Sochi 2014: United States Olympic Team Review
EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of RotoWire’s Olympic Preview for the 22nd Winter Olympiad, we have asked six of our hockey writers to review each team in depth to analyze each team’s strengths and weaknesses, and what they think their chances are for winning the Olympic gold. Make sure you check in each day this week for a new team preview.
Four years ago, the United States suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss on a seemingly innocuous forecheck in the corner of its own zone. Sidney Crosby went into the corner, the puck fell to Jarome Iginla, Sidney Crosby wheeled around, received a pass and beat Ryan Miller five-hole for the gold. The US had tied the game up in the dying moments thanks to Zach Parise, erasing the 2-0 deficit. That was Vancouver.
Heading to Sochi is a blended group of NHL forwards, a heady mix of talent, grit and potential. A group who will need to reach the medal round in a deep tournament to further establish itself as a contender on the world stage. Despite their hideous sweaters (although, they’re not the only one with eyesores for togs), the United States will need what every team needs to succeed: a hot goaltender and group of players who carries the team offensively. With the US having come so close four years ago, this team enters the tournament with the expectation of success, not the crushing weight Canada and Russia have, but expectations of success nonetheless. Accompanying the expectations are a healthy amount of question marks.
Centers: 7 / 10 (8 / 10 if Pavelski is full-time center)
The United States certainly isn’t hurting for grit down the middle with their top two centers projected to be David Backes and Ryan Kesler. Both players can be physical forces and hurt opponents offensively, playing with the type of edge that will be needed to keep the US in the game. Factor in the remaining centers of the squad and this list doesn’t terrify the opposition as does that of Canada’s or Sweden’s. This group will look much stronger if Joe Pavelski is guaranteed time down the middle and not play on the wing. He’s one of the league’s hottest scorers heading into the Olympics and they will need all the goals they can get in this tournament. Rounding out the group is Paul Stastny and Derek Stepan of the Rangers, a surprise selection to many. Goals will not come from this group too often.
Wingers: 8.5 / 10
The theme of steady two-way players continues for the Americans considering the presence of T.J. Oshie, Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan. As for pure scoring wingers, the team isn’t hurting much in that department with Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Max Pacioretty and James van Riemsdyk. This group is versatile enough to be mixed and matched with a variety of centers and shows little hesitation about shooting the puck. Kane is having a career season while Kessel is playing a point-per-game. One of the only downsides to this group of forwards could be that they lack a pure playmaker, save for the likes of Blake Wheeler. Plenty of players can dish the puck when needed, but it’s not a group with the likes of assist machines that other squads offer. Goals will be at a premium and they’ll need production from the lower lines.
Defense: 7 / 10
Now we get to the potential hole in the lineup of the United States. It’s not that this group isn’t a talented collection, they’re just a bit green or recovering from injuries sustained during the season. Three of the group was born in 1990 or later (John Carlson, Cam Fowler and Justin Faulk) while Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk were also born while George Bush Sr. was in office. It’s no secret that Ryan Suter may never leave the ice for the United States; he’s the lone stabilizing presence with Olympic experience. Brooks Orpik is the other returning defender on the team’s blue line from Vancouver while Paul Martin missed the 2010 games with a broken arm. Both Martin and Orpik have been dealing with injuries this season for Pittsburgh while Faulk and Fowler are enjoying the best seasons of their young career. McDonagh and Shattenkirk offer the team a steady set of two-way defenders, both of whom are producing solid offensive seasons.
However, much of the discussion around the defense when the team was announced centered on who wasn’t on the roster: Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Keith Yandle and Dustin Byfuglien.
As in the Stanley Cup playoffs, power-play production will be paramount. There is no shortage of puck movers in this group, but if the team struggles making outlet passes and producing on the power play, there has to be a concern that a player like Yandle or Byfuglien (currently a forward for the Jets at even strength), could have helped. Byfuglien’s all-around game left a little to be desired in the brass’s eyes, as did Yandle’s. Both are in the top eight of defensemen scoring in the NHL, yet their combined minus-29 rating probably did not sit well.
Goaltending: 9 / 10
Jonathan Quick has shown little signs of rust since returning from a month-long groin/hamstring injury and Ryan Miller has played solidly in front of one of the league’s less talented groups in Buffalo. Quick is capable of carrying a team and covering up holes in their lineup, as he did in 2012 when the Kings won the Cup. Miller is capable of playing out of his mind in the Olympics, as we saw in Vancouver. Factor in Jimmy Howard and you have a trio as strong as any group in the tournament, a trio of players who will be even more important to their team given some of the anticipated issues with the United States’ defense.
*Should Howard’s knee injury prove worse than anticipated, expect New Jersey’s Cory Schneider or Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop to get the call for the spectator spot.
The Americans certainly can contend for a medal, but they’ll be tested early as Russia is in their preliminary group along with a top-heavy, but talented Slovakia squad while Anze Kopitar and Slovenia round out the group.