Two months out from the Winter Olympics in Beijing, and the United States men's ice hockey team is slowly starting to come into focus. A few bubble options might have played their way both off and onto the roster, sure. And things are getting interesting in goal.
Where we're really gleaning some clarity, though, is on the injury front. When we last took up this exercise in early November, the Red, White and Blue were facing numerous questions about star players who may or may not be available.
A month ago, it looked like they would have a difficult time piecing together a team that had any kind of strength down the middle. Both Jack Eichel and Jack Hughes were on the sidelines and dealing with their respective long-term impairments.
At the time, we wrote that "...injuries have made Team USA alarmingly thin down the middle, with Hughes joining Eichel on the long-term injured reserve list because of a dislocated shoulder."
Recent reports by TSN Hockey Insider Chris Johnston on Insider Trading indicate that Eichel isn't being ruled out by the United States following neck surgery, though. That shakes things up for Team USA and our projections.
"I don't even think, necessarily that Team USA is banking on him," Johnston said. "But it's notable that with a little over a month before that team is chosen, it hasn't been ruled out as a possibility for Jack Eichel."
So we're going to do what we didn't do last time and include Eichel in our lineup. Hughes also returned from injury at the end of November, so he's back in the running too.
For context, check out the first roster we pieced together a month ago. We'll do this one more time before the official rosters are announced, too, and no trilogy makes sense without seeing the origin story first.
Goaltenders: Connor Hellebuyck, Jack Campbell and John Gibson
From a raw numbers perspective, there really hasn't been a runaway No. 1 from the trio we'd originally selected of Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson and Thatcher Demko.
In terms of old-school unadjusted save percentage, the three goalies are all within .001 of each other. Hellebuyck has one of the better quality start percentages in the NHL (.650), with Gibson and Demko a bit behind him, sporting .550 and .500 marks, respectively.
This trio is also 16th (Demko), 17th (Gibson) and 18th (Hellebuyck) in goals saved above average (GSAA). This lack of division has opened the door for Jack Campbell to play his way onto this roster.
Hellebuyck would get the nod if there was a gold-medal game tonight, but the picture is a bit muddier than it was a month ago. Campbell would likely be a Vezina Trophy finalist if the award were given out today, and Team USA can't ignore how effective he's been in 2021-22.
His 17 GSAA mark is tops in the league, and it's bordering on the ridiculous side. His .800 quality start percentage is also the second-best number in the NHL, showing just how consistent the netminder has been in Toronto.
It's also worth noting that Jonathan Quick has been playing well for the Los Angeles Kings. His 6.0 GSAA is good for ninth in the entire league, better than both Gibson and Hellebuyck.
Could the Kings backstop play his way onto this roster? And if Campbell continues to play lights out for the Maple Leafs, will he be given the opportunity to start? Questions abound for the United States' crease just a few weeks before rosters must be finalized.
Defensive Pairing 1: Charlie McAvoy and Adam Fox
We caught some flack in the comments section in October for having Adam Fox and Charlie McAvoy as defensive pairing two. We don't think the distinction matters all that much given how frequently this top four is going to be deployed at 5-on-5, but we heard you loud and clear.
May we present to you: defensive pairing No. 1, featuring Adam Fox and Charlie McAvoy.
This duo could go to Beijing and establish themselves as the national team's backbone for the foreseeable future. They might actually already be on paper. Now they've just got to prove it in practice. And assuming they click and become the roving, puck-moving force we project them to be, there's no reason to believe that Fox and McAvoy can't be the most impactful pairing in the tournament.
They are simply that exemplary.
While Team USA trails behind Canada at forward, they may draw even on the blue line. That starts here, with both Fox and McAvoy capable of taking over shifts with their speed, vision, skating and outlet pass capabilities.
In his third season, Fox is now a known commodity around the NHL. As Mollie Walker wrote for The New York Post a few weeks ago, the defenseman is now being game-planned for as the opposition tries to rein him in.
That hasn't slowed his production down one bit. Among defensemen who have appeared in 10 games this season, he's one of just four to average more than a point per game. McAvoy is just as capable in the offensive zone, and his play this season is generating Norris Trophy buzz.
These are your likely powerplay quarterbacks, and they'll both see at least 20 minutes per night for Team USA.
Defensive Pairing 2: Zach Werenski and Seth Jones
We wonder if the United States regrets having named Seth Jones to this roster already. With the emergence of Fox and McAvoy as the blueline anchors that Jones was projected to be earlier in his career, Team USA is pretty set when it comes to the kind of skillset the Chicago Blackhawks defender provides.
There's no question that he's capable of generating offense at even strength and on the power play. His 0.88 points per game are good for eighth in the league so far this season among qualified defensemen. It's just that his aptitudes are a bit redundant on this roster, as Fox, McAvoy, Zach Werenski and other possible inclusions such as John Carlson play an offensive-minded game too. And they arguably do so more effectively.
Odds are good that Jones would be among the eight defensemen taken to Beijing one way or the other, but the logistics of having him as an extra might not be all that great either. He's been tough on himself over how his season has gone so far, and it's unclear if he's been one of the United States' four best overall defensemen.
Still, we'll keep this stock pairing together for the time being. Jones and Werenski have been together on just about every projection that has been published up to this point, and we don't see a reason to mess with it now.
They know each other from their time as members of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and that familiarity will help them quickly settle into a groove on the larger ice surface. They both also kill penalties for middle-of-the-pack penalty kills, so they could find time there for Team USA as well.
A more defensive-minded skater could end up in the top four instead of Jones. Splitting McAvoy and Fox to spread the offensive firepower out a bit more is a possibility, too, so the United States has a lot of options when it comes to their defensive pairings.
Defensive Pairing 3: Jaccob Slavin and John Carlson
We still love our initial idea of taking both Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce and utilizing the Carolina Hurricanes' defensemen to form a shutdown third pairing. That duo could be leaned on during defensive-zone draws and late-game situations where Team USA is defending a slim lead.
The top four would also be capable of skating in those situations; it's just that all of the defensemen on the first two pairings are more offensively inclined. Taking Slavin and Pesce would give the United States a different look with the third unit.
John Carlson has played too well for us to justify leaving him on the outside of the top six, however. With this setup, only one of McAvoy or Fox would have to play on their weak side. And Fox skates on the right side during New York's power plays, so perhaps he'd be the most comfortable sliding over.
That solid mix of handedness makes this a pretty efficient group, with all six of our selected defenders playing tough five-on-five minutes for their clubs while also skating on the power play and penalty kill. Head coach Mike Sullivan could throw out different looks depending on who the United States is playing.
Spares: Pesce and Jacob Trouba
These spares mean that Team USA would be leaving Quinn Hughes at home. It isn't because the defenseman isn't effective. His skills simply overlap with everyone else that we have Team USA taking to Beijing. We might select him instead of Jones, but that isn't an option.
So we have Pesce, who takes on the toughest assignments for the Hurricanes on a nightly basis, going as an extra instead. Having the option to roll him out against high-octane teams would be invaluable. He plays a different game than everyone else we have slotted into the first three pairings here.
The same goes for Jacob Trouba.
His physicality has gotten him into some hot water already this season. And we don't like the hit he threw on Jujhar Khaira either. No one else in this defensive group can play the body like he can, however, and having him as an option down the stretch could be valuable if Team USA wants to change up its top six.
Forward Line 1: Kyle Connor, Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane
We shook up Team USA's forward group considerably since we last did this exercise a month ago. So much so that almost the entire bottom six has been shifted in some way. More on that in a bit. For now, we're going to sit here and daydream about how much speed Kyle Connor, Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane would generate together through the neutral zone on the larger sheet of ice.
This is the first line we pieced together in October, and there's no good reason to break them up. Some projections, such as this one from Nick Goss over at Yahoo Sports, have Johnny Gaudreau in this spot on the left side.
We're leaning on familiarity when possible with our team construction, however, so keeping Gaudreau with Calgary Flames linemate Matthew Tkachuk makes sense. And we aren't bumping Patrick Kane for the 23-year-old Tkachuk, so this is how our top unit looks.
It's not loaded like a Team Canada top line of, say, Jonathan Huberdeau, Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon would be. No line on Earth can be as loaded as one featuring McDavid. That's just the fact of the matter.
Still, there's enough skill here for Team USA's top group to be among the best trios in Beijing. All three forwards are capable of breaking shifts open with their combination of speed and stickhandling, and odds are good that at least one of them will be feeling it on any given night.
This trio represents three of the nation's top eight scorers so far this season, and we think Team USA could catch lightning in a bottle with this bunch at even strength. Never mind what Matthews is capable of while on the power play.
Forward Line 2: Johnny Gaudreau, Dylan Larkin, Matthew Tkachuk
Don't scorch us for not having Eichel on the "second line" here. We see Team USA being pretty even in terms of line usage, with so much skill in place. Coach Sullivan also tends to prefer rolling four lines pretty evenly with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and we imagine he'll handle the United States' roster similarly.
This unit could be a standout for all the reasons we listed a month ago. In Calgary, Gaudreau and Tkachuk are wings on one of the NHL's most effective lines, as reasoned here by analyst Dom Luszczyszyn at The Athletic.
While not quite as quick collectively as the top group, there's still a ton of speed in place here.
A top-six that looks like this would be difficult for even the most steady defensive groups to slow down, let alone stop. Tkachuk also adds a touch of sandpaper to a line that would otherwise be on the small side. He'd be able to fish pucks out on the forecheck, setting either "Johnny Hockey" or Larkin up for time on the cycle.
It's likely that this trio would prefer to work off the rush, however. The Detroit Red Wings captain has been skating with wings like Gaudreau and Tkachuk this season (Tyler Bertuzzi and Lucas Raymond), while the Flames duo is used to playing with a pivot like Larkin (Elias Lindholm).
We think they'd click immediately, which is important during short tournaments like the Olympics. Larkin can also play the point on the power play. Sullivan usually likes to use a forward on the left side of the defense while up a man, and Larkin skates in this role for the Red Wings.
Meanwhile, Connor skates on the right side on Winnipeg's power play, giving the coach another possible look.
Forward Line 3: Chris Kreider, Jack Eichel, Max Pacioretty
Eichel is expected to skate with Max Pacioretty on the Vegas Golden Knights' top unit once he's cleared to play. If the former Buffalo Sabres captain isn't able to play for the United States, then we think J.T. Miller would likely bump up a line and play in this slot.
We're assuming Eichel will be ready to go, though, if for no other reason than to see what Team USA looks like with him. We've had plenty of looks at the potential squad without him over the last several months, so it felt like a worthwhile wrinkle to throw into this exercise.
The hope would be that "Patches" and Eichel form chemistry pretty quickly in Vegas and that they'd be able to bring that familiarity with them to Beijing. That would give us a ready-made defensive pair and two sets of forward pairs who already know what it's like to play with one another.
We feel like there's a lot of significance to that for these Olympics.
And at this point Chris Kreider has to have played his way from the bubble to a lock for this roster, right? No American has more power-play goals than his 10, he isn't shy about throwing his body around and skates on the Rangers' second PK unit. Kreider could also give Sullivan a bit of a wild card if things came down to the shootout.
That's a ton of value from one forward, and at this juncture, we think the United States would be rather foolish to leave Kreider at home. We have him skating on the left side here, with Pacioretty sliding to the right. The latter skates on his offside for the Golden Knights power play (albeit on the blue line), so we're guessing there's some comfort there.
Forward Line 4: Alex DeBrincat, J.T. Miller and Ryan Hartman
J.T. Miller has been playing bottom-six minutes for the Vancouver Cancuks this season, and we think he'd be the perfect fourth-line center for Team USA. He plays with a ton of intensity—sometimes too much—and, as we wrote back in October, we think he could wear a letter for this team.
Especially since we now have veterans such as T.J. Oshie and Joe Pavelski on the outside of the top-12 forward group looking in.
For this line, we went digging for effective five-on-five forwards who would also be capable of skating on the penalty kill. Our first three lines are light on skaters who generally play a man down for their respective squads, so we felt that rounding out the special teams' units with a responsible fourth group was paramount.
This is why we have Alex DeBrincat here instead of America's leading scorer (in terms of points per game) this season, Jason Robertson. We were very tempted to place Robertson on the left side here with Pavelski on the right side, given how outstanding they've been for the Dallas Stars lately.
That would have left Team USA woefully short on penalty killers, however, and piecing a team like this together isn't as simple as hopping on NHL.com and sorting by points. There are roles to be played, and we think all three of these skaters slot in as outstanding fourth-line options in a best-on-best tourney.
Like Kreider, Ryan Hartman has to have played his way onto this team with the season he's having. Hartman can also play center, as he's been doing at a top-line level for the Minnesota Wild all season, which gives Sullivan some in-game flexibility.
Hartman wasn't on America's initial long list, so they'd have to petition for him to make the roster. If they don't use that mechanism, go ahead and slot Pavelski in, as he kills penalties and skates at both center and right wing too.
Spares: Pavelski and Brady Tkachuk
We're leaving high-impact forwards who don't play multiple positions or special teams off of this final roster. These are tough calls, but we think the more utility available to the United States here, the better.
That means no Jake Guentzel, Jason Robertson, Troy Terry, Jack Hughes or Brock Boeser.
If you can find room for any of those skaters inside of the top-six, by all means, have at it. If you think Robertson should go to Beijing instead of Kreider, that's fine. Remember, though, only one of those forwards kills penalties.
Pavelski gives Team USA another versatile skater who can play in all situations and two forward positions. Meanwhile, Tkachuk is another NHL captain who has size and brings something different to the table for the Americans.
Should Sullivan ever need to go a bit heavier, he could do so by including Tkachuk in the lineup. And if Hartman doesn't play in the Olympics and Pavelski gets onto the fourth line, we'd be fine taking any of the five aforementioned "snubs" as the last spare.
Statistics courtesy of NHL.com, Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise noted and are accurate through games played on Dec. 9.