February 9, 2014

Olympic Preview: Five quick questions for Team USA

By Jesse Connolly

Hamden, Conn., native Jonathan Quick is likely to see at least some of the starting role in Sochi. (Getty Images)

1. Who gets nod in net?

With a four-month gap between the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final and the start of the following NHL season, any goaltender who backstops his team to within a win of a championship can feel pretty confident his job is safe. With a four-year window between Olympic Games, a lot can change from one tournament to the next.

Ryan Miller was the tournament MVP in 2010, but after a rocky stretch for his Buffalo Sabres and the emergence of other elite U.S.-born netminders in Jonathan Quick (Hamden, Conn.) and Jimmy Howard (Ogdensburg, N.Y.), and strong performances to start the 2013-14 campaign from Hockey East alums Cory Schneider (Marblehead, Mass.) and Ben Bishop, Miller went from the 2010 starter to the 2014 backup to a player in danger of being left off the roster entirely.

It took 3½ years for things to hit such a low point, but in just a few short months, Miller swayed opinions back in his favor. The Michigan State product stood on his head for a last-place Sabres club after a tough start to the campaign. In the final month before the U.S. roster was named, Miller went 5-2-1 with a 1.82 goals-against average and .948 save percentage, all while the presumed starter, Quick, continued to rehab from a groin injury.

After a so-so start to the season, the Kings star goalie returned to the crease in January and went 4-2-2 in his first eight starts, allowing just 13 goals. One would think that’d be enough to hold off Miller, who vaulted his way back up the depth chart, but there are other factors to consider. Quick proved capable of clutch play on the big stage with his Conn Smythe-winning performance for the Cup champion Kings in 2012, but unlike Miller, he doesn’t have any international experience. Hockey’s hockey, as they say, but if there’s any sort of adjustment period, that could open the door for Miller to reclaim the throne.

2. Big ice, big burden?

There’s been plenty of talk about a larger ice surface hindering the two North American participants in this tournament. An NHL rink is 200 feet long and 85 wide, with goal lines 11 feet from the boards. Most European rinks are 210 by 98, with goal lines 13 feet from the boards.

That doesn’t sound like a monumental difference, but the results speak for themselves. In the last two Winter Olympics on North American soil (Salt Lake City, Vancouver), Canada won gold and the U.S. won silver. Neither nation medaled in Nagano in 1998 or at Turin in 2006. The United States’ combined record in those two tournaments was a woeful 2-7-1.

“It’s not a coincidence,” Team USA GM David Poile told the Associated Press. “The game is different on bigger ice. The angles are different, the shooting lanes are different and you have to position yourself differently.”

Poile and the rest of his staff have built a team that, on paper, should be better suited for the expanded playing surface than their predecessors were, with a great blend of skill, size, strong two-way play and, most importantly, speed. Oh, and hopefully a high level of endurance, too.

“I always felt you couldn’t maintain the same energy that you can on a smaller rink, where you can get places quicker,” three-time Olympian Bill Guerin (Wilbraham, Mass.) said. “There’s a lot of skating on the big ice. When you’re chasing a defenseman into the corner, you have to chase him an extra five or 10 feet. That’s a long way to go. When you have defensive-zone coverage, there’s a lot of real estate out there.”

3. Any roster regrets?

The United States’ clear intention was to pick the best players for the task at hand, not necessarily the best American-born players. As such, there were a few major omissions.

Bobby Ryan (Cherry Hill, N.J.), who’s on track for his fourth career 30-goal season, was among those left off the roster. An inside look at the selection process from ESPN’s Scott Burnside featured some pretty pointed comments about the Senators winger.

“He is not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary,” said Brian Burke (Providence, R.I.), Team USA’s director of player personnel. “It’s never going to be in his vocabulary. He can’t spell intense.”

Ryan, who also was criticized for his lack of speed, was expected to be back after skating for the U.S. in 2010. Defenseman Keith Yandle (Milton, Mass.) was expected to make his Olympic debut in Sochi, but the Coyotes blueliner was left off the roster for fear of him being a defensive liability. Yandle has ranked among the game’s top-scoring defensemen over the last five seasons.

Sans Ryan and Yandle, the Americans are willingly sacrificing two of their most offensively gifted assets in favor of safer alternatives. One can see the reasoning behind such bold decisions, but only time will tell if they were the right ones.

4. Can D get it done?

Offensive questions aside, Team USA will be relying on a group of eight blueliners that features six first-time Olympians.

Ryan Suter is the clear-cut No. 1 D-man on the back end, as the 2013 Norris Trophy finalist for the Wild will be relied on heavily. BC product Brooks Orpik is the only other returning rearguard. In addition to their lack of international experience, only three (Orpik, Ryan McDonagh, Paul Martin) of the eight defenders have reached the conference finals or beyond in their NHL careers.

Quite simply, the Red, White and Blue are a tad green on D.

If the Americans want an automatic bid to the quarterfinals, they’re probably going to have to beat out Group A foe Russia, which is loaded up front. The U.S. defense is going to have to jell quickly and waste no time getting acclimated to their surroundings, the bigger ice surface and the big stage they’re playing on.

5. Will duos deliver?

Like the Canadians, the U.S. is banking on a few NHL partners in crime having success together in Sochi. Chief among them is James van Riemsdyk (Middletown, N.J.) and Phil Kessel, who flank Tyler Bozak on Toronto’s top line. The two forwards had combined for 43 goals through the 50-game mark. If presumed first-line wingers Zach Parise and Patrick Kane (Buffalo, N.Y.) shine again, the U.S. will be awfully dangerous if van Riemsdyk and Kessel bring their chemistry with them overseas.

U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma will have to decide on a partner for Suter at the top of the D depth chart, but one pairing you can all but guarantee he’ll be banking on is Orpik and Martin. When healthy, the two form a solid shutdown tandem together for Bylsma’s Penguins. They were a combined plus-31 during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Orpik and Martin leads Pens D-men in shorthanded ice time and will face some formidable man advantages this tournament.

Projected fourth-liners Dustin Brown (Ithaca, N.Y) and Ryan Callahan (Rochester, N.Y.) aren’t NHL teammates, but the two forwards are practically carbon copies on the ice, where they wear the ‘C’ for the their clubs. The large ice surface tones down the physicality in a tournament that revolves around skill, not toughness, but that doesn’t change the roles these two are expected to play. Brown and Callahan will be counted on to be effective on the forecheck and serve as disrupters. Part of that will be predicated on the fellow New York natives doing what they do best: dishing out big hits.

A look back at 2010

How massive of an overhaul did the United States undergo from its 2006 roster to the one it iced in 2010? Only two players — Chris Drury (Trumbull, Conn.) and Brian Rafalski — who went to Turin returned for the Vancouver Games, as a bevy of mainstays were replaced by a generation of up-and-comers. They sure made the future look mighty bright.

Team USA went 3-0 in group play, including a 5-3 win over Canada. After a 2-0 win over Switzerland in the quarterfinals, a 6-1 blowout over Finland propelled the Americans to the gold-medal game.

Parise tied things at two with 25 seconds left, forcing OT. Sidney Crosby tucked a shot past Miller 7:40 into the extra session, as the U.S. settled for silver.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Subscribe to our digital edition for free at hockeyjournal.com/free.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ

Email: jconnolly@nyhockeyjournal.com