If Team USA is going to do some damage at the 2016 World Cup, they will need big-game performances from their goalies and defensemen. They aren’t shallow up front, but they don’t have as much depth as Canada either. Net minding is the ultimate wild card in these best-on-best tournaments, and goalies have the ability steal games out from under superior opponents.
Team general manager Dean Lombardi has some strong forwards at his disposal, but could piece together one of the strongest blue lines that will be in Toronto for the World Cup. There’s outstanding left/right balance in play here, and the group should prove to be a versatile one.
Puck-moving defenseman are all the rage in the NHL these days, and the United States will be able to roster some of the best in the business. Head coach John Tortorella will also have a difficult choice to make when it comes to picking his No. 1 goalie.
The first 16 players must be selected by March 1, and the first part of these teams will be announced on March 2. We picked eight forwards in a different post already, so here we’re going to focus on defense and goalies. It’s interesting because managers aren’t being pigeon holed into picked a certain number of players at any given position. When we took a stab at Canada’s roster, we only had them naming two goalies at this time.
We think America will go ahead and commit to their three netminders in March, while rolling with five defensemen. It’s worth noting that to be eligible for this roster, players must have been 24 by no later than October 1. Each roster much consist of 20 skaters and three netminders.
Justin Faulk: Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis has an embarrassing amount of young talent on his blue line, and Justin Faulk is the anchor of this group. He’s an outstanding possession player, isn’t afraid to take the body and has high-end hockey IQ. Moving the puck up the ice quickly will be key for Team USA, and Faulk will be asked to log monster minutes by John Tortorella in all situations. The 23-year-old already has one Olympic appearance under his belt and will continue to be a staple on America’s blue line for years to come.
Ryan Suter: Speaking of American staples, Ryan Suter has played in a lot of big games while wearing the Stars and Stripes. The Minnesota Wild haven’t been very good this season, but the 31-year-old defender is still piling up the points from the back end. He could play the left side and form an excellent pairing with Faulk, giving Tortorella two strong puck movers who aren’t afraid to take the body if given the chance. Suter also plays in all situations and could be an important special teams player and is in the midst of a Norris Trophy-caliber campaign.
John Carlson: Standing at 6’3″ and weighing in at 215 pounds, John Carlson has been an anchor for the Washington Capitals this season. He will likely play on the top pairing for the Americans, pushing Faulk down to the second unit. Carlson is another defender who is capable of playing a ton of minutes–he almost always plays 20-plus minutes for the Capitals–and Tortorella will be able to count on him for goals here and there to boot.
Ryan McDonagh: We are operating under the assumption that Ryan McDonagh will be 100 percent by the time the World Cup rolls around. He’s been dealing with concussion issues this season, and recently took a brutal head shot from Toronto Maple Leafs forward Leo Komarov. The tournament isn’t until September though, and the New York Rangers defenseman will be a huge part of Team USA if he’s able to play.
Dustin Byfuglien: Team USA didn’t take Dustin Byfuglien to Sochi, choosing to take the likes of Brooks Orpik instead. After the power play struggled to do much of anything at the Olympics, odds are good that Lombardi won’t make the same mistake has his predecessor. “Big Buff” is one of the most offensively capable defenders in the NHL, and has a cannon for a shot. So do the rest of the blueliners on this list, but this is a physically imposing player who can impose his will when needed. The larger ice kept Byfuglien off of the Olympic roster, but he’ll be right at home during the World Cup.
Jonathan Quick: Considered by many as one of the best “money” goalies around, Jonathan Quick will be on this World Cup team barring injury. No American-born goalie has more wins this season, but it’s close. Lombardi is obviously familiar with the Kings netminder though, and it will be interesting to see who ends up being the true No. 1 out of this group of elite goalies.
Ben Bishop: The Tampa Bay Lightning starter has a save percentage that is comparable to that of Quick’s, and only three goalies have seen more shots than Ben Bishop this season. Tampa Bay and L.A. give up almost the exact same number of shots on average, so it’s tough to determine who has the inside track between these two.
Cory Schneider: Don’t sleep on the possibility of Cory Schneider hijacking the starting job for Team USA at the World Cup. He’s been stellar for the surprising New Jersey Devils this season and faces a ton of rubber each night. If Tortorella decides to play a system where his defenders are free to roam, then it might give Schneider the edge he needs to see some playing time.
There are a handful of other defensemen who could make a late push for inclusion on this roster. We’ve left room for two more blueliners, and it could come down to second-half performances. It’s tough to leave Keith Yandle off, but including him over one of these five wouldn’t make sense at this point.
He has more mobility than Byfuglien but puts up fewer points and can’t play the body nearly as well. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him secure the sixth or seventh spot, but he’ll have to battle players like Cam Fowler–our bet to be the sixth d-man named–and Kevin Shattenkirk to do so.
The former has really evolved over the last two seasons and has learned to play shutdown defense with the Anaheim Ducks. Shattenkirk has been stellar for the St. Louis Blue since Alex Pietrangelo went down earlier this month and could also play his way into a role on Team USA.
It might not make sense for most of these teams to pick all three goalies in March, but there are no hard-chargers to consider for the United States. Ryan Miller’s time as a must-have for international competitions has come and gone, as has Craig Anderson and Jimmy Howard’s, while other options like John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck are too young to make this roster.
By selecting three goalies now, Lombardi leaves himself some flexibility at forward. That’s where we could see some players make the cut following strong second halves. Tortorella will have a tough call to make when picking his starter, but there are worse problems for a coach to have.