No Patrick Kane, no Auston Matthews, no problem? Team USA knows it won’t have any current NHLers for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, but the organization still has high expectations for itself.
The Americans revealed their brain trust Friday, with University of Wisconsin coach Tony Granato leading the charge behind the bench and USA Hockey’s own Jim Johannson as the GM. For Granato, the challenge of bringing together players from Europe, the AHL and college is a fun one and he’s not discounting a pseudo-Miracle on Ice if they face the full cohort of KHL stars from Russia.
“It’s about respecting your opponent and knowing different countries are taking a different approach to building,” he said. “The Russians are an elite powerhouse at every level, but we expect to compete for a medal.”
Granato will bring a heavy crew of coaches with him – Ron Rolston, Keith Allain, Scott Young and NHL Hall of Famer Chris Chelios. The common denomination for Johannson was that all of those minds are fierce competitors, but they’ve also been involved with the national program before.
“When we got into this, I wanted everything to be USA Hockey,” Johannson said. “I want this to be USA Hockey, I want it to feel USA Hockey.”
The Granato choice is interesting, since there were a couple notable names on the market – Dan Bylsma and Ron Wilson have both coached Team USA in the past, for example. But Johannson and Granato go way back; they were actually teammates with the Wisconsin Badgers. And there is an enthusiasm for this project that is obvious.
“As you might expect, I’m unbelievably honoured,” Granato said. “I am more than excited to get this underway.”
The challenge is unique. Johannson clearly stated that no current NHLers will play for the team. So the squad will be made up of Americans playing in Europe, guys on AHL contracts and college players. Johannson said he has already spoken on the phone with 80 or 90 potential candidates, plus one NHLer who may retire before the season begins (I am completely speculating on my own here that it’s Matt Cullen, but I could be wrong). The brain trust doesn’t have any particular mix in mind, but they do have a philosophy.
“We want a skilled team,” Johannson said. “The game is all about skating today. We’re gonna get up and down the ice.”
Granato echoed that sentiment and he believes that the team will be able to find enough skill to build a deep team and it will certainly be interesting to see what kind of names emerge. Steve Moses of KHL St. Petersburg comes to mind, while Jordan Greenway (the Minnesota Wild pick) of Boston University seems like another potential winner. The Deutschland Cup in November will be a big evaluation opportunity for the Americans playing in Europe, while the staff will naturally keep an eye on the North American-based candidates all season long. Granato and the other NCAA coaches (Allain still heads up Yale, for example) will stay with their teams for most of the season, though the Deutschland Cup will be an obvious exception.
Will it all be enough to medal? This will be a very difficult Olympics to handicap, but it’s hard not to look at the Russians as favorites, especially if someone like Alex Ovechkin goes rogue on the NHL and decides to head over.
But even without the usual starpower, the U.S. architects don’t think it will be too hard to convince fans to get engaged. What should American supporters do?
“Turn on the TV,” Johannson said playfully. “It’s the Olympics.”