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U.S. roster selection to answer lingering questions

by Corey Masisak

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Rosters for most of the countries competing at the 2014 Sochi Olympics will be announced closer to the Jan. 7 deadline, but the 25 men who will represent the United States will be revealed Wednesday afternoon at the conclusion of the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

Aside from a major injury, it is unlikely much will happen in the next week or so to sway those in charge of selecting the rosters.

There are a lot of guys who are near certainties to be included on the American roster and likely only a few spots have been up for grabs in recent weeks. When the roster is announced at Michigan Stadium shortly after the completion of the Winter Classic, some lingering questions will finally be answered.

Here are five of the biggest remaining questions to be answered with USA Hockey's announcement on Wednesday:

1. Who earned the final spots and whose bubbles burst?

There are likely eight or nine forwards who have been locks to make this roster for some time provided they are healthy. Centers David Backes, Ryan Kesler and Joe Pavelski are in that group, along with wings Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan. James van Riemsdyk, considering his size, versatility (he would be a candidate to kill penalties) and his mixture of strong Stanley Cup Playoff performances and history with USA Hockey probably makes him the ninth guy.

Max Pacioretty
Left Wing - MTL
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 19
SOG: 115 | +/-: 0
That leaves five open spots, with a group of eight or nine forwards who deserve serious consideration. Two of those spots will likely go to centers. The other three will likely be guys who play on the wing, and aren’t likely to begin the tournament playing one on the top lines.

Max Pacioretty and Blake Wheeler offer lots of size and speed. T.J. Oshie has played great with Backes this season. He kills penalties and could provide creativity and versatility.

Bobby Ryan has a long track record of scoring lots of goals in the NHL, but does he fit if he isn’t on one of the top two lines? His ability to find a goal from nothing would be an asset were the Americans trailing in a key game and looking for offense from someone outside the guys expected to get heavy minutes.

Kyle Okposo and Jason Pominville have had strong seasons. Okposo could be a hybrid of the strong grit/board play from someone like Pacioretty or Wheeler and the playmaking of Oshie. Pominville wasn’t invited to the orientation camp, but may have played his way into contention.

The defense will be anchored by Ryan Suter, with Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk likely to be in the top-four as well. There are plenty of strong candidates for the other four spots.

Erik Johnson has a long history with USA hockey and his play has rebounded nicely from a substandard 2012-13. Younger guys like John Carlson, Cam Fowler and Justin Faulk are all logging big minutes for their teams and would be nice all-round options.

Where do offensive-minded guys like Keith Yandle and Dustin Byfuglien fit? What about the shutdown pair for the Pittsburgh Penguins of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, both of whom have been injured? Has a dark horse like Andy Greene or Seth Jones done enough to force his way on the team?

2. Who are the centers going to be?

Though Canada will likely have a bushel of centers on its roster, the United States is clearly not as deep at the position. Backes, Kesler and Pavelski are all strong options and expected to be on the team.

Brandon Dubinsky
Center - CBJ
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 18 | PTS: 25
SOG: 86 | +/-: 5
Considering they will likely have to take five centers, so a natural wing isn’t pressed into duty in case of an injury, that means there are two other spots. Derek Stepan and Paul Stastny were considered strong favorites before the season, but Brandon Dubinsky has had a nice start for the Columbus Blue Jackets and could fill in as a bottom-six role player.

3. How much did chemistry or familiarity play a role?

Martin and Orpik might be the most fascinating guys to watch. They check both of these boxes, logging lots of minutes together in recent seasons while also playing for the team’s coach (Dan Bylsma) and one of the assistant GMs (Ray Shero).

Does Oshie have a chance to play with Backes? What about Kessel and van Riemsdyk, or Parise and Pominville? Did a long shot like Jones or Brandon Saad do enough to convince the other GMs among the management group besides the one for which they play?

4. Will the lefty-righty dynamic matter on defense?

There has been much discussion about the lefty-righty dilemma for the Canadians on the blue line. General manager David Poile told media members on a conference call recently that former U.S. defenseman Brian Rafalski said it doesn’t matter as much on the big ice because there is more space to turn and make a play.

The Americans don’t have a drastic slant of elite guys toward one side or the other, but there a few more guys who shoot left-handed in the mix than those who shoot right. Will Poile’s crew select five lefties?

5. Who will be the third goaltender?

Though the 2013-14 season began with the United States boasting a wealth of great options in goal, the play of 2010 tournament MVP Ryan Miller and the recent track record of Jonathan Quick made it clear pretty early in the campaign that two of the three openings at the position were likely filled.

Quick has been injured but is expected back soon, and even if he had a setback his name would likely be on the roster Wednesday. Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press has reported that Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard will be the third guy.

Cory Schnieder and Ben Bishop have better numbers this season, but Howard was fantastic in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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