Team USA was one of the pleasant surprises at the 2000 World Championships.
Although they did not win a medal, they gave a strong accounting of
themselves. This year's team was constructed in similar fashion, with few
current NHL stars on the roster but lots of useful veteran role players and
a corps of young and talented players who could be stars of the future. The
team features enough speed to compensate for the larger rink. Goal-scoring,
however, could once again be a problem.
Goaltending: All eyes will be focused on highly-touted young goalie Rick
DiPietro (New York Islanders). Although he only has average size, he "looks
big" when he's goal. Moreover, he is already one of the world's top
puckhandling goalies. DiPietro may be inexperienced at the senior level, but
he's not lacking for self-confidence. He is going to have to keep the games
low-scoring for Team USA to have a chance to be a surprise medalist.
Fortunately, he will aided by a skilled group of defensemen.
DiPietro will be backed up by Robert Esche (the backup goalie of the Phoenix
Coyotes) and well-regarded college goalie Ryan Miller (Michigan State).
Defense: Team USA's greatest strength may be on defense. The American team
has one of the tournament's most talented bluelines. There is a mix of size
and strength (Hal Gill, Deron Quint, Eric Weinrich), mobility (Bret Hedican,
Mark Eaton, David Tanabe, Phil Housley), and offensive ability (Housley,
Tanabe, and, to a lesser extent, Eaton). Weinrich and Housley are the
veteran leaders on the blueline and both have considerable experience on the
U.S. national team.
Forwards: This is where Team USA comes up a little short against the medal
favorites. There is not a single proven offensive star among the corps of
forwards. Mark Parrish (New York Islanders) is a good young NHL goal-scorer,
but he needs someone to get him the puck in close to the net, because he's
not the type of player who creates a lot of his own scoring chances.
Unfortunately, the team lacks a top-notch playmaking center. Instead, there
is a collection of solid role players (Jeff Halpern, Doug Brown, Darby
Hendrickson), players trying to re-establish themselves (Jim Campbell, Derek
Plante) and promising young players (David Legwand, Tim Connolly). Goals may
be hard to come by for this bunch.
A player-by-player review:
Rick DiPietro: A potential franchise goalie in upcoming years. An excellent
puck handler and a very aggressive goalie, who likes to come out and
challenge the shooter.
Robert Esche: A solid young backup goalie. Does not have an outstanding
asset, apart from decent size, but he does not yield a lot of soft goals.
Ryan Miller: It is unlikely that Miller will get into a game in the
tournament, but the tall, lanky goalie (a Buffalo Sabres draftee) is a name
to watch in the future. Like DiPietro, Miller likes to come out of the net
to cut down the angle on the shooter. He is also a good puckhandler,
although not of DiPietro's caliber.
Mark Eaton: The former Flyers defenseman, now with Nashville, combines very
good speed with a good head for the game. He moves the puck quickly and
shows a lot of poise for a young defenseman. He also has some offensive
ability, although at the NHL level, he has preferred to play more
conservatively. He is not a big hitting defenseman. He plays more of a
Hal Gill: The hulking Bruins defenseman is good at using his long reach to
tie up opposing forwards. He can use his strength to clear out the area
around the crease, although he has not always done so with enough
consistency to please his coaches. Gill lacks speed and does not join the
Bret Hedican: The Panthers defenseman is one of the world's top skaters. He
has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career. He's prone to
needless turnovers and coverage mistakes. While his offensive numbers aren't
awful, people have always expected more than he's delivered. On the other
hand, when he's on his game, his speed makes him very difficult to forecheck
and he can keep up stride-for-stride with any forward trying to go outside
Phil Housley: Housley's role, as always, will be provide offensive spark.
Undersized and mediocre defensively (although he has improved over the
years), the veteran's calling card is exceptional vision of the ice, the
ability to turn defense into offense in a flash, and great work at the point
on the powerplay. He can hit someone with an accurate pass or find a way to
get his shot on goal through traffic.
Deron Quint: Quint's attitude and work habits have been called into question
but there is no denying his physical ability. He's big, strong, a good
skater, and posseses an array of offensive skills that have only been
displayed irregularly since he has turned professional. On any given game,
though, he can be the best defenseman on his team.
David Tanabe: Many feel that Tanabe will be an NHL star of the future. He
has experienced the typical ups and downs of young defensemen, but the
Carolina Hurricanes blueliner has everything it takes to be an All-star
caliber defenseman. He's a great skater, an excellent puckhandler, and has
shown flashes of strong two-way play (although he has been streaky both
offensively and defensively so far in his young career).
Eric Weinrich: A veteran who knows how to play his position, Weinrich will
relied on heavily in penalty killing situations and close games. He is solid
positionally, a good shot blocker, and good at clearing loose pucks to
safety. He's never been a prolific offensive defenseman but he can chip in
with some points as well.
Doug Brown: Small but fast and very smart, the veteran Detroit Red Wings
player can fill a lot of roles on the hockey team. Brown is the type of
player who is more widely recognized by coaches and teammates than the fans.
He's never been a huge point-getter but, when placed on an offensive line,
he gets his share of points. Placed on a checking line, he does the job
defensively. Brown will be one of the veterans Team USA relies upon to help
set a winning tone.
Jim Campbell: Campbell, a former 20 goal scorer, has bounced around between
the minor leagues and the NHL in the last few years. He seemed to find a
home in Montreal this season.
Tim Connolly: The youngest regular in the NHL last season, Connolly is a
very mature young player. He's a fast skater, a good puck handler, and has
above-average hands. He is one of the game's better young players, although
he has not yet bloomed offensively for the talent-starved New York
Craig Darby: A top offensive player at the minor league level, Darby has
settled into a defensive role for the Montreal Canadiens. He's developed
into a savvy all-around player, but his skating is a little below par.
Brian Gionta: The tiny (171 cm) Gionta is a fun player to watch. He is quick
and fiesty. Although the Boston College player will probably struggle to
find a role in the NHL, no one who has watched him play in college or for
the U.S. national team would dare under-estimate him. He has a knack for
getting in the clear and scoring clutch goals and he backs down from nobody.
Jeff Halpern: Halpern is coming off a fine year for the Washington Capitals
and he did as good of a job as could be expected in trying to shut down
Mario Lemieux during the first round of the NHL playoffs. Halpern is mostly
known as a defensively-responsible forward but he is also a pretty good
opportunistic offensive player. He is also versatile, playing both center
and left wing. He has average size, average speed, and average hands but
more than makes up for that with far above-average smarts.
Darby Hendrickson: A hard working player who never stops battling,
Hendrickson is an active forechecker who has developed into a reliable
checking line player. He'll never be a big goal scorer but he's always got
his legs going.
Mike Knuble: Once thought of as an up-and-coming offensive star, Knuble
never could quite crack the Detroit Red Wings lineup and has since bounced
around from Detroit to the New York Rangers to the Boston Bruins. Knuble has
good size and strength. He's good along the boards and can score goals by
crashing the net. He's become more of an NHL role player than an offensive
player, but he's one of the players Team USA will look to for some offense.
Ryan Kraft: Kraft is a decent minor league player who is awaiting a chance
at an NHL roster.
David Legwand: Legwand is still expected to eventually blossom into an NHL
star, but it has not happened yet for the 2nd overall pick of the 1998
draft. The center has great speed and exceptionally soft hands. Played with
Team USA last year.
Mark Parrish: A good finisher in close, especially on the powerplay, Parrish
needs a good playmaking center to get him the puck around the slot. Good at
putting in rebounds and strong along the boards.
Derek Plante: Plante is struggling to regain the form that made him a 3 time
20-goal scorer for the Buffalo Sabres. He has been ineffective in recent
years and was a dissapointment for the Philadelphia Flyers this season,
spending most of the season in the minor leagues until injuries forced his
call-up late in the season. Showed occassional flashes of his former ability
but the results were not there. Plante lacks size but he has speed,
creativity, and soft hands. He seems to short on confidence right now.
Defensively, he has never been more than adequate, so he needs to score
points to help the team.
This year, Team USA was playing for pride. The World Championships receive
relatively little press coverage or fan interest in the United States, in
large part because the tournament overlaps with the Stanley Cup playoffs
and many of the top players are either still playing with their NHL club
or choose not to participate. Nevertheless, the players who wear the
jersey of their national team usually take the honor very seriously.
There were no NHL superstars on the Team USA roster this year, although
Phil Housley has been a fine offensive defenseman over the course of his
long career and young David Legwand is one of the most promising
youngsters in the game. The rest of the roster was comprised of scrappy
role players from the NHL, minor league, and collegiate ranks. This crew
was short on scoring punch but long on effort and intensity.
Team USA was the tournament's most pleasant surprise throughout the
pre-medal round stages of the tournament. Led by Housley and good
goaltending from NHLer Damian Rhodes and minor leaguer Robert Esche, Team
USA went into the quarterfinals with an undefeated record (four wins, two
ties). Esche played some of the best hockey of his career, allowing just
one goal in two starts. Esche backstopped Team USA to a shocking 3-0
shutout victory over host country and pre-tournament favorite Russia (who
were far and away the biggest disappointment of the tourney).
As Team USA entered the quarterfinals against Slovakia, the American
hockey public finally paid a little bit of attention to their nation's
undefeated squad. Unfortunately, the World Championships were soon
relegated to the back pages of the sports section again when Slovakia
overcame an early 1-0 deficit (on a Darby Hendrickson goal) to score three
goals in quick order at the start of the second period. Finally, a Lubos
Bartecko powerplay goal in the third period dashed any hopes of an
American comeback. Team USA could not solve goalie Jan Lasak again and the
Slovaks won 4-1. Team USA had to settle for 5th place.
All in all, Team USA should feel proud about the way they performed in
St. Petersburg. Without a single player or line to bear the brunt of the
offensive burden, the Americans got balanced scoring across the
lineup. Twelve different players tallied at least one goal, although no
one scored more than two. The Americans also got steady defensive
performances from the likes of NHL veteran Eric Weinrich.
Team USA went about as far as they could with the roster they assembled
for the tournament. Hopefully, in the near future, they will play their
way back onto the international medal podium.
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