While NHL scouts eagerly look forward to seeing U.S. teenage sensation Phil Kessel competing against the best players in his age group at the World Junior Championships next Christmas, they might actually get an opportunity to see him against even better competition a few weeks later.
Could 17-year-old Phil Kessel join the 2006 U.S. Olympic team in Torino? It depends on the NHL labor talks.
By Petr David Josek, AP
There's a possibility that Kessel, 17, might be invited to join the U.S. Olympic team.
The fate of Kessel and many other American players will be determined by what happens in the ongoing NHL labor stalemate. All of the Olympic hockey programs — but Canada's and the USA's in particular — are being held hostage by the strife between the owners and players.
The consensus is that if owners and players make peace this summer, NHL players will be allowed to play in Torino in 2006. The logic is simple: NHL players want to go, and this CBA negotiation is about player concessions. If players give owners a cap system, how could owners say no to the Olympics?
However, there is no guarantee there will be a deal. And if this messy negotiation continues into the fall, the hockey federations will have to make other plans to pick a team.
It's less of a problem for European teams because those leagues shut down during the Olympics to allow players to participate. Whether there are NHL players available or not, the Swedes, Russians, Czechs, Finns, etc., will have a large pool of skilled players to feed their team.
But the American Hockey League won't be shutting down, and Canada and the U.S. will have to do more scrambling.
That's why it would seem logical that a highly skilled player such as Kessel will be asked to play. Remember, this is a player who could go No. 1 in the 2006 NHL draft. He's certainly the most intriguing U.S. forward since Mike Modano, who was chosen No. 1 overall. Kessel has dazzling speed, and more importantly, he seems to know how to score goals. Finding the net seems instinctual for him. He roams the offensive zone like a predator stalking prey.
It wouldn't be unprecedented for a teenager to make the U.S. team. Mark Howe was 16 when he helped the USA win a silver medal in Sapporo in 1972. Pat LaFontaine was 18 and Ed Olczyk was 17 when they played for the U.S. team in 1984.
If NHL players aren't used in the Olympics, the Americans probably will look first to Europe, where defensemen Peter Ratchuk, Barry Richter and Brett Hauer are playing well. Mark Beaufait, Kelly Fairchild and Brett Harkins also have good careers going in Europe and would get a look.
Yan Stastny belongs to the Boston Bruins, but they haven't signed him yet. Based on how well he played at the World Championships, it's difficult to believe they won't sign him as soon as the NHL resumes play. But if he does return to Europe, the Americans would gladly add him to the team.
The team's goaltending might be its strongest position because Tim Thomas and Chris Rogles are coming off strong seasons in Europe. Thomas had 15 shutouts playing for Jokerit Helsinki in the Finnish League.
Some other minor league veterans with NHL experience, such as Blake Sloan and Kip Miller, would also get a look.
A few other younger Americans might also be in contention. Defenseman Jack Johnson, expected to be a top-five pick in the next NHL draft, might get consideration. The University of North Dakota's Drew Stafford, a previous pick of the Buffalo Sabres, is another college player who might get asked to play.
USA Hockey probably wouldn't be looking at too many college players because of the complications of temporarily pulling them out of school.
Before NHL players started going to the Olympics in 1998, USA Hockey would put together a national team and play a schedule before the Olympics. But the uncertainty of the labor situation makes it impossible to know exactly what to do.
If the NHL settles and doesn't allow its players to attend the Olympics or settles too late to allow for a league Olympic shutdown, the Americans and Canadians will be, in a sense, at the league's mercy.
In order to have a higher degree of competitiveness, the Americans and Canadians will need to use NHL teams' prospects. They will need the NHL teams to grant permission to use their players.
If the NHL starts up in the fall, it's impossible to know who would make an NHL roster and who wouldn't. It's a pretty good guess that Zach Parise (New Jersey) and Ryan Suter (Nashville) will play next season in the NHL.
But if Boston's Andy Hilbert or Mark Stuart, Phoenix's Jeff Taffe or Keith Ballard, Los Angeles' Tim Gleason or Noah Clarke, Ottawa's Patrick Eaves, Vancouver's Ryan Kesler or Montreal's Ron Hainsey didn't make the parent club, the American Olympic team would want them. There are many others who fit in that situation. Even if the majority of those players do make their parent teams, there would be enough prospects remaining to give the Americans a competitive team.
Presumably Boston will attempt to sign prize defenseman Mark Stuart, a junior at Colorado College. Could he be a possible Olympian?
The problem is that USA Hockey and Team Canada have no idea whether the NHL teams will allow prospects to go to the Olympics. Remember in 2002, the NHL issued a blanket policy of not allowing players to play in the preliminary round.
The league could make the argument that if it allows prospects to go to the Canadian and American teams, it must also allow players to go to the European teams. The league could claim it would then be too disruptive to their minor league teams.
The rebuttal would be that the league couldn't possibly be any more disrupted than it had been this season with the lockout.
If it comes to this, the NHL should go above and beyond to help out the federations. That's the least it could do, considering that the labor war has made it impossible for the federations to plan.
In fact, when this labor war is over, the NHL should be accommodating to everyone connected to the hockey world. That's the least it can do.