The best available, not the best possible.
That will be the standard refrain for Team Canada when it begin its title defense at the 2008 World Junior Championships against the host Czech Republic on Dec. 26. With at least six world-class forwards -- Jonathan Toews, Sam Gagner, Jordan Staal, Milan Lucic, David Perron and James Sheppard --unavailable due to NHL commitments, Canada is a bit dry in the top talent department.
In the past, these missing-man formations have largely been a Canadian dilemma. Not anymore. It speaks volumes about the advances made by USA Hockey that the 2008 American team will be absent the services of three front-line players. When Team USA's 22-man lineup is revealed live during Tuesday night's Versus telecast of the Red Wings - Canadiens game, there'll be no sign of Patrick Kane, the NHL's leading rookie scorer, and Peter Mueller, who likely would have lined up as Kane's center on the first line, and blueliner Erik Johnson, who was named the top defenseman at last year's tournament in Sweden.
While the presence of that talented trio would have had the Americans in line to challenge for gold after an impressive third-place finish in 2007, rookie coach John Hynes should still be handed a roster capable of medal contention at the annual event that features the best under-20 players in the world.
In the past, these rosters have featured their share of surprises, usually as a result of political infighting for which USA Hockey was notorious. Fortunately, that doesn't seem to be an issue this year, and that means the best American-born players, and not just the best players who play in America, will be on hand.
Well, most of them, anyway.
Here are the 22 names we expect to wear the red, white and blue in Liberec and Pardubice:
Mark Arcobello (draft eligible, 2008): Yale's leading scorer may be small (just 5-9), but he brings a gritty, physical game that the Americans will need to challenge the favorites
Mike Carman (Avalanche, 81st overall, 2006): Academic suspension kept him out of the Minnesota Golden Gophers' lineup for the first half of the season, but his lunchpail ethic and experience from the 2007 tournament make him a good bet to return
Blake Geoffrion (Predators, 56th overall, 2006): With his game back on track at Wisconsin, this returnee will be asked to play a more offensive role than in 2007.
Kyle Okposo (Islanders, eighth overall, 2006): Although he's struggling along with the rest of his Minnesota teammates, this power forward is expected to be the focal point of the American offense.
Max Pacioretty (Canadiens, 22nd overall, 2007): The freshman has earned a role on second-ranked Michigan's top line with his physical play along the boards and soft hands in front of the net
Aaron Palushaj (Blues, 44th overall, 2007): The Michigan freshman is the top rookie scorer in the CCHA thanks to some fearless play down low. Elite instincts with the puck and a great work ethic should trump his skating issues
Rhett Rakhshani (Islanders, 100th overall, 2006): Don't be put off by the late pick. The smallish winger led all Americans in scoring at their summer evaluation camp and is one of those rare players who seems to make something happen every time he hits the ice
Garrett Roe (undrafted): The diminutive (5-8, 160) St. Cloud State playmaker ranks second on the NCAA's rookie scoring list (22 points in 14 games).
Tyler Ruegsegger (Maple Leafs, 166th overall, 2006): He's a bit of a dark horse because of his suspect skating, but scouts rave about his competitive nature and two-way reliability
Bill Sweatt (Blackhawks, 38th overall, 2007): Blazing speed should make this Colorado College winger a fixture on the checking line
Eric Tangradi (Ducks, 42nd overall, 2007) Massive center (6-3, 207) has some offensive tools, but his skating and tenacity make him ideal for a shutdown role with Team USA.
James VanRiemsdyk (Flyers, second overall, 2007): Dominating as a rookie at New Hampshire (6 goals, 15 points in 12 games), he'll be a fixture on the power play.
Colin Wilson (draft eligible, 2008): The best collegian available in next summer's draft, according to Central Scouting. Wilson is a more skilled version of his father, former NHL grinder Carey Wilson.
Jon Blum (Predators, 23rd overall, 2007): The top rearguard for the defending Memorial Cup champion Vancouver Giants of the WHL, Blum is a strong skater with high-end passing skills and a knack for strong positional play.
Zach Bogosian (draft eligible 2008): The big blueliner will gain valuable experience en route to a larger role on next year's team. He's impressed in the early going with the Peterborough Petes of the OHL, scoring 25 points in 23 games.
Jamie McBain (Hurricanes, 63rd overall, 2006): The sparkplug of the Wisconsin Badgers offense will be asked to play a strong two-way role as a returning vet.
Ryan McDonagh (Canadiens, 12th overall, 2007): Offensive-minded defender could team with fellow Badger McBain on the second pairing.
Kevin Montgomery (Avalanche, 110th overall, 2006): His speed and transition skills will be major assets on the big ice in the Czech Republic
Bobby Sanguinetti (Rangers, 21st overall, 2006): USA Hockey has passed on worthy major junior players in the past, but it would be self-defeating to overlook a potential power play quarterback. Sanguenetti has 17 goals and 40 points in just 28 games with Brampton of the OHL.
Kevin Shattenkirk (Avalanche, 14th overall, 2007): The Boston University star has captained two previous US international entries. His leadership and two-way skills could have him on the top pairing.
Josh Unice (Blackhawks, 86th overall, 2007): The rookie has backstopped the Kitchener Rangers to the No. 1 ranking with an OHL-leading 2.22 GAA and three shutouts.
Jeremy Smith (Predators, 54th overall, 2007): He beat out Czech national team goalie Michal Neuvirth for the top job in Plymouth thanks to an OHL-leading .933 save percentage.