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Olympic Hockey Preview 2006: United States
By BRIAN PIKE, MOP Squad Sports Hockey Editor
Feb 18, 2006 - 3:44:00 AM

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2006 Men’s Olympic Hockey Preview: United States

2002 Result: At home in Salt Lake City, the US made a valiant run to the gold medal game, only  to lose to Canada 5-2 and settle for silver.
Since then: Bronze at the 2004 World Championships


Players are listed in probable combinations with their NHL city in parentheses.

Forwards (LW-C-RW):
1.    Keith Tkachuk (St. Louis) – Scott Gomez (New Jersey) – Brian Gionta (New Jersey)
2.    Brian Rolston (Minnesota) – Mike Modano (Dallas) – Erik Cole (Carolina)
3.    Chris Drury (Buffalo) – Doug Weight (Carolina) – Mark Parrish (New York Islanders)
4.    Jason Blake (New York Islanders) – Craig Conroy (Los Angeles) – Mike Knuble (Philadelphia)

Extra: Bill Guerin (Dallas)

1.    Derian Hatcher (Philadelphia) – John-Michael Liles (Colorado)
2.    Bret Hedican (Carolina)* – Jordan Leopold (Calgary)
3.    Mathieu Schneider (Detroit) – Chris Chelios (Detroit)

Extra: Brian Rafalski (New Jersey)

1.    Rick DiPietro (New York Islanders)
2.    John Grahame (Tampa Bay)
3.    Robert Esche (Philadelphia)

*injury replacement for Aaron Miller (defenseman, Los Angeles)

Key Player: Derian Hatcher. With Miller lost to this team due to injury and Chelios a bit too long in the tooth to be counted on for big minutes, Hatcher is the only member of the American’s defense that can play a nasty, physical game and dominate his own end. This US team is going to need Hatcher to be at his snarly best if they’re going to be a factor in Turin. After a disastrous free agent signing with Detroit, where Hatcher played just fifteen regular season games due to a knee injury before being cut loose, he’s really revitalized his game after coming to Philadelphia. Some thought the new, faster NHL would leave Hatcher behind, but he’s adjusted just fine, and was named the team’s interim captain while Keith Primeau is out with a knee problem. The Americans have plenty of veteran leadership so they won’t be needing so much of that from Hatcher, just his own brand of high-level physical, defensive play will be enough.

How They’ll Win:

1.    The Americans have a very potent group of forwards that’s a mix of the old veteran guard with some new offensive stars. Mike Modano, Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Brian Rolston have been fixtures of the American offense since the 1996 World Cup. They’re joined at this tournament by New Jersey’s Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, who’ve led New Jersey’s attack all season long. Guys like Erik Cole, Mike Knuble, Craig Conroy and Chris Drury are also having great NHL seasons. Jason Blake and Mark Parrish round out the forward list as useful forwards who can also score. It’s a rather impressive group, very deep, and they’ll be tough for any defense to handle.

2.    The US has several defensemen who are very adept at moving the puck up-ice. Brian Rafalski, Jordan Leopold, John-Michael Liles and Mathieu Schneider are all mainstays on their NHL team’s power plays, and Bret Hedican has long been one of the best skaters in the league. They’re quick, they pass well, and Schnieder in particular has a great point shot. Moving the puck out of their zone to their talented forwards should be no problem.

3.    Has anyone in the NHL done a more impressive coaching job this season than Carolina head man Peter Laviolette? Few chose Carolina to even make the playoffs, but at the Olympic break they had the best record in the Eastern Conference and were just one point behind Detroit for the league lead. Laviolette did the best job of positioning his team to best take advantage of the new rules in the NHL, implementing a high tempo puck-pursuit style that also involves all five players coming back deep into their own zone on defense. If the stricter standard on obstruction penalties holds up here at the Olympics, as officials have stressed that it will, the Americans could be well poised to take advantage of it.

How They’ll Lose:

1.    The sad part is, a year ago the American netminding situation looked very, very good. Ty Conklin was coming off a brilliant 2004 Worlds at which he won top goaltender and led the team to a very unexpected bronze medal and was expected to be Edmonton’s number one goaltender this season. Robert Esche looked like he was all set to take up Philadelphia’s starting role and run with it. Rick DiPietro was continuing to improve. Ryan Miller and John Grahame were both about to challenge for their team’s respective starter’s roles. Then it all fell apart. Conklin absolutely imploded, to the point that he found himself on waivers just before the Olympics. Esche hurt his groin, then hurt it again, then hurt it again, and hasn’t been all that good when he has played. DiPietro and Grahame have both struggled with consistency. What’s worse, Miller broke his finger a month before the selection of the US roster, then came back after not being named to the team and proved that he’s the best American goaltender in the NHL right now. Oh Mike Richter, where are you when we need you the most?

2.    It may just be me, but did anyone else laugh when American team GM Don Waddell tossed aside Jeremy Roenick’s comments that he should be on this team based on his past accomplishments for team USA, then in the next breath talked about the additions of Chris Chelios, Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk? Roenick almost certainly would’ve called Waddell a hypocrite if he weren’t such good friends with all three players. While Roenick has a point about having respect for the older players, Waddell has a better point about the best players right now needing to be on this team. That said, when Waddell announced this team, Tkachuk was out with a broken knuckle and had hardly played at all this season. Chelios is averaging less than 18 minutes a night as Detroit’s fifth defenseman. Guerin is having his worst offensive season in years with just eleven goals. At the same time, this team managed to leave Mike York, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Scott Young, who all have more points than Guerin, Parrish, and Tkachuk, at home. Also ignored were defensemen Paul Mara, Keith Ballard, Paul Martin, and Tom Preissing, who all have better point totals as defensemen than Hedican and Leopold. If Waddell really wanted to argue that his team was chosen solely on current merit rather than past US team accomplishments, how does he explain leaving off guys like York and Mara? If he’s picking guys for their past accomplishments, how can he leave off Roenick and Brian Leetch? It’s confounding.

3.    Part of the reason the US team is in such a state of flux is because this is really a program in transition. Veterans like Chelios, Weight, and Modano who have served this team well for so long are reaching retirement age. At the same time, the next generation of American stars, guys like Zach Parise, Jack Johnson and Phil Kessel just aren’t old enough to be chosen to play in these kind of tournaments yet. By the time the next Olympics roll around, the Americans will be very tough to beat, conceivably with DiPietro and Miller in goal, Jack and Erik Johnson on defense alongside Liles and Leopold, and Kessel and Parise following the lead of veterans Gomez and Gionta up front. Until then, though, American fans will have to deal with a bit of a rebuilding period.

The Bottom Line: Unless DiPietro, Esche or Grahame get really hot, or one of them gets hurt to make way for Miller, this team doesn’t have the goaltending to go far in Turin. Seventh place for the United States, with the promise of brighter days ahead.

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