By Ben Raby
With the Olympic torch lit, and the 2012 London Games well underway, CSNWashington.com is already looking ahead to the 2014 Sochi Games.
NHL player participation in the next Winter Olympics is still pending approval from the Board of Governors in the next CBA, but assuming that the best players in the world will be made available to the worlds biggest stage, the United States should be in the mix for another podium finish.
In the days ahead CSNWashington.com will examine USA Hockeys 2014 Mens Olympic roster position by position in a four part series.
In Part One on Thursday we handicapped USA Hockeys goaltending options for 2014. In Part Two today, we examine the blueliners who may represent the U.S. in Sochi.
RYAN SUTER (Minnesota Wild): Suter may have struck gold this summer when he signed a 13-year, 98 million deal with Minnesota, but the 27-year-old is still after that elusive gold medal at the Olympics.
Not since Suters father Bob manned the American blue line in the 1980 Lake Place Games has the U.S. won gold in mens hockey, but with Ryan Suter on board in Sochi, Russia, that could change in 2014.
Suter was justifiably among the most coveted free agents last month after spending seven years with the Nashville Predators. The Madison, WI, native finished third in the NHL last season averaging 26:30 TOI per game, and his 39 assists and 46 points were both second among American defensemen.
Ryan makes so many difficult plays look so easy, former Nashville defenseman Jack Hillen said July 3, after signing with the Washington Capitals. I think I learned a lot about body positioning and about what style I can play from watching Ryan Suter because he does everything well. Hes not an overly big guy at 6-foot-1, but hes always in the right position.
Suters being positionally sound should help on the larger international ice as should his previous experience representing the U.S.
Since 2002, Suter has worn the red white and blue at 11 international events, including four World Championships (2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009) and the 2010 Winter Games.
JACK JOHNSON (Columbus Blue Jackets): Okay, so Jack Johnson gets traded from the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings to the worst team in the NHL, the Columbus Blue Jackets. It could be worse though. After all, Johnson does get to play with Rick Nash, one of the games elite- oh, no wait never mind.
Yes, the way things are going in Columbus, Johnson would be best served to make the U.S. Olympic Team in 2014 if he wants any shot at playing meaningful hockey in the next two years. Barring injury though, that should not be a problem.
Johnson is fifth among American defensemen with 80 points in 164 games over the last two years and after playing in Drew Doughtys shadow in L.A. since 2009, the 25-year-old is expected to be the Blue Jackets undisputed defensive leader for years to come (Johnson is signed through 2017-18).
Johnson has represented USA Hockey at eight international events including the 2010 Vancouver Games. Months later he captained the U.S. at the 2010 World Championships in Slovakia.
KEITH YANDLE (Phoenix Coyotes): Thirteen American defensemen were considered for the 2010 U.S. Olympic team (based on evaluation camp, final roster and alternates), but Yandle was not among them.
That will likely change for 2014 as Yandle, 25, has emerged as one of the NHLs best two-way defensemen. Since the 2009-10 season, the Milton, MA, native leads all American defensemen with 143 points in 246 games and has a plus-33 rating over that span.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Yandle is also durable having played in 265 straight games since 2009, the second longest active streak among NHL defensemen and the eighth longest active streak overall.
He was also named to the NHL All-Star Game in 2011 and 2012 and helped lead the Coyotes to their first conference final in franchise history last spring.
Yandle represented USA Hockey at the 2010 World Championships in Cologne, Germany.
ERIK JOHNSON (Colorado Avalanche): In retrospect, its hard to believe the St. Louis Blues selected Johnson first overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, immediately ahead of Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel.
The Bloomington, MN, native missed the entire 2008-09 season with a torn ACL, and was eventually traded to the Colorado Avalanche in 2011. Johnson, 24, led Colorado defensemen with 26 points in 73 games last season and was rewarded with a four-year 15 million extension.
While it sounds like a nice new contract for the former No.1 pick, fellow defensemen picked in the top-three Drew Doughty (2nd overall, 2008) and Jack Johnson (3rd overall, 2005) received eight-year 56 million and seven-year 30.1 million deals respectively.
Johnson has represented USA Hockey at seven international events including the 2007 World Championships and the 2010 Vancouver Games.
RYAN MCDONAGH (New York Rangers): The Montreal Canadiens may spend the next 15 years kicking themselves for trading McDonagh to New York in 2009 as part of the deal that landed the Habs Scott Gomez (and his 7.5 million salary cap hit).
McDonagh was Montreals first round pick (12th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, but the 23-year-old has emerged as a key cog on the Rangers blue line and has the makings to be a star for years to come.
The St. Paul, MN, native and former Wisconsin Badger stepped in admirably for an injured Marc Staal last season in New York and teamed with Dan Girardi to form the top defensive pairing for the eventual Atlantic Division champions. Not bad for a kid in his first full NHL season.
McDonaghs success continued through the Stanley Cup Playoffs where hed skate a game-high 53:20 and block a game-high eight shots in New Yorks triple overtime win against the Capitals in Round 2.
McDonagh has represented USA Hockey at three international events including the 2011 World Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia.
IN THE MIX:
DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN (Winnipeg Jets): Byfugliens 106 points the last two years are second most among NHL defensemen behind only Erik Karlssons 123 points.
The Minneapolis, MN, native has one of the games hardest shots and has shown that he can move for a 6-foot-5, 265-pound bruising defenseman.
The 2011 NHL All-Star has never represented USA Hockey on a senior national team.
MATT CARLE (Tampa Bay Lightning): With Chris Prongers future in doubt and their bid to sign Shea Weber unsuccessful, the Philadelphia Flyers may learn the hard way just how valuable Carle had been to their blue line since 2009.
Carle emerged as a top defenseman in Philadelphia in recent years, leading the Flyers in ice-time last season, and finishing second among the teams blue liners with 38 points in 82 games. He cashed in this summer when he signed a six-year 33 million deal with Tampa Bay.
Carle last represented USA Hockey at the 2004 World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
JOHN CARLSON (Washington Capitals): Carlson emerged as a top defenseman in his first full NHL season in 2010-11 while teaming with Karl Alzner to form Washingtons No.1 pair, but rather than build on his rookie campaign, the 22-year-old instead saw his production, ice-time and responsibilities all drop last season.
A year after leading Washington defenseman with a plus-21 rating, Carlson finished was a team-worst minus-15 last season.
Whether Carlson will represent the U.S. in 2014 will have much to do with whether he can return to, or even improve on, the form he displayed as an NHL rookie.
Carlson has never played on any of USA Hockeys senior national teams, but he became a household name in international hockey circles thanks to his overtime game-winning goal in gold medal game at the 2010 World Junior Championships.
KEVIN SHATTENKIRK (St. Louis Blues): The offensive minded defenseman finished third among American blue liners with 43 points in 81 games last season and his plus-20 rating was second overall on the Blues.
The 23-year-old is still rounding out his overall game, but his partnership with teammate Alex Pietrangelo gives St. Louis one of the best young defensive tandems in the NHL.
Shattenkirk has represented USA Hockey at three international events including the 2011 World Championships in Slovakia.
Zach Bogosian (Winnipeg Jets), Alex Goligoski (Dallas Stars), Jordan Leopold (Buffalo Sabres), Paul Martin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Brooks Orpik (Pittsburgh Penguins), James Wisniewski (Columbus Blue Jackets)
SEE YOU IN 2018:
Justin Faulk (Carolina Hurricanes), Jake Gardiner (Toronto Maple Leafs), Seth Jones (USHL), Jared Tinordi (Montreal Canadiens)
Which defensemen do you think will represent the United States at the 2014 Sochi Games? Share your comments below. Check back on CSNWashington.com in the days to come for other positions.