Much of the chatter about Team USA's roster for the 2014 Winter Olympics has centered around the goaltending competition. While that appears to be sorting itself out for the most part, there are still some big questions about what the US is going to do on defense.
You can read any roster projection and just about all of them are going to be different when it comes to who Team USA takes to Sochi on its blue line. The forwards and the goalies, save for a few spots, seem to have some sort of consensus, but the defense is all over the map.
There aren't as many sure-fire superstars on the blue line as there will be up front and it won't match the depth of talent Canada has, but there are many players in the pool who will give Team USA a chance to contend in Sochi.
"The most interesting thing for USA Hockey specifically is our talent pool is so much better and so much more in quantity and most importantly in quality," said Team USA general manager David Poile about the roster selection. "We felt [the decision process] is much harder this year [compared to 2010] and that's a good thing."
While there will be many returnees from the 2010 silver-medal team, Poile said the defense is going to look different.
"I can rattle off a whole bunch of names that are legitimate candidates for this team," said Poile, who refrained from naming names. "We're going to have to make some decisions."
Most notably, the team has to find a way to adequately replace Brian Rafalski from the Vancouver team. The retired Detroit Red Wings blueliner was named best defenseman at the 2010 Olympics and he leaves a large hole.
Luckily for Poile and his staff, the US pool seems to have an abundance of mobile puck-moving defensemen.
The selection pool as a whole, as Poile mentioned, is simply better this time around. There are more viable options. Team USA lost two defensemen to injury before the tournament in 2010 and the depth made Ryan Whitney and Tim Gleason US Olympians, good players at that time who performed well, but far from the elite. This year, there would seem to be far less of a drop-off.
With a much better pool to choose from, Poile shared some of his philosophy for how the defensive corps will be built. Part of his process was speaking with former US Olympians, including Rafalski, about what worked well and what didn't in previous Olympic Games.
One thing that Rafalski told Poile was to not get caught up in worrying about handedness for defensemen. Presumably the US would like to have some balance between left and right shot, but it doesn't sound as though Poile will let it hamper the talent evaluation process.
"Brian emphasized to me that it wasn't as important to get caught up in that," Poile explained. "The ice surface being a little bit wider, the defensemen have a lot more time to pivot. It's something I'm going to pass along to the coaches."
Head coach Dan Bylsma hasn't been shy about using defensemen on their off-hand side. One of his most reliable defensive pairings for the Penguins features Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik -- when both are healthy. Both are left-shot defensemen who play many minutes together and are on special teams.
Poile noted that the chemistry between defensive partners is going to be a factor in the decision process.
"As the coaches come in here, we need to have units," Poile said. "What I ask of the coaches is who would you have on the power play together, who would you have penalty killing together as pairs?"
He specifically cited Orpik and Martin for that fact.
"You have Orpik who played in 2010 and Martin who would've played except for injury and play together as a pair and they kill penalties together," said the Team USA GM. "So that type of chemistry is the type of things we're looking for."
Both Orpik and Martin are out of the Pens' lineup with injuries right now, however, and that is something that could create headaches down the line. It may not impact the initial roster announcement on New Year's Day, however.
"If we think any of these [injured] players are going to be on the Olympic team or we want them on the team and they're going to be healthy by Feb. 11, then we'll have to name them on the team and then we'll have to deal with replacing them if the injury doesn't come around," Poile said.
So now it comes down to building the best roster possible out of the deep group available. Part of that means sorting through the players with similar skill sets and finding the right mix on defense.
"We probably have 12 guys that we have remaining on our list here that are going to get to eight [defense] spots," said Poile. "So we still have some decisions to make in that area."
Team USA's architect also mentioned that there are a few young and up-and-coming players that the staff already feels are too good to leave off the team. That could apply to any number of defensemen. including Nashville Predators rookie Seth Jones.
The blue line's heart will of course be Ryan Suter. Identified as one of the five players attached to Team USA's selected leadership core -- it also includes forwards Ryan Callahan, Dustin Brown, Zach Parise and David Backes -- Suter will log the lion's share of minutes and face the toughest competition.
If Martin and Orpik are healthy, they'll also offer a veteran presence among the eight defensemen Team USA will take to Sochi. Both bring solid defensive play, a high level of built-in trust from Bylsma and as Poile mentioned, built-in chemistry, too.
There's also Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson, potential returnees from 2010 once believed to be the brightest spots in Team USA's defensive pipeline who very well could be on the bubble to make this squad. After all, Poile said the defense is going to look different from 2010.
Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk, selected just two picks apart in the first round of the 2007 NHL Draft, appear to be on the cusp of realizing their full potential as NHL defensemen. Both have the skill set that would seem to be a good match for the Olympics.
These players, among perhaps a few others sneaking into the conversation like San Jose's Justin Braun and Anaheim's Cam Fowler, give the US staff a lot to think about. Considering how these same conversations must've gone in 2010, Team USA is in a lot better shape in its preparation for Sochi.
Poile and his staff, which includes associate general manager Ray Shero and director of player personnel Brian Burke, along with Bylsma and assistant coaches Peter Laviolette and Todd Richards, will have another conference call at the end of the week and an in-person meeting around the holidays to finalize the roster.
Team USA's list of 25 players for Sochi will be unveiled upon the conclusion of the Winter Classic game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 1.