It's been 20 years since Team USA last won a men's best-on-best tournament. Twenty years of almost, not quite and not even close.
Dean Lombardi is ready to change that.
The man in charge of assembling Team USA for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey has until May 27 to finalize his roster. By the time he's done making his final seven selections, he'll have a team capable of winning it all.
This group won't boast the generational talent that helped America capture the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. But there's a larger pool of talent from which to choose, and that means he'll have the depth to go toe-to-toe with any team at the tournament.
That's a luxury for Lombardi. But it also means he faces tougher choices than any American GM before him. There will be some very good players left at home.
Here's who I think makes the cut:
The Final 7
Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning: Funny how things work out. Johnson may have been left off the original list of 16, but he's likely to end up as Team USA's top center at the World Cup. Currently second in postseason scoring for the Lightning (17 points in 16 games), he brings speed, smarts and offensive creativity to what looks to be the weak spot on an otherwise stout American roster.
Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins: It's not a question of taking him—it's where you put him. As his playoff run with the Pens proves, Kessel thrives in a depth role, but he might need to step up here. Not that that should be a problem With nine goals and 18 points through his first 17 games this spring, Kessel is a point-per-game playoff scorer for his career (18 goals and 39 points in 39 games). On top of that, he is coming off a terrific tournament in Sochi (5-3-8 in six games) where he was named top forward and was Team USA's most dangerous player against Canada.
David Backes, St. Louis Blues: If there were any questions about his value, he's answered them with his playoff performance. He's a big body who can get the forecheck going and he's a fearless net-front presence. That could be critical on a power play that features Dustin Byfuglien winding up from the point.
Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils: There are a number of solid options for the final spot, including Paul Stastny of the Blues, Kyle Okposo of the Islanders and Cam Atkinson of the Blue Jackets, but Palmieri is the best fit for the role. A 30-goal scorer during the regular season (tied for fourth among US-born players), he brings some sweet mitts and a decent amount of grit and versatility to fill out a bottom-six slot on the wing.
Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes: His omission from the Group of 16 was simply a matter of numbers. Blueliner Faulk has represented the US at three World Championships and a Olympics over the past five seasons, so he has the experience. He's a tremendous skater and plays a very detailed game, making him the sort of player who can be sent over the boards in any situation.
Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis Blues: A veteran of the Sochi squad, he's a skilled puck mover who can help generate and maintain possession from the back end.
Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks: Gets the nod over backliner Matt Niskanen by virtue of being a left-handed shot, something this squad needs. Fowler hasn't produced big numbers of late, but he plays an offensive-minded game and brings experience from Sochi.
So, how might the pieces all fit together? Here's a look at our projected lines/pairings.
Max Pacioretty—Tyler Johnson—Blake Wheeler
Zach Parise—Joe Pavelski—Patrick Kane
Phil Kessel—Derek Stepan—TJ Oshie
Justin Abdelkader—Ryan Kesler—Kyle Palmieri
Ryan McDonagh—John Carlson
Ryan Suter—Justin Faulk
Cam Fowler—Kevin Shattenkirk