David Poile is a really smart guy who will do a great job as the general manager of the United States Olympic team that will compete in Sochi. But Intelligent Hockey has its own ideas of what is required to win a gold medal. The U.S. team proposed below blends skill, speed, and leadership, and is comprised of players who are healthy and playing well this season. IH has chosen it with the belief that it would beat some of the more favored competitors. Here is the team that will bring home the gold for the U.S.
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics are from ExtraSkater.com.
Zach Parise-Ryan Kesler-Phil Kessel
It is no secret that IH loves Patrick Kane’s impact and believes him to be a true Hart Trophy candidate. For that reason, he gets his own line to lead, like he does with the Chicago Blackhawks.
With this first line, there is a lot to like. With Zach Parise at left wing, you have a forward with an unrelenting work ethic, a good passer, and someone who will drive the puck up the ice. Parise is second on the Minnesota Wild in Corsi and Fenwick relative, and he faces the toughest quality of competition. He is a dynamo who will go into the corners and get his hands dirty, and who likes to get the puck on net. Parise does his best work along the goal line; in that area, he wins a lot of puck battles.
Getting the puck on net dovetails nicely with what center Ryan Kesler does very well, since he is an overpowering mauler around the net who is second on the Canucks in goals per 60 minutes. Kesler establishes a presence around the net and shovels in rebounds, and he does so against the highest quality of competition among all Canucks players who are not the Sedin twins. Kesler can shoot, skate, and hit and, when he is playing angry, he does all three proficiently. Additionally, he is a very good two-way center who will play responsibly in front of the U.S. goaltender.
On the right wing is Phil Kessel who, along with Kane, is one of the best zone-entry players in the NHL. The Maple Leafs are one of the worst possession teams in the NHL, which can be attributed to their lack of quality forwards and defensemen. Their scoring depth is extremely top-heavy, but Kessel, being Kessel, allows them to stay afloat (the Leafs are poised for a wild card spot).
Kessel is leading his team in points per 60 minutes, goals per 60 minutes, and assists per 60 minutes. His shots for also leads the team, and his PDO is way over 100, but partially this is because Kessel has a great shot and creates scoring chances consistently. He is a very gifted player with the puck, and his burst and elusiveness allow him to weave through the neutral zone into the offensive zone for the zone entry.
When either Kessel or Parise are gaining the zone, Kesler will be driving to the net (he plays a very good north-south game) and the other winger can duck into space in the defensive zone coverage. On the big ice there is more space so it may be easier for both wingers to find a soft spot in the defense. If the backpressure is effective, they could charge to the net too, because both wingers are very comfortable firing rubber on opposing goalies. Kessel is one of the most dynamic players in the league and — with Kesler’s and Parise’s highly-respected defensive skills — if Kessel turns the puck over in a bad area, then Parise and Kesler, along with the defense, can mitigate those errors.
Brandon Saad-David Backes-Patrick Kane
Kane has stated that he likes, when he is gaining the offensive zone, for his linemates to head to the net, and the big, powerful Backes can do that. Kane and Saad have experience playing together, and there is some chemistry already there. (If Kessel and JVR’s lines start out slowly, it might be wise to put those two together as well.)
Saad is a powerful skater who has great puck-protection skills and is becoming very adept at penetrating the defensive coverage. In fact, he leads the Chicago Blackhawks in Corsi and Fenwick, signifying the puck is moving favorably for Chicago when he is on the ice. His smooth skating and vision will make him an asset with these linemates.
Backes is a combination of skill and grit and, in a similar mold to Kesler, he provides shooting, passing, and hitting. Like Kesler, he also is very responsible defensively, and coach Ken Hitchcock uses Backes against the toughest quality of competition among the St. Louis skaters. Backes is also at the top in defensive zone start percentage at even strength, and can push attacking forwards away from the crease and push the play up the ice.
Kane is an absolute magician with the puck, and his ability to create scoring chances for himself and his teammates is incredible. He is second in the NHL in points per 60 minutes, and is lethal on the power play. He is an elite stickhandler, and an improving defensive player. His creativity will mesh nicely with the ready-to-shoot-from-close Backes and the mature-beyond-his-years Saad.
James Van Riemsdyk-Joe Pavelski-Bobby Ryan
There have been a lot of stories about how the U.S. does not need to claim underdog status heading into 2014 because they think they are good enough to win gold, and this third line illustrates why. Van Riemsdyk is huge, but has terrific mobility and is very good around the net and in tight spaces. He can score from sharp angles near the goaltender because he has good hands and understands that usually the best play is to get the puck on net. Van Riemsdyk has squared off against the second-best quality of competition among Toronto forwards, and his goals per 60 minutes stat is stout.
Joe Pavelski is a conscientious two-way center who leads the San Jose Sharks in defensive zone starts. He is good on and off the puck, plays power play and penalty kill for San Jose, and has a penetrating shot. He also was involved in one of IH’s favorite moments of the season, when Pavelski and Wild forward Matt Cooke collided and, instead of trying to steamroll the other player, both fell backwards like they were shot in the back because they were trying to draw a call.
New Jersey native Bobby Ryan has strong scoring ability. Even though he is not an excellent skater, he always gets where he needs to be and can handle tough competition. In fact, Ryan leads the Ottawa Senators in quality of competition, and his line of Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur has been one of the few bright spots for Ottawa this season. Ryan is a nimble passer and a gifted puck-handler, and he is one of those players who seems to find the puck at the right moment. This line has size, speed, skill, and some physicality. It can supply energy and offer scoring.
Max Pacioretty-Paul Stastny-Dustin Brown
This is a really, really good fourth line. Pacioretty brings the power forward component – he can skate, pass, and shoot while employing a mean streak. Pacioretty’s points per 60 minutes is second on Montreal, and this Connecticut native has nice hands, which allow him to achieve the zone entry and buy his teammates some time to find gaps in the defense.
Stastny is comfortable playing against top-flight forwards, and is third on Colorado in quality of competition. He can move the puck out of the zone after a defensive zone faceoff, and he has the second highest defensive zone start percentage among forwards on the Avalanche. Stastny also has experience playing in the Olympics and is an unappreciated offensive player.
Brown has a very impressive Corsi and Fewnick, and draws a ton of penalties (he drew one extra power play for every other game last season, per Hockey Prospectus). He also hits a lot, and expends a lot of energy while finding scoring chances for himself and his teammates.
All three players have poise with the puck, and can handle the workload of shutting down an opponent’s top line if employed to do so.
Forward reserves are Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan. If Callahan is injured, T.J. Oshie.
Ryan Suter-Erik Johnson
Both Suter and Johnson have Olympic experience, having represented the U.S. in Vancouver. Suter can alleviate any miscues his right-handed partner will make because that is what he does — he makes those around him better and erases mistakes. This is not just true when paired with Johnson – it is true for any player teamed with Suter.
Suter makes an outstanding outlet pass, shuts down opposing teams’ best forwards, and eats up an unfathomable amount of minutes (Suter leads the NHL in time on ice). He is one of the elite defensemen in the NHL and does everything very well. He also is the quarterback of the Minnesota Wild power play, and is skilled at finding the passing and shooting lanes from the point.
Johnson is a puck-moving defenseman who can push the pace and take a heavy shot against opponents’ best players. His offensive skills are good, and he can make the pass or find the open ice to get the puck out of the defensive zone, which he starts in a lot. The Suter-Johnson pairing seems like a natural top-line fit.
Ryan McDonagh-Keith Yandle
Both of these rearguards are lefties, but that will have to make do because the inexperience on the blue line if strictly doing lefty-righty pairing is worrisome. Plus, Yandle is comfortable playing with left-handed defenseman Oliver-Ekman Larsson, so a lefty defensive partner is old news. (On the Wild, lefty Suter plays with lefty Jonas Brodin, so Suter can be slotted with another lefty as well.)
But that will not be necessary because the Rangers’ McDonagh is one of the most mature and poised players in the league, as well as a strong skater who blocks shots and cleanly separates opponents from the puck. McDonagh and teammate Dan Girardi face the best quality of competition, but McDonagh still is able to thrive. McDonagh has good lateral mobility and can find the shooting and passing lanes.
Yandle has a little more of an offensive dimension to his game; he has a steady Corsi and Fenwick because he is skilled at moving the puck in the right direction. But McDonagh is very capable in the defensive zone if the United States gets hemmed in. Yandle has had his defensive struggles in the past, but he is a savvy veteran capable of handling the quality of competition and defensive duties.
Cam Fowler-Kevin Shattenkirk
Both backliners are young and still maturing into top-flight defensemen, but Fowler may have overtaken Shattenkirk. Along with his defensive partner Ben Lovejoy, Fowler faces the highest quality of competition on Anaheim, and his points per 60 minutes are highest among Ducks’ defensemen. Amazingly, Fowler is 12th in the NHL in total time on ice. Still, both of these defenders have offensive upside and are good skaters – this is a very potent third pairing.
Fowler can make the first pass out of the defensive zone and, while seeing more difficult assignments this season than in any campaign in his career, he has fared extremely well. He can play a big role on special teams and is a consistent plus at even strength.
Shattenkirk will make mistakes, and Blues coach Ken Hitchcock understands his strengths and weaknesses. He has been getting advantageous zone starts, and his quality of competition has not been great relative to the other St. Louis defensemen. But he still remains a very good defenseman who adds offense and speed to a lineup. His Corsi and Fenwick are best among Blues’ defensemen, and his points per 60 minutes are the highest among Blues’ rearguards. His presence on the blue line is felt through his shot and his ability to create plays. Fowler has been a great all-around player this season. Together, they can be effective for 200 feet.
The extra defensive pair is Brooks Orpik and John Carlson.
Starter: Jonathan Quick
Even with the injuries he has sustained, and despite how poorly he played during the regular season in 2013, Quick has been phenomenal in the postseason. He registered an absurd .946 save percentage during the 2012 Kings’ Cup run, and a .934 save percentage in last season’s playoffs. Quick has looked impenetrable when the lights are shining brightest.
Quick has superb skating ability, and his push off to move side-to-side is renowned. He will take away the bottom of the net as well as any goalie in the NHL, and his ability to recover and save follow-up opportunities is excellent. He is tremendously athletic, and if a shooter tries to beat him high, he can rely on his reflexes to fight off the puck.
Backups: Ryan Miller and Cory Schneider
Miller was the starter for the United States in Vancouver, and he was fantastic, backstopping the United States to the Silver Medal. On Buffalo, the worst team in the NHL, Miller has posted a .924 save percentage. If Quick falters, Miller can jump in and do a starting-level job.
New Jersey Devils’ goaltender Cory Schneider has been alright with a .910 save percentage. Even though the save percentage of Detroit’s Jimmy Howard is identical to Schneider’s, the Devils’ goalie has been more consistent in his starts. Ottawa Senators’ goaltender Craig Anderson imploded this season, so the third roster spot is a de facto coin-flip between Schneider and Howard. Schneider likely will not get a chance to play, but if he does he will do an admirable job in net.