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Team USA's hockey roster gets a youth makeover

Veterans are displaced for young players with specialized skills, such as faceoff dexterity and penalty killing.

January 02, 2010|By Helene Elliott

The names of the 23 members of the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team were announced almost too fast to grasp what was happening.

But when the list went from Chris Drury to Patrick Kane without stopping at Scott Gomez or Bill Guerin, and when Ryan Malone's name was followed by Zach Parise's without mention of Mike Modano, it became clear the U.S. team in Vancouver will represent a changing of the guard and of strategy.

Modano, Gomez, Guerin, Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk, mainstays of countless U.S. teams, were passed over in favor of youngsters with lesser credentials but more specialized assets such as faceoff dexterity, penalty killing and toughness.

"The greatest generation that we had was that group," Brian Burke, Team USA's general manager, said during a news conference Friday in Boston after the annual Winter Classic. "To turn that page took a great deal of soul-searching."

The six-member selection committee is betting that goaltending, grit and physicality will be its best weapons against Canada's formidable depth, Russia's firepower and Sweden's smoothness and experience.

"We can't just take the 23 best," Burke said. "Canada can say to Jarome Iginla, 'Jarome you can play wing on the third line and you've got to check.' We need to take a guy who can check better than Jarome Iginla can check and hope that our top-six forwards get the job done on special teams. That's the only way to beat these odds."

So on New Year's Day the theme was out with the old and in with the new, including first-time Olympians Dustin Brown, Jack Johnson and Jonathan Quick of the Kings and Bobby Ryan of the Ducks. All are 20-somethings on a team with an average age of 26.5, younger than most previous U.S. entries.

The oldest player is Detroit defenseman Brian Rafalski, 36, who joins the Rangers' Chris Drury and New Jersey's Jamie Langenbrunner as the only Americans with Olympic experience. The youngest will be Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane, 21, the top U.S.-born scorer in the NHL and 10th overall with 45 points.

Brown and Johnson will be expected to hit hard and often, Quick to watch Buffalo's Ryan Miller and Boston's Tim Thomas to learn the ropes and Ryan -- whose 19 goals ties him with Malone for the lead among U.S.-born players -- to provide much-needed offense.

Ryan got the news in a wake-up call from Burke, who almost traded him out of Anaheim before Burke resigned as the Ducks' general manager in November 2008. The Cherry Hill, N.J., native became the eighth member of the Ducks' organization chosen to play in Vancouver, joining Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry of Canada, Jonas Hiller and Luca Sbisa of Switzerland and Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu of Finland.

That's a lot of Olympians from a team that's 10 points out of the last Western Conference playoff spot.

"I think it shows the individual talent of all those players," Ryan said. "It will be interesting and fun to play against some of those guys.

"At the same time you can also say that with eight Olympians we should be higher than 13th in the conference."

Brown, Johnson and Quick will join teammates Drew Doughty of Canada and Michal Handzus of Slovakia at the Games.

Though Brown isn't scoring much -- only nine goals and 28 points halfway through the season -- he was valued for his leadership and experience playing for the U.S. at four senior-level world championships.

"This could be a once-in-a-lifetime shot and any time you get the chance to play in the Olympics and to represent your country it is a huge honor," said Brown, of Ithaca, N.Y.

Johnson's -11 plus/minus rating is the Kings' worst, but he's also the kind of hard-hitting defenseman Burke likes. Plus, he scored five goals at the world championships last year to lead the tournament's defensemen.

"To get this news is an unbelievable feeling and a real dream come true," Johnson said. "I have dreamed of this moment for a long time and being a U.S. Olympian is a true honor."

Quick edged Colorado's Craig Anderson for the third spot. He probably won't play but will watch Miller, whom Burke called "the best goaltender in the National Hockey League this season," while being groomed to be the U.S. goalie of the future.

"We thought Quick has had a more consistent season," said Burke, whose advisory panel was comprised of NHL general managers Dean Lombardi of the Kings, David Poile of Nashville, Paul Holmgren of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh's Ray Shero and Atlanta's Don Waddell.

"Andy started great and fell off a bit and now he's back playing well. The age difference is probably the determining factor. Jonathan Quick is a guy who will probably be part of the program going forward. That goaltender is not expected to see a lot of action. We did the right thing for the program."

And for Quick, who is the only member of Team USA who hasn't worn that jersey in international competition.

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