Team USA creeping toward favorite status

Team USA's success at younger-level tournaments bodes well for Olympics to come. AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Jacob Trouba started listing all the guys he was excited to meet at U.S. orientation camp, players he admired like Ryan Suter and Patrick Kane.

"I grew up watching Jimmy Howard a lot," Trouba added, saying how cool it was to work with the Red Wings goalie.

And his first real exposure to USA Hockey -- the moment he realized it was something he wanted to be a part of? The 2010 world junior championship when John Carlson scored in overtime to beat Team Canada.

These are the points of reference for the youngest players in the U.S. camp. Not the Miracle on Ice. Nor the 1996 World Cup gold. Not even the silver medal in Vancouver.

If the last orientation camp highlighted the changing of the guard from the Chris Chelios, Mike Modano and Jeremy Roenick era to the Suter, Kane and Zach Parise group, this orientation camp highlights just how much USA Hockey is suddenly stockpiling young groups from wildly successful international teams, one on top of the other. It's changed the face of American hockey along with expectations, which are suddenly rising -- even as the average age of the roster is falling.

One NHL veteran joked that he was taken aback at just how many of the Team USA camp-goers mentioned their junior team as the team they competed on last year.

Howard laughed when he was told a player mentioned growing up watching him play. "It makes me feel old," he said. "It's humbling as well."

But even the old players aren't old. Not a single player invited to the orientation camp was alive when Team USA won Olympic gold in 1980, a fact pointed out by GM David Poile.

"I was at that game," Poile said, further highlighting the age difference between the man assembling the talented roster and the group that will try to win gold in Sochi.

This group Poile is putting together is very capable of achieving that goal. In fact, he was quite up front about how high expectations are for the Americans in 2014 after falling one goal short of gold in 2010. Unlike his Team USA predecessor Brian Burke, who tried to downplay expectations, Poile said Team USA is going to Sochi with the expectation of winning gold. And it's entirely possible.

But looking at the youth and roster at this orientation camp, the best American team might not be the one assembled in February, even if this one draws from the deepest and most talented group of players yet. The best one is still coming. Hockey participation in the United States continues to grow and considering the population advantage this county has, the numbers suggest there will be a tipping point when Team USA advances from a group that hopes to win gold to one that expects it, and finally to one that is the favorite.

Considering the achievements piled up by this young group, that may happen as soon as 2018. The veterans that were part of the first U.S. team to win a world junior championship in 2004, like Parise and Ryan Kesler, will have a pair of Olympic tournaments to draw from, with at least one medal. Players like Derek Stepan and Carlson from the 2010 gold-medal-winning world junior championship team may be gaining experience in Sochi, while it wouldn't surprise anybody if goalie John Gibson, who led the Americans to gold in the 2013 world junior championship, earns a spot on the 2014 team. He probably wouldn't be alone with Seth Jones, Trouba and Alex Galchenyuk already very much on the Team USA radar and taking part in this year's camp. And in the next four years, more players like Danny DeKeyser, whose decision-making and strong skating put him on the Olympic short list, will emerge out of nowhere, as DeKeyser appeared to do in the last year.

"A lot of these players have gotten together and played together a long time," said Dustin Brown, who would have played on the 2004 world junior gold-medal-winning team if he wasn't in the NHL. "That group of players -- Kesler, Zach [Parise], Sutes [Ryan Suter] ... that was the first group to win, and they beat Canada. That was the start of it for that generation."

Perhaps the most telling sign that this group intends to win big on the international stage is that you rarely hear about the 2004 gold medal from that group, because the expectation is that it's the start for them and not an achievement they want to be their crowning moment. The same goes for the other gold-medal winners.

"You win one every few years, you have groups of guys who have won the gold medal," Brown said. "It's not about hoping you're going to win. It's about expecting you're going to win."

But Team USA as an Olympic favorite? Even the most die-hard American would admit they're not there yet, and even 2018 may be optimistic. Team Canada is still going to cut a group of centers who probably would be on Team USA's top line. And the defense going to Sochi will be skilled, but outside of Suter there's not a true high-end No. 1 shutdown defenseman.

In four years that could change. Just look at how far a player like Jonathan Quick has advanced in that short time. A strong showing in Sochi along with the continued growth and development of star players and 2018 might be the best American team ever sent to the Olympics. Possibly even the favorite.

"I don't think you're off your rocker entirely with your theories," David Backes said when I pitched him the idea. "I'm not going to go on a limb and try to say we're taking over the world in 2018. I think that's a little arrogant. In the world we live in, things can change in a heartbeat."

Still, it's headed that way.

"You might be seeing a trend, where we're on an upward trend," Backes said. "We've started to win more and more medals on every stage and at every age level. You see in the NHL there are American captains winning the Stanley Cup, guys playing prominent roles on successful teams all over the place. Those type of things cultivate and perpetuate towards that sort of tipping point."

Another sign that tipping point is coming: When Burke passed the torch during the 2010 games from the veteran players to young guys like Parise, Suter and Kane, he identified Dustin Brown as one of the cornerstones he'd like USA Hockey to build around moving forward. Brown is the favorite to captain the 2014 team, but he looked at the young talent around him and knows nothing is automatic in the years to come. He's not taking making any team for granted.

"That's the thing. The generation I grew up watching -- the Tkachuks, Guerins, Roenicks -- their teams were picked before it even started. There were only 20 or 30 players," Brown said. "Now we have 60 players who could be on that team. That's where the game is going ... you look around even now and the depth pool has gotten better and bigger every year. That's the advantage teams like Canada have had for years and years."

For years and years, Canada has also been the international Olympic favorite. The clock may be ticking on that designation.

"It might depend on how we do in this one," said defenseman Jack Johnson. "A lot of us will be getting to the point in our career where we're in our so-called prime. Last [Olympics] was deemed a transition year. In 2018, the majority of that core group of guys will be in their prime. I think we're in a pretty good age right now."