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Several Devils could be named to the U.S. Olympic


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Dec 19, 2005

With less than 24 hours until the announcement of the rosters for the U.S. Olympic Men's Hockey team, it appears as if the New Jersey Devils could have as many as five players representing America in the 2006 games in Torino, Italy.

Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Paul Martin, Jay Pandolfo, and Brian Rafalski will all be anxiously watching on Monday when USA Hockey unveils the team over OLN as part of that network's coverage of the Dallas-Minnesota game.

Doc Emrick and John Davidson will host the announcement, and they will be joined by Don Waddell, the GM of Team USA and GM of Atlanta Thrashers, and Assistant GM Paul Holmgren, who is also the assistant GM of the Philadelphia Flyers.

"It is a dream come true for any kid," says Gionta."You watched the Olympics every four years and like you dreamed of going to the NHL, you dreamed about going to the Olympics trying to win a medal, I'd love to do it."

The 26-year old RW seems like the surest bet of all the Devils. Not only does he lead the team in scoring, but he is the leading American scorer in the NHL in games played through Friday.

Gionta has been a constant presence around the net all season long for New Jersey. He possesses the speed that is critical on the larger Olympic ice surface, the toughness that makes him unafraid to station himself in front of the net. If he doesn't make the team, there ought to be an investigation.

Still, Gionta is taking nothing for granted.

"I hope to make it but you've got to fill all the pieces, not just take the top scorers. You need all players, a bit of everything."

That's why Pandolfo may have a position.

The Devils may be struggling this season, but Pandolfo is quietly having an awesome year. He'll never be the scorer he was in college, but Pandolfo is a great defensive forward and a candidate for the Selke Trophy as top defensive forward in the NHL. When USA Coach Peter Laviolette needs someone to be a stopper, he would gladly call on Pandolfo.

Scott Gomez appears to be as much as a sure thing as Gionta, with whom he has played with at virtually every level coming up through the US national program. Gomez's competition at center includes all four holdovers from the 2002 silver medalists. Chris Drury, Mike Modano, Doug Weight and Jeremy Roenick are all still playing in the NHL and are among those under consideration to the 2006 team.

But the fact is that while Modano and Weight are still standouts, Roenick is not. Though he has softened his position that it would be a "travesty" if he didn't make the team, Roenick, who turns 36 next month, knows his best years are behind him.

Drury is a candidate for a return engagement, but Gomez has passed him by, and the Connecticut native may be displaced by Jason Blake, who has been terrific for the Islanders this year.

Gomez is guardedly optimistic that he will get the call. "I hope I've proven everything I need to. I've been on Stanley Cup winners and played in the World Cup. Hopefully I've played my way onto the team."

The call at defense is much more difficult to make.

Of the seven defensemen who represented the U.S. at Salt Lake City four years ago, Gary Sutter and Phil Housley have retired. Chris Chelios will be 44 by the time the games begin, and as in Roenick's case, Father Time has robbed him of some of his Hall of Fame talent. He, too, will not make the team.

That leaves Brian Leetch, Tom Poti , Aaron Miller and Rafalski as members of the team that lost to Canada, 5-2, in the gold medal game. Poti has not played well enough to be chosen this time around, while Miller merits a strong consideration again. After that, the situation becomes cloudy.

Leetch's situation is the most interesting. He is 37 years old and has lost his step. While Waddell has acknowledged that USA hockey is in a transition stage, there is no need to dismiss all of the older players. Leetch's vast international experience (he also played in the 1998 and 1988 Olympics) and talent means he should be playing in his fourth Olympics come February.

Rafalski, too, has international experience, but has not had a good season. That could hurt if Waddell is looking at who is playing well at the time of the team's announcement. But, as with Leetch, the bet here is that Rafalski will make the team, although it is not a sure thing.

Detroit back-liner Mathieu Schneider certainly will be chosen. He may be 36, but he has discovered the Fountain of Youth. He is having an outstanding season with the Red Wings, having 10 goals and 18 assists in games through Friday.

So if Miller, Leetch, Rafalski, and Schneider are in, that leaves three spots available if Waddell chooses to go with seven defensemen. It is in these spots that youth will be served.

John-Michael Liles, Paul Mara, Jordan Leopold, David Tanabe, Ryan Suter and Martin are all 26 or younger. Liles and Martin both played on the 2004 World Cup team for the United States. Martin was a last minute addition to the team, but by the end of the tournament was among the best defensemen on the club.

Liles, too, played well and has had a strong year. Both should make it, which leaves the final spot going to one of the others with Leopold holding a slight edge.

For Martin, who grew up in Minnesota and played for the University of Minnesota and knows all about the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, although he wasn't born yet when they won that gold medal, a chance to represent the U.S. is special. Like Gionta, he would achieve a lifetime goal.

"As a little kid watching the Olympics and cheering on your country, you dream about it. Anytime you can represent your country, it's an honor."

USA hockey's development program is reaping great benefits. The NHL has many promising young American players beyond the ones mentioned above.

While there will be many familiar names on the 2006 team, there are many new players waiting to take the world stage.

"There's a great group of guys coming up," says Martin. "There have been great players, like Chelios, Leetch and Modano. Now you've got to try to rise to the level they established over the years."

The five Devils in particular hope to take that next step come Monday.

Edited by msweet
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