Team USA rules out including NHL draft-eligible prospects at Olympics

Jim Johannson. (Paul Sancya/AP)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — General manager Jim Johannson ruled out the possibility of the U.S. men’s hockey team having NHL draft-eligible prospects competing at the Winter Olympics in February.

Johannson told The Associated Press on Thursday he doesn’t view anyone from the 18-and-younger pool of prospects capable of cracking the projected lineup of non-NHL players, many of whom are opening this season on teams in Europe.

"We’re going to be too good," said Johannson, who is also USA Hockey’s assistant executive director. "There’s no quote-unquote underage kids that could make this level of a team."

Though much of the team will be comprised of former NHL players, Johannson said his staff is targeting a number of established college players. He also would not rule out keeping a spot or two open for members of the U.S. team competing at the World Junior Championships this winter.

Johansson was in Buffalo, New York, attending USA Hockey’s sixth annual All-American Prospects game. The game features the top 42 U.S.-born players eligible to be selected in the NHL draft in June.

The task of assembling a national team is different for the games in South Korea after the NHL decided it will not participate in the Olympics for the first time since 1994. The decision eliminated from selection any player currently signed to an NHL contract, including minor-leaguers.

That leaves a patchwork group of journeymen being considered, such as Bobby Sanguinetti, Nathan Gerbe, Tom Gilbert and T.J. Galiardi. The U.S. roster will start taking form after the team competes in a three-game Deutschland Cup tournament in Germany in mid-November.

"These guys have long track records so we know them as players, but now you’re going to get to see their current pace of play," Johannson said. "The coaches are going to come out of that with a comfort level on some of those players."

The team will be coached by Tony Granato , a former NHL star who is now coaching at the University of Wisconsin. One of Granato’s assistants will be Hall of Fame defenceman Chris Chelios, who was coaching one of the two teams competing in the All-American prospects game.

Chelios represented the U.S. in four Winter Games both as an amateur and professional. He expressed mixed emotions over the NHL’s decision not to compete in the Olympics.

He referred to the 2002 Salt Lake City Games as being "the greatest hockey I’ve ever been involved with." Chelios captained Team USA, which won a silver medal after losing the championship to Canada.

There is something, however, to be said of non-NHL players competing, particularly college players.

"It’s great for the college kids who know they’re not going to make it realistically to the NHL," Chelios said. "It’s something to shoot for, strive for as a player for their country, which is a great honour."

Chelios has previous coaching experience, including serving as an assistant on the U.S. team that won bronze at the 2016 World Junior championships. The squad included Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews , the NHL’s rookie of the year last season.

Chelios was impressed by what he saw from Matthews last season, and credited Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock for allowing the youngster to play with some freedom.

"Hopefully, Babs doesn’t tighten the reins on him," said Chelios, who played under Babcock when the two were with Detroit. "Just leave him alone and let the world watch him play."

Chelios then provided a laugh when asked if Babcock might be a different coach in the two seasons since leaving Detroit and signing a lucrative eight-year contract in Toronto.

"Well," Chelios said breaking into a smile, "he’s got a lot more money. I’ll leave it that."

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