Since 1998, NHL players and fans alike have enjoyed the opportunity to watch the games best compete on an international stage every four years at the Winter Olympics. Simply put, it is a chance for the sports elite to showcase the greatest game in the world on the world’s greatest stage.
As a hockey fans, we sit two years away from the 2014 games in Sochi, with no guarantee that the NHLPA and the League will reach an agreement on whether their athletes will even participate. But being a sports fan is all about arguing hypothetical situations and speculation, so while we wait for what will no doubt be two incredible weeks of hockey in Russia, regardless of how it plays out, lets let our imaginations run wild for a few minutes and take a look at some notable candidates that might crack the line up for Team USA based on performance and growth since the 2010 games and potential between now and 2014.
First up in the three part series, we take a look at a talented crop of forwards.
The Usual Suspects (Olympic Returnees Between Ages who will be 25-30 in 2014)
Zach Parise (NJD)- Parise was the Team USA’s top forward and among the tournament’s best finishing with 8 points in 6 games at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. There is no telling which NHL sweater he will be wearing in 2014, but at 29 years old, barring any unforeseen changes, we can be pretty sure he will be donning the Red, White, and Blue jersey with his name on the back and likely a “C” on the front in Sochi.
Phil Kessel (TOR)- The speedy winger with the lethal release limped to a 1 goal and 1 assist finish (both coming against Norway) in six games in Vancouver, but seems to have turned the corner this season. Kessel is leading all American born players with 30 goals and 30 assists in 55 games thus far this season as he enjoys his time on the Leafs top line with Joffrey Lupul. Lupul of course is a Canadian, so it will be critical for Kessel to find quick chemistry with whichever playmaking forwards he is paired with.
Patrick Kane (CHI)- You will have a tough time finding a more talented player on the US or any other roster in 2014. In Vancouver, as a 21 year old, Kane had an impressive 5 points in 6 games. He will be entering the prime of his career at 25 in the next go round, and will be expected to be a big time contributor to the American offense.
Ryan Kesler (VAN)- The Livonia, Michigan native is coming off back to back 70 point seasons and will be one of the teams most complete forwards. He is also coming off two straight years of heartbreaking losses as part of the Team USA Silver Medal squad in 2010 and the Stanley Cup Runner Up Vancouver Canucks in 2011. Expect Kesler to be back and as hungry as ever at the upcoming Games.
Paul Stastny (COL)- Perhaps the nation’s most talented center, Stastny spent much of the 2010 games anchoring the teams top line. He will be looking to improve on his 3 point performance as he likely serves in a similar role in Sochi.
Dustin Brown (LAK)- Coaches and scouts have described Brown as an American kid with the edge and grit more often found in his Western Canadian counterparts. That skill set should serve him well again as the U.S. brass looks for a couple of players that can fill top 6 or bottom 6 roles in a short tournament where anything can happen.
Joe Pavelski (SJS)- The former 7th round pick of the San Jose Sharks has proven he can give his club 20-30 goals over the past four seasons, but was unable to find the back of the net as a 25 year old winger in Vancouver. Expect him back in the team USA uniform and playing a bigger role two years from now.
David Backes (STL)- The powerful Blues forward is coming off his second 30 goal and first 60 point season last year and will look to bring his size and strength to 2014 games. Backes will likely battle for bottom 6 minutes in Sochi, but could sneak on to one of the top two lines if he continues to find the back of the net for an ever improving St. Louis squad.
Bobby Ryan (ANA)- Ryan was 22 years old and brought an unmatched combination of size and talent when he impressed Brian Burke and company enough to land a spot on the US roster at the last Olympic games. He ended his 2010-2011 season with his third straight 30 goal campaign. His production, along with the rest of the Ducks this season, has dropped off a bit, but barring any drastic changes, at 26, he will likely be too talented and too important to leave off this roster.
Ryan Callahan (NYR)- The Rangers Captain gained valuable International experience when he and Chris Drury teamed up to form a formidable Penalty Killing tandem in Vancouver. He is on pace to surpass his career high of 48 points set last season as the Blue Shirts race towards the best record in the Eastern Conference.
The Vets (Over 30)
Chris Drury (Retired), Jamie Langenbrunner (STL), Ryan Malone (TBL)-
Drury struggled through injury in 2010-2011 before calling an end to a storied career. He enjoyed success at the Collegiate, NHL, and International levels and his leadership will certainly be missed. Langenbrunner also brought leadership to the US squad and chipped in 4 points while logging valuable minutes. He has recorded just 4 goals this season and as 2014 approaches, he will be approaching 40, so in all likelihood, the Americans will look elsewhere for veterans to bring along their young stars. Malone is and interesting case. Few saw him having the impact he had in 2010 when he finished the tournament among the United States leaders in scoring with 5 points in 6 games. The Pittsburgh native will be 34 in two years, and time will tell if he will still be able to add the physical presence that made him so valuable in Vancouver.
Who’s Next? (2010 scratches and up and coming talent)
Jason Pominville (BUF), Max Pacioretty (MTL), David Booth (VAN), Colin Wilson (NAS), James van Riemsdyk (PHI), Brandon Dubinsky (NYR)-
Pomniville, a dual citizen who opted to play for the U.S. at the 2008 World Championships, has become an exceptional leader for the Sabres on and off the ice in the past couple of seasons. Following his first All Star selection this winter, expect his confidence to be sky high as he gears up for a shot at the 2014 games.
After a split and injury shortened season in 2010-2011, Pacioretty is enjoying a breakout year for the Canadiens with 22 goals and 41 points through 52 games. He will be looking to continue to develop and impress during the next year and a half with his eyes set on a roster spot in Sochi.
Booth has shown 30 goal potential, but it became clear earlier this season he needed a fresh start. He got that chance in Vancouver where he is surrounded by a number of talented players in a market where the game is paramount for the first time in his NHL career. It will be interesting to see how he continues to react and the type of numbers he can put up, as well as how he handles his first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring.
Colin Wilson is a talented young center for the Nashville Predators. After putting up 34 points in his first full season with the Preds, he is on pace to surpass that total with ease this year. Depending on the strides he makes in this off season, he could be an interesting consideration for one of the final roster spots in Russia.
JVR was a second overall pick and was rewarded handsomely for the potential the Flyers front office saw in him this offseason when they gave him a long term contract. Since then, he has had a bit of a mediocre season and been mentioned in several trade talks. There is no question the talent is there for the power forward, but his game has a ways to go if he hopes to crack the U.S. line up.
Dubinsky is a guy opposing teams and fan bases love to hate. If he can stay consistent and have the same impact on his international foes as he does in the National Hockey League, he just may have a spot waiting for him on the Team USA roster as well.
Stay tuned for many more months of speculation from amateur and professional bloggers, and passionate and hockey crazed fans. Check back later this week for the breakdown from the blue line and in the crease.