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.”