The Toronto Maple Leafs will probably not make the playoffs this year, so it is only a matter of time until mathematical elimination of the team allows USA Hockey to consider the Leafs’ head coach Ron Wilson as the frontrunner for the position of head coach for the 2009 World Championship in Switzerland starting in late April. This could be an ideal scenario for the Americans as they prepare for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver which take place only eleven months from now.
The USA Olympic team is considered a quickly-rising contender for Vancouver, but if there is a shortage of talent or a weakness with the team, it might well be in options for coach. The list for 2009 is even shorter when one factors in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The only American coaches in the league worthy of serious consideration are Wilson and John Tortorella of the Rangers, but Tortorella is in a playoff race and would never be able to commit to 2009 until after the season, which would be too late for USA Hockey.
Peter Laviolette, 2006 Olympic coach and recently fired from Carolina, is the other principle name to consider. There are three other American coaches in the league this season – Tony Granato (Colorado), Scott Gordon (New York Islanders), and Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh) – but none can be contenders for 2009 alongside Wilson and Tortorella given the importance of the event leading up to next year’s Olympics.
One would think that Wilson, Tortorella, or Laviolette will coach the USA team in Vancouver given that these three men can lay claim to virtually all of the recent experience at the senior levels (World Championships, Olympics, World Cup). Given also that Wilson works for USA’s 2010 general manager in Toronto, Brian Burke, he would also be the frontrunner for the Olympics, and what better way to prepare than to have him run the 2009 World Championship team?
What makes life difficult is that the USA team in Switzerland in April is likely to be quite different from what will represent the country in Vancouver. Let’s start in goal. There are nine American goalies who have played at least 18 games this season, yet the closest thing to a sure thing to be named to the team is a goalie currently playing in the AHL – Scott Clemmensen of Lowell, a team likely to miss the playoffs.
Clemmensen will have earned his invitation thanks to stellar play with the New Jersey Devils during the lengthy injury absence of Martin Brodeur. When Brodeur returned to the lineup a couple of weeks ago, Clemmensen was odd man out and ended up back in the minors. Still, he has had a great year and deserves the honour of playing at the 2009 World Championship, if available.
In the NHL, top American goalies will be scarce. Rick DiPietro is out for the rest of the season with an injury, and Ryan Miller will likely be in the playoffs with Buffalo. Ty Conklin (Detroit) and Tim Thomas (Boston) will definitely be in the playoffs, as will Brent Johnson (Washington) and Brian Boucher (San Jose). The only other top names available might be Craig Anderson (Florida) and Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles). Anderson played for USA at the 2006 and 2008 World Championships.
The defence presents another interesting scenario. Because there are still so many teams that could make or miss the playoffs, only a few names can be filled in with any certainty before the end of the season, namely John-Michael Liles (Colorado), Jeff Finger (Toronto), Brian Lee (Ottawa), Ron Hainsey (Atlanta), Freddy Myers (Islanders), and Ken Klee (Phoenix). Only Liles, however, is a can’t-miss candidate for 2010.
The more notable names on defence will start the playoffs and may or may not be available by the time the World Championship gets under way: Brian Rafalski (Detroit), Ryan Suter (Nashville), Joe Corvo (Carolina), Jordan Leopold (Calgary), Mark Stuart (Boston), Tom Gilbert (Edmonton). Of course, it takes only a short winning or losing streak to alter the playoff picture substantially, so perhaps Suter, Corvo, and Gilbert will be in Zurich-Kloten after all.
Forwards on the American team can be divided into two pretty distinct categories: the old guard, which is likely too old for Vancouver and too disinterested for the World Championship; and, the young guns, the rising stars who have to gain experience quickly if they’ll be ready to handle the pressures and expectations of the Olympics next season. Many of the top young players are likely to start the playoffs, and only a few are sure to be available as of now.
The emerging Zach Parise, having a breakout year with New Jersey, won’t be available. Neither will teammates Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Gionta, and Brian Rolston. Chicago’s Patrick Kane will also be in the playoffs, as will Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler (Boston), Joe Pavelski (San Jose), and Craig Conroy.
Still, there is depth to the American contingent, and young Peter Mueller (Phoenix) will be available along with Jason Blake (Toronto) and Ryan Malone (Tampa Bay). If the Rangers miss the playoffs, both Chris Drury (a captain’s candidate for Vancouver) and Scott Gomez will be available. Dustin Brown (Los Angeles), sensational rookie Bobby Ryan (Anaheim), Tim Connolly (Buffalo), and R. J. Umberger (Columbus) would be great additions to the national team in Switzerland if their NHL clubs falter down the stretch.
The old guard has probably seen their last USA Hockey sweater regardless of their playoff fortunes, a group that includes Mike Modano, Bill Guerin, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, and Jeremy Roenick, holdovers from the glory years of the 1996 World Cup but now long in the tooth. However, given the season Mathieu Schneider is having, the 40-year-old might be a veteran addition for Vancouver.
All of which goes to show that the American team for the upcoming World Championship is going to have to be built on the fly. Only a few players are sure to be invited (and they still have to accept), while the next month of games leading to the playoffs will alter the national team’s possible makeup on a daily basis.
But one thing seems certain. The coach is going to be Ron Wilson or Peter Laviolette, and given the importance of this year’s World Championship to the 2010 Olympics, smart money would give Wilson the odds.
Footnote: If Ron Wilson gets USA Hockey’s call for Switzerland, he will be coming to a country he knows very well. Wilson was a highly successful defenceman for EHC Kloten and HC Davos in the early 80s and he became the first defenceman to win the Swiss scoring title when he amassed 91 points for Davos during the 1984-85 season.