The U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey team held its second practice in Sochi Tuesday. Once again, head coach Dan Bylsma was experimenting with lines as most of them changed from the first practice held on Monday.
This is not uncommon for the early stages when the team comes together, but they do have precious little time to gel and find some familiarity with linemates and special teams units. The fact that Team USA opens with a tough Slovakia squad and Russia for its first two games doesn’t offer the most favorable in-game situations to try things out, so these practices are key.
It’s interesting to see what Bylsma has been doing so far. On Monday, at least two players on every line had played together before, which made for some weird mixes, but when you’re trying to manufacture chemistry quickly, made sense. Tuesday’s lines are blended up pretty good though.
Perhaps Bylsma doesn’t want to tip his hand too much in terms of his lineup, which also isn’t a bad strategy, but we won’t know what the official lines are like until an hour before the first game when teams must submit lineups to the IIHF.
Coming up after the jump, a look at the lines and D pairings with some thoughts on each.
These lines come via Corey Masisak of NHL.com:
James van Riemsdyk – Joe Pavelski – Phil Kessel
Zach Parise – David Backes – Ryan Callahan
Max Pacioretty – Ryan Kesler – Patrick Kane
Dustin Brown – Paul Stastny – T.J. Oshie
Extras: Blake Wheeler, Derek Stepan
Ryan Suter – Kevin Shattenkirk
Ryan McDonagh – John Carlson
Brooks Orpik – Paul Martin
Cam Fowler – Justin Faulk
Bylsma’s not going to reveal the starting goalie until game day it sounds like.
– Seeing as these changed from yesterday, it’s probably not worth reading into them too much, but there’s still two days before the first game and over-analyzing stuff like this is fun, so we’re going to do it anyway. Until the lineup is out for the first game, then I won’t view any of these as set in stone. Same goes for labeling something line 1 or 2 or 3 or 4. The lines don’t roll like they do in the NHL, typically.
– No surprise to see JVR, Pavelski and Kessel still together. It makes a lot of sense on a lot of levels and could end up as Team USA’s primary scoring unit. There’s a lot to like about this group from an offensive perspective.
– Interesting to see Max Pacioretty moved up to a line with Ryan Kesler and Patrick Kane. He offers a big-bodied presence and a proven ability to score, which would give the U.S. more of a top-six kind of feel.
– The biggest surprise to me was seeing T.J. Oshie moved away from David Backes. I don’t know if it will stay that way, but putting Ryan Callahan with David Backes and Zach Parise seems to put a lot of weight on Parise to bring the offense. Bylsma noted in his press conference Tuesday that he wants Team USA’s identity to be “the toughest team to play against.” That would be an apt description for this line. There’s physicality, speed and enough offense to keep D on heels.
– Brown going with Stastny and Oshie is another one of those “tough-to-play-against” lines. None of these guys are strangers to matching up against top opposing lines. I’m not entirely sure the best utilization of this line though beyond getting some energy shifts. Not sure I see this as a line that will stay together, mainly because I believe Oshie will end up with Backes more often than not.
– On the defense, this is a mix more in line with what I thought we’d see from Team USA, with more balance among right and left shots. That said, I still don’t think it will be worth putting a ton of stock into what the D looks like in practice as it could change a lot throughout the course of each game.
– What is less clear about the D is who will sit. It would seem likely that it will be one of Fowler or Faulk, the two youngest guys on the blue line. Bylsma has been especially complimentary of Faulk in the past and he may offer a little more versatility, but both have tools that can keep them in the lineup. Fowler saw some special teams time as well, so that is a good sign for his status in the lineup. The U.S. has good depth here on D, even though they might not have superstar recognition.
Masisak also shared a few special teams units he noticed from the practices and they’re rather intriguing:
Looking at those groups, it’s hard to argue with what the U.S. can bring offensively. They have a lot of firepower at their disposal this year. They have a good mix of size and skill on each unit as getting a net-front presence is such a huge key internationally. So is making the opposing PK move, like it is on any surface.
I don’t think anyone would argue if the U.S. started with these exact units when the games go live, but changes are certainly possible early and often.
The U.S. still has another day of practice before they get going against Slovakia. Stay tuned for more practice coverage and other thoughts leading up to the highly-anticipated opening game Thursday.