Camp's out, but auditions just beginning

8/19/2009 - NHL

WOODRIDGE, Ill. -- And so, 34 American hopefuls departed suburban Chicago on Wednesday with their Olympic appetites merely whetted.

The main course begins Oct. 1, when these players will begin a three-month audition for a berth on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver with the start of the National Hockey League's regular season.

In the past, pre-Olympic gatherings like the three-day event that ended here Wednesday night would have been more a mixer, a social. Given a relatively shallow talent pool, the rosters would have been pretty much set beforehand.

Not now.

GM Brian Burke figured he and the management team might be able to agree on 14 names right now. Two are those are goaltending spots held by Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller; three, if you think Jonathan Quick will get the nod as the third netminder. That suggests nine skating positions are up for grabs, and that number could grow depending on injuries.

It means this will be as wide open a competition for coveted Olympic positions as there's ever been.

"I think it's important for all of these players to have a good first half. It's that simple," Burke said Wednesday morning. "I say the maximum number I can come up with of guys that I would say are locks, if you will, or solid guys that probably have a job here, it's still only 14. We've got to take 23 guys. My message to the guys tonight is the tryouts start on Oct. 1 or whenever your first [NHL] game is."

The pressure will be on those players from the moment the puck drops to start the regular season.

Past glories, age and experience may all be factors, but the real determining factor will be level of play. Put up or shut up; an exciting proposition for a group of relatively young and inexperienced players.

"As a player, that's what you want, especially as a young player," said San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski. "It's great. It's competition. It's healthy."

Pavelski had 25 goals last season. Only Phil Kessel, Ryan Kesler and R.J. Umberger, who wasn't invited to the camp, had more among U.S.-born centers.

Another player who is looking forward to the competition is youngster Kyle Okposo of the New York Islanders, who had 18 goals as a rookie and was named to the American team at this past year's world championships.

"You can't look at it as pressure, you've got to look at it as a challenge," he said Wednesday. "I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be exciting to see what happens."

It cuts both ways, though; the pressure facing Burke and the six American-born GMs who make up the U.S. management team (Paul Holmgren, Ray Shero, Don Waddell, Dean Lombardi and David Poile) to make the right personnel decisions is likewise significant.

The Americans were embarrassed in the 2006 Torino Olympics, winning just one game and finishing seventh overall in the tournament. It's possible the 2010 team will carry over just one or two players from that squad. With the Vancouver Games in North America and in prime time, the pressure will be on Burke and his group to select a team that will take a step forward in restoring America's place in the world hockey hierarchy.

This orientation camp was more about team-building and familiarizing the players with the Olympic process. The Americans will practice just once before they play their first game in Vancouver in mid-February. Some players will have been on the ground for less than 24 hours before that first game, so this camp will pay dividends, not just in terms of defense pairings or line combinations. Or at least that's the theory.

As for determining whose names will appear on that magic list that has to be delivered to the IOC by Dec. 31, Burke and his colleagues will meet early in October and then continue a process of evaluating all American-born players, and not just the ones invited to this week's camp. By the first week of December, Burke said he hopes to have narrowed the open spots on the roster to three or four.

"And then we're going to chase those kids," Burke said. "Some of us are going to have to leave our teams and go and watch those players play, all of six of us, in fact. I don't think there's a lot of margin for error in a tournament like this. We've got to get this right."

He's right.

There are a handful of variables Burke et al will have to balance in that final decision.

There is the health issue, especially for players like Erik Johnson, the St. Louis Blues defenseman who missed all of last season with a knee injury, or Kessel, the skilled Boston Bruins forward who will not return to action until possibly November after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Kessel's 36 goals last season were the second most of all American players behind Zach Parise (45).

Assuming players are in good health, Burke and the other GMs will be assessing level of play and the various roles players will be asked to play in Vancouver.

"We want to be an aggressive, forechecking team that's on the attack all the time. We don't want to give up possession of the puck," 2010 U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. "And when we don't have it, we want to get it back as quickly as possible. That's generally what we've been talking about for three or four days here.

"Early in January, we'll start preparing some video. In late January, we'll get everybody a DVD of our system and start planting more ideas and get them focused on the job at hand."

Burke has repeatedly explained he wants a team with two skilled forward lines, two lines that will be big and physical and those skilled in killing penalties, winning faceoffs and blocking shots. He would also prefer to take eight defensemen, leaving just 12 forward positions (many teams will go with seven defensemen and 13 forwards), although having a player like Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien, who can play both positions, might be an option.

"My assessment hasn't changed. We can't just take the 23 best players," Burke said. "We have to take players who can perform specific tasks at a high level, even if that's a grunt task. Even if that's a blue-collar task, we need people who can do it well."

The upshot is that if a skilled player like a Scott Gomez, who is coming off a disappointing campaign in New York before being traded to Montreal in the offseason, gets off to a slow start, his chances of going to Vancouver are marginalized.

"A guy that's a top-six forward, if he can't play in our top six, then he's probably not going to be there," Burke said. "In other words, it's not going to be, well, we'll take him as a third-line guy. We're going to have some size and some specialty players on that third and fourth line.

"It's probably a case where a number of players, including Scott, if they can't crack the top six, they're probably not going to be on the team."

Tough decisions? You bet.

Burke was asked if a player like Mike Modano, who has scored more goals than any other American-born NHLer, could still make the team if he had a slow start to the regular season. Burke was noncommittal, suggesting that it would be unfair to comment. The upside? Even a future Hall of Famer like Modano cannot assume a spot on this roster.

It is, frankly, the way it should be. Bring it on.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.