It is getting closer to decision time for United States general manager David Poile and his staff as they choose a roster that will travel to the 2014 Sochi Olympics with gold-medal expectations.
Poile spoke Thursday about the selection procedure, which is nearing its final stages. The team will be announced Jan. 1 at the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
"The whole process of putting this team together has been fascinating and a fabulous experience for all of us," Poile said. "When you work in a committee situation with my associate GM Ray Shero and Brian Burke, who was the GM in 2010, and five other general managers, you can't believe the diversity of opinions on players and the formation of a team. It is a unique experience that is almost indescribable."
Poile said the management team has met in person four times since naming the coaching staff during the summer, and he will have a conference call with the coaching staff and management group in the coming days.
The longtime Nashville Predators GM also said he's reached out to former U.S. players to pick their brains about past Olympic experiences. The United States has not fared well outside of North America, failing to medal in the past six Games not played in Canada or the United States.
One area where this intel could impact the roster is on defense.
"There is no question our defense corps is going to be different from 2010," Poile said. "For example, just [Wednesday] I talked to Brian Rafalski, who was on the 2010 team. I can rattle off a whole bunch of names who are legitimate candidates for this team that didn't play in 2010. We're going to have to make some decisions.
"[Rafalski] really emphasized to me that it wasn't really that important to get caught up in that because the ice surface is a little bit wider and defensemen have a little more time to pivot and what have you. I thought that was a good point and something I'm going to pass along to the coaches."
Poile said there are 12 "legitimate" candidates for the eight spots on the American blue line. One lock is Ryan Suter, the lone defenseman among the designated five-man leadership group.
The defense corps is likely to include Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk and Keith Yandle, but there could be at least four spots still up for grabs. Poile talked about chemistry and special-teams roles, mentioning the Pittsburgh Penguins duo of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, both of whom are currently are not playing because of injury.
"When the coaches come in here, we're going to need to have units," Poile said. "We have to know who is going to play … not only selecting a player but who is going to get ice time. What I ask the coaches is who would have on the power play together or who would have the penalty kill together and sort of get their best ideas for defense pairs."
Injuries could be a factor in the selection process. Martin and Orpik are not playing, and a couple of other potentially key players for the Americans, goalie Jonathan Quick and forward Ryan Callahan, are also out of action.
Poile said the plan will be to name guys to the team if they deserve to be there and are expected to be healthy; if someone has a setback, then a replacement will be named.
Quick was considered a favorite for one of three goaltending spots after his past two postseasons were fantastic, including a Conn Smythe Trophy in 2012. His play had slipped a little before the injury though, and the United States has several candidates in the mix.
One is 2010 starter Ryan Miller, who has played better for a poor Buffalo Sabres team after a couple of years below his career standard. Quick and Miller were joined by Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson and Corey Schneider at the summer orientation camp, and Poile added Ben Bishop and Tim Thomas to the mix of those competing for one of the three roster spots.
"[Miller] gave us a chance to win every game and was obviously a big reason we came within one goal of winning that gold medal and he's playing really well this year," Poile said. "Body of work is really important and Ryan has that. The other criteria is how they're playing this year and Ryan has played really well.
"We have some really good goaltenders. It is a good news situation that we have some quality guys to choose from, but specifically Ryan has done a real good job and we're looking very hard at him."
Poile noted the talent pool is deeper in both quality and quantity from the group that was selected to go to Vancouver for the 2010 Games. That team just missed out on a gold medal, losing the title game to Canada in overtime, and it is clear what the United States' mission is set for in Sochi.
"I think the interesting thing is six teams have been in the gold medal since the NHL involvement, with the U.S. and Canada in twice," said Jim Johansson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey. "Our goal is to get to the gold medal game again and switch the results."
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