USA Hockey hopes familiarity will breed gold
The U.S. Olympic hockey team announced Monday evening in St. Paul, Minn., will have 12 first-time Olympians, including all three goaltenders.
But if American fans were expecting the red, white and blue to have a younger, generation-next look to it, they will be sorely disappointed. Instead, about this U.S. squad there is a strong sense of deja vu, and USA Hockey officials are crossing their fingers that familiarity will breed an Olympic gold with throwbacks Chris Chelios, Derian Hatcher, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Mike Modano on board once again.
Here's a look at an American squad that boasts an average age of 31.2 years.
Picking Rick DiPietro, Robert Esche and John Grahame was a bit of a no-brainer. The only dark horse would have been Buffalo's Ryan Miller, but his thumb injury and the recent upswing in Grahame's play in Tampa, where he recently won nine games in a row, made this the easiest choice for GM Don Waddell and the rest of the management team.
What might not be so easy will be deciding between the second and third netminders. DiPietro will likely get the start given his international experience (and provided none of the USA Hockey guys look at the tape of Monday's game in Toronto, in which he gave up six goals on 17 shots). But both Esche and Grahame can make a case for what will be a crucial backup position. Given that teams could play eight games in 12 days en route to a gold medal, that second goaltender will be instrumental in positioning leading into the elimination rounds. Give the early nod to Esche given his play at the World Cup of Hockey and the fact he backstopped Philadelphia to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals in 2004.
The Americans have better depth on defense than at any other position, so it's hardly surprising then that the biggest, uh, "surprise" comes along the blue line in the form of Chelios, who will turn 44 in January. Assuming he's on the ice when the Americans open Feb. 15 against Latvia, he will be the oldest player to play in the Olympics since 1928. Although he's only averaging 16 minutes and 10 seconds of ice time per night and has only three points, Chelios continues to play an integral role along a Detroit blue line that ranks as one of the stingiest in the NHL. Chelios admitted he never imagined, even in his wildest dreams, that he would be around for a fourth Olympics. Neither did many hockey observers, especially given the play of Brian Leetch and youngsters Paul Mara and the presence of Paul Martin.
The other big surprise along the blue line is Hatcher, whose size and limited mobility made him a long shot to make the Olympic team at the start of the season. Herb Brooks thought so little of the big man that he left him off the Salt Lake City team that won silver. But Hatcher has played well in Philadelphia and is logging more than 24 minutes a night on a Flyers team decimated by injury.
"We felt he deserved to be on this team," Waddell said.
Of all of the team's parts, the forward contingent might be the hardest group to get a handle on. On one hand, there is definitely the kind of balance that should allow head coach Peter Laviolette to assemble four solid lines that can play the up-tempo, attack-style game he favors. Eight of the 13 forwards have at least 10 goals and there is good depth down the middle with Modano, Scott Gomez, Craig Conroy and either Jason Blake or Weight. But the core of the offense remains rooted in the past with players like Tkachuk (who suffered broken knuckles on the weekend but should be game-ready in a month or so), Weight, Modano and Bill Guerin. None of these players has had a stellar start to the season.
Tkachuk was on fire with eight goals in 10 games but has been injured and of course, suffered the humiliation of being suspended by the Blues when he reported to camp out of shape.
"He's the type of player we're going to need to compete to win the gold medal," Waddell said.
As for Guerin, Waddell insisted the big winger "brings a lot to the table" but Guerin is a scorer -- that's his job -- and he has produced just six goals for a red-hot Stars team.
Weight, playing on the worst team in the NHL in St. Louis, has only six goals as well.
Heading to his third Olympics, the personable Weight insisted the fire still burns for an Olympic gold. He recalled standing on the blue line in Salt Lake City watching the Canadians celebrate their victory over the U.S. in the gold medal game.
"I don't plan on having that again. I don't want that again," Weight said.
Other players who've had their problems include Gomez, who was benched in a recent loss to Carolina and whose career has been up and down since winning rookie of the year honors in 2000.
Talented young players left sitting by a silent phone Monday evening included defenseman Martin, who played in both the World Cup of Hockey and last year's World Championship team, but who has struggled, along with many of his New Jersey teammates, this year. Mara, the third-highest scoring U.S.-born defenseman behind Mathieu Schneider and John-Michael Liles (both named to the Olympic roster), had improved his physical game under head coach Wayne Gretzky, but couldn't crack the lineup.
At the other end of the experience spectrum, Leetch started the season strongly in Boston, was injured, but has come back to play more than 20 minutes a night for a struggling Bruins team. When push came to shove, Chelios earned the spot ahead of Leetch.
Up front, Tim Connolly is having a breakthrough year in Buffalo and was featured on the cover of the latest Hockey News as a possible Olympian. Dustin Brown in Los Angeles might also have filled the energy role that the Islanders' Blake will be expected to fill.
Some of these players can be expected to be asked to come to Turin as part of a "taxi squad," a pool of players that will not stay in the athletes' village with the rest of the players but who could be pressed into service in the event of injury during the tournament. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, teams can bring as many extra players as they like, but teams will be limited to a maximum of three injury replacements during the tournament. Once a player is removed from the main roster, he cannot return to the tournament. Waddell hasn't said when he will name these reserves.
There really is no room for sentiment in picking a team that fancies itself a medal contender, in what promises to be a fiercely competitive tournament. But Waddell's association with Chelios goes back decades, and Chelios' inclusion on the team suggests Waddell and Laviolette are expecting Chelios to reprise his role from 2002, when he was essentially a player-coach for Brooks in Salt Lake.
Yes, Tkachuk has been red-hot of late. But the only way this U.S. team challenges for a medal of any kind, let alone gold, is if it jells instantly under Laviolette -- four lines without egos, without concern for their own status or personal agendas, busting a gut every night for two weeks. Can Tkachuk, who is aiming to play in his fourth Olympic Games, fit this bill? This is a man who thought so little of his teammates in St. Louis that his team had no choice but to suspend him when he arrived out of shape at the start of training camp. Word out of St. Louis is that Tkachuk has recommitted himself to his game and to his team. Waddell and Laviolette must hope he brings that same commitment to Turin.
To be successful in Turin against teams with much more offensive pop, the Americans will have to be disciplined and defensively responsible. This team boasts a nice balance of youth and size along the blue line with Liles and Jordan Leopold representing the next generation to complement Aaron Miller, Schneider and Chelios. Goaltending should also be a plus, given that DiPietro loves the big stage and it doesn't get any bigger than this. Over the course of the tournament, he has tools to make this team better than it appears on paper.
There is no Jaromir Jagr, no Markus Naslund, no Joe Thornton or Dany Heatley in the U.S. lineup -- in short, no game-breaker here. The top-scoring forward on this team is Olympic rookie Brian Gionta, who ranks 27th in NHL scoring. If they get into run-and-gun games with the likes of the Russians, Canadians, Czechs or Swedes, it will be trouble ... big trouble.
Erik Cole might well be one of the streakiest players in the NHL. Still, playing for Laviolette in Carolina, Cole has helped the 'Canes become a force in the Eastern Conference with his speed and deft touch around the net. With the big ice surface in Turin, he has the potential to emerge as a go-to guy for the Americans. Watch for him to line up with Mike Knuble and Modano, a line that had good success at last year's World Championships.
Unless Guerin can find the scoring touch that made him consistently one of the top scorers in the NHL for the past decade (not to mention among the highest-paid players), his role on this team will be minimal.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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