Experience and chemistry are key
To understand just how serious the competition for the World Cup of Hockey will be one need only look to the most recent rules revision.
Just weeks before the rosters were to be submitted for the eight-nation tournament, the organizing members got together and dropped a provision that required three of the 26 players on each team to be under the age of 23.
The intent of the original rule was so each team could bring a trio of up-and-coming players to the tournament. They likely wouldn't play, but they would get a taste of the intensity of the competition and gain valuable experience for future tournaments. It was dropped because several team organizers felt that having more experienced players on the roster, even if they never got a chance to play, would improve their chances of winning.
With the shackles off, Team USA general manager Larry Pleau of the St. Louis Blues and assistant general manger, Don Waddell, who is also the general manger of the Atlanta Thrashers, have their pick of players.
However, both men pointed out the difference between a gold-medal worthy World Cup team and an All-Star team.
"When you bring All-Stars together it's to show the world your most talented players," Pleau said. "When you're trying to win against the best players in the world playing for their country, it's a totally different mind set."
The first thing Pleau and Waddell did was set a tone of importance by putting an emphasis on the recently concluded World Championships, which they finished with a bronze medal. They stressed that players who participated in the tournament would get an extra long look for a spot on the World Cup roster.
"We stressed the importance of that," Waddell said. "We wanted players who would commit to winning as a team and for their country, and those guys did that. People don't realize how difficult it is to win a medal in the World Championships. It's a noteworthy achievement and we felt the guys really came together as a team."
Team USA management plans on emphasizing the same team concept that emerged in the World Championships and blending the best talent, experience, intensity, competitive and, in some cases, combative spirit they can find. Pleau noted that not every player from the World Championships will have a spot on the World Cup team and not every "elite" U.S.-born player would necessarily be on the World Cup roster.
"We want to build a team that will approach it like a playoff series," said Pleau. "To win something like this, your team has to have a playoff state of mind. You've got to approach it like every game like it's the seventh game of a playoff series."
Added Waddell: "You want a team that fits, a team that plays for each other. And if that means adding someone to do a specific job over someone who is perhaps better known, then we're going to take the right person for the job."
So who are the right people? Because Pleau and Waddell wouldn't name names, we took their guidelines and filled in the blanks:
The perfect team: Besides the obvious -- the ability to spot the puck -- Pleau said he's looking closely at mental toughness and experience under pressure.
Team USA options: Mike Richter, a fixture between the Red, White and Blue's pipes, pretty much delivered the 1996 World Cup title to Team USA. But Richter's retirement has exposed an inexperienced -- and small -- cast. That's why Team USA scouts were watching Edmonton Oilers netminder Ty Conklin and Mike Dunham of the New York Rangers at the World Championships, and scouted American-born NHL netminders heavily during the regular season and the playoffs.
Conklin could be in the top three because of his World Championship play. Philadelphia's Robert Esche and Islanders netminder Rick DiPietro are also top candidates. Tampa Bay's John Grahame could challenge for a position, as could Dunham, who has extensive experience in international competitions. There's an outside chance that Garth Snow, DiPietro's backup with the Islanders, and Phoenix's Brian Boucher will earn a spot.
However, in terms of experience, this is not Team USA's strong point and it's likely the starter will be determined by who is playing the best in the preliminary round.
The perfect team: Waddell said the selection committee wants players who can do exceptional things with the puck at a high rate of speed. He also stressed that brains matter as much as brawn, maybe more so in a tournament like this. Playing on the smaller NHL-sized rink instead of the bigger Olympic sheet will open the door to pairings that feature a puck handler who can skate exceptionally well and a physical, stay-at-home type who'll keep the crease clear.
Team USA options: Waddell conceded that while Team USA's defensemen have extensive international experience, they are getting up in years. But, he added, they're not so old that they can't handle a two-week tournament. Detroit's Derian Hatcher and Chris Chelios are senior citizens, but they're also the most experienced and physical of the U.S. contingent so they should have a role. Los Angeles' Aaron Miller and St. Louis' Eric Weinrich also can play a physical game and both had fine auditions at the World Championships. The puck-handling, slick-skating candidates include New Jersey's Brian Rafalski, Detroit's Mathieu Schneider, and Toronto's Brian Leetch and Ken Klee. Boston's Hal Gill, Buffalo's Jeff Jillson and Phoenix's Paul Mara earned praise at the World Championships and could figure in the process. Colorado rookie John-Michael Liles and Calgary's Jordan Leopold are young and inexperienced for this level of play, but both had great NHL regular seasons and represent the future of Team USA. Brett Hauer, who played in the Swiss Elite League this season, also impressed at the World Championships and could be considered a dark-horse candidate.
The perfect team: Pleau stressed the importance of size and experience, while dismissing age as a factor. "Age doesn't hurt fine wine and it doesn't hurt the experienced hockey player either," he said. He also said the mental pressure of the tournament is simply too much to take too many risks on talented but inexperienced players. "We're bringing our team to camp," he said. "We're not doing tryouts, we're picking the best team we can and using the time we have to bring it together as quickly as possible."
Waddell noted the need for two dominant scoring lines, a line that can go both ways equally well and a dedicated checking line with a physical element. He, too, put an emphasis on experience. "International experience counts," he said. "Guys who have been through things like this before and excelled, well, that's something you can't overlook."
Team USA options: There's enough talent here that some big name players might find themselves on the sidelines if they aren't strong on the power play, penalty killing or away from the puck. Philadelphia's Jeremy Roenick, St. Louis' Doug Weight and Dallas' Mike Modano are practically givens. The need for a defensive minded "grind line" as a fourth line opens the door for perhaps Columbus center Todd Marchant over, say, New Jersey's Scott Gomez or Buffalo's Chris Drury, who aren't as strong defensively. The U.S. isn't very deep on the wings, but there's an experienced pool that includes St. Louis' Keith Tkachuk, Detroit's Brett Hull, Dallas' Bill Guerin, Philadelphia's Tony Amonte and New Jersey's Jamie Langenbrunner. A group of less experienced players who could fill slotted roles includes Boston's Mike Knuble and Brian Rolston, Edmonton's Mike York, Atlanta's Shawn McEachern and Ottawa's Bryan Smolinski. Despite his low offensive output in recent seasons, Philadelphia's John LeClair will be given consideration along with a handful of others from the 2002 Olympic team, like Philadelphia's Tony Amonte.
The perfect team: Penalty killing and power play efficiency will be a factor in how games are won and lost. Pleau and Waddell stressed an ability to play defense would be a factor in making the team as a specialty player, more so than pure offensive ability. Wayne Gretzky, the executive director of Team Canada, made a point of saying he wanted talented players who would also accept specific roles, like just being a faceoff specialist, or who wouldn't complain about reduced minutes. Both Pleau and Waddell seek similar attributes but their pool is not as deep as Canada's.
Team USA options: The units will be made up primarily of players listed above, but some standout players on the Team USA roster at the World Championships -- like Drury, Washington's Bates Battaglia and Jeff Halpern, Pittsburgh's Ryan Malone, Phoenix's Erik Westrum and perhaps even Andy Roach, who's playing in the German Elite League -- will also get serious consideration. They might have a hole or two in their games, but players like Buffalo's Mike Grier and Nashville's Adam Hall could land on the roster as a role player.
The perfect team: Experience at the international level is the key, but they want someone who has a up-tempo offensive approach to the game and can coach a puck-possession style. The thinking is that a NHL-style trapping system doesn't work nearly as well at this level because the players are just too fast.
Team USA options: Ron Wilson, who was tabbed as head coach on Feb. 6, has shown the ability to make an immediate -- and positive -- impact behind the bench in the NHL with Washington and now San Jose, as well as on the international level. He led Team USA to the World Cup title in 1996, but he was also behind the bench at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, where the U.S. did poorly on the ice and acted worse off it. Still, the ranks of U.S.-born coaches with international and NHL experience under their belts are thin. Wilson is the most experienced, which is a big part of the reason he was brought back. He'll get some help from long-time USA Hockey coach Lou Vario and Wisconsin's Mike Eaves, but look for Tampa's John Tortorella to have a role, along with Carolina's Peter Laviolette, who guided Team USA to a bronze medal in the World Championships.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
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