Unproven Team USA can mix it up
Team USA GM Brian Burke names young, inexperienced roster for Winter Games
Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller will start between the pipes, the team's biggest strength
Forwards are unproven, defense lacks depth, but this team should be entertaining
NBC is set to carry the Olympic hockey tournament, but it might want to shift Team USA's games to Nickelodeon.
As expected, Brian Burke's Spongebob Squad is heavy on youth, speed and the potential for unbridled mayhem. Just three of the 23 players named to the team after Friday's Winter Classic -- Chris Drury, Brian Rafalski and Jamie Langenbrunner -- have worn Olympic silks in the past. The majority hail from a generation of players whose best days are yet to come.
But while some may see this roster as a springboard for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, Burke says the team was pieced together to win now. As the 1980 Miracle On Ice and '96 World Cup proved, a gritty American squad, backed by otherworldly goaltending, can take the podium. And if this team has a defining characteristic, it would be game-stealing ability between the pipes.
Ryan Miller, arguably the best player in the world right now, and Tim Thomas were givens. Either man is capable of carrying the young team on his back. But the every-other-day scheduling means one of them (likely Miller) will be given the chance to run the table. If you don't think he can steal this thing, you haven't been watching the Sabres this season. Jonathan Quick edged out Craig Anderson for a spot in the team picture based on his consistency and Burke's desire to go with younger players.
The lack of high-end depth is evident in a forward corps that has skill and sandpaper, but not enough players who bring both qualities to the table. As a group, the top six of Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Paul Stastny, Joe Pavelski and Bobby Ryan will be fast and creative and, outside of Kessel, they'll bring more jam than some might suspect.
The remaining forwards skew more closely to the the Burke-ian prototype, armed with size and snarl, if not an abundance of pop. American coach Ron Wilson will be able to assemble a pair of gritty checking lines with Ryan Kesler, David Backes, Dustin Brown, Ryan Malone, Ryan Callahan and Langenbrunner at his disposal. But he'll have to work some serious coaching mojo to wring supporting offense out of this group.
Despite being largely ineffective for lengthy stretches this season, Drury will fill the role of veteran leadership. The Rangers center beat out Mike Modano (struggling in a fourth line role in Dallas), Bill Guerin (buried by the team's right wing depth) and Keith Tkachuk (simply out of gas) for a job that may require more of him in the room and on the bench than on the ice.
While there are questions up front, there's clear vulnerability on the blue line. Rafalski will be the steady veteran and the team's best puck mover. Paul Martin -- sidelined with a broken arm but expected to be healthy in time for the Games -- provides a solid, two-way game that goes largely unnoticed in the New Jersey system. After them, though, there are questions about experience (Jack and Erik Johnson) and versatility (Ryan Suter and Brooks Orpik). As a group, it's better suited to play a shutdown game than spark the transition, and that may hamper the effectiveness of the forwards who do their best work off the rush.
There may be some consternation over Burke's decision to take Mike Komisarek from his own Toronto Maple Leafs over, say, promising 19-year-old Zach Bogosian, but that decision was made easier by the players themselves over the past month. The Atlanta sophomore has looked his age of late, making some reckless decisions that have left him with a minus-9 rating for December. Komisarek, on the other hand, has been much more effective since simplifying his game recently. He'll bring a physical presence that will be useful in games against bigger, stronger squads like the Canadians and Russians.
But the fact that either of them were in the mix illustrates the lack of depth at the position. Where there were probably protracted arguments before forwards such as Paul Gaustad, Kyle Okposo, Dustin Byfuglien and Brian Gionta were excluded, not even Andy Greene, the top-scoring U.S.-born defender, played well enough to feel slighted by his omission.
In the end, Burke assembled a team that should put on a good show. It may not, as he's often said, generate a penny's wager in Vegas, but it looks like the sort of energetic and entertaining squad that only needs a break or two along the way to wreak some havoc in Vancouver.
NHL Truth & Rumors