If you watched Wednesday’s Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium – and judging by the record ratings, you probably did – you also likely saw USA Hockey unveil its men’s and women’s Olympic rosters for the upcoming winter games in Russia.
As we reported on City of Champions, Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik made the United States’ 25-man squad, joining head coach Dan Bylsma, assistant Tony Granato and general manager Ray Shero as Steel City representatives on the Red, White & Blue.
While some in the stateside hockey community have questioned the inclusion of Martin and/or Orpik, ESPN.com‘s Scott Burnside reported in a must-read piece that both Pens blueliners were virtual locks right from the start of USA Hockey’s player-selection process. Not even the pair’s respective injuries – Orpik recently returned from a concussion while Martin continues to rehab a broken tibia – could dissuade the Team USA evaluators from putting them on the initial roster with little drama.
It’ll certainly be fun for Penguins fans to watch Orpik and Martin try to bring gold medals back to Pittsburgh, but did USA Hockey err in going with a couple of thirtysomething defenders when younger, more dynamic rearguards like Jack Johnson and Keith Yandle were left off the Olympic team?
I wouldn’t go as far to say the inclusion of Orpik, 33, or Martin, 32, are mistakes for Team USA, but both will pack some risk in their overhead compartments for their flight to Sochi next month.
For Orpik, who is in line to compete in his second Olympic games, the potential downsides seem a bit greater than Martin’s. An average skater who likes physical contact, Orpik may be a bit out of his element on the international-sized ice surface, which is 15 feet wider than NHL rink dimensions.
Since Orpik doesn’t take a ton of chances up ice, he may be able to use the open space to his advantage, waiting for the opposition to come to him instead of vice versa. However, if he gets caught chasing a hit as he sometimes does, it’s a long way back to the net from the side boards.
On the other hand, Orpik can provide some maturity to an eight-man defense corps that features five players 25 or younger. (View the entire roster here.) Although he’s lost some raw ability during more than a decade of pro hockey, Orpik can make up for that in the calmness and poise that he’s accrued while playing in countless huge games in a Penguins sweater.
Martin has slightly less big-moment experience than Orpik, but Martin brings a more diverse skill set to the ice. When healthy, Martin can skate with the best of NHLers, and his decision-making with the puck is top-level. It’s tough to picture a defenseman more uniquely tailored for the 200-by-100-foot surface than him.
That’s all well and good, but if Martin can’t recover his health and conditioning in time for the Olympics, it won’t matter. Bylsma and company could be picturing an Orpik-Martin defense pairing in Sochi, but without his mobility at 100 percent, Martin could be a liability against some of the more skilled teams in the tournament.
As I mentioned yesterday, having multiple Penguins voices on the USA Hockey selection committee almost certainly helped Martin and Orpik rise above the contentiousness that surrounded much of the winnowing process. With Bylsma in control of Team USA’s style of play, he assuredly felt comfortable with two familiar faces on the back end.
There will be accusations of favoritism shown toward Orpik and Martin, especially if either (or both) struggle early on. Of course, if the United States fails to deliver on high expectations following its 2010 silver medal, general manager David Poile will get an earful regarding his decisions either way.
Bottom line: Orpik and Martin are safe picks for Team USA, despite the minor risks they’ll tote to Russia. Is the American talent base good enough to play it safe? We’ll find out.