- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Two things about the 2010 U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver:
First, it probably doesn't matter who coaches the team, Ron Wilson (who was formally announced as coach Monday morning) or Peter Laviolette or John Tortorella. All three share a similar philosophy on a game plan and all would expect their squad to play a ferocious forechecking style that would try to take advantage of the fact the Vancouver Games will be played on an NHL-sized surface as opposed to the bigger European ice surfaces employed in Nagano, Salt Lake City and Torino. In the end, it will be a big surprise if Tortorella or Laviolette, if not both, isn't part of Wilson's coaching staff. They certainly should be.
Secondly, don't believe for a minute the Americans can't medal at the Games in February. They can, with one big caveat -- GM Brian Burke and his posse of American GMs must pull the right names out of the hopper.
Therein lies the great X factor that will debated and dissected over the next 10 months, because, for the first time ever, the U.S. Olympic brain trust is going to have to leave some very good hockey players at home. Burke et al will know what it's like (a little, anyway) to be Canadian; and, like the Canadians, they will have to answer some hard questions if their team falls flat in Vancouver.
"We're going to have hard decisions, and that's a lovely problem to have," Burke said during a Monday morning conference call to formally introduce Wilson to his second go-round as U.S. Olympic coach. "It's not going to be the 20 warriors, it's not going to be the same group where these guys all knew what number they were going to wear going into camp. You know, they were like, 'Well, I'm on this team.' There is more competition, which is a good thing."
There is respect for those players who have formed the backbone of U.S. teams since 1996, when the Americans vaulted, albeit briefly, into the ranks of the world's hockey powers. Many of them, including Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Doug Weight, continue to have success at the NHL level.
"But we're going to turn a page, too," Burke said. "If we decide that the best group to go will not involve any of those players, that's what we're going to do."
In turning a page, though, Burke and the U.S. team will face a formidable task in trying to balance a host of factors and intangibles, from skill set to size to who might hold up best under the intense scrutiny of this highly anticipated Olympic tournament. How much "gray," for instance, do you send with the rest of the 20-somethings who will form the bulk of this team, and which "gray" do you send?
Take Mike Knuble, one of the game's true stand-up guys. Ask anyone in the Flyers' dressing room how important the 36-year-old is to a team that surprised most by advancing to last season's Eastern Conference finals. Knuble has topped the 20-goal mark for eighth straight seasons. For our money, he is worth 10 Tkachuks or 10 Modanos. Throw in Mathieu Schneider, Guerin, Weight, Tkachuk and Modano, and we humbly suggest there's almost certainly no room for more than one of them on the 2010 team.
Talk about tough decisions.
Back in 1997-98, the first season NHLers went to the Olympics, 74 U.S.-born players played at least 50 games that season. This season, there will be close to 100. (Note that these numbers don't take into account players like Knuble, Paul Stastny and Jason Pominville, who were born outside the United States but qualify to play internationally for the U.S., or St. Louis defenseman and 2006 No. 1 overall draft pick Erik Johnson, who was hurt and missed the entire 2008-09 campaign.)
In total, 197 American-born players have played in at least one game this season compared to 126 in the year Wilson coached the U.S. team in Nagano.
Moreover, the talent pool for an international best-on-best tournament is dramatically different from what it was 13 years ago. Americans are now regularly among the top players selected in the NHL draft. Patrick Kane, last season's rookie of the year, was the top pick in the 2007 draft and will be a shoo-in to make the 2010 team; the 20-year-old exemplifies what Burke expects will be the youngest team at the Olympic tournament.
Burke and his team -- David Poile (Nashville Predators GM), Paul Holmgren (Philadelphia Flyers GM), Don Waddell (Atlanta Thrashers GM), Ray Shero (Pittsburgh Penguins GM) and Dean Lombardi (Los Angeles Kings GM) -- have been busy filing reports on any game they see in which an American plays. There is a consolidated scouting system that allows the group to dissect and assess players' development or decline.
During the GM meetings in Florida earlier this month, Burke told ESPN.com there is general agreement on the core of the team -- six forwards and four defensemen and the goaltenders (you can pencil in Tim Thomas, Ryan Miller and the oft-injured Rick DiPietro, although for our money, you could do a lot better with that third spot).
But the debate over the other half of the team will say a lot about the GMs' abilities to put emotion aside and coolly pick the best players for that dressing room. It will also say a lot about whether the Americans can pull off the upset they believe is possible.
Take the blue line, for instance.
Can you put together the 23 guys that can get the job done? You balance the skill set, you balance the maturity levels, the leadership skills, those are all the things, and that's our job in the next 10 months.
”-- Team USA GM Brian Burke
With the Americans playing against countries that will have a far greater offensive arsenal, it behooves Burke et al to be cautious about overloading the blue line with small-but-skilled puck-movers. Of course, not being able to quickly and smartly move the puck dooms the Americans, as well.
Brian Rafalski is a veteran who just happens to lead all American-born defensemen with 57 points. He's a given. Tom Gilbert is 6-foot-3, has 43 points and is a plus player on a mediocre Edmonton team. Paul Martin is plus-23 and one of the smartest players on a very good New Jersey team. Brooks Orpik is tough as nails and has been to the Stanley Cup finals with the Penguins and may go again this spring. His former Pittsburgh teammate, Ryan Whitney, is big, has offensive tools and got better as the playoffs went along last season. Add Ryan Suter (45 points for a Nashville team that struggles to score) and Keith Ballard in Florida, and there are your seven blueliners.
So, what of Jack Johnson, the young man drafted third behind Sidney Crosby in 2005? Or Joe Corvo, who has 14 goals and 38 points for Carolina? Or the veteran Schneider, who has revived the Montreal power play and is a two-time U.S. Olympian? Or Mike Komisarek, the rough-and-tumble Habs blueliner? Or John-Michael Liles, who has been to the Olympics before, and Matt Carle, who logs 21:22 a night for Philadelphia? Or Zach Bogosian, who may be the second-best rookie defenseman behind Drew Doughty in Los Angeles, if he's second at all?
See what we mean?
And that's the easy part, really, because up front is where Burke and his pals will be going toe-to-toe until the last minute.
Zach Parise is going to get some consideration for NHL MVP honors this season and, with his 93 points as of Monday, he should. But there's a 25-point drop-off between Parise and the second-highest scoring U.S. player in the league, Jamie Langenbrunner.
That's good for Langenbrunner, but there is a great middle class of forwards that will give U.S. Olympic management and its coaching staff great pause.
Unlike Canada, which could field a forward corps made up almost entirely of centers, the Americans will be challenged to find the right fits down the middle. As of Monday, the top-scoring American center was 24-year-old Joe Pavelski of San Jose. Wilson coached Pavelski, so there's familiarity there. If Pavelski continues to produce through the playoffs and the start of next season, he illustrates the conundrum the U.S. faces. Do you keep him off or do you have room for him?
Let's say you keep Pavelski. You can pretty much pencil in Vancouver's Ryan Kesler, who can do it all, and Phil Kessel, whose 31 goals are tied for second among all U.S. players, and Stastny, who was hurt most of the season but is both physical and talented. So, there are your four centers. Or are they?
What of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, who have both underachieved in New York but would have been givens to make the U.S. Olympic team at the beginning of this season? Or R.J. Umberger, who has 26 goals for Columbus, and Matt Cullen, who can play the point and kill penalties? And that's not to mention Tim Connolly, the gifted but oft-injured Buffalo Sabres pivot who has 43 points in 44 games.
If picking centers will prove to be a problem, how about trying to meld size with skill?
Burke likes a team split pretty evenly between skill players and meat-and-potatoes players. The more that can do both, the better off Burke figures his team will be (as a point of reference, check Burke's Anaheim Ducks, who steamrolled the competition en route to the 2007 Stanley Cup).
So, let's go back to Pavelski.
Along with being young, talented and presumably keen to play for the U.S., he also shares another trait: He is 5-foot-11 and one of seven players among this season's top 10 American point producers who are less than 6 feet tall. Of the three that are over 6 feet, rookie Bobby Ryan has played himself onto Team USA's collective radar screen. It is a fact that many of the more physical American players are also among the youngest or least experienced, including Ryan, David Backes, Kesler, Ryan Malone, Blake Wheeler, Dustin Brown and Kyle Okposo.
Hard choices? You bet. Easy answers? Nary a one.
Somewhere in that group is a combination that will work hard, not fold under the pressure and seize the moment. Now all Burke and his team have to do is find it.
"That's the million-dollar question," Burke said. "Can you put together the 23 guys that can get the job done? You balance the skill set, you balance the maturity levels, the leadership skills, those are all the things, and that's our job in the next 10 months."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
In the end, it may not matter who coaches the 2010 U.S. Olympic team. Team USA faces tougher tasks, like fielding the right mix of players that is capable of medaling in Vancouver.