the third string spot, we have Craig Anderson, who arguably has been the best goaltender in the NHL this season. In the number 2 spot we have Ryan Miller, the starter from Vancouver, and best player in that tournament. He’s been up and down since that time, but you can’t knock his talent or the Olympic experience. In the starter’s spot, I have selected Jonathan Quick who was marvelous last season in leading LA to their first Stanley Cup and winning the Conn Smythe. He’s been steadily improving every year in the NHL, and now its his time to shine.
Ryan Suter – Erik Johnson
Suter is undeniably the leader of this defence corps. Boasting a solid game in both ends of the rink, Suter will be used in all situations. Able to play close to 30 minutes a night come playoff time in the NHL, expect the same from Suter on the Olympic team even with the players surrounding him on defence. He’s the workhorse, the PP quarterback, and the number 1 penalty killer. Erik Johnson is a good defenceman, but he’s not ideal on this first pair. If there is one weakness in the US team it is that it lacks defenders who play on the right side, and EJ is the best of the bunch. He’s a big man who skates well enough for his size and plays a two way game. My concerns are that he sometimes has a tendency to make bad decisions with the puck on his stick, and will need to improve his decision making or be hurt on the big ice.
Ryan McDonagh – Kevin Shattenkirk
Ryan McDonagh has proven his worth playing on the New York Rangers’ shutdown pairing with Dan Girardi. He is very much like Ryan Suter-lite in that he is good in all aspects of the game, capable of providing top notch defensive skill, and penalty kill work, and also bring some offense with solid passing and shooting skills. Shattenkirk is known for his offensive skill scoring 43 points in each of his first two NHL seasons. He is improving all the time in St. Louis, especially in the defensive end of the ice. I think he’ll be ready for a top 4 role in the Olympics and have put him with the steady McDonagh which will allow him to utilize his best skills leading the rush and making great passes. Both players on this pairing are excellent skaters, and this will have huge benefits on the bigger ice in Sochi.
Matt Carle – Jack Johnson
Carle has developped into a strong defender over the last few years, and even finished 15th in the NHL in blocked shots last season. He’s always had a decent offensive game, and has now come into his own as a defender as well. He showed last season that he could do well at even-strength despite not having Chris Pronger beside him. Jack Johnson has really improved after being traded from Los Angeles to Columbus. While his defensive game still needs work, he has improved his defensive coverage, and his first pass ability. His strength is still his very good skating ability, and offensive game. The skating and mobility on the big ice is a big reason he makes this team.
7th D – Dustin Byfuglien
Byfuglien will provide this squad with a powerplay specialist with a booming slapshot. He is a very quick and agile skater, especially for someone his size and is a threat to go end to end on any given rush. He can also be a big hitter. I have put him at 7th as he can be a liability defensively at times, especially in his positioning and decision making. He provides added versatility in that he can play forward if injuries become an issue.
8th D (press box) – Keith Yandle
The Coyotes defender is another great skater. As you can see, I’m putting a huge premium on this ability, especially on defense, given the bigger ice surface. Yandle also has a booming slap shot and one timer. His defensive game is all about his great mobility, and a quick , active stick. Don’t expect Yandle to throw a lot of big hits, but on this squad, and in this tournament he won’t have to. Instead it will be that mobility, and quick puck moving ability that will be utilized if he’s pressed into service. If Yandle was a Right Handed defenceman, or capable of playing the same level of game on the right side (something we’ve never seen from him), he’d be in the lineup already. But being solely a guy used on the left, he unfortunately starts in the press box since he can’t replace one of the Johnsons.
Zach Parise – Paul Stastny – Patrick Kane
Kane and his Chicago Blackhawks have been destroying the NHL this season. The most purely talented offensive player on this squad, he’ll be expected to lead the offence, and will be an easy choice should any games go to a shootout. Zach Parise is a pure goal scorer who plays a strong two way game, and got a big contract in Minnesota because of that, along with his leadership ability. Expect Parise to be USA’s captain. Paul Stastny is a slick set up man, who can skate with the speedsters on either side, he’ll be looking to set up his linemates in the offensive zone. The speed of this line will be a key.
Max Pacioretty – David Backes – T.J. Oshie
Pacioretty has really blossomed as a goal scorer and as a power forward. He was USA’s best player in the 2012 Men’s IIHF World Championships after scoring 33 goals for the Montreal Canadiens last season, and will be given a big role on this squad. He teams with St. Louis teammates and linemates Backes and Oshie on a line that combines both skill and grit. Backes is a rugged powerful centre, and Oshie might not be as big as his linemates, but he plays a gritty game and is a very good playmaker for these two goal scorers. They can all skate, and have good defensive ability as well. Team USA will not be scared to use this line in any situation.
James Van Riemsdyk – Joe Pavelski – Phil Kessel
JVR and Kessel have shown great chemistry in Toronto, with JVR scoring the goals and Kessel (somewhat surprisingly) turning into more of an assist man. However with Kessels great shot and release, I have a feeling he’ll become a sniper again before long. Pavelski has always been a versatile offensive player for the Sharks, and on Team USA, I’ve moved him back to his natural centre position to lead this line. Little Joe can be both a playmaker or a goal scorer, and I expect him to revert to a more playmaking role on this line.
Bobby Ryan – Ryan Kesler- Dustin Brown
This may be my “4th line” in terms of the listing, but they will play heavy, heavy minutes, as they will be Team USA’s shutdown line. Kesler and Brown are excellent checkers, and have great two way ability. I know Kesler has had injury issues, but this tournament is a year away, plenty of time to solve those problems and find his game. He’s an elite checker in the NHL and a Selke winner. Brown showed off his ability to play a two way game in captaining the Kings to the Stanley Cup. He’s a powerful hitter who loves to play the body. Bobby Ryan joins them, and he’s got a ton of pure skill. Its funny to think of these three guys as a checking line, because they will also be a threat to put the puck in the net if the guys they are checking make a defensive mistake.
Extra: Ryan Callahan
The Rangers captain is a gritty heart and soul warrior who will do whatever it takes to help his team win. He can fill in killing penalties or getting to the front of the net on the Powerplay. He has the great versatility to fill in on a scoring or checking line. This versatility is always important in the 13th forward on these international squads.
Press Box: Derek Stepan
In looking at my first 13 forwards, I realize that this team will face more issues if there is an injury to a Centre, than they will if there is an injury to a winger. It will be easier for them to replace an injured winger. As such, I took the next best American pivot and put him in the press box. At this point that is Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers, a young player who continues to improve. However this spot is no sure thing, as continued improvements of a player like Alex Galchenyuk could see him pushing for a spot in one year’s time.
This team has plenty of NHL Captains, former NHL captains, and alternates. Certainly they won’t be short on leaders, but we need to choose a captain and two alternates. Give the important roles they will play I’ve choosen to give the Captain’s “C” to Zach Parise, with David Backes getting an alternate’s “A”, and Ryan Suter getting the other “A”.
So there it is, my picks for Team USA’s 2014 Olympic Team. Who would you have picked? How will they fare in Sochi? Feel free to leave your comments below.