With the March 2 deadline for countries to name their initial 16-man roster just six weeks away, let’s take a look at how the American entry for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey is shaping up:
Max Pacioretty — Tyler Johnson — Patrick Kane
Zach Parise — Joe Pavelski — Blake Wheeler
Bobby Ryan — David Backes — Kyle Okposo
Jason Zucker — Ryan Kesler — T.J. Oshie
Center is clearly an area of concern. Johnson is a good bet to anchor the top line, but a string of injuries has left him unable to build on last year’s breakout campaign with Tampa Bay. Healthy now, he has to prove himself up to the task with a strong second half. Pavelski might be the team’s best offensive pivot, but his two-way ability is what makes him invaluable. Backes and Kesler are question marks. Both have size and front-line experience, but neither has set the world on fire this season. Derek Stepan of the Rangers could grab one of these spots.
There’s an abundance of speed and skill on the right side, but the left could have spots up for grabs. Pacioretty and Parise are locks. The most intriguing option is Zucker, whose speed and grit make him a natural for the penalty kill or when the team needs an energy boost. Ryan, who famously was left off the 2014 Olympic squad after being dogged by Brian Burke, deserves a look, even on his off wing. Brock Nelson and Kyle Palmieri are also in the mix.
Phil Kessel slides onto the roster as the 13th forward simply because despite his underwhelming performance for Pittsburgh this season he’s too dynamic to leave off entirely. The potential is there for him to move into a top-six role. The question is: Will he do enough to earn that opportunity? While he’s a strong choice, Team USA’s brass may want a little more versatility in that role, which could open a spot for natural centers like Paul Stastny, Nick Bjugstad or even Brandon Dubinsky, a favorite of Team USA/Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella.
Ryan Suter – John Carlson
Ryan McDonagh – Justin Faulk
Cam Fowler – Erik Johnson
The Americans don’t lack for depth in their own end, and a nice left/right balance should make for a highly effective unit. The right side is beastly, with Carlson and Faulk capable of wreaking havoc at five-on-five and on the power play. Suter, a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate this season, will chew heavy minutes and anchor the PK. McDonagh hasn’t been particularly sharp this season, and he could be left out when the first group is announced, but his experience makes him a near lock. Johnson is currently out with a knee injury, but he has been enjoying a solid season for the Avalanche. Fowler has great wheels and offensive instincts, but is emerging as a strong shutdown defender. Byfuglien is the wild card. Even with a stacked right side and no crying need for his heavy shot on the power play, his presence alone might be worthy of an invite. His ability to chip in up front helps, too. Torey Krug was tough to leave off. He, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nick Leddy and Jeff Petry could play themselves into the final mix.
With two Stanley Cups and an outstanding performance in Sochi on his resumé, Quick might be the favorite to get the starting job for the Americans. But don’t count out Schneider, a player whose consistent excellence gets overlooked while playing for the dishwater Devils. He’s held his opponents to two goals or fewer in 28 of his 39 appearances. Bishop got the Lightning to within two wins of the Cup last spring and has a sub-2.00 GAA this season, the only American to play more than 20 games who can make that claim. This trio gives Team USA three very capable starters and a group as deep as any in the tournament.