By Sean Hartnett
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On Friday night, Team USA will name its final seven players for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. General manager Dean Lombardi wants a group of players who possess not only high-end skill, but also tenacity and physical strength.
The first 16 players to make up Team USA’s roster were announced on March 2.
Goaltenders: Ben Bishop, Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider.
Defensemen: Dustin Byfuglien, John Carlson, Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Suter.
Forwards: Justin Abdelkader, Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, T.J. Oshie, Max Pacioretty, Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski, Derek Stepan, Blake Wheeler.
“We’re excited about our team and this first group of players that we named tonight,” Lombardi said at the time. “It’s a challenge naming only 16 players, as an important part of our team is yet to be selected. We’re confident this is the start of a group that will compliment each other really well and assume team roles that will lead to team success. These 16 players all excel in their compete level, overall skill and selflessness, which will be key components of our team.”
This roster is not being built with the notion of selecting the most purely talented players and then figuring out how to slide them into roles. It isn’t about assembling an all-star team that looks intimidating on paper. Instead, the decision-making process has been focused on choosing players who fit specific roles. Lombardi, head coach John Tortorella, assistant general manager Paul Holmgren and senior advisor Brian Burke have been known to favor physical hockey and grinding attributes.
The final USA roster announcement will take place just after 6 p.m. on ESPN. Every player selected must 24 or older by Oct. 1.
Four forwards and three defensemen will fill out USA’s roster. Tyler Johnson, Phil Kessel and David Backes should be automatics given their playoff production. Both Johnson and Kessel raised their production to a point-per-game this playoffs and Backes provided offense (0.70 P/GP) along with his trademark defensive excellence in a shutdown role.
Islanders winger Kyle Okposo’s combination of sniping ability and size makes him an ideal choice to round out the roster. Team USA’s decision to include the Red Wings’ Justin Abdelkader among the initial 16 selections was curious. Devils winger Kyle Palmieri offers greater versatility and possesses better scoring instincts than Detroit’s agitating 29-year-old. It’s really hard to leave Palmieri off the roster, but Okposo should get the edge because of his ability to fill multiple roles as a go-to scorer and as a gritty bottom-six forward.
Some bubble forwards I’m leaving out: Palmieri, Paul Stastny, Cam Atkinson and Bobby Ryan.
Justin Faulk, Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk are the safest bets to be the final three defensemen chosen. Fowler and Faulk play very solid hockey at both ends of the ice and Shattenkirk is an outstanding transition player. When choosing between Shattenkirk and Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle, the New Rochelle native plays with a little more poise and uses his frame more effectively. They’re both quick and demonstrate excellent offensive instincts. Shattenkirk should get the nod because of his tendencies to play safer.
Some bubble defensemen I’m leaving out: Yandle, Erik Johnson, Paul Martin.
Projected final Team USA Roster: (italics indicates last seven spots)
Goalies: Schneider, Bishop, Quick.
The United States will play its first tournament game on Sept. 17 against Team Europe, followed by a highly-anticipated matchup with host nation Canada on Sept. 20. The Americans will face the Czech Republic in their final group stage game on Sept. 22.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey