- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Less than six months until the start of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Less than a week until the first of the summer orientation camps that will provide a first glimpse into what the United States and Canadian squads might look like come February.
With that in mind, here are some of the burning questions and Olympic odds and ends as the clock ticks down:
Meat of the order
American GM Brian Burke has made no secret of how he plans to build his Olympic team, and that's with plenty of sand. Look for two forward lines with as much skill as the Americans can collect and two lines with a lot of in-your-face personality. Same goes for the blue line, as Burke will want size and mobility that can hopefully withstand opposing forecheckers and move the puck quickly and smartly out of the defensive zone.
The challenge for Burke and his management/coaching team, led by coach Ron Wilson, will be in assessing which hard-as-nails players to select, since he's got plenty coming to camp. Up front, if Ryan Malone gets off to a good start to the NHL season, he should be in the mix. You can pretty much pencil in David Backes (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) and L.A. Kings leader Dustin Brown.
Is there room for a hulking presence like 6-foot-3, 247-pound Dustin Byfuglien, the reclaimed defenseman who was impressive for Chicago in its run to the Western Conference finals last spring? Or Islanders rookie star Kyle Okposo (6-foot-1, 200 pounds)? The flip side is that many of the Americans' skilled players are undersized, including Patrick Kane (assuming he can still play despite being charged with felony robbery and misdemeanor counts of theft and criminal mischief after an incident with a cab driver this past weekend), Zach Parise and Paul Stastny (assuming he's healthy). Plus, you have to wonder where, or if, players like Mike Modano, Scott Gomez and Jamie Langenbrunner -- all members of the 2006 Olympic team -- fit in.
Speaking of meat, of the 12 defensemen invited to next week's orientation camp in Chicago, only one, Brian Rafalski (who is pretty much assured of a spot on the squad), is under 6 feet tall.
A healthy outlook
• Stastny won't be the only potential Olympian looking to bounce back after a horrific injury (he played in just 45 games last season for the Colorado Avalanche due to a broken forearm and broken foot).
• Sergei Zubov, headed out of Dallas after a dozen years with the Stars, will be hoping his surgically repaired hip serves him well enough in the KHL to join Russia in Vancouver. So do the Russians, who will be thin along the blue line.
• Zubov's former teammate, Brenden Morrow, earned an invite to the Canadian orientation camp even though he missed all but 18 games with a knee injury. When healthy, he's pretty much the prototypical Canadian forward, skilled and gritty; but he'll have to prove early in the season he's back to the form he showed in leading Dallas to the 2008 Western Conference finals.
• Erik Johnson was a surprise invitee to the U.S. camp since he missed the entire 2008-09 season for the St. Louis Blues after he tore up his knee on the eve of training camp in a freak golf cart accident. A lot of eyes will be on Johnson to see how the former No. 1 overall draft pick responds to being away for an entire season.
• Then, there's Marian Gaborik, the New York Rangers' new toy. The Slovaks will be a dark horse to medal in Vancouver, but their chances will go up exponentially if Gaborik can shake off the nagging hip/groin problems that limited him to 17 games last season and return as a dominant scorer.
• Another Slovak who won't be skating at the team's orientation camp is Marian Hossa, who had offseason shoulder surgery and will miss the first couple of months of the season. His return will also be watched closely by the Slovaks, who have fallen on hard times internationally since winning their one world championship back in 2002. They finished a dismal 10th at the worlds this past spring.
Looks good on paper, but ...
Slovakia always looks like it will be a force on paper, but somehow never seem to get the job done on the ice at the Olympics. The country once again looks like a talented team with Gaborik, Hossa and defending Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara. One familiar face in the Slovak lineup could be Zigmund Palffy, the former NHLer who last played in the 2005-06 season and has been playing for his hometown team in Skalica in the Slovak elite league. Palffy was one of two players from the league invited to the team's summer orientation camp.
Canada isn't alone
We often talk about the embarrassment of riches that Canada enjoys when selecting teams for international best-on-best tournaments. But how about that Finnish goaltending lineup?
Consider the netminders who were invited to the Finns' summer orientation camp: former Jennings Trophy winner and Vezina Trophy finalist Niklas Backstrom, former Vezina winner Miikka Kiprusoff, top draft pick Kari Lehtonen, Antero Niittymaki (named top goaltender of the 2006 Olympics), Nashville's super rookie of last season Pekka Rinne and Vesa Toskala.
That, my friends, is why the Finns can never be counted out of any Olympic tournament.
What about the Russians?
Many people like the Russians as the gold-medal favorite -- at least that's how it looks six months out. And no doubt they are going to be loaded with top-end talent in Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and two-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin.
But one mystery remains: the depth and talent of the supporting cast.
And given the Russian orientation camp roster list, it appears we're going to find out what the Kontinental Hockey League is made of. Exactly half of the 38 players invited to the camp play in the KHL, which is set to start its second season after replacing the old Russian elite league. Some of those 18 players include recent refugees from the NHL, like Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, who both played in Washington last season.
Just five of the Russians' 23-man roster were not NHLers in 2006, including third-string netminder Maxim Sokolov, who was a replacement for an injured Nikolai Khabibulin.
Speaking of the Edmonton Oilers' new netminder, Khabibulin was conspicuously absent from the summer camp list. Other notable exclusions were Alexei Yashin, who was an assistant with the Russian team in Italy four years ago, Sergei Samsonov and Slava Kozlov.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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