What's almost as good as watching NHL players in the Olympics? Debating who will make the team. The U. S. of A announced their preliminary rosters yesterday as seven former Gophers- and 14 players who were born in the State of Hockey- were among the 46 who received invitations: defensemen Erik Johnson, Paul Martin and Stanley Cup champ Nick Leddy will join forwards Phil Kessel, Kyle Okposo, Blake Wheeler and the most recent Gopher Nick Bjugstad at what's being called an "orientation" camp set for next month in Arlington, VA. Because of insurance concerns (it would cost at least ONE MILLION DOLLARS to insure players to skate for two or three days. And considering no one will actually be selected or cut at this camp...) Team America has already stated players won't skate, but it'll be a good opportunity for the players and coaching staff to familiarize themselves with one another.
Martin and Kessel should be locks to make the team. Martin, a two-time national champ in his Gopher playing days, was selected for the past two USA Olympic teams in 2006 and 2010, but wasn't able to play in either, missing the 2010 event in Vancouver because of a broken arm. Kessel, a winger for The Centre Of The Hockey Universe Maple Leafs, is coming off 20 goals in a lock-out shortened 48 game season, and scored at least 30 goals in the previous four seasons. He played for Team America in Vancouver, and should be a second line right wing in Sochi. He might not even be the best hockey player in his family though as his sister Amanda is absolutely freaking awesome.
Nick Leddy has had a strong start to his career with the Chicago Black Hawks (don't mention the Wild trade don't mention the Wild trade don't mention the Wild trade). With the tournament in Russia, Leddy's great skating and puck moving abilities is an even bigger advantage on the larger European ice sheets and he could definitely play his way onto the Olympic roster with a good first half of the upcoming season. Johnson, the former #1 overall selection, has extensive international experience in the Red, White and Blue, and was a member of the 2010 team. With a deep and talented group of d-men, Johnson will really have to step up his game with the Avs to have a chance.
Wheeler, who plays for the Now-Hated-Wild-Rival Winnipeg Jets, has been a solid NHL forward his entire career but is a long-shot to make the team. Okposo is looking to build off a good playoff performance where he notched three goals and an assist in a six-game first round exit to the Penguins. It's never been a question of talent with Kyle, just a matter of finally putting it all together. At 6'0 and 210 there's always room for a sniper off the wing, and Okposo's invite means he has a real chance to make the team if he can pick up where he left off last season.
For Bjugstad, he and some other very young players like Seth Jones, John Gibson, Jacob Trouba and a few others, will just be happy to be there. This is a smart move by USA Hockey to bring in some of their best and brightest young players that should be the future of the national program, and give them an opportunity to hang with the current players and coaches. They get to see what it's like and what it takes to not only be big-time NHL'ers, but to wear the Stars and Stripes at the absolute highest levels. Even if the NHL doesn't participate in future Olympics after Sochi, the World Cup of Hockey is making a comeback in 2016 and should be a regular international event. For USA Hockey to include Bjugstad shows just how highly they regard the former Gopher and now Florida Panther.
I know what you're thinking- you forgot Alex Goligoski! I didn't, but perhaps those picking the team did? I've yet to see a rational explanation for why a player who is legitimately one of the eight best American defenseman playing hockey today didn't even get invited to orientation camp. That's not even a Gopher bias, that's just fact.
Eight other native Minnesotans who received invites and are clearly traitors for not choosing to play their college hockey at the U, are Dustin Byfuglien (born in Minneapolis, raised in Roseau and never played college hockey), Justin Faulk (South St Paul/UMD), Jake Gardiner (Minnetonka/Skunks in Popcorn Boxes), Ryan McDonagh (St Paul/BADgers), David Backes (Spring Lake Park/Mankato St), TJ Oshie (Warroad/Fighting Whioux), Zach Parise (Minneapolis/Whioux), and Derek Stepan (Hastings/BADgers).
Team America looks even better, deeper, and more experienced than the group that won silver in Vancouver. They have arguably the best pool of goalies available, the world's best defenseman in Ryan Suter and a solid group behind him, and a really good group of wingers (I hate Patrick Kane with every fiber of my being but he's one of the planet's best right now). Center? That's the one place the US has questions, but as they showed in Vancouver, they may not have big names but they were clearly good enough to get to OT in the Gold Medal game.
The rosters for the Sochi games have been increased from 22 to 25, so the teams will be able to dress two extra forwards and an extra defenseman, as teams will take 14 forwards, eight D, and three goalies. Final rosters have to be submitted by the end of December.
How many former Gophers will make the team? Who should start in goal? How much better is Amanda Kessel than her brother? Anything else you want to talk about with USA Hockey have at it.