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NHL skipping 2018 Olympics robs fans of a stacked Team USA

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One of the worst parts of the NHL passing on the 2018 Olympics is how good Team USA could’ve been.

World Cup Of Hockey 2016 - United States v Czech Republic Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

USA Hockey made its first step toward putting together a men’s hockey team for the 2018 Winter Olympics by naming its management and coaching staff for the tournament last week. Wisconsin head coach Tony Granato will be on the bench, which is a logical choice given the team will likely be full of top college prospects.

That’s because the NHL isn’t participating in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which means national teams from USA, Canada, Sweden, and other countries will need to mine the NCAA, European leagues, and minor leagues in order to fill their rosters for the upcoming tournament. Other than Russia, which will turn to top KHL players, these teams will be filled with prospects, journeymen, and other relative unknowns.

For hockey fans around the world, that’s a bummer because the Olympics has become a marquee event in the sport since the NHL began participating in 1998. It’s the rare chance to see the game’s best face in each other in an intense, playoff-like atmosphere with national pride on the line.

But for American fans in particular, the NHL skipping out on Pyeongchang is unfortunate. Team USA hasn’t won an Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey since the Miracle on Ice in 1980, when a bunch of college kids stunned the Soviet team. For a lot of young hockey fans, they’re probably more familiar with Miracle, the movie, than the actual games it’s based on.

The 2018 Olympics would’ve been the Americans’ best chance in a long time to change that. A new generation of young players has taken the NHL by storm, and could’ve led to the most impressive team ever assembled by USA Hockey. Yes, Canada would’ve been as stacked as ever, and the same goes for Sweden. Russia will be the favorite now, but it would be even better with NHL stars like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Artemi Panarin involved.

Team USA would’ve been loaded, too (assuming management wouldn’t bungle the situation like it did with the World Cup of Hockey). This is where, as an American hockey fan, you cannot help but wonder what could’ve been in February. Here’s an idea of the kind of team we’re missing out on with the NHL skipping the Games:

Projected Team USA Olympic roster with NHL players

Line Players
Line Players
F1 Johnny Gaudreau — Auston Matthews — Patrick Kane
F2 Max Pacioretty — Jack Eichel — Phil Kessel
F3 Brandon Saad — Joe Pavelski — Blake Wheeler
F4 James van Riemsdyk — Ryan Kesler — T.J. Oshie
D1 Ryan Suter — Justin Faulk
D2 Zach Werenski — Seth Jones
D3 Ryan McDonagh — Jacob Trouba
G Cory Schneider — John Gibson

Pardon me while I hyperventilate for a moment.

So this is immediately a pretty impressive group. The top line of Matthews, Kane, and Gaudreau would be able to go up against anyone. The next two lines look pretty dang good, too, before you get to the familiar Team USA faces on the fourth line. It’s a nice mix of international experience and young stars who could elevate the Americans’ game.

Defense would’ve been where Team USA’s issues could arise. The team has three really good young defenders on the right side in Faulk, Jones, and Trouba. The left side features a couple of old stalwarts in Suter and McDonagh, plus a new face in Zack Werenski. They could also turn to Cam Fowler, Matt Niskanen, Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, Shayne Gostisbehere, or Nick Leddy.

The trouble is that Canada and Sweden would be overwhelmingly better on defense. Canada could’ve rolled out Brent Burns, Kris Letang, Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban, Duncan Keith, and Shea Weber as its top six. Sweden would’ve had Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, John Klingberg, Oscar Klefbom, and Hampus Lindholm. Those groupings are almost unfair.

But unlike in some past seasons, the Americans would’ve been able to roll out enough firepower to make winning gold conceivable. They may have needed to win a bunch of 5-4 games to make it happen. It still would’ve been must-see TV to witness Matthews teamed up with Kane, taking on Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid.

That’s what we’ll be missing in February, even as USA Hockey keeps working toward winning the gold without the NHL. Beating a Russia team full of KHL stars like Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Valeri Nichushkin, and others with a bunch of college kids and guys from Europe won’t be easy. In fact, that’ll probably be a harder path to gold for the Americans than it would’ve been in an NHL-backed tournament of juggernauts.

The Olympic men’s hockey tournament should still be fun to watch in February, particularly if a ragtag group of American kids can come together to shock the world like it did 37 years ago. A gold medal is a gold medal, and fans would surely be partying if we get see the likes of Jordan Greenway standing atop a podium in South Korea.

But for a lot of Team USA fans, 2018 was circled as a big opportunity with the arrivals of Matthews and Eichel. Finally, the Americans could’ve gone toe-to-toe up the middle with the best teams in the world.

Except now that won’t happen, and it’s a bummer for everyone involved. At least there’s always 2022 in Beijing.