By Allan Muir
This is the sort of problem that USA Hockey always dreamed of having. As it winds down its preparations ahead of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, the club's management is finalizing selections from a talent pool that is deeper than at any point in the country's history, ensuring that the 25 men who are eventually chosen will offer an enviable mix of size, skill, grit and experience. And they'll have the potential to be the greatest ever to wear the Stars and Stripes.
In other words, they won't need to rely on a hot goalie to get them to the gold medal game.
All that talent makes for a challenging selection process, but as this NHL season has played out, the choices have become more clear. Team USA GM David Poile said last month that seven forwards are locks. That number has to be at least 10 by this point. Six of his eight defensive spots should be spoken for. And the goalie race has likely been whittled down to two players battling for the sweet spot in the press box.
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There are a couple of injuries that are throwing some confusion into the mix—Jonathan Quick and Paul Martin, to name two—and there's always the chance that the Hockey Gods might toss another wrench into the USA's best-laid plans. But with about three weeks to go before the final announcement at the Winter Classic, it's likely the only spots left to fill on the roster are the extras.
With that in mind, here's a projection of how Team USA will look on Jan. 1.
First line: Zach Parise-Ryan Kesler-Patrick Kane
Kesler's not the ideal first line center, but all he really has to do in this role is be defensively aware, move the puck, and proceed directly to the net, leaving the creative heavy lifting to the two American wingers who are most capable of taking control of a game.
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Second line: Dustin Brown-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
This fearsome unit could become the most important for Team USA. It might be labeled the fourth line by some, but these men of mayhem will earn heavy rotation, challenged with the task of taking away time and space from the opposition's top scorers and punishing them without prejudice. They'll be fun to watch ... and miserable to play against.
Third line: James van Riemsdyk-Joe Pavelski-Phil Kessel
Pavelski's flexibility means he's likely to be employed on all four lines at some point by coach Dan Bylsma, but he'll spend most of his time between the two Toronto snipers on a unit that will be expected to provide consistent scoring punch.
Fourth line: Max Pacioretty-Paul Stastny-Bobby Ryan
The red-hot Pacioretty (nine goals in his last 10 games) and the sharp-shooting Ryan will be key to a group that aims to create a mismatch against the opposing team's third defense pair. The fleet-footed Pacioretty could add some zip to the penalty kill as well.
Extras: Brandon Saad, Jason Pominville
Saad plays a fast, edgy game and can be slotted anywhere in the lineup. Pominville is equally versatile, and brings veteran experience and a willingness to put the puck on the net.
On the outside: Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Alex Galchenyuk, Chris Kreider, Kyle Okposo, Derek Stepan
Callahan would be the most shocking snub, but anyone who has watched him lately realizes that he hasn't been the same player of late. Without that relentless physical game, he's not as useful to Team USA. Kreider's been playing some fantastic hockey, but 20 games' worth won't earn him an invite.
First pair: Ryan Suter-John Carlson
Suter's importance to this team goes without saying. He could be Team USA's MVP and is a viable candidate to wear the C. Carlson's game has taken a huge leap forward this year while he's been partnered primarily with rookie Nate Schmidt. He's proven he can handle the responsibility of heavy minutes on the top pair.
Second pair: Ryan McDonagh-Kevin Shattenkirk
The skating abilities of this duo make them an ideal pairing on the big ice. McDonagh can handle the shutdown duties, allowing Shattenkirk to rove offensively.
Third pair: Paul Martin-Erik Johnson
Martin's health (broken leg) is an obvious issue, but he's expected to be ready in time for Sochi. He's been Pittsburgh's top blueliner all year and will be a nice piece on the power play. After a couple of years of inconsistency, Johnson has finally found his comfort zone playing the sort of creative game that Bylsma will expect from his defense. Even with limited minutes, he could be an impact player.
Extras: Dustin Byfuglien-Jack Johnson
Johnson is a glue guy who always plays his best hockey in the red, white and blue. Byfuglien's heavy shot and physical presence would give Bylsma an option if he wanted a different offensive look to the back end.
On the outside: Justin Faulk, Cam Fowler, Seth Jones, Brooks Orpik, Keith Yandle
Yandle and Faulk could easily slot into this roster, but their roles are slightly better filled by others. If Martin's unavailable, look for Yandle to get the call. Jones, for all his vast potential, simply isn't ready.
Ryan Miller-Jonathan Quick-Ben Bishop
Miller is experienced, fiercely competitive and highly motivated. If he gets in the zone, the U.S. challenges for gold. Quick is fully capable of assuming the No. 1 role, but to earn the nod he'll have to be healthy and on a roll before the tournament starts. Personally, I'd like to see John Gibson in the third spot, but I get the sense that the American brass is focused exclusively on winning now, rather than prepping someone for four years down the road. And if that's the case, Bishop has done everything possible to prove himself capable of stepping in should disaster strike.
On the outside: Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard, Cory Schneider, Tim Thomas
Anderson has done nothing this season to suggest that he's Olympic quality. Neither, really, has Thomas, who needed to be his old self, and not a reasonable facsimile, to make the cut. Howard is probably still in the mix, and his veteran experience certainly weighs in his favor, but he needs to put together a run of excellent starts to unseat Bishop.