Editor’s note: Ripping a page right out of the NCAA’s book, the United States of Hockey is naming three, that’s right, three All-America teams. Why let the college folks have all the fun? The three All-America teams will feature the American-born players I feel are the best at their individual position. There will be an All-America team made up of NHL players, one for college hockey (naturally) and another featuring 2012 Draft-eligible prospects. I’ll be naming six players to each of the three teams, while also throwing out some honorable mentions. The All-America teams will be revisited at both the half-way point and the end of the hockey season. They might look the same, they might look different and that’s the fun of doing it in the preseason.
It should be a particularly exciting season for American-born players as there are a lot of great young players stepping into big roles on teams. Some are just entering their prime.
Mike Modano’s retirement a short time ago closed the book on American hockey’s “Greatest Generation.” However, it’s time for this new crop to forge their own legacy. It appears they have the talent, depth and youth to do it. We’re only seeing a glimpse of what’s to come.
That new generation is climbing to hockey stardom. Some of the players on this All-America team have already achieved star status on a national level. There are a few household names on the list and perhaps a few soon-to-be household names as well.
This All-America team was handled a little bit differently than the previous two on USofH. I’ll list the position, the player and an explanation for that player’s inclusion. Then I’ll also list a second-team selection with a briefer description, followed by the honorable mentions.
There were a few really tough decisions, which is always a good sign. Find out who made the cut after the jump….
After the 2010 Olympics, was there a more popular American player than Zach Parise? Maybe Ryan Miller, maybe. Parise is coming off of a season lost to injury, which should give him added motivation. He’s also under a one-year contract with New Jersey, more motivation. You know what should be scary to everyone? A motivated Zach Parise.
The recently named captain of the Devils is the owner of the best season by an American player since the lockout. No American has topped Parise’s 94-point output from 2008-09 in the last six years.
Parise may not get to that same point total as he comes back from an injury-shortened season, but if he remains healthy, he should be back to his old productive self. When he’s at full speed, he’s one of the most exciting players in the league to watch, American or not.
2nd Team: James van Riemsdyk – Philadelphia Flyers
The former second overall selection had a solid sophomore season in the NHL, but it was his playoff performance that really turned heads. His seven goals were ninth best in the NHL postseason. He earned a big pay day from the Flyers. The Flyers paid for potential and there will be pressure on JVR to live up to that potential. His skill set and size could make him one of the elite power forwards in the league. He’s one to watch for sure.
Honorable Mention: R.J. Umberger, Columbus Blue Jackets; David Booth, Florida Panthers; Ryan Malone, Tampa Bay Lightning
This was one of the easier calls to make on this list. After the season Kesler put together in 2010-11, he’d be impossible to unseat. Despite the fact that he’ll start the season on the shelf as he recovers from hip surgery, Kesler is the best American center in the game and it isn’t really that close.
The reigning Selke Trophy winner brought his stereotypical good defense last season, but totaled a career high 41 goals. His previous best was 25. It would be difficult for Kesler to match that goal total this year, but he is entering the prime of his career. Keep in mind he’s only 27 years old.
As part of one of the best teams in the NHL over the last few seasons, Kesler isn’t even the best player on his team, but without him the Canucks couldn’t hope to have the same success. Expect another big year out of the Canucks and Kesler in 2011-12.
2nd Team: Paul Stastny – Colorado Avalanche
Statny is an easy guy to forget, tucked away in Colorado, but he’s a high end offensive player. Having eclipsed 70 points three times and 20 goals four times in his young career, Stastny can produce. He’s also a vital part of the Avalanche. Take him away and you’ve got a pretty mediocre team. Colorado is an unlikely playoff contender in 2011-12, but Stastny should continue to prove he’s becoming an elite NHL centerman.
Honorable Mention: Brandon Dubinsky, New York Rangers; Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks; Derek Stepan, New York Rangers
This was the toughest decision of them all. Right wing is an incredibly deep position when it comes to Americans. Oddly enough, Patrick Kane might not even be a right wing for much longer as the Blackhawks have been testing him out at center. It looks as though he may even start the season centering the Blackhawks second line.
In Kane’s four NHL seasons, he’s never finished with less than 70 points. Despite missing nine games last year with injury, Kane posted his second highest point total of his career. There are few Americans more naturally skilled than Kane. His puck handling, vision and shot are all elite. At just 22, we haven’t even seen his best just yet. That’s the frightening part.
2nd Team: Bobby Ryan – Anaheim Ducks/Phil Kessel – Toronto Maple Leafs
The Right Wing decision was so tough, I had to put two guys on the second team and the honorable mention list is pretty good too. Kane, Ryan and Kessel are all really oustanding players and any one of them would have been a good choice for the All-America team. Because of what Kane has done at his age and what I think he can accomplish with a healthy season, he got the nod. However, Bobby Ryan and Phil Kessel are essentially a guaranteed 30 goals a season. There aren’t many players in the league that can score as consistently as these two guys. It was a tough decision, but it could change as the season goes on. I expect some serious movement on this list come the half-way point.
Honorable Mention: Dustin Brown, L.A. Kings; David Backes, St. Louis Blues (see what I mean? That’s a lot of talent!)
One day, a lot of people are going to realize Ryan Suter is an elite NHL defenseman. For my money, he’s the very best American defenseman in the game right now. It’s not even a debate.
Suter often gets overlooked because he’s in Nashville and has some kid named Weber stealing the spotlight. However, Suter is as steady as they come defensively and has the ability to get the puck up ice and contribute on the offensive end. He’s physical and smart. When Nashville trots out the Weber-Suter combo it is perhaps the best pair in the NHL.
Suter is only 26 years old but he plays like he’s 36. The Preds might be in a heap of trouble when he becomes a free agent because just about everybody will want him on their club.
Gary Suter is one of the best American defensemen in the history of the NHL, but one day, I’d expect Gary’s nephew to creep past him on that list. Ryan Suter carries on his family tradition pretty darn well.
Here’s one of the tougher, and perhaps more controversial picks for this list. Johnson gets the nod for a number of reasons, the first is that this could be a big season for the Kings. If that team is going to have success, as in a deep playoff run, it will need Johnson to put up another career year.
His point totals don’t always reflect the talent, but Jack Johnson is one of the elite offensive defensemen in the league. He has a tremendous skill set and plays with an edge. He’ll also be surrounded by a talented team in 2011-12.
Johnson is another really young guy who still has his best years ahead of him. This could be his breakout season, and that’s why Jack Johnson makes the All-America squad.
2nd Team: Keith Yandle – Phoenix Coyotes
I debated between Yandle and Johnson for days. There’s no question Yandle has become an elite offensive defenseman, but I wonder if he’ll be able to match his career season of last year. I don’t think his performance last year was a fluke, by any means, but he was in a contract year. Yandle got a nice little pay day from Phoenix, too. He isn’t surrounded by the same talent as Johnson is either, and that could hurt his numbers. Either way, Keith Yandle has stepped into the spotlight as a tremendous offensive defenseman. He very easily could be the end-of-season All-American on D. Just had to give Johnson the slight edge.
2nd Team: Alex Goligoski – Dallas Stars
GoGo is a pretty apropos nickname for Goligoski. Sure, it’s part of his surname, but it can also be a reference to his offensive ability. He makes the Dallas Stars better. The young defenseman played in 83 games last season and posted 46 points. Some players see production dip when they get traded, as Goligoski did midseason, but his numbers actually got better. He’ll be a focal point of Dallas’s attack and should see an increase in numbers. Goligoski will continue to fly under-the-radar, but he is poised for a big year.
Honroable Mention: Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets; Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks; Erik Johnson, Colorado Avalanche; Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis Blues; Ryan Whitney, Edmonton Oilers (EDIT: I inadvertently left off Brooks Orpik, Pittsburgh Penguins, from this list. He didn’t make it from notebook to blog post. Apologies!)
I know. I know. Tim Thomas won the Vezina Trophy and the Stanley Cup. I know. There are few bigger Timmah fans than me, but I strongly feel this is going to be a big year for Ryan Miller.
Goaltender has become a position of strength for the United States. Thomas and Miller have become the modern-day Richter and Vanbiesbrouck, but better. The pair has combined to win the last three Vezina Trophies. That’s pretty unbelievable. Still, it’s going to be hard to expect Thomas to repeat his performance of last season. I know, never doubt Tim Thomas, but I am doubting him less and believing in Miller more.
The revamped Buffalo Sabres aren’t actually a ton better on paper than they were last year despite all that money they spent, but they are better. Miller is still going to be the key to the team’s success. He’ll play a whole bunch of games and should have a nice season behind a better defensive group. If the Sabres are going to make any kind of a run, it’s going to be because of Miller.
Thomas and Miller should battle this entire season as top American goaltender, but they’ll also have Jonathan Quick nipping at their heels with the solid group he has in front of him in L.A.
No matter how you slice it, the top three American goaltenders are pretty darn good.
2nd Team: Tim Thomas – Boston Bruins
Yeah, bet you couldn’t have guessed this one. Timmy Thomas was at his absolute best last season and throughout the playoffs. It will be tough for him to duplicate that success, but even if he gets close, he’ll make another Vezina run. One of the best stories in the NHL, Thomas is going to continue to inspire in 2011-12.
Honorable Mention: Jonathan Quick, L.A. Kings; Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
Now to quickly dole out some preseason awards:
Mike Modano Award – American MVP
Zach Parise – Assuming he stays healthy, Parise will captain the Devils to a bounceback season.
Joey Mullen Award – Top American Scorer
Patrick Kane — Kane is looking like he might have a career year, perhaps even of the 100-point variety. If he’s playing center, watch the assist total skyrocket, and he’ll undoubtedly chip in plenty of goals on a dynamic Blackhawks squad.
Brian Leetch Trophy – American Rookie of the Year
Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes — The Hurricanes believe in their 19-year-old defenseman so much, GM Jim Rutherford believes Faulk can step into Carolina’s top-four right now. If he’s a top-four NHL defenseman at 19, this will be a cakewalk for him.
Tim Thomas Trophy – American Playoff MVP
Ryan Kesler — A healthy Kes, is a dominant Kes. He was great before his hip acted up late in Vancouver’s run to the final.
There it is, folks. Your 2011-12 NHL Preseason All-America Team. It was a blast to put together, and hopefully you enjoyed it. Again, we’ll revisit this list at the All-Star Break and once again at the end of the regular season.
It’s time to drop the puck. As legendary American coach “Badger” Bob Johnson famously said, “It’s a great day for hockey!”