For a hockey player, representing your country in a Winter Olympic tournament is an unparalleled honor.
“To be known as an Olympian is a big-time thing for everybody,” said John Vanbiesbrouck, the general manager of the U.S. men’s Olympic team. “That’s why the NHL players wanted to go in the first place.”
Unfortunately, they aren’t allowed to go to the Beijing Games next month. While the NHL agreed to allow its players to participate in the 2022 and 2026 Olympics in the latest collective bargaining agreement, it had the right to opt out of this year’s event if there was a material change in its 2021-22 regular-season schedule due to COVID-19.
Close to 130 games have been postponed, and the NHL claimed that it needed the Olympic break to reschedule some of them. So, for the second straight Olympics, NHL players were prohibited from participating.
Just like they did for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, USA Hockey leadership put together a roster of non-NHL professional and NCAA players. Turns out, the team that the U.S. will send to China will be mostly NCAA players: 15 of them, to be exact. The average age of the roster (25.1 years old) makes this the youngest U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team since 1994.
“These players all have speed, tenacity and aggressiveness, which is going to be the style of play that we build around,” Vanbiesbrouck said.
The roster may be set, but many questions must be settled. Here are six burning queries about Team USA, how it was built and whether it can win gold.
Why did they go with 15 NCAA players?
The most cynical reading of this decision came from a former men’s Olympic hockey player, who told ESPN that this youth movement was “a marketing ploy” from USA Hockey to create interest in a non-NHL tournament — seeking to evoke the college-kids fable of the Miracle on Ice.
It’s naive to think that wasn’t the subtext to this decision, seeing as how the Miracle has defined USA Hockey for the better part of 40 years. It’s also shrewd marketing to have a slew of NHL prospects on the roster — with 13 of the 15 having been drafted. Consider how the popularity of world juniors has grown with fans wanting a glimpse of their team’s future. You don’t think Seattle Kraken fans will set the alarm to watch Matty Beniers, their No. 2 overall pick in 2021, suit up for the U.S. Olympic team in China?
This is a course correction from the 2018 roster, which had mostly pro players from overseas and the AHL, with only four NCAA players on the team. That might have been playing it too safe. This team is going to be much more boom-or-bust.
But above all else, the 15 NCAA players were available.
“We obviously were a little bit more forward about going younger, but we wanted to take the best team possible to compete for a gold medal,” coach David Quinn said. “When we looked at the player pool that was available to us, we thought speed, skill, pace and tempo was going to be the strength of our team. It’s kind of like putting a band together: You don’t pick five lead singers when you’re putting a band together. You’re putting a team together.”
(David Quinn: apparently unaware of boy bands.)
Is there a leadership deficit?
The U.S. Beijing 2022 team has one holdover from the 2018 Pyeongchang team: forward Brian O’Neill, who plays with Jokerit in the KHL. Including O’Neill, there are seven players on the 2022 U.S. Olympic roster with previous NHL experience.
But none of them is Brian Gionta.
One of the best things the late Jim Johannson did with the 2018 roster was recruit Brian Gionta to the team. He was 39 years old and a veteran of 15 NHL seasons. He had a Stanley Cup ring with the New Jersey Devils, and Olympic experience with the 2006 Torino team. He was only the second U.S.-born captain in Montreal Canadiens history. He had instant gravitas. “Once you get a guy like that, your team gets instant credibility,” 2018 Olympic coach Tony Granato said.
There wasn’t necessarily a player like that available for Beijing. For example, Bobby Ryan had the experience and would have been an inspiring story but wasn’t the leader Gionta was in his NHL days.
Some of the professionals from overseas will be counted on for leadership on the 2022 team. But don’t sleep on players like Beniers, Jake Sanderson and Marc McLaughlin, who have all earned letters in college or in international play for the U.S.
There’s also a coaching staff with experience in leading teams in international tournaments.
Did the ice size in Beijing have any impact on the roster selection?
There’s been a movement afoot in the IIHF to have world championship tournaments played in rinks that adhere more to standard North American dimensions. Rather than the wider international surface that the 2018 Olympic tournament was played on (98 feet wide), the Beijing Games will be played on a surface that measures shorter than an NHL rink (196.85 feet instead of 200 feet) and is a smidge wider (85.3 vs. 85 feet).
The international ice surface was particularly tough on the NCAA players in 2018.
“I really think it’s more of a factor than people realize. A lot of these European teams have grown up playing on this ice. So you’ll see these teams like Sweden, and they’re so good at controlling the puck and knowing they have more time,” said Troy Terry, now a member of the Anaheim Ducks. “When you play over here on the smaller ice, it always feels like someone’s right on top of you. When you play on the larger ice, you have more time than you realize. If you’ve played on it, then you have an advantage.”
So did USA Hockey boldly go with 15 NCAA players because the Beijing rink will be more familiar to them — and, by proxy, less familiar to some opponents?
“I don’t think we really considered much on the ice dimensions,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “Our focus was really just getting the best players we can get.”
Quinn said that the smaller ice lends itself to a faster game with more turnovers and less “control.” Which sounds like the kind of hockey 15 college players could help produce.
Is this goaltending good enough?
In 2018, Ryan Zapolski was the only goaltender who saw time for the U.S., appearing in five games and posting a .904 save percentage in going 2-3. Neither he nor his backups — free agent David Leggio and Brandon Maxwell of Germany’s DEL — were brought back for the Beijing Games.
Instead, USA Hockey opted for Strauss Mann, 23, who is 13 games into his pro career with Sweden’s Skelleftea AIK after playing at the University of Michigan; Boston University sophomore Drew Commesso, a draftee of the Chicago Blackhawks; and in one of the most unexpected additions to the roster, 34-year-old minor league journeyman Pat Nagle, who has an .897 save percentage with the Philadelphia Flyers‘ AHL affiliate the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
The expectation is that Mann will be the new Zapolski, potentially starting every game for the Americans.
“Strauss is a great guy,” said Beniers, his Michigan teammate last season. “He was a leader for us. He’s kind of a brick wall back there. He’s a small goalie, but really quick. Hard to score up top on him. I remember going on him in shootouts, and he’d stop everything. On a team like Michigan where we’ve got a lot of offense, he was making a lot of saves for us.”
Commesso had a good game against Slovakia in world juniors before that tournament was shuttered for a COVID-19 outbreak.
Mann has some promise, but it’s still jarring to see a group like this as the best Olympic option.
Take a goalie like Zane McIntyre, for example. He’s 29, appeared in the NHL with the Boston Bruins and has an extensive AHL career. His agent, Ray Petkau, said McIntyre was on the list for Olympic consideration after the NHL opted out, “but his focus was on landing with an NHL team, with the goal of getting another opportunity to play NHL games.” He signed an NHL contract with the Minnesota Wild earlier this month.
Like McIntyre, goalies Michael Houser (Buffalo Sabres) and Cale Morris (Chicago Blackhawks) signed NHL contracts around the time the U.S. was searching for players. And how did Minnesota State-Mankato’s Dryden McKay, the NCAA career leader in shutouts, not earn a spot here?
What’s next for this team?
According to Vanbiesbrouck, USA Hockey is working out the travel logistics to get the team to Beijing. Most of the team will gather in Los Angeles before the tournament and then travel to China. Other players in European leagues will likely meet their teammates for the first time in Beijing when the team arrives on Feb. 3.
“It’s a short period of time,” Vanbiesbrouck said.
But Quinn said like the coaches, many of these players have played in international tournaments where “they had to come together in a short period of time as a team.”
Building chemistry begins well before the team meets face-to-face. For example, Gionta said that the 2018 Olympic team had a robust text chain that helped get all the new players familiar with one another before they met en masse in South Korea.
“It’s definitely a little more challenging [for them] than we had it,” Gionta said. “We had some time for planning, logistics, even the picking of the roster. With [the NHL] being pulled so late, all that is going to be a challenge. The only advice is to go and enjoy it. To play in the Olympics is pretty special.”
Can the U.S. win a medal in Beijing?
Absolutely. The 2018 team was a shootout loss to the Czech Republic away from the semifinals and eventually playing for a medal.
“You can go there and you can win that tournament. It’s that wide open,” Granato said. “Germany was within a minute from winning a gold medal. Who would have thought that? All the teams are facing their own challenges this year, just like they did when we went. All the teams expected the NHL to be there this time, so everyone is making their adjustments. They’re all scrambling to figure out what to do.”
The Russian Olympic Committee is defending its gold medal in Beijing, and has undergone some changes since South Korea. Legends Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk aren’t likely to return. Star forward Kirill Kaprizov and defenseman Artem Zub are in the NHL. They’ll have former NHLers Slava Voynov, Mikhail Grigorenko and KHL star Vadim Shipachyov on the roster, and remain a favorite.
Canada is expected to have several familiar NHL names, including forward Eric Staal, goalie Devan Dubnyk and defenseman Jason Demers. Most familiar of all is the coach: Claude Julien, a Stanley Cup winner whose defensive system could be tailor-made for a short tournament.
Finland also expects to have a share of former NHLers, including defenseman Sami Vatanen and forwards Valtteri Filppula and Markus Granlund. The Swedes could have one of the tournament’s most experienced goalies in Anders Lindback, the former NHL player now backstopping Jokerit Helsinki in the KHL.
But while rivals on the ice will provide their challenges, let’s address the elephant in the room wearing an N95 mask. These Olympics are being held in a pandemic. The Chinese organizers and the IOC are taking major precautions in trying to keep the athletes safe. But as we’ve seen countless times, positive tests can dramatically impact rosters, schedules and completion of the tournaments themselves.
The impact of COVID-19 on the NHL season is the reason those players aren’t going to Beijing. It could also make the biggest impact on the players who will compete there.
“For a long time, everyone was pitching the NHL going to the Olympics. The reality of it hit, and now we’re living through new realities,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “This is a fantastic opportunity for whoever is going to be going to the Olympics. This is our Olympic team and we’re going there to represent our country.”