Going for Gold: A Team USA primer with Chris Peters
FEB 17, 2014 9:19a ET
The Olympic hockey tournaments for both the Men and the Women are in full-swing. The U.S. Women's team is in the semifinals against Sweden today and the Men's quarterfinal game is Wednesday. Both teams are playing well and generating many feverish fans hoping for Gold.
Over the weekend, I got in touch with the former communications coordinator of USA Hockey, Chris Peters, to get his thoughts on both teams as they navigate their way through the Sochi Olympic hockey tournament. He runs a very informative blog on hockey in America, The United States of Hockey (unitedstatesofhockey.com) that covers USA Hockey, U.S. National Teams, American hockey prospects, college and junior hockey, and the growth of the game.
First off, how strong of a team, both men and women, has USA Hockey assembled for the Sochi games? Do either, or both, have a realistic chance at winning the tournament and bringing home the Gold medal?
"I think the U.S. team, on paper, is one of the strongest they've fielded since the NHL started participating in the Olympics in 1998.There aren't a ton of superstar names on the roster, but a lot of the younger guys they added to this group have the right kind of skill set that translates well. You throw those guys in with the veterans they have that were a goal short of winning gold in 2010 and you've got a pretty good roster."
"There's depth and versatility in the lineup, which makes (head coach) Dan Bylsma's job a little easier. I think they have a realistic shot at gold if they commit to a game that focuses both on speed and on team defense. Playing fast and hard is the USA Hockey way and this team definitely can do that."
For the Women's team, he said "I believe this may be the most talented women's hockey team I'veâ¨had the pleasure of seeing. They're definitely the fastest and probably the strongest. There's a lot of skill, too. So when you put all of that together, you've got one of the best chances the women have had to win gold since doing so in the first women's hockey tournament in 1998 (Nagano)."
Much has been said about is this the "best" team, especially the men, that could have been assembled? Was anyone left off the rosters that should have been included?
"I think 'best' is kind of subjective. On paper, probably not. Leaving off proven producers like Keith Yandle and Bobby Ryan is a questionable decision, but there's no proven formula to building a winning team. Ryan has struggled since he was left off, while other guys that made the roster have surged. You can look at each guy on this team and there's not a ton of repetitiveness in their skills. This lineup can do a lot the way it was built." For the women, Chris thinks this is the best team that USA Hockey could have put together without missing anyone.
Although Canada won the Gold in 2010, other teams are catching them in terms of being competitive against them. To what does he attribute this seeming parity between national teams?
"The biggest difference between Canada and other countries is the depth of talent they have to choose from, but you only need 25 for the Olympics. You take the 25 best from each country and they're going to stack up more evenly regardless. Some teams will be deeper and better than others, but when you take the best players from age 18-45 for each country, there are bound to be similarities in talent."
"There isn't a country in the world that can match Canada's depth, and that's what has helped their best players get so good. I don't know that other countries have "caught" Canada, but each has gotten better in their development of elite talent. Some of that comes in cycles, but a lot of it has to do with other countries getting pushed to be better by the best in the world. We're also seeing more opportunities for young players in international tournament where they can measure themselves against other top players in their age group and that only helps the development of everyone else."
"The U.S. and Canada are so far ahead of the rest of the women's hockey world right now that their status in the Olympics very well could be in jeopardy. I do hope they get at least one more Olympics toâ¨see if Finland and the rest can close the gap a little more."
What are both the strengths and weaknesses of the Men's and Women's U.S. teams?
"Team USA is strong in net and up front. They have three solid goalies, with Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick likely to see some time. The scoring prowess up front is as good as the U.S. has had sinceâ¨probably around 2002, when they had some of the best American players in history reaching the end of their prime. This group is younger and surging into their prime seasons. The weakness may end up being the youth on defense. They're not an overly big defensive corps, but there's a lot of talent back there, too. It's just a matter of many of them being unproven in this kind of situation."
For the women, "Team USA's biggest strength is its speed. They are so good in transition and just out-skate everyone. They win so many races to loose pucks, the forwards are committed to back-checking and no one can skate with them. It's even a separating factor against Canada."
"Their one area of weakness that really hasn't shown itself much yet in the Olympics is its relative inexperience on defense. They only have two returnees with Olympic experience, but the younger women have done a fantastic job adapting. They'll have their toughest test against Canada though."
On a roster full of the best players in America, with each of them contributing for the greater good, who becomes the Men and Women's MVP's?
"I think to have success in any international event, your goaltender has to be among your best players. Ryan Miller was that in 2010. So whether it's him or Jonathan Quick, the goalie is going to be the MVPâ¨if the U.S. is to have success."
"That said, Team USA needs to score and that's not easy to do in tournaments like these. That means guys like Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Joe Pavelski all have to bring what they've done in the NHL to the Olympics. It still comes back to goaltending. You can score as much as you like, but the U.S. hasn't won anything yet without spectacular goaltending."
"I think the MVP for Team USA (Women) in Sochi may end up being Hilary Knight. Amanda Kessel gets a lot of the publicity and rightfully so. She is dynamic. Knight, however, is kind of an all-around forward. She has speed, she's probably one of the strongest physically and she just plays so hard. Everything about her game is at a high level right now and she should figure prominently in those tougher games against Canada."
When it is all said and done and the players have taken off their skates for the last time in Sochi, who does he think takes home the Gold medal for both the men and the women?
"It's really tough to predict an international tournament. So much can happen in short tournaments like these and it's all about catching lightning in a bottle and getting a few bounces. So I don't really have a good grasp on how this all ends up playing out. For whatever reason, though, this feels like it should be Team USA's year. They're catching these players at the exact right time in their careers and this may be USA's best chance."
For the Women's team, he said "It seems that it's USA and Canada almost every year, barring somethingâ¨insane, like in 2006 (Sweden played Canada for Gold and the U.S. Women played for the Bronze Medal). I think the U.S. is clicking right now and has been for the last few months in training. It should be the U.S. breaking Canada's golden streak in the end."
And finally, there is already speculation that the National Hockey League won't participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Does he see the continued presence of the NHL allowing players to participate in the Olympic Games?
"I fear this is the last NHL Olympics, at least for now. I have a hard time believing, with all that has been said of late by some of the owners publicly and by some NHL personnel. That the NHL will be going to South Korea in 2018. If Sochi somehow translates into a financial positive in the NHL (like if buildings start getting fuller and TV ratings make a notable improvement), then this could be the end and it'd be a shame if that's the case."