It's very early in the process of putting together teams for the 2014 Olympics, but there's not exactly a lot of time for players to establish and/or separate themselves from other candidates this season. Most teams will be announced at the end of the December or early January. So if a player is slumping, he doesn't have much time to turn things around, while those that are surging have to show they can stay hot all the way to the final meetings where teams will be decided.
The U.S. Olympic management team, led by general manager David Poile of the Nashville Predators, will have many tough decisions. There is a core of about 15 or so players that look like easy picks, but after that, these months become more crucial to building a gold-medal contending team.
One of the toughest decisions Poile will face involves the player he just selected fourth overall in June's NHL Draft, Seth Jones. The Plano, Texas native has been better than advertised coming into the season, which is impressive considering the pre-draft and pre-season hype.
The 19-year-old blueliner is averaging nearly 25 minutes a night, playing on Nashville's top pairing with Shea Weber, with Jones playing the left side as a right-handed defenseman. His average ice time ranks 22nd overall in the league and among Americans in the NHL, Jones is fifth.
Since Jones is playing so much with Weber while Roman Josi has been out with a concussion, he is drawing top competition from other teams and holding his own. Jones has been effective at both ends of the ice and has four points. Both of his goals this season have been quite nice, but his game-winner against Montreal Saturday was especially eye-opening.
It's still early and he's still so young, so things could obviously change rather quickly, but if the Olympics started tomorrow, it would be extremely difficult for USA Hockey to keep the young rearguard home.
There's still plenty of risk if the U.S. were to bring Jones, but since teams can carry 25 players, there's at least a bit of a safety net. The team is likely to bring eight defensemen as a result. It's a moderate risk, high reward situation in that regard as Jones has shown such poise and a high level of skill already.
Before anything else, Jones has to keep playing the way he is right now all the way until the decisions are due to be made. It's not just about Jones though. The competition for Team USA's blue line is rather intense, and in a lot of cases, wide open.
The U.S has an interesting mix of right-handed and left-handed D. That said, Dan Bylsma isn't afraid to put two of the same-handed defensemen together on the same pairing, like he does with Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin in Pittsburgh.
If we're looking at right-handed defense specifically, Jones is joined by Dustin Byfuglien, John Carlson, Justin Faulk, Erik Johnson and Kevin Shattenkirk as the strongest candidates to make the final roster. All have a really good shot at making the team, so if Jones is going to make the club, it may be at the expense of one of these players. All except Byfuglien have meaningful international experience and all have more than two years in the NHL, so beating out those guys is a tall order.
Aside from his age, one of the things that makes Jones unique is that in each of his three trips to IIHF World Championship events, he's been part of teams that won the tournament's gold medal. He has two World Under-18 Championship golds and another from last year's World Junior Championship. He also played in last year's Memorial Cup tournament. Those may seem like small potatoes to the Olympics, but all of that is valid recent experience and reps in high-pressure situations. The fact that he's won each time he's worn the USA jersey in IIHF play isn't nothing.
Since Jones has managed the transition from junior to the NHL with relative ease, there's a good chance he's ready for what the Olympics will throw at him. Team USA won't need him to play high-impact minutes, so he can be sheltered a little bit more than he is in Nashville.
The fact that a 19-year-old defenseman has played well enough to even make this a legitimate discussion Team USA's braintrust has to have over the course of its evaluation process is pretty incredible. He's more than a longshot now.
Team USA Olympic Tracker
From now until the Olympics, we'll occasionally be checking in on select candidates for the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, particularly those on the bubble as well as calling to attention some of the stronger candidates' performances to date.
|Justin Faulk (USATSI)|
Justin Faulk – Carolina Hurricanes
The 21-year-old defenseman has quietly been excellent for the Hurricanes over the last two seasons and is off to a solid start this year as well. He's averaging just under 25 minutes a game and has five assists. Faulk is used in all situations and has even become part of Carolina's leadership group. He has a heavy shot from the point, skates the puck out of trouble well and has good physical strength, which makes him tough in all zones.
As Dan Bylsma told Sean Gentille of Sporting News earlier this month:
"He can play in all situations as well. He's a real good defender. He's a gritty guy," Bylsma said. "Like I said, I've been a fan of watching him long before me becoming the U.S. coach. I've watched quite a bit of his international games over the last couple years, on tape and in person. On the big ice, with his skating ability and his shot, he's a big factor."
Dustin Byfuglien – Winnipeg Jets
Byfuglien has been called a bit of a wild card by Team USA's staff in the past, as he has no international experience to speak of. He's certainly intriguing as an offensive-minded defenseman. He plays a ton of minutes for Winnipeg, but if he were to make Team USA, he'd probably get much more reserved ice time. Byfuglien has seven assists and has managed to put 30 shots on net this season. It's tough to see how he'd defend on the bigger ice, but he could be adequate. Some of the plays he has made this year makes him look like a great option for Team USA's power play, too, like this pass to Tobias Enstrom.
Paul Martin – Pittsburgh Penguins
With Kris Letang out, Martin has essentially been Pittsburgh's No. 1 defenseman. He's averaging 26:27 a game and has three points. He is being deployed against opposing team's top competition and has really held up well defensively. Martin's mobility and hockey sense could make him a solid top-four type defenseman. Team USA has some really solid left-handed defensemen, which makes it a little tougher to see where exactly Martin would slot in, but he looks more and more like a lock to make this squad. It doesn't hurt that the guy playing him 26 minutes a night will be behind the bench for Team USA.
Erik Johnson – Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche are the talk of the NHL after the team's 8-1-0 start. They've been getting outstanding goaltending, but also better-than-expected defense. Johnson has been Colorado's primary shut-down defender and could find himself in a similar role on Team USA if he keeps it up. Johnson has the benefit of Olympic experience that will certainly be taken into account. Seth Jones might actually be one of Johnson's biggest competitors for a spot on this team.
Of the top goaltenders competing for spots on Team USA, Jonathan Quick lags a ways behind in the save percentage department. With a .909 mark, he trails Cory Schneider (.927), Ryan Miller (.926), Jimmy Howard (.925) and Craig Anderson (.924). That's of moderate concern. Quick also just hasn't looked as sharp with a really strong team in front of him. That's an issue. The goalies, more than any other position, are going to have this first half weighed heavily in the decision process. I don't see how they can leave off a Stanley Cup winning goalie who had incredible playoff performances in back-to-back years, but Quick certainly needs to raise his game in the coming weeks.
Perhaps one of the most encouraging sights for Team USA in this young season is the impressive play of Joe Pavelski. With 12 points, he is tied for second in the league and has essentially played a third-line center role for the Sharks. He may end up sliding into a top-six role for Team USA if he keeps up this kind of scoring pace. Pavelski's versatility made him essentially a lock anyway, but this start must be comforting to Team USA's staff.
After missing a few games due to an undisclosed injury, James van Riemsdyk was back in action Saurday night for the Leafs. Prior to the injury, van Riemsdyk was off to a terrific start to the season with five goals. He's using his speed well and has given Toronto a consistent big-body presence at the net front. Due to the size of Olympic sheets, where the width can make getting pucks through the middle of the ice challenging, net-front play can be crucial. The U.S. is light down the left wing, which makes van Riemsdyk an even stronger candidate for inclusion. It is unlikely he'll maintain his shooting percentage of 20, but continuing to be a scoring threat and net-front ace will help.
Another youngster who I had previously thought would just miss is looking more and more like a real possibility for inclusion on Team USA. The 19-year-old, a natural center playing the wing, has seven points this season. There simply aren't a lot of American players with his level of skill, which is an important trait for Galchenyuk to separate himself from the pack. He is part of Montreal's most productive line at this point with Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher. If he can keep up this kind of production, he may even have a chance to carve out a top-six role for Team USA. Plenty of hockey left to be played, though.
Oshie is off to a solid start this season, playing well at both ends of the ice. He has six points to start the year and is on the ice nearly 20 minutes a game. He can be an agitating presence on the ice with how aggressive he plays, which makes him an attractive option for a bottom-line energy type role. The fact that he has good defensive sense to go along with some solid skills, Oshie might be able force his way into the discussion. The big problem for Oshie is competition. As more of a right wing in this group, he'd have to find a way to make a roster that looks well set down the right side that includes Patrick Kane, Bobby Ryan, Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan, all of whom are pretty solid bets to make the final roster, that is, unless one of them or even Oshie moves to the left side.
Ryan Callahan – New York Rangers
After spending all summer recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum, Callahan is now out at least four weeks with a broken thumb. Since he is part of Team USA's selected leadership core that also includes Zach Parise, Dustin Brown, David Backes and Ryan Suter, he's almost guaranteed a spot on the roster. He'll obviously have to be completely healthy though before Team USA can take a risk on bringing him along. Callahan was such a key part of the 2010 run with his incredible penalty killing and grinding style. Even on big ice, those skills count. His return should give him enough time to prove he's ready to go.