- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
Editor's note: For the past four months, Scott Burnside was one of only two writers in the country who had unprecedented, behind-the-scenes access to the building of the U.S. hockey team bound for the Sochi Winter Olympics. Here is how the squad was named:
ARLINGTON, Va. -- As the men grab last-minute cups of coffee and settle into their chairs, there is some discussion about just where The Board will be placed in the conference room.
If it was a person -- a living, breathing organism -- The Board would have been afforded a seat of prominence at the long table where the men tasked with selecting the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team were seated. Instead The Board, on which the names of some four dozen Olympic hopefuls printed on small, movable magnetic strips were affixed, settled into a spot just off to the side, in plain sight of the team's management committee and coaching staff.
The Board and the names upon it would be the focus of the next five hours and, truly, for the next four months would never be far from the minds of these men.
Between this moment on a sunny Sunday in late August and the afternoon of Jan. 1, when the 25 names that would make up the U.S. roster for the Sochi Winter Olympic Games would be announced in the moments following the end of the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich., the names on that board would be moved countless times. Sometimes the movement would be up, indicating a favorable turn of fortune, sometimes to the side, indicating status quo or worse, and sometimes the shift would be south, indicating an injury or perhaps a lessening of confidence. Each movement will represent a subtle shift in the hopes and dreams of the men behind the names, the men who would give anything to be on the final 25-man list and who will carry the mantle of expectation into the first Olympic hockey tournament held on Russian soil in February 2014.
On this morning, though, that moment seems a tiny speck on the horizon.
On this morning, the group of long-familiar colleagues is meeting for the first time in their roles as gatekeepers for the U.S. medal hopes in Sochi. They are led by David Poile, the Nashville Predators GM who was the assistant GM of the American team that had come so achingly close to winning a surprise gold medal in Vancouver in 2010.
As Poile explained to the group assembled and would later repeat to the players who would fly into the Washington area for a brief orientation camp, this would be the greatest hockey challenge Poile would undertake in a career that has seen him at the helm of an NHL team for more than 30 years.
Around the table on this bright August morning are some of the most successful men in hockey -- all here as unpaid stewards for hockey in America. Stan Bowman, twice the GM of a Stanley Cup winner in Chicago, is here. So, too, is Dean Lombardi, whose Los Angeles Kings won a Cup in 2012 and were Western Conference finalists in the spring of 2013, losing to Bowman's Hawks. Dale Tallon, GM of the Florida Panthers and a key figure in the renaissance of the Chicago franchise, is here. Ray Shero, defending GM of the year and leader of a Pittsburgh Penguins team that won a Cup in 2009, sits to Poile's right. Shero, who worked alongside Poile in Nashville before taking on the Penguins' job, will act as the team's assistant GM in Sochi.
Former Atlanta GM Don Waddell is present, as are the coaches of the '14 team: Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, his assistant in Pittsburgh, Tony Granato, Philadelphia head coach Peter Laviolette, who coached the '06 Olympic team in Italy, and Todd Richards, head coach in Columbus and former colleague of Bylsma's in the American Hockey League.
Not present are Paul Holmgren of the Philadelphia Flyers, who had other commitments, and the GM of the 2010 team, Brian Burke, who sits out the initial meeting, later telling ESPN.com that he purposefully avoided it because he wanted this to be Poile's meeting even though as director of player personnel for the Olympic team Burke will join Shero and Poile in Sochi.
It is an indication of Burke's understanding of the nuance that comes with building a team like this, not just the pressures of building a winner but understanding the intricacy that goes into building a team for a tournament on the world's grandest sporting stage.
Bottom line is it gets built from the top on down.
This is David Poile's team now, his show.
And so it was.
Poile was in the building in Lake Placid when the Miracle On Ice unfolded in 1980. He sat in the stands watching the underdog Americans beat the mighty Russians and then when they won gold a day later -- the last time an American men's team captured gold. He was in what was dubbed Canada Hockey Place (but otherwise known as GM Place) in Vancouver when Sidney Crosby crushed the Americans' dream of gold in overtime in 2010 in what is fairly described as one of the greatest hockey games of all time.
Now he leads a group of men trying to close that golden circle.
It is a task that will be more challenging than at any other point in the history of American hockey.
Never before has a group of American hockey minds confronted the depth of talent this group confronts. Poile would later tell the players this American team will be the most difficult team they will ever make, and the decisions that will unfold in the coming weeks will bear out that statement.
The managers would meet en masse again around the fall NHL GMs meetings in November and there would be conference calls as needed, likely every second week, once the NHL season began, but this was a bedrock meeting. This was a moment from which the team and its identity would bloom.
Bylsma and his staff have produced a manifesto of how they want this U.S. team to look and act. Because the final roster will not gather as a unit until about 72 hours before the Americans' first game on Feb. 13 against Slovakia, these days in August are important in sharing that vision.
"We have to treat this like our team right now," Bylsma says.
"We have to establish how we want to play, how we want to act, how we want to live together as a group," he says.
This team must be fast, aggressive, smart and patient, and those are qualities that must be reflected in the selection process. A team cannot assume that identity if the players selected do not possess those qualities. It seems basic but it will take steely resolve to remain true to that principle when the final selections are made.
Which players, then, will fit that bill?
The selection group will consider things like a player's character along with his skill set and they must also be cognizant that three players, two skaters and a goalie will be out of the lineup every night during the Sochi Games.
Would players be able to accept that kind of role? Or more to the point, which players would willingly accept such a role and not become a distraction by complaining or pouting if they are not in the lineup?
Those are conversations Bylsma and the coaching staff need to have as much as possible with the players in the coming days, Poile said.
The GM is especially interested in gauging where netminder Ryan Miller is at. The tournament MVP in Vancouver in 2010, Miller's game and his standing within USA Hockey has declined in the past three years.
Poile wants to know if they come to Miller and tell him he's considered the third-best goalie, and as such, isn't likely to play at all, he would accept that role.
"I think we need to ask that question," Poile says.
"I think we need to ask that of more [players] than him," Bylsma offers.
Each position is taken separately, starting with the goaltenders, each player discussed the subject of a pre-orientation camp scouting report.
The Americans, at least on paper, have as much elite depth at the goaltender position as any nation in this tournament.
The assumption is that Los Angeles Kings netminder Jonathan Quick will be the starter in Sochi given his elite play the past three years, a period that includes a Vezina Trophy nomination, a Stanley Cup championship and a playoff MVP award.
But what then?
Craig Anderson has put up tremendous numbers and established himself as a top-tier netminder in Ottawa the past two years and it soon becomes clear that the belief is Anderson and Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard are locked in a battle for the second spot on the goaltending roster.
That leaves Miller, the MVP of the '10 Olympics and catalyst to the American success, and Cory Schneider as the two netminders needing to somehow influence the selection group and change The Board. Because as this day ends, they are the two men on the outside looking in.
If the goaltending is rock solid, the defense is the one area where the U.S. looks to have significant turnover from 2010. Because of the bigger ice surface and the emergence of a handful of talented young puck-movers, the selection committee will be looking to find that perfect balance between experience, toughness and those players best suited to getting the puck to a talented, balanced forward unit.
Their early position on The Board is assured, but there are lots of questions about young players like Dustin Byfuglien, Kevin Shattenkirk, Keith Yandle, Justin Faulk and John Carlson and where they might fit, if they fit at all.
Up front, the U.S. lineup is much more defined. It doesn't mean the decisions are any easier, but there is a core based on both the Vancouver Olympic experience and the evolution of these players as leaders and elite players that is easy to identify.
Zach Parise, David Backes, Dustin Brown, Patrick Kane and Ryan Callahan are all returning members of the '10 team. They will form the nucleus of the offensive group in Sochi. It is from this group a captain will emerge.
Add Derek Stepan to that group of forward locks, although he will miss the start of the season in a contract dispute with the New York Rangers.
Another member of the '10 team, Paul Stastny, is also in the mix down the middle, even though he had a miserable regular season for a poor Colorado team. Stastny revived his chances of returning to the Olympic fold with a stellar turn at the World Championships, where the U.S. won a surprise bronze medal.
Also joining the group of "locks" among the forwards is versatile San Jose forward Joe Pavelski and scoring dynamo Phil Kessel, who is coming off something of a renaissance season for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And so without having played a single shift in the 2013-14 season Backes, Brown, Callahan, Kane, Kessel, Stastny, Pavelski, Stepan and Parise look to have gobbled up nine of the 14 forward spots on the team.
Ryan Kesler would join that group of "locks" as a center, but injuries have marred the career arc of the former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's best two-way forward. If he's healthy, if he's the old Ryan Kesler, he'll be in Sochi and could be a dominant player. If not, well, there are serious reservations about taking a player who may not be at 100 percent.
Bobby Ryan was also in Vancouver and has been the most consistent of U.S.-born scorers, having tallied 30 or more goals four times for Anaheim before being dealt to Ottawa in the offseason. And yet there is surprising resistance to simply penciling him into a spot on the wing.
The issue is where he fits. If he's not a top-six forward, his skating doesn't really lend itself to him being a third-line checker. He cannot kill penalties, and while in Anaheim, he was not on the team's top power-play unit.
"I think he's sleepy. I think he skates sleepy," offers one member of the selection committee.
Poile asks for a show of hands: "Are guys nervous about Bobby Ryan?" A flurry of hands go up in the air.
"That's a lot of guys," Poile notes.
And so Ryan, unbeknownst to him, finds himself in a battle for a place on The Board with wingers like Max Pacioretty, James van Riemsdyk, Blake Wheeler and T.J. Oshie before Ryan has set one skate on the ice.
Sandwiches have arrived and the meeting has broken the four-hour barrier, and the discussion is drawing to a close.
Scouting assignments for the first part of the NHL season are handed out and final thoughts gathered.
"Great first day together," Granato says.
"It got me focused," Richards adds. "Direction I think is the best way to say it; good direction."
Monday morning, the players will meet for the first time with the coaching staff to go over the team's philosophy, structure and schemes. They will meet at 7:12 a.m.
Any significance to the timing, Poile asks.
Yes, Bylsma says, seven games in 12 days, the amount of time from the start of the tournament to the gold-medal game.
Seven games, 12 days with the chance to not just fulfill a dream, but to build something timeless, to carve a place in history.
Two weeks into the season
It is a Tuesday afternoon and the U.S. selection committee is meeting via conference call for the first time since that Sunday morning in August in suburban Washington. Following a trend that will mark all of the group's encounters, either via telephone or in person, assistant executive director of hockey operations for the U.S. team Jim Johannson updates the group on the progress being made in Sochi and with travel plans for the U.S. team.
Johannson reports that the venues look to be in great shape and the locker room setup is good, as well.
A room with a view? Sounds like it, as the team's place in the athletes' village looks out on the Black Sea.
"Can't be worse than the room I had in Nagano," says Brian Burke, the newly installed head of hockey operations in Calgary. "Take two steps and break your f------ nose."
Also on the "change" front, assistant coach Peter Laviolette now finds himself with unexpected free time with which to help scout and game plan the U.S. effort, having been fired just three games into the regular season by Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren, who also happens to be part of the U.S. team's selection committee.
Even though the season is still in its infancy, the scouting reports are coming in and there are a couple of red flags.
"The goaltending reports have actually been really good on all five of the guys. The current feeling is Jonathan Quick is going to be on our team. I think he's the guy. I think it's what we felt in the summer," Poile says.
That means it's a four-man race for the other two spots with Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson, Ryan Miller and Cory Schneider in the hunt for the two spots.
The consensus is that John Gibson, who was invited to the orientation camp but is playing for Anaheim's American Hockey League affiliate, and Ben Bishop, who has started strongly for Tampa, will not be on the team.
"I agree with that," Burke says.
Miller has been outstanding and Howard consistent. Anderson, it is noted, had a rough outing against Anaheim early on, while Schneider has been rotating with Martin Brodeur in New Jersey, so it has been harder to get a handle on his level of play.
The issue becomes what is the best mix. Quick was the third goaltender in 2010 in Vancouver behind Tim Thomas and tournament MVP Miller. They weren't necessarily grooming Quick for the future, although that's the way it's turned out. This time, though, Poile reminds the group that he wants the three best goaltenders, period.
"I just want the best guys," he says.
Unless there's a feeling one of the four wouldn't accept a non-playing role as the third goalie, Poile wants the selection based entirely on merit.
On defense the "locks" -- Ryan Suter, Ryan McDonagh, Jack Johnson and Paul Martin -- have all received good reviews, while Brooks Orpik may be in a bit of a gray area, "but not in a terrible way," Poile says.
If Suter and Martin are considered the top two defensive players at the moment with McDonagh sliding into the second pairing on the left side, the question is whether to have Jack Johnson play with McDonagh or drop him to a third pairing. Would that leave Orpik, another left-handed shot, as a seventh defenseman?
Below those names are Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba, two young players whose time may simply not be now for this kind of competition, although Poile did note that Jones, whom he selected with the fourth overall pick in the June draft, is the best 19-year-old player he's ever seen and suggests the next 20 games will tell the story on whether he's a viable candidate for this team.
Poile wants to narrow the focus to a smaller number of players and specifically the issue of the preponderance of left-handed shots. He's not sure how important the balance of left/right is to the coaching staff, with whom he will meet later in the fall in Pittsburgh.
Suter, Orpik, Martin, McDonagh and Jack Johnson are all left-handed shots.
"I think this left-shot, right-shot [combination] is going to be more important than we think," Holmgren warns.
Poile wants to know if there's a player who should be moved further out of the discussion.
Holmgren suggests that DeKeyser may not yet be ready for this, either.
"That's a little steep for me to put DeKeyser in that mix," he says.
Ray Shero agrees that DeKeyser is in the same boat as Trouba.
"I just don't think it's their time. I don't see how they're making this team," he says.
The discussion will soon be rendered moot as both Trouba and DeKeyser will suffer significant injuries and disappear from discussion at this level.
Erik Johnson and his strong start come up.
"He's been much better, but do we see him on the team?" Poile asks.
Dale Tallon notes that Erik Johnson was very good in Vancouver in 2010 and played a lot of minutes.
"OK, I'll bring him back over," Poile says, and you could almost imagine him moving Johnson's name closer on The Board to the group of bubble players looking for one of the final three spots that at this early juncture appear to be open.
If the desire is to balance the left-right thing, then logic suggests two of the final three defenders should be right-handed shots.
Jack Johnson could move to the right side, but Dean Lombardi, who had the free-wheeling defenseman in Los Angeles, feels he plays better if he's on his natural left side.
Instead, Martin looks to be a guy who will move to his off hand and play with Suter as the team's top pairing.
Over the next couple of weeks, Poile is hoping to see something that breaks the logjam for the final spots from Shattenkirk, Carlson, Faulk and/or Erik Johnson.
"We've got to get those four guys in order," Poile says.
Byfuglien continues to be a loose cannon even in theory.
"We don't yet know who the best players are," Poile says. "Can we trust Byfuglien to play in this tournament?"
If there are injuries, is he the kind of guy who could move up and play in the top six?
"Can we trust him?" Poile wonders aloud.
Or do they need a more consistent player?
Tallon, for one, doesn't think they need both Yandle and Byfuglien.
"You know I'm not a big Byfuglien guy," Burke notes. But he seems to have committed himself to being in better shape and improving his game. "And no one can pound the puck like him," he adds.
The group's Man On The Prairie, Don Waddell, warns that early on Byfuglien has struggled.
Yes, he's an offensive presence but, "If he's going to have to play minutes defensively, boy, right now he's a high-risk guy," Waddell says.
Up front, the left-side locks include Dustin Brown and Zach Parise.
At center there is David Backes, Paul Stastny, Ryan Kesler and Derek Stepan, although Poile wonders aloud at Stepan's late start to the season because of a contract dispute.
About Kesler, there are also concerns given his durability.
"We've had a couple of guys that I talked to really questioning if he's 100 percent," Poile says of the former Selke Award winner who has endured a couple of injury-plagued seasons.
"I'm really hoping time will help," Poile says.
On the right side there is Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski, who can also play center, and Ryan Callahan, who will, a short time after this call, be sidelined with a broken thumb.
That would mean the group is looking to add three forwards for its every-night roster, assuming Kesler returns to form.
On the left side, James van Riemsdyk, Brandon Saad; on the right, T.J. Oshie and Blake Wheeler would seem to enjoy the best chances at filling in the final forward spots.
Alexander Galchenyuk can play center, while Justin Abdelkader, Jason Pominville and Bobby Ryan are farther down the early depth chart. Galchenyuk has been impressive, but like Trouba and DeKeyser, the feeling is he's not ready for this tournament yet.
Of van Riemsdyk, who has played mostly with Kessel in Toronto, Poile says he thought he was playing as well as he's ever played.
"The guy is flying," he says.
Max Pacioretty is in the mix, too, although like Callahan, the Canadien would go down with an injury not long after this call.
Saad, a nominee for rookie of the year, continues to impress in Chicago.
"Yeah, he's been excellent. He's taken a step forward, and I would have him in the mix with all those guys," his GM, Stan Bowman, says.
The call highlights one of the great dilemmas facing the selection committee. While in the past it might have been a question of "do we have enough quality players to fill out an American roster?" the question now is "which quality American players will make the grade?"
The coaching staff has been toying with their power-play and penalty-kill units, units that will be critical to medal success in Sochi.
"I hope at the end of the day we're going to choose players for a specific reason," Poile says.
They are not, however, there yet, and will not be for some time.
Two months into the season
The U.S. Olympic team is starting to take on a more defined shape. As time passes and more NHL games are played, the reality of the difficult choices facing this group is coming more into focus. Players who were considered surefire locks to make the team in the summer have let their play fall off, and so-called fringe players suddenly move to the forefront.
The coaches have been watching a lot of film and have provided the rest of the group with a lengthy dissertation on power-play combinations, potential penalty-kill units and defensive pairings.
"I think we're tying it all in together," Poile says on the latest conference call, also noting there were a few more interesting things to work out.
In goal, despite Jonathan Quick's statistically uneven start to the season, he remains the man at the top of the U.S. pyramid with Jimmy Howard second and Ryan Miller third.
Cory Schneider was out with a minor injury and hadn't played enough to provide a consistent body of work that would dislodge Miller at the third spot.
Craig Anderson was hurt the night before the call (a neck injury, although not deemed serious), but he hasn't played all that well for an inconsistent Ottawa team.
Again the issue of chemistry is raised, and Poile reiterates that in spite of the fact Schneider might be '"the perfect" No. 3 goalie because of his easygoing disposition, he does not want to risk "chemistry" for playing ability.
"If it's my decision I want to take the best three goaltenders," he says.
Brian Burke speaks up on behalf of Miller, whom he's seen multiple times.
"He's been outstanding. Their team is a train wreck. He's seeing a lot of rubber," Burke says. "He's been magnificent. I think the worst job right now would be the starting goaltender in Buffalo."
The group turns its attention to defense.
"Our favorite area," Poile quips.
The locks are identified; Ryan Suter, Paul Martin, Ryan McDonagh and Brooks Orpik, whom the coaches are emphatic they want on the team.
But as for Jack Johnson, Poile suggests they may have to go a different direction, the first indication of a precipitous fall of a player's stock.
"He never seems to be living up to his potential or to his play. I'm getting this consistently across the board," Poile says.
Johnson is a player who has consistently answered the bell internationally. He paid his own way to the opening ceremonies in Vancouver in 2010. He has played in World Championships. Is that enough to pave his way onto the '14 roster?
"He's not a player that's tracking correctly," Poile says.
Burke goes to bat for the defenseman.
Tracking is great, Burke says. But it "totally disregards a body of work. At some point, a player's body of work outweighs how he's tracking, unless he's flat out dreadful," he says.
It's not that Johnson is considered "Captain America," but the group knows the compete level they'll get from him, and it's clear there is some difficulty in letting go of a player about whom so much was both thought and assumed from the outset.
"This kid's a damn good player," says L.A. GM Dean Lombardi, who acquired Johnson from Carolina before dealing him to Columbus for Jeff Carter.
"It's not even close for me on whether this kid should be in our top five," he says. "No question."
"Well, that's good," Poile says. "I'm just trying to build consensus here."
As for Justin Faulk, there is another shift in thinking as the group bumps the Carolina defender ahead of Keith Yandle and Kevin Shattenkirk on the right side.
As the days pass, discussion on Yandle will replace discussion on Dustin Byfuglien as a focal point of debate both positive and negative.
"Yandle is picking teams apart right now," Burke points out.
Just below this group is Cam Fowler, Seth Jones, John Carlson and Byfuglien.
But what about Erik Johnson, a veteran of 2010 and a member of a resurgent Colorado team? And more to the point, what is the makeup of this defensive group going to be? Will it be heavy on offense/skating ability or will there be a more traditional balance of skill/defensive dependability, which would favor Erik Johnson?
Erik Johnson hasn't met the expectations that come with a No. 1 overall draft pick, "but he's come around," Paul Holmgren says.
"I know everybody's down on him after the World Championships, but he's been nothing but good for Colorado," the Philadelphia GM adds.
The discussion rarely touches on Byfuglien, whose play -- like that of his team in Winnipeg -- has been wildly inconsistent.
As for the forwards, Poile jokes that since he suggested Derek Stepan might be a red flag with his late start to the season, the New York Rangers center has been on fire. The coaches, meanwhile, have indicated they would like the roster to include five centers and that will reduce by one the number of open spots on the wing with David Backes, Derek Stepan, Joe Pavelski, Paul Stastny and Ryan Kesler occupying the center slots.
At this point it looks like two open spots on the wing with Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad looking to have the inside track on those two spots.
As Waddell notes, at this point Ryan has eight goals.
"He's a goal scorer. We need goals," he says.
This is a team whose identity is about working its tail off, Ray Shero reminds the group. If the U.S. needs one chance to score, it may be that Phil Kessel and Bobby Ryan are going to be the guys who capitalize on that one chance.
Saad, again, gets lots of love for his versatility.
As the call ends, it becomes apparent that the path to the final roster will have many more twists and turns before the moment of truth for the final 25 arrives.
A new goalie emerges
The U.S. Olympic selection team has invaded the NHL's downtown Toronto offices.
Minutes before, the conference room was filled with the NHL's general managers and league officials debating issues of extended overtime, bullying and hybrid icing.
Now, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wraps up a chat with Calgary president Brian Burke, the room is given over to the U.S. Olympic selection committee.
This is the first in-person meeting since August, and in some ways, the issues of which players will fill in the fringe spots remains as vexing as it did that Sunday morning in suburban Washington, even if the names that are being debated may have changed significantly.
Jim Johannson confirms that the U.S. team will be announced on Jan. 1 after the Winter Classic between Detroit and Toronto and that the full U.S. women's team will be on hand for the announcement, too.
And so the discussion turns once again to the goaltenders.
There is strong consensus that Jonathan Quick and Jimmy Howard will be the two U.S. goaltenders, even though Quick has not been at his best, Poile says.
"I feel like he's the best American goalie at this point," he says.
That belief will be put to the test later that evening when Quick goes down with a groin injury, one that will keep him out of action for weeks, until the eve of the team's selection.
Ryan Miller has been very good, while Cory Schneider was hurt and hasn't played as much so the body of work isn't there. Craig Anderson, likewise, was hurt, and is now sharing time with Robin Lehner in the Ottawa net and hasn't been on top of his game.
For the first time at these meetings, Tampa's Ben Bishop's name comes up in any meaningful way.
He's been very good, "fabulous record. And we're not really giving him much love at all," Poile notes.
Don Waddell speaks up in Bishop's support, having seen him a couple of times.
There is some discussion about attitudes. Who might best slot into the third role, but Poile comes back to the basic tenet that has driven this discussion from the beginning: "I want to have the three best goalies," he says.
Waddell recalls that even when Bishop was pulled at the World Championships last spring he was a terrific teammate.
"I'm not pushing him ahead of Miller," Waddell says.
And so Bishop's name appears, written in magic marker, as the sixth American netminder.
"I'd have him ahead of Schneider and Anderson," Waddell says.
And just like that Bishop's name moves ahead of Anderson's on The Board.
For reasons that Poile will later explain, the group moves past defensemen to forwards.
Coaches and management are in agreement with the locks, and the only significant change is the agreement that Ryan Callahan has played his way up the team's depth chart.
"He's been great," Poile says.
There are 12 locks. Ryan Kesler -- who has put behind him any concerns about his injury issues and has returned to dominant form for Vancouver -- Dustin Brown, Patrick Kane, David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Derek Stepan, Paul Stastny and Callahan.
The next two guys on the depth chart are Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad and just below them Max Pacioretty and Alexander Galchenyuk followed by Blake Wheeler.
There is also some support for Brandon Dubinsky, who's been playing really well for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Like Bishop, Poile notes that Jason Pominville and Kyle Okposo are having great seasons but haven't been given much, if any, consideration.
Still, the belief is that neither Pominville nor Okposo is built for the big ice, and their names will rarely, if ever, be heard in relation to making the team going forward.
There are two spots open up front, but as Poile canvasses the room, there is little in the way of agreement about which combination of Ryan, Wheeler, Saad or Galchenyuk it should be.
Again the question of whether Ryan's status as a pure goal scorer is enough to put him on this team.
"So is Ryan the next guy up?" Poile asks.
"He's been there," Burke points out.
Yes, he was just OK in Vancouver, "but he won't be intimidated," Burke says.
If Ryan is the man then it leaves one spot.
Saad? Galchenyuk? Wheeler?
Paul Holmgren suggests Saad over Wheeler.
"He's more versatile," Holmgren says.
Now the discussion returns to the defense.
"OK, I've got to leave now," Poile jokes, a reference to the dilemma brewing over what to do with his prized young defenseman, Seth Jones, who has shined brightly through the first quarter of the NHL season, playing big minutes and making an immediate impact playing mostly with captain Shea Weber.
Poile moves to The Board.
Ryan Suter, Ryan McDonagh are on the left side. Paul Martin moves to the right side.
"OK, now the work starts," Poile says.
Continuing on the discussion that began on the last call, the dilemma over Jack Johnson continues. "There's something missing with Jack this year," Poile says.
"His gap is terrible right now. It's like he's got no confidence," Burke says.
"If he knew where he was on this board right now, it would kill him," Dean Lombardi adds.
Poile asks if they are being too hard on Jack Johnson, but no one rises to Johnson's rescue.
"He's having a bad year. He needs to get his s--- together," Dale Tallon says.
Brooks Orpik is another virtual lock and shoots from the left side. Keith Yandle is playing well but is also another lefty who cannot move to the right side.
"How do we make the team when we've got all these left-handed players?" Poile asks.
At this moment, Justin Faulk occupies the second spot on the right side.
"Are we really confident this is where he should be?" Poile asks.
Erik Johnson continues to play well in Denver and plays on the right side, but he doesn't kill penalties and would only occupy time on a second power-play unit and there remains concern about his foot speed on the big ice in Sochi.
Cam Fowler is another left-handed shot who can't move to the other side.
John Carlson, whose power-play time has shrunk in Washington, gets some favorable reviews. Could he move into a second spot on the right side playing with McDonagh?
"I don't know if he's out of the picture or not," Poile says.
"Can anybody get Carlson ahead of Faulk or Shattenkirk?" Poile asks.
Finally Poile brings Jones' name into the discussion.
"This is as good a player as I've ever dealt with at this age. I don't know what you're looking for in a player besides his age," Poile says.
He has size, he skates well and "he has phenomenal hockey sense."
"Talk about the upside, this guy has got it. This guy's a phenomenal player," Poile says.
Maybe the group needs to forget the age factor, Lombardi suggests. He recalls the same questions asked about his own Drew Doughty when Doughty was named to the Canadian Olympic team four years ago. By the end of the Vancouver tournament, he was as good as any defenseman on the ice.
"I don't care if this kid's 17, I see what David's talking about. I don't care how old the kid is," Lombardi says.
"Put him in the top four and move on," he says.
It's not quite that simple, but the conversation puts the defensive grouping in a dramatically different light than has been the case at any other point in the process.
Holmgren suggests that if Yandle makes the team, ostensibly because of his power-play expertise, then they should balance one of the final spots with a player with more defensive upside, like Erik Johnson or Jack Johnson.
Burke notes that both the Johnsons, Erik and Jack, are "no-maintenance" players.
"You don't have to take them aside and read them the riot act or pump them up at this level," Burke says.
Stan Bowman helps to crystallize the back story to the ongoing and often circular debate over the defensive makeup of the team.
Bowman believes the strength of the team is in goal and up front. The blue line stands as a potential weakness and to play to their strengths he figures they need guys who can move the puck to the strong group of forwards. In that light, he suggests avoiding both Johnsons.
As the meeting comes to a close and the managers make plans to move next to the Air Canada Centre for dinner and a full slate of NHL games to watch, Johannson delivers bronze medals from last spring's World Championships to members of the management team who didn't receive them at the time.
Hard to imagine that everyone around that table in the NHL offices didn't wonder what kind of medal, if any, might await the group in Sochi when their work in building this team is done.
Dream or reality?
If there is a television series made of the selection of the 2014 U.S. Olympic team, this episode will be entitled "The Dreams."
With a little more than a month until the team is to be announced, GM David Poile confesses on the Nov. 25 conference call that he had a dream that defenseman Jack Johnson wasn't named to the squad. Poile was wracked with angst, believing they'd made a horrible mistake.
Later, as a counterpoint, Brian Burke says he'd had a dream the U.S. team lost a medal game because of a mistake made by 19-year-old rookie defenseman Seth Jones.
Both dreams, real or not, highlighted the continuing drama that is the selection of the blue-line corps.
To help explain the coaches' thoughts on the selection process, Peter Laviolette has joined the call today.
Although Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi isn't on this call, there remains consensus that Kings netminder Jonathan Quick is still the top U.S. goalie in spite of a groin injury that will keep him out of the lineup until after Christmas.
Lombardi has told Poile that Quick should be 100 percent and ready to go right after the NHL's holiday break.
"If that's the case he should be in good form for the Olympics," Poile says.
Beyond Quick there has been a subtle change in thinking, though, as Ryan Miller appears to have moved ahead of Jimmy Howard to occupy the No. 2 spot in the pecking order with Howard dropping to three, ahead of Cory Schneider and Craig Anderson.
Schneider has played well, and there was a feeling he needed to be scouted further to see if he might overtake Howard, whose own play had been uneven in Detroit.
Ray Shero suggests he would have Howard and Schneider as a 3A and 3B.
"I think Schneider's going to pass him when we finish this process," Burke says. "One guy's going south slowly and another guy's coming north hard."
As was the case in Toronto, Poile bypassed discussion on the blue line in favor of the forwards. The coaches noted, as the GMs had earlier, that Ryan Callahan had turned up his game and had moved up the depth chart to a second-line role, with T.J. Oshie dropping to a fourth-line role on the right side.
"I totally agree with that," Poile says.
Again the discussion comes down to the final two forward spots, and the coaches, led by head coach Dan Bylsma, preferred Bobby Ryan as the top guy to fill the first of those two openings.
The player making a strong claim on the final forward spot was Max Pacioretty, who had been on a tear of late after injuries had slowed his start to the season.
"He's climbing north pretty quick," Poile says.
Brandon Saad continues to get significant attention, too, with Blake Wheeler behind him and then Alexander Galchenyuk and Brandon Dubinsky.
If you have Ryan, you can't have Wheeler, Poile suggests.
They are similar players, Dale Tallon points out, and neither is particularly strong defensively.
If you take Ryan, does it become a question of Pacioretty or Saad, given they are more versatile?
Ryan's place on the team, while it may have been a surprise to outsiders, given his ability to consistently provide scoring, continues to ebb and flow. It seems to come down to whether the coaches plan to use him regularly on the power play. If not, there may be no room for him.
"He is on the power-play list," Laviolette says. Although he does point out that Ryan possesses a surprisingly low percentage of power-play points, just four of his 22 points coming with the man advantage in Ottawa at the time.
"One of the lowest percentage power-play points guys we have," Laviolette says.
Poile notes that coming out of the orientation camp Pacioretty was likely ahead of Ryan on the list.
"He's probably our hard-watch guy," he says. "Is he the real deal?"
And, if so, would Pacioretty be favored over Saad, Wheeler or Galchenyuk?
Don Waddell happened to see two games in which Galchenyuk was better than Pacioretty, but in two other recent games, Pacioretty lit it up.
Laviolette saw the games in which Pacioretty was good and said it was more than just the goals but creating chances, using his body and skating well.
Holmgren suggests the coaches have to decide if Ryan is going to be an integral part of the power-play groups, and if so, he needs to be pushed ahead. But if not, maybe they should be looking at two more well-rounded players.
"I agree," Poile says.
Burke points out that Poile has included the coaches more than he did when he occupied the GM position in Vancouver four years before. It's good, but, he adds, "I think coaches see snapshots, and I think GMs watch the whole movie."
"I think we have to know what we're taking with Bobby," says Burke, who had him in Anaheim when the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007.
"He's a passive guy," Burke says. And over 82 games, yes, Saad and or Pacioretty might be more attractive than Ryan. But Ryan's a game-breaker.
"He is not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary," Burke says. "It's never going to be in his vocabulary. He can't spell intense."
If he's not going to be put in a role in which he can score an important goal, use his skills as a sniper, he shouldn't go, Burke says.
"Is everybody really happy with our speed up front?" Poile asks.
There is a pause.
"I don't think it's a fast team," Tallon notes.
Ryan doesn't add to the speed quotient, so do these last two spots need to be filled with speed guys? And if there are injuries, which of these guys are more compatible, more able to move up the roster to fill in more demanding roles?
Pacioretty and Saad are both better 60-minute players, Burke says, "But neither can do what Bobby can do."
As has become the norm at these meetings, the defense corps is the last group to be discussed. This group generates the widest range of opinions on which players will give the U.S. the best chance to win a gold medal in Sochi.
Poile has asked the coaching staff to come up with their shadow defensive roster and how the pairings might look as opposed to simply ranking the players from one through eight in terms of skill or fit.
In the end, the three coaches agreed on seven players: Ryan Suter, Paul Martin (who shortly after this call would suffer a broken leg blocking a shot against Boston), Ryan McDonagh, Brooks Orpik, Justin Faulk, Kevin Shattenkirk and the rookie Seth Jones.
The eighth player, from the coaching perspective, came down to two players: Cam Fowler, whose play has picked up noticeably -- or rather his play has become more noticeable for a very good Anaheim Ducks team -- and John Carlson from the Washington Capitals, another player whose stock had been low to nonexistent through the first part of the season but whose prominence in Washington has been altered by an injury to former Norris Trophy nominee Mike Green.
The coaches did not include Keith Yandle, Jack Johnson or Erik Johnson on their lists.
"Let's start from the bottom up here," Poile says.
And then he explains how he'd had a dream that Jack Johnson wasn't on the team, a huge mistake.
"I don't want to force a square peg into a round hole here," Poile says in discussing the oft-discussed Columbus defenseman. In fact, he says the coaches indicated they were relieved at the previous management discussions about Jack Johnson and how there was growing consensus his level of play wasn't up to Olympic standards.
"Are we correct in this decision that Jack Johnson is not going to be on the team?" Poile asks the group.
That, for the moment, is the decision.
Burke questions the group's collective decision in giving the last spot to an offensive player when it might be better to have a shutdown guy like Erik Johnson on board. Burke offers up his personal doubts that Jones is ready for this competition and relates his own dream moment.
"I had a nightmare the other night he cost us a medal with a mistake," Burke says.
There is an awkward silence.
Keith Yandle is another lightning-rod player whom the coaches were not enthused about having on the roster.
With him the reward never seems to exceed the risk, Poile says.
"It's not that he wouldn't be on the power play if he were on the team," Laviolette says. "But the risk in his game seems to be more than Dan's willing to take or wants to take with that type of player," he adds referring to head coach Dan Bylsma.
The feeling is that even without Yandle on the team, there will be enough skill on the power play to be effective with Joe Pavelski expected to play the point at times along with Ryan Suter and Kevin Shattenkirk.
At the heart of the matter isn't necessarily which individual but rather what kind of player they want in that final spot or two.
As for the eighth guy, Laviolette points out it's difficult to take an offensive power-play specialist because in theory he is going to be a healthy scratch. And that leads to the other shoe dropping: What if injury or suspension necessitates the eighth guy becoming more than that?
If a top-four defenseman is absent, does your eighth guy now have to play more significant minutes in more diverse situations?
Isn't it better, Burke suggests, to have a more well-rounded player as the extra guy?
"I don't want Keith Yandle playing minutes in that situation," Burke says. "I want Erik Johnson on the team."
Holmgren wonders if they aren't obsessing too much about Yandle given the coaches' reluctance to have him on the team, and whether they should focus on other options. "Some of these guys that we're talking about, they're not Edward Scissorhands with the puck," he says.
As for Jones, there is growing support for the rookie to be included. Tallon says he thinks Jones is getting better every day, and Poile wonders if there wouldn't be more faith in Jones to handle the pressure than Yandle.
It's now time to vote, Poile announces. Johannson will send blank roster sheets to all of the selection committee. They are to fill them in and send them back. These results will form the basis of the discussion in California. The coaches will do likewise.
"It's time for everybody to make their choices," Poile says. "When we come out of that meeting on the eighth, we've got to be pretty close to that final team there."
The debates rage on
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- As the days dwindled before the naming of the U.S. Olympic team, each meeting, whether in person or via conference call, seemed to take on its own theme. If the previous call represented the battle of the dreams, this segment would hitherto be known as "The Letter."
It was a truncated group that gathered on the eve of the annual NHL Board of Governors' meeting at a posh resort perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. It would likely be the last time The Board would meet in person before the Jan. 1 announcement.
Brian Burke came straight from the parking lot, Stan Bowman not far behind him, while Ray Shero, Don Waddell and Jim Johannson also joined the group. Dean Lombardi and Paul Holmgren joined in via conference call.
Poile reminds those in attendance of a detailed report prepared by Lombardi looking at the bubble defensemen and specifically a case to be made for including Keith Yandle on the 25-man roster.
Glancing at the voluminous report, Burke quips, "Why don't we read the New Testament instead?"
The call is connected and, as usual, Poile begins with the goaltenders.
After further consultation with the coaching staff, the unanimous decision is that Jonathan Quick, still injured, and Ryan Miller will be the top two goaltenders for the team in Sochi.
Lombardi indicates Quick is recovering from his groin injury on the timetable expected and he should rejoin the Kings by the end of December.
"Anybody have anything different that they would want to say on those two guys?" Poile asks.
There is none.
"We're now getting into more of a race for the third position," Poile adds.
Indeed Jimmy Howard, once in the driver's seat for one of the top two spots, has now let his play fall off so dramatically he has been overtaken in many people's eyes by Cory Schneider, whose numbers have been solid. Still, there is a faction favoring Howard given his playoff experience with Detroit and Schneider's relative inexperience.
Poile suggests it's of critical importance how Howard responds between this meeting and the end of December. If Howard doesn't play better, "I would think we would want to name the guy that's playing the best," Poile says.
"Is Howard going to play again? The other guy's got the net," Burke says, referring to backup Jonas Gustavsson, who has at least temporarily replaced Howard. The question is a prophetic one as a few days after the meeting ends and before the next group conference call, the Red Wings announce Howard will be shut down for a month with injury and won't play again before the U.S. team is announced.
On to the defense, where there are now seven "locks" the group has identified: Ryan Suter, Ryan McDonagh, Brooks Orpik (who the night before this meeting was attacked by Boston's Shawn Thornton and taken off the Boston ice on a stretcher), Paul Martin (also injured with a broken leg), John Carlson, Justin Faulk and Kevin Shattenkirk.
"It's almost 100 percent," Poile says of the group's support.
He asks for a video of Keith Yandle to run while they discuss Lombardi's appeal for the Phoenix defenseman's inclusion on the team.
"Yandle is clearly the only guy that I would consider for this team. I started this trying to figure out why the kid isn't basically amongst the top six," Lombardi says.
Because the central knock on Yandle is that he's not responsible enough defensively, Lombardi says he focused on situations in which this might be revealed in Yandle's game and how the same assessment might be applied to the other candidates.
There is no question, he says, that Yandle is the superior puck-mover and uses a combination of superior skating and passing ability to move the puck quickly up the rink.
He is the highest-scoring American defenseman over the past four years, Lombardi points out.
"Why are we discounting this kid?" he asks. If they use the theory espoused by some that inclusion should be based on current level of play and body of work, "This kid's right up there with Duncan Keith in terms of points over the past four years."
Lombardi's team played Yandle and the Coyotes in the Western Conference finals two years ago and has also played St. Louis the past two playoff years.
"If you ask our coaches," Lombardi says, "Yandle scares us more than Shattenkirk."
"He's not great defensively but he's not soft," Lombardi continues.
"If this kid was playing in New York, would we be embarrassed not to take him?" Lombardi asks rhetorically, a query he will repeat several times during the meeting.
"You guys, I totally respect," Lombardi adds, finishing his presentation. "There are some holes in his game, but can we afford to pass on the highest-scoring American in the last four years?"
There is some good-natured joshing of Lombardi for the report.
"I thought it was 'Gone With The Wind,'" Burke says.
But Burke remains skeptical about Yandle's place on the team.
"I always assume a disaster's going to happen," he says.
What happens if Paul Martin goes down on the first shift of the first game?
"Who plays those minutes?" Burke asks.
"If Keith Yandle goes in our top four, I think everyone we play is excited," Burke says.
It all comes down to team composition -- hasn't it always? -- and how this team will look.
"I assume the worst is going to happen," says Burke, who prefers a more conservative approach to the fringe players so the team doesn't get caught without enough balance and get exposed on the big ice against more skilled teams.
The discussion revolves around what kinds of players, or which players, could pick up the slack if they're suddenly asked to do more because of injury or suspension.
"What if we just lose our first couple of games? We're just no [darn] good," Bowman says.
You know guys such as Suter, McDonagh and Martin will bounce back, he says. But the coaches need to be able to move guys around as they see fit if the team doesn't play well early in the tournament.
If that's the case, then it's not a bad thing to have guys ranked four through eight who can be mixed around.
"Stan just described it how I was looking at it," Lombardi says.
If it's not working, Lombardi says, you need to have the best offensive American available, "and on that basis, I think you have to take the kid."
"Part of our job in putting this team together is to cover all the scenarios," Burke says.
Poile agrees, still, are they any closer now to making a decision, having heard this speech a hundred times?
"What if, what if, what if," Poile says. "Maybe I'm looking at it too cautiously."
As for the bubble group, "Stan's right, they're somewhat interchangeable," the U.S. GM concedes.
What about having Yandle play with Suter, a notion that harkens back to the very first meeting when Poile suggested hypothetically putting Dustin Byfuglien with Ryan Suter.
"We'll all get home sooner," Burke retorts.
Poile returns to the board and pushes Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Seth Jones and Byfuglien's name plates to the right side of the board.
"I don't think these guys are going to make it," he says, an acknowledgment of the drop-off in Jones' game in recent weeks, and the fact this, indeed, is not Jones' time in spite of his incredible promise.
So, nine guys.
Suter, McDonagh, Orpik, Yandle and Fowler on the left and Martin, Carlson, Faulk and Shattenkirk on the right.
If it's a vote on Yandle and Fowler, the group votes overwhelmingly that Yandle should be the eighth defenseman, and Poile moves Fowler's name between the names of those who would go to Sochi and those who will not, a no-man's land on The Board, if you will.
"That's the eight then," Shero says.
Or is it?
There remains a strong pull for many in the group to include Jack Johnson in spite of his off season.
"Twelve days. Jack will not let us down for 12 days," Poile says.
"It's a gut feeling for Jack. It's not how he's playing. It's what he's done in the past. It's history versus the present," he says.
So, for the moment, Yandle is on the team with Fowler and Jack Johnson hovering close in the ninth and 10th spots. Outside the picture but not outside the discussion.
The discussion on forwards, as it has for some time, goes more swiftly.
Dustin Brown, Zach Parise, James van Riemsdyk and Max Pacioretty line up on the left side with Ryan Kesler, David Backes, Joe Pavelski, Derek Stepan and Paul Stastny slotted down the middle and Patrick Kane, Ryan Callahan (who will shortly after this meeting go once again on the disabled list with a knee sprain) and Phil Kessel on the right.
That leaves two spots open on the wings for roughly four candidates.
Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad on the left side and T.J. Oshie and Blake Wheeler on the right side.
As time has passed, there is growing enthusiasm for Blake Wheeler and the different elements he brings to the game.
Don Waddell has seen a lot of Wheeler, and while he didn't have him on his original board, he has grown to believe he could be a useful addition.
"I think he'd be a help to us," Waddell says.
"I think this kid's playing his way onto the team," he says.
As for Ryan, Burke goes back to Lombardi's earlier point about ignoring the top American scorer at his position and what kind of dangers there are in leaving Ryan off the squad.
Poile asks the question that synthesizes the debate, if it doesn't provide its own answer:
"How good is Bobby Ryan's one quality," he asks, referencing his ability to score. "Will it win out the day?"
Poile is holding Ryan's name strip while standing next to The Board.
No way to move Pacioretty out of the mix, Poile notes.
Johannson points out that the forwards are better now than four years ago. Kessel is better, van Riemsdyk is a better player, and that has made Ryan's job of making the team more difficult this time around.
It's so easy to defend internationally, Johannson adds, if there isn't the threat of speed in the lineup.
And with that Wheeler moves into the fourth right wing spot.
Now there is one spot left for Ryan, Oshie and Saad.
Saad has a slight edge on Oshie, but in reality it's a dead heat with Ryan on the outside.
"I'm good with that," Burke says.
As he has throughout, Bowman speaks on behalf of his player, Saad.
"I think he's a more versatile player than Oshie," Bowman says.
"I think he's got more to his game than Oshie. He's like a young version of [Marian] Hossa. He's such a strong guy. He's just hard to handle. He's smart. He's a guy the coaches would love," the Chicago GM says.
Poile, meanwhile, knows Oshie and likes his personality.
"Oshie's got that shootout move," he adds.
As the group gathers their belongings and notes, someone asks how it is that Yandle has gone from being on the very edge of the roster discussion to a virtual lock in a matter of hours.
"If I ever get charged with murder, Dean's my lawyer," Burke quips.
Trying to complete the puzzle
It's been just eight days since the group met in Pebble Beach, Calif., and in spite of Dean Lombardi's impassioned Yandle Manifesto, the sands continue to shift underfoot as the group tries to narrow the focus and nail down the final handful of roster spots still available.
No more legal briefs will make their appearance during this call, although Lombardi will be reminded a couple of times about his earlier report on Yandle and the fringe defensemen during the hour-long chat.
A day earlier, Poile and his management team spoke with the coaching staff about the issues raised during the California meeting.
The group still agrees Jonathan Quick, who is still injured, and Ryan Miller will be the top two netminders on this team.
At the moment, Jimmy Howard is the third goalie by a nose, Poile says.
"It used to be a lot more than that," he notes.
A week before, the group talked about the need to watch Howard closely given his poor play. That's no longer an option, as he's been moved to the injured reserve list and isn't expected to return before the team is announced.
Now, the debate is to take him based on his body of work and his playoff experience or go in another direction because he has played so poorly for the Red Wings thus far this season.
Cory Schneider is the closest competitor, although Poile notes he's also had some uneven moments in recent days. Tampa's Ben Bishop is the wild card, although he's coming off another stellar outing, having shut out the Red Wings the night before this call.
In fact, Poile admits, head coach Dan Bylsma asked on Sunday's call why the group hasn't given Bishop more than the passing interest.
It's clear that Bishop's lack of playoff experience and poor play at last year's World Championships, where he was lifted in favor of youngster John Gibson, who guided the Americans to an unexpected bronze medal, does not have the confidence of the group.
"I'm not happy with any of these names," Burke says, referring to the three in pursuit of the third and final goaltending spot.
On defense, the topic returns to the final spot and the muddied waters in which Jack Johnson, Keith Yandle and Cam Fowler exist as far as their inclusion on the U.S. team.
Poile reports that the coaches feel that based on current level of play, Fowler is the best for them. He's a better all-around player and can play in more situations in their estimation.
If there is an injury in the top group, they would feel more comfortable moving Fowler up the depth chart than Jack Johnson or Yandle.
Although the Yandle issue was discussed in depth in California, the coaches don't believe there is that big a drop-off in offensive talent if Yandle isn't on the roster, plus they are planning to use Joe Pavelski on the point, which will minimize the need for a purely offensive defenseman in man-advantage situations.
There was no support for dressing an extra defenseman at the tournament, which might have opened the door to Yandle.
"They only thing I would add," Burke says, "is that they were adamant on this. It's as close to an ultimate as they're going to give you."
This in spite of "the world's greatest lawyer" presenting the brief on behalf of Yandle, Burke quips.
"They're not going to play him if we bring him," Burke says.
Poile asks the group to rank the final three, and even though it once appeared Jack Johnson had no shot at making this team, there is surprising support for the Columbus defenseman.
Waddell has Jack Johnson at the top of the list of three with Fowler and then Yandle.
Burke recalls fighting with his scouts in Anaheim over whether to take Bobby Ryan or Jack Johnson at the 2005 draft.
The scouts won and the Ducks took Ryan.
"I should have taken Jack," Burke says. "No way he lets us down for 12 days.
"I know he's having a poor year, but I love everything about this kid."
So Burke goes with Johnson and Fowler as a 1A pick ahead of Yandle.
But the group remains split with significant support for Fowler, as well.
Like many things in the hockey world, there's got to be a little "gut instinct" at play here, Johannson says.
Finally Poile explains he needs a timeout on the discussion before he makes his final decision.
"I've got to think about this a little bit," he says.
Lombardi suggests that at this point they are splitting hairs on the selection of a final defenseman and that Poile shouldn't beat himself up over the final decision, which will ultimately fall to him.
"With all due respect, it's an important decision," Poile says.
"You're the boss," Burke says. And regardless of the decision, the group will support it, he adds.
Poile jokes that he feels better knowing they've sent him away with a split vote on the two defensemen.
"I really appreciate that four-four vote. That's really helpful," he says and the group breaks into laughter.
"Dean, can you prepare a brief on these two defensemen?" Burke jokes.
As for the forwards, at the last meeting, for the first time St. Louis Blues forward T.J. Oshie had been pushed just slightly off the main part of The Board with Blake Wheeler and Brandon Saad having supplanted Oshie in the top 14 forwards.
The problem is that the coaches really want Oshie on the team. They like the possible chemistry with David Backes -- who will leave that evening's game against the Ottawa Senators with an injury -- and they like Oshie's skill in the shootout.
The odd man out, then, is Bobby Ryan.
"Ryan is not getting the love at all," Poile says.
During his conversation with the coaches, he talked to them about whether Ryan provided needed scoring, but the coaches wouldn't budge, Poile says. They felt they had enough scoring and didn't need Ryan for the power play.
The coaches, then, have the final two spots this way: Oshie and Wheeler ahead of Saad and Ryan in that order.
Although there is strong consensus that Wheeler has played his way onto the team, there is no such consensus when it comes to Saad over Oshie or Oshie over Saad.
At the end of the straw poll, Saad is slightly ahead of Oshie, although the coaches' desire to have Oshie makes that a wash.
"We still got a little bit of work to do here," Poile says.
One interesting development is the first airing of the notion that perhaps both Oshie and Saad could go and Derek Stepan come off the list. The New York Rangers center had been a given as the management team has always wanted five centers. But Stepan has played poorly and had an uneven season overall. Now for the first time, the idea is raised that he might go to make room for both Oshie and Saad.
Still, the fear of not having enough depth down the middle if they take only four is too much to sway the group at this stage, especially given that there are no real options if there is an injury among the other forwards.
Poile tells the group he wants to hear from them on the final bubble players -- the Howards, Fowlers, Oshies et al., before the next, and presumably final, conference call on the 27th.
Lombardi jokingly asks if he wants any written reports.
"No, orally. I don't want you to write anything else down," Poile quips as the call comes to an end.
The final three decisions
If it's true the devil is in the details, the devil is in the final three selections for the U.S. hockey team.
Less than 24 hours after the main selection group's conference call, a smaller group consisting of GM David Poile, assistant GM Ray Shero, director of player personnel Brian Burke, Jim Johannson of USA Hockey and Chicago GM Stan Bowman, who missed the previous day's call but happens to be in Poile's office in Nashville, are meeting remotely once again.
Although 22 of the 25 names that are expected to be on the final roster have been arrived at, the final three continue to make life challenging.
The goaltending, thought to be the team's strength last August, now features a starting netminder who is hurt and a situation in which the third goalie is almost certainly going to be selected by default.
Poile says his gut tells him the third man behind Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller has to be Jimmy Howard of Detroit.
"I wish he was playing better. Am I worried? Yes," Poile says.
That gives rise to a delicate issue: What happens to Howard or any of their injured players -- and there are a handful, including Howard, Quick, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Ryan Callahan and most recently David Backes -- who aren't playing up to snuff when the tournament rolls around?
Could they approach Howard, for instance, and ask him to bow out gracefully, if he's not playing particularly well when he returns from his current injury?
It is a nice idea in theory, but it is a course of action the group quickly acknowledges could have negative repercussions.
"If he's back playing for the Red Wings at the end of January, how can we take him off [the roster] saying he's hurt," Bowman asks.
It may sound reasonable that a player take himself out of the mix if he's not up to Olympic level of play, but Poile acknowledges the idea of asking a player to do so makes him nervous.
Even if a player understands the ramifications of such a request, Poile says they'll never really tell you how they feel when/if the subject is broached. The Nashville GM likens it to when he talks to a player he's sending down to the American Hockey League. He might talk to him for 15 minutes and all the player hears is: "I'm going to Milwaukee."
Burke agrees that he's not comfortable with the scenario, either.
What if a player gives an interview from home during the Olympics and says he was asked to step down from the team, even though he was technically healthy? What if the International Ice Hockey Federation or International Olympic Committee took away that roster spot, or worse, a medal?
"I'm nervous about this, Brian. I really am," Poile says.
The bottom line is that the group will have to live with the decisions made in the coming few days, and if guys return from injury and are playing but not playing well, so be it.
Does that mean Schneider should move ahead of Howard?
Shero insists he'd still rather throw in his lot with the Detroit netminder given his playoff experience and the belief he'll rise to the challenge if called on.
"I'm going to take my [bleeping] chances with Jimmy Howard," Shero says.
Any more on the goaltending? Poile asks.
"The strength of our team," Shero quips.
"It will be, it will be," Poile insists.
On to the defense, and again it appears just when Jack Johnson's hopes of making this team had dwindled to nothing, he has gained late momentum and the smaller group pushes him ahead of Cam Fowler in the battle for the last spot on the blue line.
Poile points out one potential fly in the Johnson ointment, and that's the fact the coaching staff as a whole weren't all that enthused about having him on the team given his uneven play this season.
"To put him back might be like, why?" Poile says. "Why at this time?"
As he said the day before, Burke likes Johnson ahead of Fowler -- but only slightly and is comfortable with both.
"I predict both are going," he says.
Poile decides to move on, leaving Johnson slightly ahead of Fowler on the board and Yandle off to the side, out of contention.
As for the forwards, they left the previous day's call with Wheeler and Saad as the final two and T.J. Oshie a very close third and Bobby Ryan, like Yandle, outside the fray.
Is that the right call? Poile asks.
"I just want to make sure we're not cutting off our nose to spite our face," he says of Ryan.
"Are we doing a disservice by not taking him?" he asks.
The consensus is again that Ryan doesn't bring enough to the table to warrant inclusion.
Again, the group cannot find a clear decision on the final two, given the different dimensions the three represent. Oshie and Saad are "fix-it" kind of guys. They can play up and down the lineup and do different things, while Wheeler brings size and, more importantly, speed. If Ryan is out, then Wheeler is seen as a must to fill that offensive void.
If the group were to decide, it would be Wheeler and Saad, although Burke brings up the point that the coaches really like Oshie, and the coaching staff hasn't asked for much in terms of demanding certain players.
Given that, Burke would vote Wheeler and Oshie but like the defense group, he predicts injuries will see both Oshie and Saad in Sochi when the dust clears by early February.
"I don't want to say what I'm going to say," Poile says, realizing the jinx he's about to incur. "But I don't know if we can go wrong on this decision."
As with all of these choices, time will be the judge of whether Poile is right or not.
The final decisions
In the end, the final decisions seemed almost anticlimactic.
Maybe it's that the debate over the final three positions was so familiar, like a well-worn piece of wood; maybe it was the belief that these choices were all between solid, Olympic-caliber players.
In the days following the previous call, GM David Poile had talked individually with members of the selection committee about the final roster spots. He spoke with three of the four coaches.
And so the final roster was set, pending injuries that might befall some of the 25 between now and Feb. 9.
"It's not over 'til it's over," Poile says.
But in a sense it was over, at least the heavy lifting in naming the team. Whatever happened going forward would be an extension of this group.
Jimmy Howard, set to return from injury and indeed scheduled to play the afternoon of Jan. 1 before the U.S. men's team would be announced, would be the third goaltender behind Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller in spite of a mediocre first half to the season.
After so much to- and fro-ing in recent weeks, the desire of the coaches to have Cam Fowler on the team trumped the heavy emotional connection to Jack Johnson, and so Fowler earned not just the eighth spot on the blue line but moved up the depth chart to a potential third pairing, with Brooks Orpik dropping a rung.
The final internal voting had Fowler ahead of Johnson 6-3.
There was, finally, no pushback from the committee on this decision.
Up front, the final two spots would actually take an additional 24 hours before Poile would settle on T.J. Oshie, whom the coaches wanted on the squad, and Blake Wheeler narrowly edging out Brandon Saad, who was achingly close to the final spot.
The final three forwards were essentially in a dead heat with the coaches' desire tipping the scales in favor of Oshie and Wheeler, whose speed, goal-scoring ability and perceived ability to move up the lineup nudged him ever so slightly ahead of Saad.
Although Poile would take an extra day and additional discussion with assistant GM Ray Shero and director of player personnel Brian Burke, the group's belief in Oshie and Wheeler would be borne out in the end.
"I think it's been thorough. I think everyone's contributed. Let's get down to playing," Burke says.
The good news, says USA Hockey's Jim Johannson, is that there are lots of options if something does come up in the interim.
"Thank you for your support and all you've done. This is it. This is the team," Poile says in signing off the call.
And so the first part of the journey was complete. Only time would tell whether the work done on that journey would bring the desired result -- an Olympic gold medal.
5dESPN stats & info