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PHT’s Pressing Olympic Questions: Did the U.S. go too young on D?

Feb 11, 2014, 12:20 PM EDT

JustinFaulk AP

21, 22, 24 and 25.

Those aren’t lottery numbers — they’re the ages Justin Faulk, Cam Fowler, John Carlson/Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk will be when the U.S. opens the 2014 Winter Olympics against Slovakia.

Going so young on defense was one of the most surprising developments from USA Hockey’s roster announcement– well, aside from the “Bobby Ryan can’t spell intense” development — and remains a big question mark heading into Sochi. The U.S. completely overhauled its silver medal-winning blueline from Vancouver in 2010, returning just two defensemen (Brooks Orpik and Ryan Suter) while turning things over to the kiddie corps.

Veterans Orpik, Suter and Paul Martin (named to the ’10 squad, but missed to injury) are expected to lead, and with good reason. Faulk, Fowler, Carlson, McDonagh and Shattenkirk have never played in the Olympics before; Falk, Fowler and Shattenkirk have just 28 combined games of playoff experience.

“We have some leadership on the back end, we have some experience, we have guys that have been there before,” American head coach Dan Bylsma said, per the Canadian Press. “But we also have added some younger players. But I go back to being a team we think is going to be real sound defensively and real good defensively. With the young guys and the old guys we think we have that with that group.”

The U.S. braintrust — namely Bylsma and GM David Poile — have stressed speed, skating and puck movement as keys to their decisions. In selecting young defensemen they’ve done exactly that, eschewing the mold in Vancouver that relied more on physicality (Tim Gleason) and guys that weren’t so fleet of foot (Ryan Whitney).

But the change in approach isn’t without risks.

Four years ago, GM Brian Burke strategically tagged the U.S. as pre-tournament underdogs, saying “there’s not going to be a penny bet on this team.” That’s in stark contrast to this year’s club — “our goal is to go over there and win gold this time around,” Bylsma said — which puts an intense amount of pressure on first-time Olympians. What’s more, the contentious selection process has the youngsters under the microscope, as more seasoned veterans (and loyal international participants) like Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson were passed over.

Poile, though, insists he’s constructed the best blueline available:

On Fowler: “His game has grown in leaps and bounds. He’s been one of the best defencemen in the NHL this season.”

On Carlson: “This year he has transitioned from somewhat of a defensive defenseman to a two-way defenseman. He leads the NHL in shorthanded minutes [4:00 per game] with a team that’s pretty good in penalty killing and his offensive game has gone way up.”

On Faulk: “He certainly has his star rising. We like Justin’s game.”

It’ll be very interesting to see if this ballyhooed young group can live up to its potential while handling the pressure. Remember, one of the best Americans in Vancouver was 36-year-old Brian Rafalski, the team’s oldest player. He won best defenseman, made the tournament all-star team and skated with Suter as the team’s top defensive pair.

With Rafalski now gone, Suter looks to be the guy — which could be why Poile was comfortable surrounding Suter with so many young defensemen. At the end of the day, the American blueline sounds like it’ll rely on its star power to get through.

“I think Ryan’s coming-out party was in Vancouver, when he and Rafalski were our best defense pair,” Poile said. “We here in Nashville knew all along what kind of player Ryan was, but his career really took off from that point.

“He’s going to be counted on to anchor or defense, play big minutes, maybe with multiple partners, to make big contributions — which is nothing new with him.”

  1. hockey412 - Feb 11, 2014 at 12:35 PM

    Who knows…I’m sure it will be the story if they end up lapsing defensively. But I’m just fine with any of the younger guys over either Johnson, or anyone else right now.

    I’m just glad Bylsma will be there to continually remind Orpik that if he knocks Crosby, Kunitz, or Malkin out of the Pens line up that he will be traded to Buffalo.

  2. bennywuh - Feb 11, 2014 at 12:40 PM

    Do you believe in miracles?

  3. jkay1818 - Feb 11, 2014 at 1:07 PM

    i like this crew a lot. McDonagh is an absolute beast on D, can log mins and can skate with anyone. Shattenkirk as well. Fowler and Falk are awesome skaters. They arent as good defensively as those two but won’t be getting beat on loose pucks, losing 50/50 battles etc.
    Teams want to go fast and with good skaters on the big ice surface, most teams emphasized that. Can’t have the best of both worlds, America has that. Who cares if they are young? A lot of these kids go against teams top lines on a night in and out basis and log crazy mins.

  4. rpiotr01 - Feb 11, 2014 at 1:54 PM

    Watch how McDonagh has handled Ovie in the past and you understand exactly why he’s there. He’ll wind up being an important player for the US team. That big open ice can be both a blessing and a curse – they’ll have to adjust, but all of these young guys can skate and the extra room will be a net gain.

  5. dipthatchip - Feb 11, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    can’t @&$%ing wait!!!

  6. c9castine - Feb 11, 2014 at 2:23 PM

    im not seeing it, not with a veteran group like Suter, Martin, and Orpik. a lot of experience and maturity there.

    McDonagh as well plays with a lot of grit and determination and I really don’t see anything in the younger guys to worry about.

    • lonespeed - Feb 11, 2014 at 2:42 PM

      Not to mention, the young guys are pretty darn good players.

  7. darksidecowboy - Feb 11, 2014 at 3:02 PM

    “The U.S. braintrust — namely Bylsma and GM David Poile — have stressed speed, skating and puck movement as keys to their decisions.”

    No Yandle? WTF

    • stepanup - Feb 11, 2014 at 3:11 PM

      Stressed. Not “overvalued.”

  8. stepanup - Feb 11, 2014 at 3:10 PM

    As a Rangers fan I know exactly what McDonagh brings, and I’m not worried about him at all. Over/Under prop bet for Pierre McGuire mentioning McDonagh’s speed is at 5.5. Shattenkirk, Fowler and Carlson also play major roles on their teams in my situations and don’t concern me a ton.

    The one under my microscope is Faulk. I’ve watched him here and there, but really don’t know if he’s at that level yet. I might’ve gone with a safer option like one of the Johnson’s here but that’s just because I know what Jack/Erik are more than I know what Faulk is.

  9. skr213 - Feb 11, 2014 at 5:48 PM

    I’m no GM, and I don’t pretend to be smarter than the men who picked this team, but I am still a bit shocked they didn’t include Yandle. A little more veteran experience and he’s having a pretty solid year.

    • zetaone - Feb 11, 2014 at 9:28 PM

      I’d rather have Byfuglien than Yandle..

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