Team USA: Unpredictability rules the day
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By Drew Pelto AKA *censored*

If there’s one thing to expect from American hockey it’s that nothing can be expected.

Since the United States won the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996, they have only a pair of Olympic Silver medals, two World Championship Bronze medals, and a semifinal appearance in the World Cup’s second edition in 2004 to show for their efforts.

Granted, the excuses come easy for the Worlds: America’s top players are typically still active in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the tournament isn’t taken as seriously in North America as it is in Europe. Of course on the other hand, Canada deals with the same issues and has won the last two Golds—plus they have ten members of the Triple Gold Club to the whole zero members from the United States.

Unfortunately, the Americans are on a downward trend in hockey. Even on the youth development side, the American juniors have only medalled in five of the past ten World Junior Championships (compared to Russia’s nine, Canada’s seven, and Sweden’s six). While they had a surge of a pair of Gold medals in 2010 and 2013, they were bounced in the Quarterfinals in two of the last three years.

But perhaps the World Cup is the perfect time to start a turnaround for the Stars and Stripes.

Unlike the super-young Finnish squad and the older Team Europe, the Americans have a team full of players in their athletic prime. Kyle Palmieri—a late replacement for the injured Ryan Callahan—is the team’s youngest player at 25, while David Backes is the oldest at only 32 (for those keeping score at home, the entire team is younger than me: Backes has me by a week).

Starting from the back end, the American goaltending is strong, led by a pair of two-time Vezina Trophy finalists, Jonathan Quick and Ben Bishop. At 6’7”, Bishop is the tallest goalie in the tournament with Finland’s Mikko Koskinen. Third goalie Cory Schneider is more than capable as well: he is an NHL All-Star, Jennings Trophy winner, AHL Bastien Award winner for top goalie, the 2004 USA Hockey Goalie of the Year, and won a U18 Gold in 2003. Had he not made the American squad, Schneider could potentially have played for Team Europe: he holds dual citizenship with Switzerland.

Defense that provides offense without going full Coffey. You never go full Coffey.

Moving up to the blueline, only three of the Americans’ seven defensemen were part of the 2014 Olympic team that finished in a lackluster fourth place. This influx of new blood certainly could help a team facing a tough placement in Group A with the Canadians, Czechs, and Team Europe. Dustin Byfuglien is making his first international appearance. As a solid player at both ends of the ice and a physical presence in the corners, he could also see some time at forward as he has seven seasons of at least 15 goals to his credit in the NHL. The trio of Matt Niskanen, Erik Johnson and his not-brother Jack Johnson were not part of the 2014 team but have significant international experience. Niskanen had three points in nine games at the 2009 World Championships, while Johnson and Johnson are multi-medalists for various American teams between 2004 and 2013.

Returning from the 2014 Olympics are John Carlson, Ryan Suter, and Ryan McDonagh. Expect to see a very well balanced group at the back end for the US. None of these seven are seen as a one-dimensional stay-at-home type who lacks speed to join a rush, or strictly an offensive weapon that is a liability in his own zone.

Moving up to the front lines, ten forwards return from 2014 with Patrick Kane as the clear offensive powerhouse. It’s scary to think that at 27, the Buffalo native is just now entering his prime and already has three Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy, a Calder, a Hart, a Art Ross, a Lindsay, an Olympic Silver, a U18 Gold, and a U20 Bronze. That Art Ross Trophy came just this past year, won by a seventeen-point margin ahead of the second-place finisher.

The remaining returning players include Backes, Ryan Kesler, Max Pacioretty, Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski, Derek Stepan, James van Riemsdyk, Blake Wheeler, and the 2014 Olympic “I’m-not-a-hero” hero in shootout master T.J. Oshie. While the team was viewed in 2014 as underachievers, the experience gained will only help them. In addition to the experience, the returning group has some excellent leadership skills. Pavelski, Backes, Wheeler, and Pacioretty are captains of their respective NHL teams, while Parise, Kesler, Kane, and Stepan are alternates.

Well, at least there's this guy for shootouts. Now we just need to cover the first 60-plus minutes.

The three newcomers to the team are hardly so: although they didn’t play in the 2014 Olympics, Justin Abdelkader, Brandon Dubinsky, and Kyle Palmieri have worn the Red, White, and Blue in international play throughout their careers.

Dubinsky is the least experienced, but has appeared in a pair of World Championships, including putting up ten points in six games in 2010. The second-leading scorer in the tournament, he was the lone bright spot on a team that ended up playing in the relegation group (the roster included such luminaries as Christian Hanson, Mike Lundin, Eric Nystrom, and Taylor Chorney).

Abdelkader is as close as the Detroit Red Wings have had to an enforcer over the past decade but is more than just a physical player, putting up 40 points in each of the past two seasons. On the international stage, he won a U20 Bronze in 2007 and also played in the 2012 and 2014 World Championships. Palmieri is the most decorated of the trio with a U20 Gold in 2010, U17 Silver in 2008, and Bronzes in the 2008 U18 and 2011 U20.

Behind the bench. John Tortorella gets his turn through the revolving door. This may be the biggest problem that the United States faces. There have been ten international events from the 2010 Olympics to the 2016 World Cup. "Torts" is the eighth different head coach to lead the American team, while Finland is only on their fourth. How much does this lack of continuity play into the disappointing finishes? Again though, Canada defies this as an excuse as they too are on their eighth (though Mike Babcock has at least been bench boss for two previous Olympics).

I don't know the question, but is this really the answer?

Is Tortorella the answer? We’ll see, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Aside from the 2004 Stanley Cup team, he has led several groups of underachievers, typically culminating in high finishes in the regular season followed by playoff flops—if they even make it at all. He could be effective in short bursts such as this three-to-five game World Cup tournament, but I certainly have my doubts.

I’m not as set on the Americans’ finish as I was with the Finns and (spoiler alert) will be with the Swedes. If you’re a fan of the Stars and Stripes, hope for a semi-final appearance. But don’t be too disappointed if they bow out after the opening trio of games.

About the author: Drew Pelto once shared a broadcast booth with a seventeen-year old Kyle Palmieri when both were in the NAHL—Palmieri as an injured player, Drew as a broadcaster. He now lives in Texas where he avoids microphones at all costs unless he also has a guitar.