- Scott Burnside, NHL
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The U.S. men's Olympic hockey team may get its head handed to it in Vancouver. The odds will certainly be stacked against the squad as it goes up against hockey powers like host Canada, defending gold-medal winner Sweden and talent-laden Russia.
But given the list of players who have been invited to the U.S. team's orientation camp in Chicago in August, one thing seems certain: GM Brian Burke and his management team are going to build a squad American hockey fans can fall in love with, win, lose or draw.
And not just in Vancouver, but perhaps for years to come.
Gritty, young, talented -- these are the qualities the Americans will wear on their sleeves in 2010 and beyond. As the car ad says, this will not be your father's U.S. hockey team.
Burke recently told ESPN.com people would be shocked by the names of the invitees to the three-day event in Chicago. "Shock" might be overstating it a bit, but the 34-man list of invitees unveiled Tuesday afternoon reflects a dramatic change from past American Olympic efforts.
In fact, only five players invited to Chicago have Olympic experience, as Burke acknowledged the Americans will likely be the youngest team in the Vancouver field in February.
The average age of the players invited to the camp: 26.3 years.
The average age of forwards invited: 25.5 (that number drops to 24.8 if you take Mike Modano off the list).
"There's not going to be a penny bet on us in Las Vegas. We know that," Burke said Tuesday.
Whether or not he's right about the wagering patterns before the Olympics, this is all part of the Burke master plan: downplay the team's chances at every opportunity and then hope this rough-and-tumble, sneakily talented group may bite a few unsuspecting teams in the shin pad once the tournament starts to actually find themselves in medal contention.
Unlike previous U.S. teams that have relied heavily on players with long international résumés, most of those with Olympic experience actually look to play supporting roles on this American team provided they can make the squad at all.
Three-time Olympian and veteran Dallas Stars forward Modano is the lone nod to the past American teams, specifically the 1996 team that won the World Cup of Hockey and established America as an international power.
"Mike's production has fallen off, but his usefulness as a player has not," Burke said.
Always keen to do what's right, Burke tried to reach out to veteran American players to tell them that they wouldn't be invited even if it seemed obvious they would not be a contender to make the Olympic team. Players like Tkachuk, who has 52 goals over the past two seasons in St. Louis, and Guerin, who won a Cup with Pittsburgh less than a month ago, told Burke they understood.
Burke said he tried to reach out to DiPietro, but couldn't reach him. Even had DiPietro been on the list of invitees, Burke said he was under the impression the Islanders netminder wouldn't physically be ready for the camp.
DiPietro's place on the roster was taken by 23-year-old Jonathan Quick, the Los Angeles Kings' top young goaltending prospect, another reminder that youth is going to be served when the final roster for this American team is named late in December, even if he is the clear third goalie behind Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller.
Remember the 2006 U.S. team in Torino, the one that managed just one victory? It had 13 players who were 30 years of age or older on the final roster. Not this time around.
Burke and his management team, which includes NHL GMs David Poile (the Olympic team's assistant GM), Dean Lombardi, Ray Shero, Don Waddell and Paul Holmgren and USA Hockey's Jim Johannson, put together a rating system for all eligible players and kept grades throughout the season. The system produced some rather interesting results.
Tough-as-nails defenseman Keith Ballard, considered a shoo-in to make this team last season, wasn't invited after failing to impress the coaching and management staff at the world championships in Switzerland this past spring. On the list, however, was former No. 1 overall draft pick Erik Johnson, who missed all of last season after injuring his knee in a pre-training camp golf outing in St. Louis.
Talk about a leap of faith, or an eye to the future.
Burke said Johnson was included based on the kind of player they know him to be. Johnson will join a group of young, bruising blueliners at the camp, including Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi, fresh off their Stanley Cup win in Pittsburgh, and their former teammate Ryan Whitney, who was dealt to Anaheim at the trade deadline. Ryan Suter, another former top draft pick, and Tom Gilbert are also among that youthful defensive group that will be challenging for spots.
There is hardly a graybeard among the potential blueliners, with Brian Rafalski, 35, representing the lone nod to defensive experience. Smart puck-mover Paul Martin, a member of the U.S. Olympic taxi squad in 2006, seems like a grizzled veteran at 28.
Up front, the story is much the same.
They may not be household names for American fans outside their own markets, but rest assured, players like David Backes, Kyle Okposo, Dustin Byfuglien, David Booth, Ryan Callahan, Dustin Brown, rookie of the year candidate Bobby Ryan, Ryan Malone, Joe Pavelski and last season's rookie of the year, Patrick Kane, will give the American forward corps more chutzpah than they've had maybe since that 1996 squad.
Apart from Modano, experience will come from Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Jamie Langenbrunner; and with all due respect, it's hard to imagine any of the three are givens to make the team, although Drury's leadership should find him on the final 23-man roster.
Burke has remained consistent in explaining how he expects this team to be built, especially when it comes to his forward contingent. He wants two skilled forward units and two hard-working, hard-hitting groups. This isn't a team that will be playing it cute; they'll be playing it cutthroat.
It's how Burke's Anaheim Ducks won a Cup in 2007. It's how the U.S. may steal a medal in Vancouver.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
4dBonnie D. Ford