The United States is one of hockey’s superpowers yet we haven’t gotten the chance to see a proper Team USA since the 2014 Olympics.
World championship teams are always a mishmash of talent and the U.S. had a watered down roster at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey thanks to many of its best players representing Team North America instead. At Pyeongchang 2018, Team USA will be a mixture of mostly ex-NHLers, European-based players and college kids.
We recently took a gander at how Team Canada might have looked with NHLers at the Olympics and we’d be remiss if we didn’t do the same and examine the potential firepower a Team USA lineup could’ve boasted in South Korea.
America’s management group would’ve had a difficult time finalizing a 25-man roster considering the impressive depth of talent the country has—there have been more than 200 American-born players suit up for at least one game this NHL season. If there were no limitations on which players a GM and his staff could select, however, rest assured Team USA would be a bona fide gold medal contender in 2018.
There are those out there that believe USA Hockey is set to dominate the game internationally for years to come. It’s not entirely surprising either considering the new generation of American players currently taking the NHL by storm.
In previous major international tournaments USA Hockey has made a concerted effort to build their rosters to match up well with Canada in terms of size and physicality. That strategy hasn’t resulted in any gold medals though, so we took a different route and crafted a more youthful roster, rich with skill, creativity and speed.
With that in mind, here’s what Team USA could’ve looked like at the 2018 Games.
There are only nine holdovers from the World Cup team and 10 returnees from the fourth-place 2014 team that mailed in the bronze medal game after losing a 1-0 heartbreaker to Canada in the semifinal.
The strength of our 2018 squad is clearly at forward, but it’s perhaps the most well-rounded contingent of American players ever assembled top to bottom.
Narrowing down the netminders was the easiest decision to make. Connor Hellebuyck and Ben Bishop were the other options but you can’t go wrong with Quick, Gibson and Schneider. That trio, on paper at least, would be as strong as any goalie group in the tournament.
Quick has the best resume of the three. But since we have an influx of youth on this team, we’d give Gibson, 24, the chance to start in the opening game of the tournament. If he struggled we’d hand the reins to Quick then Schneider, both of whom are 31.
The U.S. defence might not be quite at the level of a Sweden or Canada, but it’s not too far behind.
Team USA staples Suter and Carlson were no-brainers, as were Werenski and Jones. The dynamic Blue Jackets pair have an established chemistry that proves invaluable in tournaments like this.
The third pairing and extra blueliners was where the real debate began. Fowler’s a silky smooth skater who would thrive on the big ice and we think he’d fit well alongside a player like Slavin, one of the most underappreciated young talents in the NHL. The Carolina Hurricanes standout is second only to Jones in takeaways among American defencemen and is a top shot blocker. He edged out Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets, who is slightly more prone to mistakes.
Gostisbehere can quarterback a power play and get pucks through traffic as well as any blueliner in the NHL, which makes him the ideal seventh defenceman, and in the eighth spot we took a wild card in 20-year-old McAvoy. The Boston Bruins rookie, just like Tkachuk up front, is a game-breaker capable of putting on a one-man show and that’s what we targeted for the extra spots instead of mere depth.
One perk to the immense forward depth is the fact you have the option of spreading the wealth and rolling four lines without sacrificing much on special teams.
Matthews was teammates with Boeser at the world juniors and with Gaudreau on Team North America at the World Cup. Boeser would’ve been considered a long shot for this roster at the beginning of the NHL season, but the Vancouver Canucks rookie has been too good to ignore. The University of North Dakota product already has one of the most expeditious releases in the NHL, as does Matthews, so putting them together with the always-flashy “Johnny Hockey” would result in a conveyer belt of highlight-reel goals.
Eichel is a natural centre, but he wins only 40 per cent of his draws so making him a winger was an easy choice. The right-handed shooter plays on the left side, usually on the point, during Buffalo Sabres power plays and giving Eichel the chance to thrive on a line with Kane would be a fun experiment to see play out. You could put Kane with anybody, really, and he’d make it work. The Chicago Blackhawks superstar would without a doubt be a top-six forward on an all-world team and is the best American player of his generation. You wouldn’t have to worry about this line in the defensive zone either with Trocheck in the middle. The Florida Panthers centre plays a reliable 200-foot game, is strong in the faceoff circle and solid on special teams.
For a brief time during Sochi 2014, Phil “The Thrill” was the most dominant offensive hockey player in the world. Kessel always seems to step his game up when he dons the Team USA kit. He led that 2014 tournament with five goals and eight points in six games and he had great chemistry with Pavelski at centre. The third member of that line was Kessel’s then-Leafs teammate James van Riemsdyk. JVR is having another productive season in Toronto, but we’ve slotted Pacioretty in that spot over JVR and Anders Lee. Pacioretty’s foot speed and leadership were the determining factors. Pavelski is having his worst season as a goal scorer, but his assists are up and putting him between snipers like Kessel and Pacioretty would be a tough task to defend.
Kesler between Wheeler and Saad would be the de facto checking line equipped with a balance of size, speed and skill. Wheeler leads all American NHLers in points this season and Saad plays with Jonathan Toews so he frequently goes up against an opposing team’s top line. Kesler wasn’t initially going to be on this roster, but the veteran recently returned from off-season hip surgery. Even though we’ve gone with a younger group overall, Kesler is too valuable defensively, killing penalties and on the faceoff dot to leave out.
There was plenty of debate whether or not to take a true shutdown centre.
With Matthews and Trocheck—they rank one-two among America forwards, respectively, in takeaways dating back to the start of the 2016-17 campaign—this team didn’t necessarily need Kesler but he has a Selke trophy to his name and finished top five in Selke voting on five other occasions, including in each of the past two years. He blocks more shots per game than any American forward and is right up there in a group with Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Toews as hockey’s elite two-way centres.
Larkin as the 13th forward is a speedy utility man you can pencil in on any line and put in any situation offensively or defensively. One game he could be used sparingly as a penalty-killing specialist and the next he could get first-line minutes and be a conduit for offence. Tkachuk, the final addition up front, is an X-factor that can be tossed into the lineup to spark his team, agitate the opposition and throw his body around.
It was tough leaving unheralded forwards like Jason Zucker and J.T. Miller off this team as they both would’ve made fine fourth liners and penalty killers. It was even tougher leaving off T.J. Oshie, Lee and JVR seeing as those three forwards are tied with Kessel for most power-play goals among American skaters this season.
Oshie garnered the nickname T.J. Sochi for his memorable shootout performance against Russia. This team doesn’t need a shootout specialist, though, because they’d be putting teams away in regulation.