By Allan Muir
Bobby Ryan won't be going to Sochi. Neither will Keith Yandle, Ben Bishop or Jack Johnson.
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Those are the type of talents that would have been no-brainer choices as recently as eight years ago, core players around which a U.S. Olympic team would have been built. So the fact that they weren't among the 25 players who were named today to the 2014 team that heads to Russia next month highlights how far American hockey has come over the past decade ... and how difficult the decisions were for general manager David Poile and his staff.
So, how does the final (barring injuries) squad stack up?
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In net, the Americans are likely to rely on 2010 hero Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres). The MVP of the Vancouver Olympic tournament might be playing even better hockey coming into this year's event, and he gives Team USA a confident, veteran presence with a proven ability to steal games. The health of Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings) makes him a wild card, but his Stanley Cup experience from 2012 secured his spot. Jimmy Howard (Detroit Red Wings) was a surprising choice, given that he was sidelined most of December and wasn't playing particularly well when healthy, but his body of work gave him the edge over the relatively inexperienced Bishop.
On defense, there's a nice mix of skill, size and poise, along with some young legs to key the transition game on the big ice.
Ryan Suter (Minnesota Wild) is in a class by himself, a player who will likely skate close to 30 minutes against top opponents. He could be paired with Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis Blues), a potent weapon in transition, or Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers), whose game is more well-rounded. Paul Martin (Pittsburgh Penguins) is still rehabbing an injury, but he and Brooks Orpik (Pittsburgh Penguins) have proven chemistry. They'll be expected to handle a shutdown role.
John Carlson (Washington Capitals) and Cam Fowler (Anaheim Ducks) are known for their offensive skills, but they've shown this season that they can play a responsible game in their own zone as well. They could be slotted comfortably on any of the three pairs, but look for Carlson to play an expanded role as the tournament progresses. Justin Faulk (Carolina Hurricanes) is a terrific skater who plays a smart, positional game and should slot in as the team's sixth defenseman.
Up front, the Americans have probably the deepest group they've ever iced. It's loaded, albeit small, on the right side with Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), Phil Kessel (Toronto Maple Leafs) and T.J. Oshie (St. Louis Blues), which probably made 6-foot-5, 205-pound Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg Jets) a more appealing choice to play a depth role. He's quick, too, and is coming off a 10-goal December, which makes him America's hottest sniper.
The left side looks dangerous with Zach Parise (Minnesota Wild) a first-line lock if his foot is good to go, and net-crashing James van Riemsdyk (Toronto Maple Leafs) a valuable option on the second line and power play. Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings) and Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens) are likely to be on the third and fourth units with Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers) sliding in to provide character and leadership.
The biggest concern might be the depth at center. The team doesn't have a bona fide No. 1, but Ryan Kesler (Vancouver Canucks) has the size and tenacity to assume the position. Joe Pavelski (San Jose Sharks) is the team's Swiss army knife, a player who can (and will) fit into any role as need dictates. He'll play on all four lines and both special teams before the tournament is over. Paul Stastny (Colorado Avalanche) could handle second-line duties, with Derek Stepan (Rangers) giving the team some offensive versatility in a bottom-six role. No one would suggest that it's a high-end group, but the work ethic is there for it to be solid and efficient.
Even in a deep field, the Americans look to be legitimate contenders for gold.
James van Riemsdyk
(* denotes member of 2010 Olympic team)