International hockey hasn’t been particularly kind to the United States over the last few years. The men’s team failed to medal in Sochi in 2014 and they had their hearts broken by Team Canada in 2010. Team USA managed to secure a bronze at this year’s World Junior Championship, but had lost in the Quarterfinal the year prior.
They’ve won silver in two of the last five Olympics and three bronze medals at the IIHF World Championships. Not a lot of gold to be seen for the Red, White, and Blue, though hockey fans in the United States still got to enjoy T.J. Oshie taking on Russia all by himself.
Dean Lombardi, Brian Burke, and Paul Holmgren will be looking to turn the tide in favor of the United States, at the 2016 World Cup, but they’ll have to do it without some of the best American-born players.
To be eligible for this roster, players must have been 24 by no later than October 1, which means no Dylan Larkin, Johnny Gaudreau, Shayne Gostisbehere or Jack Eichel.
Here we’re going to try to predict who Lombardi and Co. will select as their forward core. Each team must name 16 players, who will be revealed on March 2. This isn’t the full roster–it’s an exercise to see who the standouts have been and who can play in this best-on-best tournament. Each roster must consist of 20 skaters and three netminders, and we simply split it down the middle for this post. We will name eight forwards, with a separate post coming for defenders and goalies.
Tyler Johnson: The largest gap between the United States and Canada is at center. While Canada will likely need to move pivots like Tyler Seguin to the wing, the Americans are thin at the position. At least until Eichel and Larkin are available. Tyler Johnson has emerged as a speedy offensive threat for the Tampa Bay Lightning since Sochi, and is a shoo-in for this squad despite his down year.
Joe Pavelski: One of the more underrated goal scorers in the NHL, Joe Pavelski will be tasked with doing a lot of heavy lifting in the offensive zone for the United States. He’s dynamite on the power play and could form an electric top unit should head coach John Tortorella decide to load up. Pavelski doesn’t get a lot of press in North America, but he’ll have the chance to play on a big stage at the World Cup.
Patrick Kane: No player has dominated the stat sheet like Patrick Kane has this season. He’s been remarkably consistent and has nearly 30 more points than the next closest American-born forward (Pavelski). If this team is going to surprise some people and do some damage, Kane will have to be at the very heart of the effort.
Derek Stepan: The New York Rangers center got off to a slow start in 2015-16, but has started to pick up the pace as of late. Team USA doesn’t have a ton of options down the center of the ice, so Stepan finding his groove is great news for the squad. He’s already played in a ton of important games as a professional and he deserves the nod over one of the more veteran options. He also can man the point on the power play, which would give Tortorella some options to work with.
Blake Wheeler: While not an elite talent like Pavelski, Blake Wheeler suffers from the same lack of exposure. He’s been nearly a point per game player for the Winnipeg Jets this season and plays big minutes on a nightly basis. The 29-year-old is also a strong penalty killer and is always a threat to punch through with a short-handed goal.
Phil Kessel: It’s fair to point out that Phil Kessel has struggled since joining the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he has too much talent to leave at home. He’s one of the best active American goal scorers, and offense proved to be a huge issue in Sochi. Kane will likely be the team’s top right wing, leaving either Kessel or Wheeler to round out the second unit.
Zach Parise: The Minnesota Wild have struggled as a whole this season, and Zach Parise’s numbers have been held down by that fact. He’s on pace for his lowest point total since his rookie year in 2005-06, but the United States just don’t have a lot of options on the left side. Parise has been a staple on American teams since emerging as a high-end talent with the New Jersey Devils, and he’s a player that Lombardi almost has to take to the tournament.
Max Pacioretty: Much like Parise in Minnesota, Max Pacioretty is a great player skating on a team that hasn’t been playing well. He’s still putting up decent numbers, but the Montreal Canadiens‘ middling offense has stalled him out a bit. Still, “Patches” is a big body and has a lot of the intangibles that can make a difference in these kinds of tourneys.
These seem to be the “no brainer” forwards, but the people involved with building and coaching Team USA all have one thing in common: they like big-bodied players who can skate in a system and support the puck well. It’s how Lombardi has constructed the L.A. Kings, and we all know how much Burke loves truculence.
Ryan Kesler and David Backes could make their way onto the final roster because of that. The Anaheim Ducks center has a knack for antagonizing his opponents, is an ace in the faceoff circle and can pitch in on the penalty kill. Backes, on the other hand, might not score like Johnson or Pavelski, but he doesn’t lose battles for 50/50 pucks all that often and knows how to score ugly goals.
Another name to keep an eye out for is Justin Abdelkader. He’s made a career out of going to the net while skating with talented linemates and is a pain to play against. Given who is in charge of this roster, the Detroit Red Wings forward could sneak into this group as well.