The U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team gathered on the ice for the first time as a group Monday in Sochi. With that first practice comes the coaches beginning with their experimentation process with forward lines and D pairings.
Some news also came out of the first practice as well. General manager David Poile will not be joining Team USA in Sochi due to the injuries he suffered after getting hit by a puck at Nashville’s morning skate Thursday. It’s such a shame as this was a post that clearly energized Poile and one that he put a lot of time and effort into. Ray Shero will be acting GM, which really only matters as him being a sounding board for the coaching staff and for him to participate in directorate meetings as a representative of Team USA. It’s really too bad.
Getting back to the lines, according to reporters on the scene, here is what those looked like (in no particular order). Keep in mind that the team will likely dress 13 forwards and seven defensmen:
James van Riemsdyk – Joe Pavelski – Phil Kessel
Dustin Brown – Ryan Kesler – Patrick Kane
Zach Parise – David Backes – T.J. Oshie
Ryan Callahan – Paul Stastny – Max Pacioretty
Extras: Blake Wheeler, Derek Stepan
Ryan Suter – Cam Fowler
Ryan McDonagh – John Carlson
Kevin Shattenkirk – Paul Martin
Brooks Orpik – Justin Faulk
Bylsma did not tip his hand on who will start in goal, so put Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick and Jimmy Howard in no particular order.
Thoughts on the practice lineup:
— When it comes to the defense, I put very, very little stock in any of the combos used in practice and even when the games go live. I think there won’t be a ton of set-in-stone partnerships, especially since Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik were broken up apparently today. I think this is something that will remain in flux. To me, building chemistry is far more important for the forwards than the D. These guys will know how to play because they play in every situation on their NHL squads, basically.
— Considering that Ryan Suter is going to play a ton, you’d expect a revolving door with him that will go by situations.
— What is less clear is which of these eight D will sit. That may not be clear until the lineup is submitted for Thursday’s opener against Slovakia
— On the forwards, it looks like Bylsma is discarding the typical “top-nine” that you’d see as international hockey’s answer to top-six in the NHL. There is scoring on every single line, with no prototypical energy or grind line or whatever you want to call it. The other thing is that I don’t think you could fairly list these as Lines 1-4, as international hockey isn’t played the same way NHL hockey is. The lines tend to be rolled more situationally since every game counts on some level. Until they actually play, I don’t think I’ll be labeling any of them.
— All of these could be different by tomorrow, too, but we’re all excited, so let’s talk about them some.
— Every single line includes at least two players that either currently play together or have played together at some point in their careers.
— The only line that didn’t surprise me was the group of van Riemsdyk and Kessel with Pavelski. It almost makes too much sense. You’ve got three of the best producers in the NHL this season at their respective positions and you put them together. On top of that, Kessel and van Riemsdyk work incredibly well together in Toronto, so there’s no way Bylsma breaks that up. Then Pavelski centered Kessel at the 2010 Olympics, so there’s some familiarity there. I believe they also played some youth hockey together in the Madison, Wis., area growing up.
— Perhaps the most shocking line was Dustin Brown, Ryan Kesler and Patrick Kane, largely because Brown has been struggling to produce this year. If you have a good memory, you may recall that this trio was a line in 2010. Kane and Kesler connected for the first regulation goal in the gold-medal game. The thing about short tournaments is that you have to find ways to get some of that familiarity going right away. Even if this line doesn’t seem like it should work and four years is a long time between shifts together, it’s something. If it doesn’t work, it will be recognizable pretty quickly. Plus you have that 13th forward that gives you flexibility to juggle without disrupting the whole roster.
— The line with Paul Stastny, Ryan Callahan and Max Pacioretty is another one of those lines that seems kind of mishmashed a bit. However, Stastny and Pacioretty were linemates at the 2012 IIHF World Championship and absolutely ripped it up together. They looked like they had been together for years, as Pacioretty put up 12 points in eight games, while Stastny had nine. Then you throw in Callahan and you’ve got a really good two way line with some power and physicality.
— The line featuring Zach Parise, David Backes and T.J. Oshie could end up being your energy line, though not the kind you’re used to seeing in the NHL. That line will give you good minutes in all situations and has plenty of offensive pop. I had to think about this one for a while, but I think once it actually gets going, it could be really interesting. It was obvious Oshie and Backes were going to be together as they already have that chemistry. I had thoughts of Parise and Brown in opposite spots, but I think this line gives you a good mix of speed, power and some edge. I think this will be the line I’m most intrigued to see if and how it works.
— One of Wheeler and Stepan are likely to end up as scratches and you could make a good argument for either to be in the lineup. The fact that Stepan is a center makes him the more versatile of the two, as you can put him down the middle or on a wing if need be. Wheeler offers size and speed and could be a good option off the bench to fill in when one of the wings isn’t bringing enough offense. Think about adding him to the Kesler-Kane line for a few shifts and those concerns about Brown’s production are less of an issue. There’s a lot of different ways this one could go.
The biggest takeaway is that there are more practices left and things will probably change. That said, this is a good first glimpse into the head of Dan Bylsma and seeing where he wants to go with things.
Coaches have to be willing to adapt, because there will be times when something they think will work doesn’t. Identifying when that’s the case and making the adjustments to fix it quickly can be the difference between a good tournament and a bad tournament. You get a maximum of seven games, so making decisions on the fly is crucial. This is an interesting start, but it’s anybody’s guess if this is how it will finish.
Side Note: As I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be providing a lot of Olympic content at CBSSports.com. Here’s my group-by-group preview featuring quick thoughts on all 12 teams in the men’s tournament.