The United States can’t use NHL players on its 2018 Olympic team in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February. But the Americans will have NHL talent.
Coach Tony Granato is sure of that fact after putting Olympic candidates through practices this week in preparation for this weekend’s Deutschland Cup in Augsburg, Germany.
“There are definitely players here who could play in the NHL,” Granato told USA TODAY Sports via cell phone from Germany.
The American squad, which opens the Deutschland Cup against Slovakia at 10 a.m. ET on Friday, is captained by forward Brian Gionta, 38, who played last season for the Buffalo Sabres. Former NHL forward Ryan Malone, a six-time 20-goal scorer, is also on the roster.
The Deutschland Cup is a four-team tournament that also includes Slovakia, Russia and Germany.
Former NHL player Matt Gilroy, currently one of the Kontinental Hockey League’s top puck-moving defensemen, projects to be the USA’s best blueliner at the Olympics. Mark Stuart, who played for the Winnipeg Jets last season, is also in the mix.
“When you hear the NHL guys aren’t coming, you think, ‘Who the heck is going to play?'” Granato said. “But when you see the talent pool, you go, ‘Wow, there are still some exciting players with great international experience.'”
Former Yale standout Brian O’Neill, 29, is on the roster, and he currently has 22 points in 27 games for Jokerit in the KHL. Ex-NHLer Mark Arcobello, who has 20 points in 19 games in the Swiss League, also figures to be a factor.
“The spirit here is one of excitement and energy – they are all thrilled to be here,” said Granato, a former NHL player and coach who currently heads the men’s program at the University of Wisconsin.
The top goaltending candidate is Ryan Zapolski, a former Mercyhurst College athlete who is in his fifth season in Europe.
Not every player on the Deutschland Cup team will make the U.S. Olympic roster, and some players not on this roster will make the Olympic squad. A handful of college players are expected to be named.
But what we see at the Deutschland Cup is mostly what we will see in Pyeongchang. The Russians are seen as one of the favorites in these Olympics, one that will be played without NHL players for the first time since 1994.
“Obviously the evaluation is the most important part of this,” Granato said.