The days of the United States hoping to medal at a major international hockey tournament are gone.
An era of expecting to medal has begun. The Americans continue to rack up medals at various youth levels, and players who have experienced that level of success have graduated to the men's national team.
The core of the 2014 Sochi Olympics squad will be comprised of guys who helped the United States within one goal of the gold medal four years ago in Vancouver. There is enough skill and depth to compete with Canada, Russia and Sweden, and firmly place the Americans among the top four teams in the tournament.
There is the stigma of the team's poor performances at this level on the international ice sheet. Two trips to Europe with NHL players on the big ice have produced forgettable results, but many of the young players on this projected squad have won youth tournaments on the wider ice surfaces.
There haven’t been many surprises in the first quarter of the NHL season, though as a collective group the goaltending performances have been underwhelming. That was expected to be the greatest strength for the Americans in Sochi.
Here's a look at who NHL.com believes the United States should take to the small Russian town on the Black Sea for the 2014 Games.
The perceived weakness for the United States is at center, but David Backes, Ryan Kesler, Joe Pavelski and Derek Stepan are all strong, two-way players. Backes in particular might be underrated at this point as an elite talent.
Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel give the Americans three world-class wings. A line of Dustin Brown, Joe Pavelski and Ryan Callahan might be the toughest to play against in the tournament. Max Pacioretty and Bobby Ryan offer nice depth on the wing.
Paul Stastny gets the nod as the 13th forward because of positional need. The United States will not have a bunch of centers playing wing like Canada, so he makes it as an insurance policy should there be an injury.
Alex Galchenyuk might be a surprising choice as the 14th forward. This team is a little light on guys with world-class speed, and he offers that with an extra pinch of creativity and skill that could be useful, particularly in a shootout.
This group is comprised of four lefties and four righties, with the first three righties in particular pretty interchangeable. Erik Johnson has rebounded after a tough 2012-13, and John Carlson has become the No. 1 guy for the Washington Capitals.
Keith Yandle should see some time as a distributor on the power play. There's no big hitters in this group, but there is less of a need on the big ice.
Paul Martin earns the fourth spot on the left side because of his ability to both defend and get the offense moving his outlet passing. Like Galchenyuk, Seth Jones is probably a surprise, but he's proven he can be great consistently for the Nashville Predators, and having his NHL general manager as the United States GM can't hurt in the final selection process.
When the Americans and Canadians went camping this summer, the narrative was there were five United States goalies (or six if people south of the border really wanted to rub it in and include world junior championship hero John Gibson) that would start for Canada.
Well, that story has changed. Several Canadian goaltenders are having great NHL seasons, and none of the five Americans who were at the team's orientation camp in Arlington, Va., are among the early contenders for the Vezina Trophy.
Ryan Miller has performed the best, and that has been for a Buffalo Sabres team where he is under siege most nights. Jonathan Quick's save percentage for all of the 2013 calendar year in the regular season has not been great, and if it weren't for his performance in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, his place on this team would not be secure. He's also injured at the moment, but should have enough time to come back and be ready for Sochi.
The last spot goes to Cory Schneider, who has the best statistics among the group but only 10 starts for the New Jersey Devils as he splits time with Martin Brodeur. If Schneider sees more playing time in the coming weeks, he could have a strong case to be the starter in Sochi.
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Stastny made this group just ahead of T.J. Oshie and Jason Pominville. Both are deserving candidates, but Stastny offers insurance at center, and Galchenyuk’s ability in the shootout is too enticing of a weapon to have.
Jack Johnson and Dustin Byfuglien are the two obvious omissions on defense. Johnson has a long history with USA Hockey, and he’s probably going to make it. Byfuglien offers extra offense from the blue line, but on this team there are already several quality offensive defensemen. Jones might be a better two-way guy already.
Jimmy Howard and Ben Bishop just missed in goal. Bishop wasn't at the summer camp, but has been the best American goalie this season. The longer track records at this level will likely play a part in the selection process. Howard has just been OK this season after a great playoff run in 2012-13. Craig Anderson has probably been passed by Bishop and Tim Thomas on the depth chart.
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