United States-Switzerland Preview
Younger? Certainly. Better? That remains to be seen.
A decidedly more-youthful version of Team USA hits the ice Tuesday against Switzerland in the first men's hockey game at the Vancouver Olympics.
It could be said that fielding a younger team was a necessary change, and recent history bears that out.
Eight years ago in Salt Lake City, players like Brett Hull, John LeClair and Mike Modano helped the Americans win silver, ending a medal drought that stretched back to the "Miracle on Ice" team in 1980. The squad in 2006 featured much the same core, including grizzled veterans Chris Chelios, Bill Guerin, Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight.
With a wealth of experience - and an average age pushing 32 - the Americans looked worn out and finished eighth in Turin.
It was clear that a new generation of NHL stars like Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby would go on to represent their respective countries in international play. Clearly, it was time for the United States to follow suit.
When this year's team was unveiled on New Year's Day, general manager Brian Burke emphatically forged a new direction. Fourteen players in Vancouver are 25 or younger compared to three that went to Italy.
"Why did we go this way?" Burke said. "Because we think we've got better players."
That doesn't mean it was an easy change to make.
"To steal a line from Tom Brokaw, the 'greatest generation' we have had was this group," Burke said of the veterans that had long been synonymous with US hockey. "To turn that page took a great deal of soul searching and a great deal of agonizing."
Only Chris Drury (33 years old), Brian Rafalski (36) and then-reserve Ryan Miller are holdovers from Turin. The 29-year-old Miller, a five-time 30-game winner with Buffalo, likes the change.
"It's exciting for a new generation. There's a lot of people on this team who are very excited to be here, not that some of the other players wouldn't be," he said. "There is a freshness about it, and there is a little bit of that that 'Maybe they don't know any better.'"
Miller will see most of the playing time in goal, and also sounds like someone who doesn't expect things to be much different from what he normally faces.
"We've all played NHL games," Miller said. "It really comes down to just another series of games where you have to play tight, you have to play smart, and it's going to be against world class talent, just like every night we play."
He'll be backed up by reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas of Boston - a first-time Olympian and greybeard at 35. Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick is just 24, but leads the league with 35 wins.
If the forwards Burke selected learn to play together quickly under coach Ron Wilson, success may not be that far off.
At 21, Chicago's Patrick Kane has reached 25 goals for the second straight season. Bobby Ryan is a year older, but leads Anaheim with 28 goals after scoring 31 as a rookie in 2008-09. New Jersey's Zach Parise is 25 and closing on his fourth straight 30-goal season.
On defense, Rafalski - a three-time Stanley Cup winner with Detroit and New Jersey - returns for his third straight Olympics. His presence will be invaluable to a unit that includes budding stars Jack Johnson (23) of Los Angeles and St. Louis' Erik Johnson (21).
The Ducks' Ryan Whitney and Carolina's Tim Gleason, both 27 years old, will make their Olympic debuts in place of the injured Paul Martin (arm) of New Jersey and Toronto's Mike Komisarek (shoulder).
Burke is fine with the fact that there will be growing pains with such a youthful squad. Expectations heading into western Canada are tempered at best.
"We have no illusions or delusions about this tournament. We will go in as underdogs, and we are confident of that and comfortable with that," he said. "All of the money is going to be bet on Canada and Russia and Sweden to a lesser extent, and that's fine with us."
Switzerland comes to Vancouver looking to give veteran coach Ralph Krueger his first Olympic medal in 13 years before he steps down after the World Championships later this year.
But Krueger will have his work cut out for him. Switzerland looks to follow up a sixth-place finish in Turin four years ago - its best showing since winning the bronze medal in 1948 as host in St. Moritz.
Their biggest star is captain Mark Streit of the New York Islanders, one of 10 returning players from the 2006 team. Streit led New York with 56 points in 2008-09, becoming only the second defenseman since the 2004-05 lockout to lead his team in scoring.
In goal is Jonas Hiller, who's won 26 games with Anaheim this season and became the clear-cut starter after Conn Smythe-winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere was dealt to the Maple Leafs earlier this month. Martin Gerber, a Stanley Cup winner with Carolina in 2006, provides depth.
Up front, perhaps the most recognizable name is Hnat Domenichelli, who played with four NHL teams from 1996-2003. The Canadian-born forward has spent the last seven years in the Swiss League, making him eligible to represent that country in the Olympics.