It was never going to be easy. No one would have argued that, given the NHL’s decision to keep players out of the 2018 Olympics. But building the 2018 U.S. Olympic Men’s Hockey Team roster is going to be far more challenging than anyone is willing to let on.
That’s not to say that USA Hockey can’t put together a competitive roster, but putting a roster together is far from the only hurdle they’ll face in the lofty quest to secure a medal of any color. There are obviously also concerns about the opposition in the actual tournament, the unpredictable nature of short tournaments in general and other on-ice things. But most of all, the challenge of building the 2018 men’s Olympic team comes down to logistics.
As I noted in a recent post, USA Hockey took a really good first step in building a staff that is uniquely qualified to lead this team. I think they have the right people in place. There is one issue, however. For most of the staff, preparing for the Olympics is not their first and only job. Even general manager Jim Johannson will have other responsibilities, like preparing a World Junior team for a title defense on home ice and the everyday duties of being USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations. If anyone can do it, it’s him, but it’s still a lot to handle on top of building a team for the most important international hockey tournament that exists — with or without the NHL players.
To be clear, this isn’t something I view as a problem as I don’t think anyone knows the available player pool as comprehensively as Johannson does. But it is worth noting as one of the challenges that exists for USA’s GM.
The writing was already on the wall that this was a possibility, so Johannson had already built a list that he says runs about 80 to 90 players that are options for the Olympics. Those 80-90 players will span college hockey, recently retired or unsigned NHL players, the AHL and ECHL (so long as the players in question are not under NHL contract) in North America and a multitude of European pro leagues — most notably, the KHL (Russia), DEL (Germany), NLA (Switzerland), SHL (Sweden) and SM-Liiga (Finland). That’s a lot of ground to cover with six months to go before the Olympics.
So before I get into which players specifically are among those that either could be or should be under USA Hockey’s consideration, I thought it made sense to detail what the staff is up against as it tries to put together a medal contending team.
Limited collective evaluations
Not knowing for sure if the NHL was going to the Olympics held a lot of things up. One big thing was the fact that USA Hockey could not hold a camp with prospective Olympians in the summer. Even the NHL players convened in August prior to the Olympics when they participated. If nothing else, it was a chance to address the team and lay out expectations, get players to know each other a bit and, if they were able to get them on the ice, a chance to see how they all looked side-by-side.
To provide a little extra context, USA Hockey had their annual World Junior camp, bringing 40-plus players under the same roof and got at least three games of each player in that camp. They’ll get another week-plus of camp before the actual World Junior tournament. That gets everyone on the same playing field, in the same situations and in under the same roof providing valuable information for the coaches and management staff for how they can build their roster.
With the disparate leagues USA Hockey has to pull from for the Olympics, as of right now, the only time they will be able to get a large collection of prospective players together is the Deutschland Cup. They’ll bring around 30 players and will get a grand total of three games in the November tournament. They’ll play Slovakia, Russia and Germany over three days with almost no prep time before the tournament. The roster is expected to consist of their most likely candidates from the European pro leagues to join Team USA in PyeongChang.
The good news about that tournament for the U.S. is that they’ll get an early look at Slovakia and Russia, which will both be in the Americans’ prelim group in the Olympics. It might not be the ideal setting to gain that information, but it’s better than nothing.
Other than that, it is not terribly clear how much time the 25 players that ultimately make the team will have for camp prior to the Olympics. For the NHLers, it was a matter of days. You can get away with that when you’re dealing with the world’s elite players. It’s a lot harder to do when you’re putting a team together of lower-tier players from all sorts of different backgrounds and levels of experience.
Meanwhile, you look at what Hockey Canada put together for a pre-Olympic schedule and players from their Olympic selection pool are going to get a lot of reps together. They have teams in two tournaments this month, they’ll play in Finland’s Karjala Cup in November, the Channel One Cup in Russia in December and finally the Spengler Cup around the holidays. Even if they’re not going to have the full team together before the Olympics, they’re going to have a group of players that got a lot of reps under head coach Willie Desjardins, who has the Olympic team as his full-time job this year, against decent competition. To play a schedule like this, it costs a ton of money, but it’s a good way to try to level the playing field in a unique year.
This was highlighted in more detail by Stephen Whyno of the Associated Press Sunday. The two organizations are taking completely different approaches to Olympic preparation. There’s no way to know now which will be better, but one would think Canada’s roster is going to at least have more familiarity with both the coach and each other.
Without that luxury of so many reps together, it’s going to be up to Granato and the coaching staff to bring this team together quickly and hope for some quick studies when it comes to systems and style of play.
Limited pool of players in North America
When the U.S. was putting non-NHL Olympic teams together as recently as the mid 1990s, they had a pretty decent-sized pool of players who were based in North America to evaluate. They also were able to centralize for the half-season leading up to the Olympics to keep evals nice and tight in house.
That won’t be the case this year as the U.S. will not have access to any player under NHL contract, whether they’re in the minors or not. That takes out a huge chunk. Not only that, but the way the landscape is now, players are signing younger and younger and that knocks out the kind of player the U.S. was accustomed to getting.
There will definitely be a number of college players on Team USA’s roster and there could be a few guys playing on AHL-only or ECHL-only contracts, but by necessity Team USA is going to have to look to Europe to fill a large portion of its roster.
Going through USA Hockey’s all-time Olympic roster, only four players who made the Olympic team previously were currently playing professionally in Europe at the time of their selection. Without question, this is going to be the most unique U.S. roster we’ve seen at the Olympics.
Because such a large pool of players is going to be in Europe, scouting them with the appropriate level of frequency is going to be a bit challenging for the USA staff, especially since this team won’t be everyone’s sole focus. It sounds like part of the plan is to have assistant coach Ron Rolston getting a lot of video of players in the selection pool.
While they’ll do the best they can, I think USA’s roster is going to end up being filled out by players they’re more familiar with. That would mean players that have appeared in a World Championship or Deutschland Cup within the last several years, as well as players with the NTDP or World Juniors on their resume. Given the situation, it only makes sense to go with some players that they know enough about to at least feel more comfortable. But again, that puts some limitations on the selection pool.
In that AP article by Whyno, Johannson said this about scouting the team:
U.S. GM Jim Johannson began touching base with players on a serious level in June, after roster rules were set . He doesn’t plan to put a lot of mileage into in-person scouting over the next couple of months.
“In many cases we know what those players are,” said Johannson, who has been in charge of recent U.S. world junior and world championship teams. “I don’t think our goal is prior to December go running all across the world to see what do these guys got. Let their season get going.”
By my count, there are 27 players not currently under NHL contract that have participated in a World Championship since 2010 that could be under consideration. Nine of those players have won bronze medals at that tournament, but almost all of them were minor players on those teams. There is an additional 31 or so from the last two Deutschland Cup teams who could end up being under consideration as well. There are certainly more than a few that also have World Junior experience in the mix.
Not every single one of the players I counted are likely under Olympic consideration, but they’ve got about half of the legitimate selection pool filled with players with recent or semi-recent international experience at the professional level. That doesn’t hurt. I wouldn’t be stunned to see the vast majority of the roster come from that pool of players.
So, how many college guys could USA take?
This is the question I’m really interested to find out. To me, the most skilled players available to the U.S. are going to come from the college ranks. That said, they can’t send a college roster to PyeongChang and expect to legitimately contend.
Among the players in the running for Team USA, I have a hard time believing guys that never played in at least a World Junior will be under consideration. There are too many variables to take a chance on a young player with limited or no international experience unless he’s just absolutely going off in the NCAA.
At this point, I would be surprised to see more than seven or eight collegians make the team and I think that’s a high over/under mark. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but I think the pool is really limited at least heading into the season.
So many players signed at the end of last year that would have been legit contenders to make the team — no doubters like Charlie McAvoy, Clayton Keller, Colin White and Anders Bjork — but who could fault them for signing NHL contracts when they did? Plus, when they signed, it wasn’t 100 percent clear the NHL wasn’t going.
On my list of collegians most likely to make Team USA, and this is simply my opinion: Troy Terry (Denver), Jordan Greenway (BU), Adam Fox (Harvard), Ryan Donato (Harvard) and Casey Mittelstadt (Minnesota). I could see guys like Ryan Poehling (St. Cloud) and a few goalies in the mix, too. This is far from a comprehensive list of collegiate players among those being considered, though. I’m still working on putting that together.
Edit: Also add defenseman Daniel Brickley (Minnesota State) to this list of likely college options. He appeared in five games in the most recent World Championship and opted to return to school despite heavy NHL interest in the spring. Thanks to the ever-vigilant American hockey fan Jake Baskin for the reminder. Clearly I’m still shaking off the rust.
Goaltending could be interesting
While the U.S. is working with a limited pool overall, it’s particularly grave in the goaltending department. Frankly, there aren’t a ton of American pros without NHL contracts that have advanced pedigree.
The first two players that come to mind are David Leggio and Cal Heeter. Leggio, who was selected for a World Championship roster twice and appeared in one Deutschland Cup, plays in the German league and had pretty underwhelming numbers last season after posting a phenomenal year in 2015-16. Heeter has played on the last two Deutschland Cup teams, but spent last season in North America bouncing between the AHL and ECHL with mixed results. It is unclear where the former Flyers prospect will play next year.
Edit: Also, a goalie with Deutschland Cup experience and playing at a high level in the KHL with Jokerit is Ryan Zapolski. He had fair numbers last season in his first stint in the KHL, but has had high marks in previous years in Finland and the ECHL. Definitely a name to keep on the list (H/T to @JoeyPezzino11 for catching the omission)
The ECHL might actually be a decent place to look for goalies, though. Riley Gill is a veteran with three Kelly Cup titles under his belt. He was the ECHL’s goalie of the year last season with a .935 save percentage as the Allen Americans fell just short of the three-peat as champions. He has never played internationally for the U.S., however.
Other ECHLers to look at would include Michael Houser — former OHL player of the year — and former Ferris State standout C.J. Motte, among some others.
Then there’s the option of going young and looking at the World Junior tandem of Jake Oettinger, selected by Dallas in the first round this year, and Maple Leafs prospect Joseph Woll. Both are so young, but given the pool they have to work with they have to be under consideration and very well could be the best goalies available.
Uncertainty about veteran NHLers
There are more than a few NHL veterans that are currently in contract limbo right now. I would expect Drew Stafford and Brian Gionta to get contracts eventually. If either opted for Europe, that would help USA’s cause. I could also see John-Michael Liles, Matt Hendricks and Jimmy Hayes in the mix as all remain unsigned currently.
I also wonder if there would be any interest in Matt Cullen. The three-time Stanley Cup champion showed just how much he can still play over back-to-back title runs with the Penguins. He’s likely to retire and if he stays in shape, he might be worth giving a look at the Deutschland Cup and keeping him in the mix, if he’s interested. He’ll be 41 in November.
I think USA would jump at the chance to have a few players with very recent NHL experience, but as you can see from the names I’m dropping, it’s not going to be anyone that is a game-changer.
Now a lot of this sounds kind of negative, but that’s not really the intention. It’s the reality of the situation the U.S. is in, in terms of putting together a roster and an honest-to-goodness Olympic run. There is no playbook for this kind of thing, which is why it is going to be difficult to predict what the roster looks like and how the team will ultimately perform in PyeongChang.
Despite all of this, I remain very intrigued by the possibilities. I’m really looking forward to seeing how they balance the lineup, how many college players make it, what they do with goaltending and how they address one of the things I didn’t get into this post — the relative lack of size among the highest offensive performers in this player pool.
I also still think there is just enough talent to be squeezed out of those left to be selected that this team can still compete. It’s just going to take a lot of creativity in the roster construction and a herculean effort from the players to put it all together.