Team USA will rely on old skaters, young goalie
In the 20 months since Canada won the men's Olympic gold in Salt Lake
City, 20-year-old Russian Ilya Kovalchuk has blossomed arguably into
the NHL's most dangerous scorer.
Over that span, Canadian citizen Joe Thornton has established himself
as one the league's premier players. Likewise, Slovakia's Marian
Gaborik is now viewed as a proven star. When the teams are chosen for
the World Cup, Sweden will likely be counting on young Henrik
Zetterberg almost as much as Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin. Even
Finland seems to have a new flag carrier in prickly Chicago
Blackhawks center Tuomo Ruutu.
Given the infusion of freshness that other countries will be enjoying
in the World Cup next summer, Team USA general manager Larry Pleau
has to be left wondering: Where have all the good young Americans
Right now, Nashville's David Legwand has a chance to make the team,
but he's anything but a sure bet. New Jersey's Scott Gomez is also on
The Americans, who won the World Cup in 1996, will essentially be
trying to defend that championship with many of the same players who
were on the team eight years ago. There will probably be only modest
changes among the defensemen who played for USA when it won the
silver medal in Salt Lake City. This will be a thirty-something team.
Presuming everyone is healthy, Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Keith
Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Tony Amonte, Brett Hull, Jamie Langenbrunner,
Chris Drury, Bill Guerin and Brian Rolston would seem like good bets
to hold down 10 of the 13 forward positions. Of that group, only
Langenbrunner didn't play in Salt Lake, and at age 28 he's no colt.
That list doesn't include John Leclair and Mike York, who would seem
like logical choices, though injury-troubled Leclair might have some
vulnerability if the Americans are looking to freshen up their
lineup. Shawn McEachern has always been a quality player, and with
his larger role for Atlanta, he seems like a player who could squeeze
into the mix. His general manager, Don Waddell, is also the assistant
general manager for Team USA.
The only real newcomer in the mix up front would appear to be Mike
Knuble, who was born in Canada but raised in the U.S. He has been a
force for the Bruins. It's not illogical to suggest Colorado
Avalanche winger Steve Konowalchuk could play his way onto the team.
That's already too many players, and we haven't talked about Todd
Marchant, whose speed and versatility make him attractive to coaches.
The defense isn't any less predictable with Brian Leetch, Derian
Hatcher, Tom Poti, Brian Rafalski, Mathieu Schneider, Aaron Miller,
Keith Carney and Chris Chelios in contention for seven spots. The
late coach Herb Brooks didn't like Hatcher's skating and didn't pick
him to play on the wider Olympic ice, but if he's healthy he will be
one of the first picked for this team
Perhaps Chicago's Bryan Berard could crack the lineup, but Phoenix's
Paul Mara and David Tanabe are youngsters with some upside. How about
terrific skater Bret Hedican or Hal Gill?
At 41, Chelios could retire, but he is such a revered member of the
American program that it's difficult not to foresee him having a
place on the team if he wants a spot.
It's likely that more than two-thirds, possibly three-fourths, of
USA's roster will be over 30. The Americans have some talented
youngsters coming, but none seems quite ready. USA doesn't have
anyone like 20-year-old Jay Bouwmeester, whose candidacy for the
Canadian team isn't fun to contemplate. This kid skates like Paul
Coffey, and he's much bigger. He played high-octane hockey for the
Canadians when they won the gold medal at the World Championships
It's not as if the Americans don't have young talent en route. The
Americans are among the favorites for the World Junior championship.
Defenseman Ryan Suter, a Nashville first rounder, is said to be
another Chelios. But the younger Americans don't seem to be at the
right stage of development to replace a talented, but aging, group of
Experience isn't a synonym for stale. This American team certainly
has a chance to win the World Cup.
Curiously, the key may end up being one of the youngest, if not the
youngest player on the team.
The only place where the Americans have room for young talent is in
the net. Mike Richter and Tom Barrasso are retired. That leaves Mike
Dunham as the incumbent, and even though he has played well this
season it's not pre-determined that he will be the No. 1.
New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro, at 22, has the level of
overflowing confidence and talent that sometimes leads to
superstardom. He's certainly not the Joe Thornton of goaltending, but
he has the potential at least to be a difference maker in a
tournament. Behind the scenes there is a thought that DiPietro, if he
is ready is the kind of athlete who could steal a tournament.
If it's not DiPietro, it could be 25-year-old Robert Esche. People
who know goaltending like Esche. They like him plenty. Although Jeff
Hackett has played well, many pundits would predict that Esche will
be Philadelphia's goalie in the postseason. Edmonton's Ty Conklin,
27, has to be included in the hunt, although lack of experience would
put him behind DiPietro, Esche and Dunham.
The Americans will definitely be a team of skilled geezers. Wouldn't
it be ironic if DiPietro became their most important player? Chelios
has shoulder pads older than DiPietro.