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Tough decision yield Team USA roster changes

by Shawn P. Roarke /

"Our pool may not have the big-name recognition of, say, the World Cup 1996 team, but we have a deeper and broader pool than ever before." -- Team USA General Manager Brian Burke

The United States won't name its Olympic roster until Jan. 1 at the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, but Team USA General Manager Brian Burke says his team is close to set and that he and his staff only will have a few debates to settle before finalizing the roster.

"We hope to be down to two or three decisions, if we have any at all to make," Burke said last week during a conference call to discuss the selection process.

Just because the roster will be finalized a good two weeks before it is announced does not mean it was arrived at easily. The Americans don't have an excess of superstars, but they do possess depth that the country has rarely seen at the senior international level.

"Our pool may not have the big-name recognition of, say, the World Cup 1996 team, but we have a deeper and broader pool than ever before," Burke said.

Team USA's depth caused me fits when I first played Team USA GM last month in a story you can see here. And it continues to bedevil me as I take a final crack at the U.S. roster before it is officially announced on national TV at the conclusion of the Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS) on New Year's Day at Fenway Park.

My team has changed slightly from the November squad, with four of the 23 slots changing in the past month.

Ryan Miller, Buffalo --  The No. 2 in this battle heading into the season, Miller now is the clear-cut No. 1, thanks to a sizzling start for himself and the struggles of his competition. Barring a rapid change in fortune, Miller will be among the hottest goalies in the tournament.

Tim Thomas, Boston --  The reigning Vezina Trophy winner is not having the season people expected. He struggled early and then suffered an injury. Now, he is splitting time with rookie Tuukka Rask. That is not the recipe to become the No. 1 on an Olympic team.

Jimmy Howard, Detroit --  Yes, he has a small body of work, but he is emerging as the No. 1 for Detroit after a very long apprenticeship in the minors. He has gained the confidence of Detroit coach Mike Babcock, who will coach the Canadian team. That should tell you something right there. Neither Jonathan Quick nor Craig Anderson has been consistent enough, in my opinion, to earn this spot.

Brian Rafalski, Detroit -- Rafalski remains a no-brainer because of his experience, championship mentality and power-play acumen. He's among the easiest selections on this team.

Paul Martin, New Jersey -- A broken forearm has hurt his candidacy, but few American-born defenseman have stepped up to fill his role. Martin is skating again and is expected back by Christmas. That should be enough to convince Burke that Martin can regain his form by mid-February. If not, maybe this opens a spot for a gamble on a younger player like Zach Bogosian.

Erik Johnson, St. Louis -- Knee injury? What knee injury? Johnson has come back better than ever and is a dominant force with the Blues. He already has topped the 20-point plateau and is playing almost 22 minutes per game. He is ready for this challenge.

Brooks Orpik, Pittsburgh -- I go with experience here, placing the Stanley Cup-winning Orpik on the team at the expense of Los Angeles' Jack Johnson. Johnson has been far too inconsistent this season, in my opinion, to be trusted with an Olympic assignment. With Orpik, you know you are going to get a few-frills, stay-at-home game -- and I can live with that.
Ryan Suter, Nashville -- The numbers are not quite where Suter would like to see them -- especially the plus/minus rating -- but he has been very good for the Preds. He sees more than 24 minutes a game for the very demanding Barry Trotz and that is enough for me.

Ryan Whitney, Anaheim --   Ducks coach Randy Carlyle loves to lean on good defensemen to carry the mail for his team. With the departure of Chris Pronger, Whitney has stepped into that role. He is not as physical or intimidating as Pronger, but he is clearly doing other things right.

Alex Goligoski, Pittsburgh --  Injuries have taken some luster off this youngster's star, but I still like what I see. It is his versatility -- as well as his offensive potential -- that buy him the final spot among the defensemen on my roster.

Bill Guerin, Pittsburgh -- I didn't see any way Guerin could make this team early on, but he is enjoying a renaissance as Sidney Crosby's running mate. Rangers center Chris Drury was going to fill my veteran role, but he has not played well enough. Guerin has been productive and he is fresh off playing a major role in Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup win. He can play wing on my fourth line any day.

Patrick Kane, Chicago -- A point-per-game player after 30 games, Kane will most likely be the first-line right wing on the American team.

Phil Kessel, Toronto -- Kessel has been Toronto's best player since returning from offseason shoulder surgery. In his first 20 games, he had 19 points. Enough said. Oh yeah -- did we mention Burke is the man that traded three valuable assets to Boston to get his hands on Kessel?

Jamie Langenbrunner, New Jersey --
Talk about getting better with age. Langenbrunner had his best season in 2008-09 and he is on pace to pass it this season. Not only does he produce offensively, but he plays the all-round game American coach Ron Wilson will want from his charges in the Olympic tournament.

Zach Parise, New Jersey -- Parise has turned into a dominant player with virtually no one noticing. Thirty games into the season, he was better than a point-per-game player and was averaging a goal every other game. You're telling me that won't come in handy come mid-February?

Dustin Brown, Los Angeles -- Brown recently broke out of an extended goal-scoring slump. We hope it's a sign his offense is returning, but, regardless, we will take all the other things he brings to the table.

Dustin Byfuglien, Chicago -- It's the second week of December and Byfuglien has as many goals as Kane. That's enough of an argument for his inclusion on this roster. Originally I inserted him as a swing man because of his ability to play defense and give the roster more depth there, but he may just make this team on his forward instincts alone. Don't believe me? Check out the OT goal he scored against the Rangers earlier this month.

Ryan Kesler, Vancouver -- There were a few raised eyebrows when I picked Kesler last month to play a major role on this team. Fortunately, Kesler has backed up my confidence with his play on the ice. He has been one of Vancouver's best players and has been the most vital cog on the power play.


G-A-P: 8-26-34
+/-: 6 | PIM: 20 | PP: 3

Paul Stastny, Colorado -- Stastny has been the best player on a surprisingly good Colorado team. His ability to distribute the puck will come in handy on a team that is stronger on the flanks than it is down the middle.

Ryan Malone, Tampa Bay -- No American has more goals this season than Malone. He didn't make the cut last time, but his play has been too good -- and too consistent -- to ignore any longer. As a result, he replaces a badly underachieving Scott Gomez. It's a move that makes this team a little weaker down the middle, but stronger in the dirty areas of the ice these Americans will have to own.

Bobby Ryan, Anaheim -- Ryan left the suggestion that he could score goals with an incredible run last year as a rookie. Now, he is proving last season was no fluke. This team needs all the natural finishers it can find.

Tim Connolly, Buffalo --
The big Buffalo center was a surprise inclusion on our original list in November and his candidacy becomes stronger with our exclusions of Drury and Gomez. Connolly has been healthy and productive all season, which was a paramount concern.

Joe Pavelski, San Jose --
Pavelski is all the way back from the injuries that plagued him at the beginning of the season and has re-emerged as one of the most dynamic young American forwards in the game today. That's more than enough to secure his spot here.
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