Alex Galchenyuk hadn’t even made his junior-hockey debut and Jacob Trouba was still two years away from playing at the University of Michigan when the United States won a silver medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
When the U.S. team gathers for its Sochi 2014 Olympic orientation camp next month, the Montreal Canadiens forward and Winnipeg Jets defenceman will be among 16 players born in the 1990s taking part. And while the likes of Galchenyuk, Trouba, Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner and Anaheim Ducks goaltending prospect John Gibson aren’t assured of roster spots, having them there is part of a concerted effort to build for the future.
“We have a little bit different of a philosophy than 2010: We’re inviting a lot of these younger players, really wanted a component of that,” U.S. general manager David Poile said. “I’m not going to lose our focus in terms of what it’s all about, and that’s Sochi.
“But I want them to be around some of these more veteran guys and I want them to be part of it because whether it’s today or somewhere down the road, they’re going to be a big part of it.”
In 2010, then GM Brian Burke, Poile and the U.S. management staff hoped that with a generation of veterans like Keith Tkachuk, Chris Chelios and Mike Modano gone, players like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter could take over. They’re now expected to be the stars, along with Chicago Blackhawks right-winger Patrick Kane and Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, the last two Conn Smythe Trophy winners.
What Poile and assistant GM Ray Shero wanted in choosing 48 players for orientation camp was to reward success, specifically on the international stage.
“(Winning) a silver medal in Vancouver certainly represents a certain degree of success for these up-and-coming younger players,” Poile said. “Now they’re in a position where they should be our best players and they should be our leaders.”
Galchenyuk, Trouba and Gibson were part of the U.S. team that won a bronze medal at the world championships in May, as was Florida Panthers forward Nick Bjugstad. Nashville Predators defenceman Seth Jones, who at 18 years old was the youngest player invited to camp, helped the U.S. win gold at the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia.
Making it to the Washington Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington, Va., next month for camp is no guarantee that any of them make the final, 25-man roster. But Poile sees value in having the young players there.
“I want them to be part of this experience and we’ll just see what happens,” he said. “If they’re not better than somebody right now, that’s fine.
“We’ve got other guys. But just part of the whole USA philosophy in terms of certainly our focus on Sochi but also looking a little bit to the future.”
The present is built on Parise, Kane, Suter, Quick, Kings captain Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers. The future Poile talked so much about during a conference call Tuesday could include Beau Bennett of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Kyle Palmieri and Cam Fowler of the Ducks, Zach Bogosian of the Jets and Nick Leddy and Brandon Saad of the Blackhawks.
There are a handful of locks, but Poile said the U.S. roster was “wide open.”
“There’s a lot of guys that played on the 2010 team, based on their body of work, that deserve to be on the 2014 team,” he said. “That’s probably what’s going to happen.
“But we do have a number of spots open, and the good news is we have a lot of quality players that are going to be vying for these few positions. I’d love to see one of these younger players emerge and capture a spot. That would be fabulous.”
They’re at least going to get that chance, though camp won’t be the place to earn a spot. U.S. players won’t skate because of what Poile called the “ridiculous” price of insurance on NHL contracts, and the vast majority of roster decisions will be based on the first two-plus months of the 2013-’14 season.
It could take a strong start for 2010 silver-medal-winning goaltender Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres to return while competing in a group that includes Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson, Cory Schneider, Quick and Gibson.
That’s just one of many “tough decisions” Poile and the U.S. team have to make before Dec. 31 as they try to earn the country’s first medal outside of North America since NHL players began participating in the Olympics. Words like “truculence” and “grit” that Burke used in 2010 aren’t as prevalent this time around.
“Our philosophy and our strategy is going to change a little bit,” Poile said. “We need to make some changes. If it’s a skating component versus a physical component, whether it’s just a different type of player that we’ve overlooked before, these are the type of decisions that we’re going to have to make.”
The balancing act between rewarding 2010 success and trying to find a different formula for the bigger, international-sized rinks in Sochi is tricky, and Poile conceded there will be some turnover from Vancouver. Thirty of 48 players invited to orientation camp have won a gold medal at some level but the list of potential Olympians goes beyond that.
“You’re looking for people who have had success.” Poile said. “You always look at guys that have won, where they’ve won, who they’ve played with.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us.”