Saturday, February 13, 2010

Miracle on Ice: Part II?

miracle on ice usa
The greatest period in American hockey is over. Stars of the 80s and 90s like Brian Leetch, Pat LaFontaine, Tony Amonte, John LeClair, Jeremy Roenick, Darien Hatcher, and Mike Richter have all retired. Players like Keith Tkachuk, Mike Modano, and (amazingly) Chris Chelios are all close to the end of their careers. These are the players that led the USA to its most successful era ever, which included a win at the World Cup in 1996 and an Olympic Silver medal at the 2002 Salt Lake Games.

The Silver medal team was a group largely composed of older American players listed above and it briefly looked like there would be a void of American talent upon their retirement. The younger American players at the time, such as Chris Drury and Adam Deadmarsh, failed to develop into stars, which made the departure of long-time American stalwarts even worse.

There is now a young contingent of American players that are poised to once again bring the United States to the upper-echelon in international hockey. This year's Olympic squad proves that. The team is sacrificing experienced players like Mike Modano and Scott Gomez for many players who aren't even 25.

There is an American renaissance upon us. This year’s Olympic squad may be very young, but they are very talented. The majority of the offensive load will fall on Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, and Phil Kessel, while players like Bobby Ryan, Paul Stasny, and Ryan Malone will make up the secondary scoring. This is a group that has a lot of speed, but very little size. This wouldn’t be as big an issue on international ice, but since the tournament is in Canada they might be in tough against bigger and stronger players. The forward group also consists of some great two-way players, including Dustin Brown, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Ryan Kesler. These are physical players who will likely be called upon to defend against the opposition’s best players. The rest of the forwards are solid players like David Backes, Joe Pavelski, and Ryan Callahan. Chris Drury made the team, ostensibly for leadership, although, I’m not sure how worthy a selection he was over someone like Tim Connolly who is currently top-30 in points scored.

This is a very young group of players who will benefit immensely from the opportunity to play against the world’s best. At this point only Zach Parise and Patrick Kane are premier players in the league, while Kessel, Ryan, and Stasny have another level or two to achieve before joining them.

The forwards may lack the offensive firepower of both Canada and Russia, but they are equally as talented as any of the other squads in the tournament. Because of their speed, this could be a very entertaining team to watch against the tournament’s second tier teams.

The major strength of the US lies between the pipes. Ryan Miller will start the majority of the games and has posted gaudy numbers this year. He is currently tied for the league lead in save percentage with an astounding .930% and his goals against is a paltry 2.19, which is good enough for third in the league behind Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi (two goalies who have played fewer games than Miller combined). Although, the intense workload may be wearing Miller down as he is 0-3-2 in his last five games with a GAA of 3.56 and a .890% and his team is faltering. Miller has played in 51 games, which ties him for eight most, but he is also only 170 pounds, while standing at 6’2. By comparison, Martin Brodeur is 6’2 and weighs 215 pounds. Maybe this means Miller is less capable of performing at an extremely high level while handling a strenuous workload. He played 76 games in 2007-2008, but his numbers weren't as impressive (2.64 GAA and .906%). Or maybe his recent slump is just that – a slump.

The team’s major weakness is on defence, which makes their goaltending even more integral to their success. The defence is largely composed of players capable of being quality top-4 defenceman on their respective teams, but they lack true number one defencemen. The defence is composed of Jack and Erik Johnson, Ryan Suter, Ryan Whitney, Brian Rafalski, Brooks Orpik, and Tim Gleason. None of these names jump out at you, but they are all capable players. Although, I’m uncertain they will remain capable when forced to face a line like Ovechkin-Malkin-Kovalchuk or Iginla-Crosby-Nash. I think in an international tournament against the game’s best forwards these players will be out of their league.

I don’t believe we will see a second coming of the Miracle on Ice team, but this U.S. squad is certainly capable of shocking some teams and winning a medal. It would be truly shocking if they upset either Canada or Russia, but in a short tournament like the Olympics it isn’t always who has the best players that wins. It’s more likely that the players able to come together as a team the quickest will gain a considerable advantage over their opponents, regardless of star power.

Plus, the U.S. team enters the tournament without any pressure. Russia and Canada are clearly the favourites, while the Swedes are the defending Olympic champions and the Fins won Silver in Torino. The IIHF ranks the American’s tied for fifth with the Czech Republic behind the aforementioned teams on their world ranking. This ranking is based on the last four World Championships and the Torino Olympics. Iceland ranks 37th (behind Israel!) since the fictional world championships in D2 doesn’t count.

This won’t be the second coming of the Soviet conquerors of 1980, but a bronze medal is well within the reach of this young team.


Theodore said...

I definitely wrote off the Americans but those top two lines are actually really good, probably will be more of a power in the next Olympics, but I think still capable of pulling off a shocker. But comparatively speaking, Canada's going to be throwing Iginla-Crosby-Nash, and Heatley-Marleau-Thornton out there, all players in the top 25 of league scoring (the Sharks line all in the top 13), and those are offensive powers that the Americans or maybe any country, just can't match.

And as much as I was hating the idea of starting the Sharks' three as the top Canadian line, it could be the best result based on the chemistry they've already established, something that one day of preparation just can't bring for the Iginla-Crosby-Nash line.

Matt Horner said...

I'm trying really hard to get behind the Sharks line, if only for this Olympics. It's hard! I found myself bashing them last night and the tournament's about the begin! I need to give my support fully.

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