The U.S. and Canadian Olympic hockey teams each have different areas of strength and uncertainty heading into the Sochi Winter Olympics. The U.S. squad is loaded with strong goaltending choices, but doesn't have quite the depth of big names on the backline that the Canadians enjoy. Team Canada has so many accomplished defensemen to choose from that it will have to leave some All-Stars at home, but its choice of goaltenders, especially the starter, will come with a question mark.
Look at the netminding corps available to Team USA: Buffalo's Ryan Miller was the best player on the ice for the U.S. squad at the 2010 Vancouver Games, yet after a couple of tough seasons, he may not make the team at all this year. Miller has simply looked worn out and tired -- he made more saves than any NHL goaltender in 2013 and, at 33, is the oldest player on the U.S. list of invitees. Buffalo's failure to improve has clearly irked him and he became the subject of trade rumors. Could an Olympic appearance spark him again?
Jonathan Quick was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 2012 and he looked untouchable through two rounds of playoffs for the Kings this spring. Ottawa's Craig Anderson and his new dental work were stellar during the early part of the postseason and it's hard to ignore his regular-season numbers (.941 save percentage; 1.69 goals-against average). Detroit's Jimmy Howard has been very steady during the past two seasons and could end up being Team USA's top goalie by February. Beyond those three, New Jersey's Cory Schneider may not get enough playing time with the Devils to make his case for U.S. GM David Poile.
Then, we have a wild card.
Could Tim Thomas, just a couple of years removed from his Vezina Trophy/Stanley Cup campaign with the Boston Bruins, be in the mix? Thomas would like return to the NHL ranks, according to his agent Bill Zito, and if he regains his old form that would make him Olympics-worthy and he could still be added to the roster even though he isn't on the preliminary list.
Are these team invite lists considered a drop-dead final group of candidates? Not necessarily. Final rosters aren't due to the IOC until Dec. 31, so if a player suddenly emerges from the shadows with a surprising first three months of the season, he could be added.
"Nobody made the 2010 Olympic team based on orientation camp, nor were they eliminated," said Poile. "Just because player is not at this camp doesn't mean they won't make the Olympic team ... We are going to make decisions based on who is playing best in October, November, December. Our list goes well beyond the 48 players invited to orientation camp."
As a point of reference, Jarome Iginla wasn't on Canada's preliminary group announced in advance of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, but after he got off to a superb start with the Calgary Flames that season, Canada's GM, Wayne Gretzky, added him to the roster for what would be the first of two Olympic gold medals. Iginla scored three goals in the tournament. In 2010, Boston's Patrice Bergeron was a late add to Canada's champjonship roster.
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Both Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy were commanding figures in net for Team Canada; one a Hall-of-Famer, the other sure to follow in his first year of eligibility. But now where does the team turn? Corey Crawford emerged as an ace goalie during the Blackhawks' run to the Stanley Cup, but he has no international experience. Roberto Luongo led the team to gold in 2010, but his reputation has wilted under a barrage of talk about his propensity for allowing of bad goals. The issue of his bloated, untradeable contract has also tarnished him. Mike Smith, Carey Price or Braden Holtby could make for good choices if their regular seasons are strong enough, but a starting goaltending post for a hockey-mad country at an Olympics may be too much to ask of any of them.
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On the other hand, Canada's defense corps is simply stacked. No less than nine candidates have been a first or second team All-Star. That list includes Kris Letang, P.K. Subban, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Mike Green, Dion Phaneuf, Shea Weber, Dan Boyle and Alex Pietrangelo.
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The list doesn't include Chicago's Brent Seabrook, who is likely to make the team with regular defense partner Keith. GM Steve Yzerman has said his traveling roster will include 14 forwards, eight defensemen, and three goalies. Some good people -- Green? Boyle? Pietrangelo? Phaneuf? -- will have to stay home.
The U.S. defense includes Ryan Suter, who is a lock to be on the team. But there are no other real certainties, nor players who can really take advantage of the larger European ice surface by joining rushes or making solo dashes up the ice. Poile acknowledged that Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien was an intriguing candidate and someone his staff would "have to get to know" better (i.e. can a former power forward fit into a system that adjusts to the larger surface?).
"He's a wildcard," said Poile. "He's never participated on any of our teams."
Some more notes about Team USA:
Even with no guarantee of NHL participation at the Pyongchang Winter Olympics in 2018, the U.S. group includes some young very young players who may have their best international games well ahead of them. "There is a strong future component to this team we didn't have in 2010," said Poile. Three players are under 20: Winnipeg's Jacob Trouba, Montreal's Alex Galchenyuk, and Nashville's Seth Jones. "The pool is deeper now," said Poile. "More quality, not quantity, it's quality." Jones and Trouba haven't played in an NHL game, nor has goalie John Gibson, an Anaheim draft choice who has international experience at various levels but now sits at the back of the team's depth chart.
The 2010 preliminary camp included a list of 34 players, compared to 48 this year with players pulled from 24 NHL teams. There are eight Stanley Cup-winners in the group, a relatively small number. Both Poile and Yzerman emphasized that this team would have to be built for the larger ice surface that has traditionally favored European teams. Canada topped the U.S. in the 2010 gold medal game on the smaller North American rink in Vancouver. Sweden defeated Finland on the larger rink in Turin, Italy, in 2006. Yzerman specifically referenced lessons learned in Turin, when Team Canada didn't fare as well and was outskated and knocked off in a 2-0 loss to Russia during the tournament's quarterfinals. Poile said he would seek advice from former players such as Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin, both skilled veterans, -- he wouldn't say "somewhat slower" forwards -- who had trouble adjusting to the larger European ice. In past years, Poile said, "The catchwords were truculence, grit. Our philosophy has to change a bit on the larger ice surface."