Forty-eight of the best American hockey players are gathering this week at Kettler, the Washington Capitals practice facility in Arlington, Va. Here are a few things Inside Hockey contributing writer Alex Nseir gleaned from the first day of interviews and press conferences.
Don’t Call Them Underdogs
USA Hockey’s General Manager, Dave Poile, admitted that in 2010, then GM Brian Burke, now the team’s director of player personnel, was happy to promote the idea that the Americans were an inexperienced team in transition. Simply put, he lowered expectations outside of the locker room. With their performance in 2010, not to mention a collection of talent that rivals any in American hockey history, flying under the radar is no longer an option.
“They did a good job of playing us up as underdogs,” Chicago Blackhawks forward and 2010 Olympian Patrick Kane said. “This time, it’s a little bit different. There’s a little more expectation, especially after what happened in 2010. You want those expectations. Hopefully we can live up to them. “
Poile, who is also the Predators’ GM, noted that USA Hockey is as strong as it has ever been.
“In the ’12-’13 hockey season, the United States was the only country that medaled in every major tournament,” he said. “I know we’re at the point that when we enter in a tournament, put on a USA jersey, we expect to win. I think that’s where our program is now.”
Strength in Numbers
“I believe a group is always smarter than any one individual,” Brian Burke said on Monday.
He was referring to the process, which was also used for Vancouver, through which the U.S. Hockey Team will be selected. While players will be judged on their existing bodies of work as well as their style of play and intangibles, the first few months of the regular season will be critical for a player’s chances. According to Burke, the USA Hockey management team will use a rating system to file reports on all of the American players from every game they attend. Aside from Poile, Shero, Burke and Jim Johansson, an advisory committee that includes general managers Paul Holmgren, Dean Lombardi and Stan Bowman will also be lending its expertise to ensure that the United States has the best possible team on the ice in Sochi.
Carlson is in the Mix
A number of young, promising American hockey players were invited to Olympic Orientation. Players like forward Beau Bennett, goalie John Gibson and defenseman Seth Jones have slim hopes of making it to Sochi, but were invited to orientation since they should play key roles for USA Hockey in the future. Despite his youth and lack of Olympic experience, don’t file Capitals defenseman John Carlson in that same category.
“A kid like John Carlson has a terrific shot,” Poile said. “John Carlson is right there for us. He’s a guy that we need to watch a lot here in October, November, December.”
Even though he has never been to an Olympics, Carlson has international experience and cites his game-winning goal in the gold medal game of the 2010 World Junior Championship as a career highlight.
Wide Open Net
In 2010, Ryan Miller was named the tournament’s MVP, carving out an important place for himself in USA Hockey history. However, he knows that does not guarantee him a spot on the 2014 squad.
“The job I did was three and a half, almost four years ago,” he said. “You can’t stack that in the net behind you and have it deflect pucks away for you.”
Miller will be competing with 2012 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick and Craig Anderson, who was an early Vezina Trophy favorite last season before spraining his ankle. Jimmy Howard, Cory Schneider and 2013 World Junior Championship MVP John Gibson round out the field of potential goalies. United States Head Coach Dan Bylsma agreed that, more than any other position, goaltenders will be evaluated on their recent performances.
“Your play in the next three and a half months is going to be most important when it comes to that position and making decisions in that regard,” he said. “It’s a deep, deep pool.”
The NHL has participated in four Olympic tournaments. Since then, North American teams have fared poorly when playing outside of North America. While the larger ice surface is certainly a factor, feeling uncomfortable in a foreign environment could also be to blame.
While Brian Burke acknowledged USA Hockey’s failures outside of North America, some players downplayed the issue.
“The Olympic Village, I heard it’s going to be the best of any Olympics, so it’s going to be fun,” Vancouver forward Ryan Kesler said.
Others admitted that it had indeed been discussed at orientation.
“I think the message was just we need to be better overseas and kind of suck it up,” Cory Schneider said. “It’s going to be different, there’s going to be language barriers and differences in the food, the accomodations I’m sure, but the message is kind of everyone else is going to be doing the same thing. So there’s no excuse for (not performing well outside of North America). I think we feel that we should be able to compete anywhere in the world, not just on North American soil.”
Dustin Brown, who competed in Vancouver, offered a more optimistic view.
“The distractions from the family and trying to accommodate (people), it’s just not going to be there because it’s more difficult to get people over there, more expensive,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity, if I’m selected. It’s going to be a lot of time with your teammates.”
Bigger Ice Isn’t That Big of a Deal
This topic came up a lot on Monday, making the difference between NHL and international ice seem much larger than just 15 feet. Surprisingly, some players are looking forward to playing on the larger ice surface.
“We watched a little video today and I got excited to maybe have the opportunity to be on the big ice,” Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle said. “I’d say probably my best strength is my skating and being able to skate out of trouble. With a big rink, you can do that.”
Ottawa forward Bobby Ryan, who played in Sweden during last year’s lockout, agreed.
“I was pretty comfortable and I actually enjoyed it,” he said, admitting that there are drastic differences in shooting angles for a winger. “There’s a little room to skate and beat guys one-on-one, things like that.”
It could take time to adjust to different positioning and a more patient style of play, and time is the one thing that no team comprised mainly of NHL players has. After orientation, the next time the American team meets will be about 36 hours before the start of the tournament.
Despite these challenges, Poile insisted that the size of the ice is not going to make or break Team USA’s chances.
“I don’t want to overplay this as a huge, huge factor,” Poile said. “It’s something that you have to adapt to. The coaches are on to it. It’s not going to be a factor of why we win or we don’t win. “
Miller Has Unfinished Business
While the competition for the three goaltending spots, let alone the starting position, will be steep, 2010 starter Ryan Miller may have some extra motivation.
“I haven’t come to terms (with winning silver in Vancouver),” he said. “We went there to win.“
Miller described the experience as disappointing and bittersweet. While it’s not something he wants to revisit, Canada’s game-winning goal is still fresh in his mind.
“It’s not something I want to just beat myself up about,” he said of Sidney Crosby’s golden goal. “I played the tournament aggressively. I saw an opportunity where, he obviously didn’t mishandle the puck, but the puck came into his skates on a pass. I thought he was going to change his angle and he didn’t…It went into the net and no one feels worse than I did.”