Selecting Team USA Series; Can Any Young Defenders Crack the Roster? A Deeper Look at Possible Pairings.

A strong defensive core is quite possibly the best asset any team can have going into the Olympics. It promotes continuity, kick starts the transition game, regulates the flow of play, and most importantly it protects the goaltender. For team USA’s defensive pairings the following must be considered.

-          Complementary styles of play: The ability to mesh with one’s partner quickly will lead to early success in Sochi.

-          Breadth of play: Despite some talented rookies and sophomores in the NHL today, it is important to have more veteran members taking the ice in big pressure situations.

-          Veteran poise and leadership: Locker room personalities are big in the Olympic circle. Leaders on and off the ice who remain poised help create continuity when little practice time is given becomes a huge asset in the Olympics

-          Balance of Skills: While in the NHL there are players who excel at specific tasks, the Olympics require very well rounded talents who can be used in every situation.

Thusly, the following pairings are my choices for Team USA and will provide all the necessary elements needed to achieve success in Sochi.

First Pairing – When it comes to being a workhorse on defense, a power play, penalty killing, and even strength go to guy, no one does it better than Ryan Suter.

The Minnesota Wild defensive superstar is widely regarded as the best defensive player for Team USA, as well as consideration for the top Defensemen in the NHL with his nomination for the James Norris Memorial Trophy. Suter is expected to be the go to guy for Team USA and has a very strong case to captain this team. Suter is a defenseman that brings the best of everything to the table. He is an excellent skater, a sound defender, and a heads up outlet passer. He plays over 29 minutes per game with his NHL club and has even had games where he played over 35 minutes. Suter will have to be team USA’s best defender in Sochi.

To maximize Suter’s  play, I believe he should be paired with Keith Yandel, one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL today. Yandel is one of the best skating defensemen in today, showing off a seamless transition game and heads up shot, making him a very dangerous weapon for Suter to have. Yandel’s skating ability is often used to push defenders up ice, removing defensive zone pressure, and even helps breakdown neutral zone positional defenses.

Although known for offense, Yandel is a capable defender in his own end. This combination is going to be very helpful for team USA in a variety of situations. Their transitional play and passing abilities will generate a much more effective offense and should be very useful against the more open skating European teams. Look for these two to be heavily relied upon when Team USA needs a spark.

Second Pairing – Jack Johnson and Kevin Shattenkirk, this is going to be a coming out party for this duo. Johnson is a very thick build, standing at 6’1 and weighing over 235 pounds. He is a decent skater who is a brutal defender along the boards. He is exceptionally tough to play against in front of the net and is a well liked leader wherever he goes. Although he is not going to produce a ton of points, he has an underrated shot with a significant amount of velocity on it.

His partner in Sochi should be none other than Kevin Shattenkirk. The 5’11, 205 pound defender for St.Louis is one of the best goal scoring defenders in the game today. He has a very powerful skating stride that looks effortless, allowing him to pinch into offense plays and then recover before losing position. He consistently has his head on a swivel, anticipating the opposition’s breakout, or finding passing lanes. Shattenkirk is also a responsible defender, a necessity when your coach is Ken Hitchcock, and knows when to stay back on a play. This young duo, in my opinion, has the most potential of the three pairings and should quickly earn the coaching staff’s trust.

Third Pairing – Familiarity and chemistry are very difficult to build in the limited practice time prior to the Olympics. For that reason it seems that the final pairing should be one that has spent time together; a pairing that is trustworthy, savvy, and carries with them a veteran presence. In looking for this it seems that the final pairing should be Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin.

Both defensemen are seasoned veterans who operate as the shut down top pairing for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Brooks Orpik, who was a heavily relied upon defender in 2010, is a bruising defender known for taking the body. He is notoriously difficult around the net and along the boards. While not the best skater, Orpik makes up for this with his strong positional play and anticipation.

Paul Martin is a heads up player, a smooth skater, and a underrated defender. Martin was on his way to being a top pairing defender in 2010 before a broken arm sidelined him for a majority of the season. His overall style of play is more like one would see in a European defender than that of an American. Martin rarely takes the body in his play, instead, he uses proper stick work and positioning to keep forwards at a distance and in bad position. He is quick to pucks around the net and is very efficient in moving the puck out of the defensive zone.

This bottom pairing also has an edge that is not to be overlooked, that is of course the coach and assistant GM of team USA. Coach Dan Bylsma of team USA trusts this pairing in every situation while coaching the two in Pittsburgh. He consistently uses them against the top offensive lines of the opposition. Assistant General Manager Ray Shero, of team USA, courted Martin a few years back with the hopes of creating a terrific shut down pair. Over the past few seasons, these two defenders have become very close to one another and have developed a strong chemistry. One should not overlook this when deciding the pairings for team USA.

Alternates – When deciding who will be the alternates for team USA, we have to take into consideration the breadth of play and how they match up against the best lines of the opposition. For Team USA it is very important to bring along eight quality defensemen. Thusly I had to remove a few big names from the candidates.

Dustin Bufyglien is a great weapon to have. He is a mammoth of a man in the NHL, weighing over 260 pounds, and has a huge shot. The problem is that while he brings to the table a lot of offense, his defensive game will exposed greatly on the open ice at Sochi. Byfuglien is not a great skater and does not possess a significant amount of speed. When it comes to playing on Olympic ice, he would be consistently chasing players in the defensive zone. When it comes to the smaller NHL ice, he is able to corner players and pen them in so to speak. In Sochi, Byfuglien would be more of a hindrance than he would be an asset. For that we unfortunately have to leave him off of the Roster.

Despite the very strong start by rookie Seth Jones of Nashville, it is also in the best interest of team USA to leave him at home. The young defender does have his own GM running the show for team USA, giving him a better chance of making the team, but it seems that his overall small sample size of play will keep him waiting until 2018, where he will surely be a stud top defender.

Erik Johnson is a guy who is having a resurgent type year. Unfortunately for the former top draft pick, his struggles over the past few seasons are just too difficult to overlook. Just a few seasons back he would have been a no brainer selection, but today he is unfortunately on the outside looking in.

The final guy to miss the list is another young defender from a Southern based team, Justin Faulk. The defenseman for the Carolina Hurricanes has grown leaps and bounds this season in his play, pairing together great poise with and without the puck. He is an all star in the making at his position, but unfortunately he just doesn’t have enough right now to crack the roster.

So with four big names on the bubble gone, who are the remaining two defenders that team USA should take to Sochi?

Don’t over think it. It is John Carlson of the Washington Capitals and Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers.

Carlson is a big defender, standing 6’3, and plays a very strong game in his own end of the ice. He is rarely caught out of position and uses his size to his advantage. On the open ice of Sochi he can show off his underated skating abilities and his underutilized shot from the point. McDonagh is a stout defender who excels in his own end. His shot blocking technique and physical style of play would give him an edge against more skilled European style skaters. This, combined with an ever increasing offensive skill set, makes McDonagh a perfect alternate defender for team USA. He can easily step in for any of the skaters mentioned above and play the hard minutes of every game.  Do not be surprised if these two form the bottom pairing and the veterans Orpik and Martin become the alternates as time passes.