Dan Bylsma finding his favorites in Sochi

The Olympic hockey tournament is something of a whirlwind. Teams arrive in the Village on Monday or Tuesday, hit the ice on Wednesday or Thursday, and plow through the group stage by Sunday. Then the real madness begins. The 12-team field is frantically whittled down to four over the course of three lawless days, and then, behold – the medal round. Hockey’s greatest international tournament is decided in a matter of ten days, which means that coaches and players alike need to make adjustments on the fly. For the well-dressed men behind the benches, that means figuring out, among other things, who to lean on, who to rely on. Group play, in that regard, is a bit like preseason.

With the United States through “preseason”, the pecking order under coach Dan Bylsma has begun to take shape. Let’s go position-by-position and see who has earned Bylsma’s trust, and who – sorry John Carlson – hasn’t.

Goalie 

A bit of a surprise here. Despite Ryan Miller’s Olympic experience and staunch work this season for the Sabres, Bylsma opted to go with Jonathan Quick as his first-game starter. Quick played well against Slovakia in his Olympic debut, so coach shook him in the hand and gave him the keys to the car. The 28-year-old “rookie” rewarded Bylsma’s good faith with another strong performance against Russia, kicking out 29 shots in a 3-2 shootout win.

Miller got the start on Sunday against Slovenia – and carried a shutout into the game’s dying seconds – but that move was likely made to keep Quick fresh rather than let Miller make his case. (A good case he made though…) If Bylsma truly wanted to let Quick and Miller duke it out, he would have split the first two games between them – as Mike Babcock did with Carey Price and Roberto Luongo – and then decided from there. A nice gesture letting Miller man the net against Slovenia, but it looks like Bylsma has made up his mind with Quick as the number one.

Jimmy Howard dressed for the team’s game against Slovenia, but that’s as close as he’ll get to the ice in Sochi.

Defense 

The notoriously young outfit on the blueline has risen to the occasion so far in Sochi. Cam Fowler has looked every bit the confident puck-mover he was purported to be (because he plays out in Anaheim, no one really knew for sure), Kevin Shattenkirk has been less than bashful at both ends of the ice, and Ryan McDonagh has been, well, a monster, eating up massive minutes and consistently locking horns with the other team’s best. Fowler has averaged 16:11 of ice time, Shattenkirk 17:03, and McDonagh 20:38. (McDonagh played a remarkable 23:39 against Russia.)

Ryan Suter has averaged nearly 30 minutes of ice time per game at the Olympics.

As for Carlson, a defensive miscue on Russia’s first goal Saturday landed him in Bylsma’s doghouse. The Washington Capitals star played just one shift after losing track of Pavel Datsyuk on his breakaway goal, and finished the day with 3:56 of ice time. Bylsma loosened the leash a little bit against Slovenia, deploying Carlson for 15:55, though most of that time came in the third period with the game sealed away. Glaring mistakes really hurt your stock in a short tournament like this, and it’s clear Carlson has been moved down the depth chart.

Taking his place among the top six has been Brooks Orpik, who started this tournament as the seventh defenseman and more of a safe guard against rookie inexperience. The Americans have to be glad they brought him along. Orpik played just 10:51 in the opener against Slovakia, but saw his role expanded against Russia with Carlson relegated to the bench. Orpik was calm and steady in 16:38 of ice time on Saturday, unfazed by the high stakes and pressure-packed atmosphere. Bylsma turned to him again against Slovenia, and it looks as if the top-six defensemen heading into the knockout round are Fowler, Shattenkirk, McDonagh, Orpik, Paul Martin and…

Oh right, Ryan Suter. Suter, the NHL’s minutes leader, has been an indefatigable android for the Americans so far, logging 23:27 of ice time per game and playing with serene poise every moment he’s been on the ice. Against Russia, Suter played a ridiculous 29:56 – even more ridiculous is that that’s only seven seconds more than his NHL average. Bylsma is clearly not shy in calling his number.

Justin Falk, the young defenseman for the Carolina Hurricanes, is a fan at this point.

Center 

In the all the pre-Sochi analysis, the Americans were knocked a bit for being thin down the middle. Where Sweden could point to Nicklas Backstrom, Russia to Evgeni Malkin and Canada to Sydney Crosby (or Jonathan Toews or John Tavares or Ryan Getzlaf…), the US didn’t look to have a true number-one center on its roster. That evaluation may still hold some weight, but the centers have played well enough as a group so far to make up for any lack of individual flair.

How Bylsma uses them is mostly a function of the game situation. Paul Stastny and Joe Pavelski, it appears, are the two centermen he looks toward for offense, while David Backes and Ryan Kesler have been used to slow down the big guns on the other bench. That’s not to minimize what the latter two can provide on the offensive side of the puck, but it does seem like those two big, bruising bodies have been the perfect antidote to opposing playmakers.

If a number-one had to be declared, it’d probably be Pavelski. Kesler is leading the center group in ice time, with 17:12 per game, but Pavelski is the closest thing among them to a true game-breaker. That’s why he played 2:30 in overtime against Russia, second only to Suter’s 3:12. Kesler, meanwhile, saw 1:37 of ice in the extra session, and was out there more as a combatant to Ovechkin, Malkin et al than as an offensive stimulant. Let’s put it this way: if the Americans find themselves down by a goal with less than a minute to go against, say, Canada (!!) in the semis, Pavelski will be the center taking the ice. If they’re up by a goal, it’ll be Kesler.

Because overtime ice time is such a good barometer of a coach’s trust in each of his players, let’s look at the numbers for Backes and Stastny, too. Backes played 49 seconds in the extra session while Stastny was on the ice for just six seconds. These numbers are a tidy microcosm of the tournament-long trend. After Kesler, Pavelski is averaging 15:23 of ice time, Backes 14:57 and Stastny 13:19. Stastny and Backes are certainly important to the success of this team, but Kesler and Pavelski are the centers leading the way.

It’s also worth noting that Bylsma has used Pavelski as the quarterback and point-man on the first power play unit, a role he plays for the San Jose Sharks as well. Pavelski has looked comfortable in that position, but the power play as a whole has appeared out of sync. They are 1-for-7 through three games – a mark that will need to improve if they want the American flag raised in Sochi.

Derek Stepan made his Olympic debut against Slovenia, logging 4:59 of ice time. He likely won’t suit up again this tournament. 

Left Wing 

The left wing group might look similar to the center quartet, with two offensive weapons in Zach Parise and James van Reimsdyk and two matchup assets in Dustin Brown and Max Pacioretty. But that would be selling Pacioretty short, who, despite limited ice time, has potential to break out in a big way. You don’t score 26 goals through January by accident.

Pacioretty, who actually leads all American left wings in goals this season, is a victim of circumstance. Zach Parise is one of the best players on the US team, not to mention the captain of the squad. He gets first-line minutes. James van Reimsdyk happens to be an NHL teammate of Phil Kessel, the best goal scorer on this team, and therefore an Olympic line mate of his as well. He plays when Kessel plays; Kessel plays a lot. Dustin Brown has been skating frequently with Patrick Kane and Kesler, two ice time leaders for the Americans. As a result, he hears his number called a decent amount too.

That leaves Pacioretty as the odd man out – although Stepan and Faulk would probably take issue with that classification. Either way, the big winger for the Montreal Canadiens has been handed a fourth-line role with the US team really by no fault of his own. That’s simply what happens on “all-star teams.” (Three years ago, Phil Kessel was picked last at the NHL All-Star Game draft. Now he’s one of the best forwards in the league. And don’t worry: Kessel got a free car for his embarrassment.)

Anyway you cut it, the stud in this stable is Parise, a fact validated by the 17:11 of ice time he has seen per game, third among all US forwards. In fact Parise was the only left-winger to see the ice in overtime on Saturday, suggesting a relative lack of faith in this group on the behalf of Bylsma. Still, van Reimsdyk has justified the ice time he’s been given, proving through three games that, with or without Kessel, he should be out there. Don’t count on a divorce though – JvR has averaged 14:38 so far and Kessel 14:46. Bylsma clearly sees them as a package deal.

Dustin Brown’s minutes (11:45 per game) might seem low, especially as a 2010 holdover, but remember that the rugged LA Kings forward is struggling through a down year in California. Brown has just 10 goals and 16 points through 58 games this season, and you can bet that’s something that Bylsma considered when putting his lines together. (Which makes it all the stranger that he threw Brown on a line with Kane and Kessel, but…it worked in Vancouver?)

Point is, Brown doesn’t offer enough –right now, at least – to play more than twelve minutes a night, although don’t be surprised if his role grows as this tournament presses on. His big-game experience, both in the Olympics and in the NHL playoffs, will serve him well when the stakes are raised.

Right Wing 

If the goalies are the first strength of this US team, the right-wingers are a close second. Kane. Kessel. Saturday’s hero TJ Oshie. Ryan Callahan. Right on down the line, this unit is seriously impressive, long on both international experience and hair-raising talent. Callahan, the one guy whose skill set might lag behind the others’, probably runs through walls for fun while Oshie, the only Olympic newbie in the group, apparently has blood colder than the East Siberian Sea.

Bylsma knows right wing is a position of strength for the Americans, and has doled out ice time here accordingly. Kane is averaging 17:18 of action per game. Kessel is at 14:46 and Callahan 14:50. Kane and Kessel are obvious picks to play top-end minutes, but Callahan’s ice time might come as a surprise to some, especially when you consider the similarities he shares with Brown – rugged, blue-collar forward, not overly talented, and in the midst of an unproductive season in the NHL.

But Bylsma, as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, knows what Callahan brings to the table. He has been coaching against the New York Rangers’ captain for five years, and gets a chance now to switch sides. Callahan’s a well-known antagonist in the NHL, though many overlook his skating ability. He might not be as graceful as a Kane or a Kessel, but Callahan gets from point A to point B as well as almost anyone. And Callahan, an ultra-competitive, ultra-passionate personality, is made for a tournament like the Olympics. He’s another guy you can count on seeing at the end of games to come.

Oshie is an interesting case. He played just 10:50 against Slovenia and then 9:23 against Russia, before emerging as the Next American Hero with a flat-out fearless performance in the shootout. Oshie is probably now the most recognizable player on this team, and he’s averaging only 11:38 of ice time per game, second-to-last on the squad. (Model looks and hands like grease will do that for you.) But Oshie has been making a difference in other areas of the game too, and Bylsma has begun to take notice, giving the 27-year-old 14:40 of ice time against Slovenia on Sunday. Look for Oshie’s role to continue to grow with each game. 

Blake Wheeler has dressed twice, playing 38 seconds against Russia and then 12:02 against Slovenia. He made a terrific play to set up McDonagh on the Americans’ fourth goal of the game, and figures to get another look before this is all settled.