Different Approaches but Same Goal for U.S. & Canada Men
USA Hockey Photo
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
Let’s take a little quiz.
Connor McDavid. Sidney Crosby. Alex Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin. Marc-Andre Fleury. Patrick Kane. Nathan MacKinnon.
The question really doesn’t even need to be asked, does it?
If you’re reading a hockey article on a hockey website, it’s a pretty safe bet that you know who all of those guys are.
But how about these guys?
Nick Pervix. Sam Hentges. Nathan Smith. Brendan Brisson. Steve Kampfer. Eric O’Dell. Daniel Carr. Corban Knight. Brandon Gormley and Alex Grant.
A small percentage of readers who immerse themselves in the annual National Hockey League Draft and study the sport’s top prospects each year might know who those players are. For a few more of you, some of the names might seem vaguely familiar. But even for those of us who follow the sport closely, most of those names don’t hold much meaning.
That will all change starting Thursday at 8:10 a.m.
That first list of names?
Those were players we were expecting to represent their countries at the Beijing Olympics when the NHL announced it would be shutting down during its 2021-22 season to allow the best players in the world to compete in the 2022 Games. With overlapping generational players representing many nations from around the globe, we looked forward to perhaps the greatest assembly of talent in one tournament in the history of the sport.
The second list of names?
Those are players who actually will represent the United States and Canada when the two teams begin play Thursday morning against China and Germany, respectively. With the surge in COVID cases thanks to the spread of the Omicron variant in the months preceding the Beijing Games, the NHL announced a few days before Christmas that it would not be allowing its players to compete after all.
That sent both USA Hockey and Hockey Canada – along with other national governing bodies that would need to replace its NHL players – into scramble mode as the organizations had to come up with a plan to assemble a coaching staff and the most-capable team possible in slightly more than a month.
The nations took very different approaches to piecing their teams together, with Canada choosing to fill its roster with a balanced mix of former NHL players and younger prospects, while the U.S. went almost entirely with a roster of up-and-coming prospects. If nothing else, it gives those of us on the American side of the border who are nostalgic for another Miracle on Ice a reason to tune in.
Both the United States and Canada are projected to be among a second group of teams – including Sweden and Czech Republic – that should contend for a medal. Russia and Finland are widely considered the top two teams in the tournament. Germany, Switzerland and Slovakia also have enough firepower to possibly take down the nations in that second group.
The tournament’s parity already was reinforced Wednesday as Denmark, pegged to finish near the bottom of the standings, upset Czech Republic, 2-1, for its first-ever Olympic men’s hockey victory, and the favored Russians squeaked past Switzerland, 1-0.
While another Miracle-style performance by the Americans would make for an interesting storyline and provide a boost to the sagging Olympic television ratings, the team should be fun to watch even if it doesn’t make a memorable run to a medal. Coached by former Rangers and Boston University bench boss David Quinn, the U.S. is fielding its youngest Olympic team since 1994.
The roster includes 15 active college players, with only one returning Olympian in Brian O’Neill, and features a ton of speed and skill. Seven of the players have at least some NHL experience. Quinn is expected to employ an attacking, high-pressure and up-tempo style against the other more-experienced teams.
Defenseman Jake Sanderson and forward Matty Beniers, recent top-five NHL draft picks, join defenseman Brock Faber, forward Matthew Knies and goalie Drew Commesso as the first teens to play for Team USA in the Olympics since Scott Lachance and Keith Tkachuk in 1992.
Beniers, an 18-year-old who has 36 points in 28 games for the University of Michigan, is the youngest player to play for the U.S. since 1984. Sanderson has 24 points in 21 outings for North Dakota, Faber has 11 points in 24 outings for Minnesota, Knies has 25 points in 26 contests for the Gophers and Commesso has a 2.48 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage for Boston University. Commesso, who is expected to start the opener vs. China, would become the youngest goalie in U.S. Olympic history.
O’Neill, a 33-year-old forward who played on the 2018 United States Olympic team that fell to Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, has played for Jokerit in the KHL for the last six years and has 42 points in 41 games this season. Forward Nick Shore has played in 299 NHL games, more than any other USA player, and 34-year-old goalie Pat Nagle of the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms is the team’s oldest player. Nagle has played for 10 minor-league professional teams.
Andy Miele, in his second season playing in the KHL, will captain the U.S. team. He will be assisted by defensemen Aaron Ness and Steven Kampfer as well as forward Noah Cates. Ness and Kampfer have NHL experience, and Cates recently captained Minnesota-Duluth for two seasons. Forward Justin Abdelkader, who played with the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL from 2008-2020, also brings veteran leadership to the roster. He was an assistant captain in Detroit and captained the 2014 U.S. National Team.
Canada’s biggest name is 37-year-old Eric Staal, who won a gold medal at the memorable 2010 Vancouver Games but has not played in the NHL since the 2020-21 season. He is joined by a group of six other solid, yet unspectacular, former NHL players who played nearly a combined 3,000 games at the sport’s highest level as well as a sprinkling of others with NHL experience such as former first-round draft picks Josh Ho-Sang and Brandon Gormley.
The Canadian roster also includes Mason MacTavish, 19-year-old center who was picked third by Anaheim in the 2021 NHL draft, and Owen Power, a defenseman and the first overall pick by Buffalo who plays for the University of Michigan. Under-the-radar players who could be difference-makers include Corban Knight, who is third in the KHL with 48 points, 2020-21 KHL Goalie of the Year Ed Pasquale and Jordan Weal, a veteran forward with more than 250 games of NHL experience who has 30 points in 36 KHL appearances this season.
Other names wearing the maple leaf that may be familiar to North American hockey fans include Daniel Winnik, Jason Demers, David Desharnais, Mark Barberio and Adam Cracknell.
The Olympic men’s hockey tournament features 12 teams placed in three groups of four. The United States and Canada are both in Group A along with 2018 silver-medalist Germany and host China. Group B is 2018 gold-medalist Russia, Czech Republic, Switzerland and Denmark. Group C is comprised of Finland, Latvia, Sweden and Slovakia.
The preliminary round features round-robin play for each group, with the top-finishing team in each – along with a fourth team with the most points among the group non-winners – receiving byes in the playoff round. All 12 teams advance to the playoffs.
The groupings set up some intejse preliminary-round rivalry games as the United States will take on Canada, Finland will face Sweden and Russia will play Czech Republic.
The Russian team, which beat Cinderella-story Germany for the gold medal in 2018, has a heavy KHL influence along with recent NHL players such as Nikita Gusev, Vyasheslav Voinov and Mikhail Grigorenko. Finland may be the most experienced team in the tournament, boasting a roster that includes eight-year NHL veteran Markus Granlund as well as former NHL players Leo Komarov, Valtteri Filppula, Sami Vatanen and Mikko Lehtonen.
Sweden has a strong goaltending tandem but lacks the offensive strength and depth that some of the other top teams have. Lars Johansson leads the KHL with a 1.63 goals-against average and is second with a .932 save percentage.
David Krejci, recently of the Boston Bruins, is on the Czech Republic roster and may be the top NHL-caliber player among this year’s men’s Olympic hockey participants.
The U.S. and Canada are scheduled to meet in the preliminary round Feb. 11 at 11:10 p.m. CLICK HERE for the complete men’s hockey schedule.