When Dan Bylsma was named head coach of Team USA for the upcoming Olympics in Sochi, Russia, speculation quickly arose on how many of his Penguins he and his staff were bringing to tryouts last August as the team began the quest for their first gold medal since the “Miracle on Ice” team in 1980.
In the two months that followed almost every U.S. born Penguin was, at one time, reported to be on their way to the orientation camp in Washington, D.C. Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin emerged as front runners after both made the 2010 team in Vancouver but injury saw Martin replaced with former Penguin Ryan Whitney. Others expected to being on the invite list were forward Beau Bennett and defensemen Matt Niskanen and the newly re-acquired Rob Scuderi. When camp opened in late August, only three Penguins found themselves with invitations: Orpik, Martin and Bennett.
Fast forward to the NHL Winter Classic festivities, at the conclusion of another exciting game between two Original Six teams, Team USA unveiled their highly anticipated roster selections. Orpik and Martin found they were the only Penguins heading to Russia in February. Some fans were mad with the decision with Senators forward Bobby Ryan and Wild forward Jason Pominville getting snubbed. Fan of the Pens were equally shocked that Bylsma would only be taking two members of the Black and Gold Boom Squad with him.
After the final announcements were made many local fans were upset with Bennett getting snubbed and Scuderi and Niskanen not even getting invites. But looking at the numbers it’s not surprising that all three were left of the roster. The first number to look at is that a 12 man committee makes the decisions on personnel not just Bylsma, although the fact that Orpik and Martin are usually paired together when they’re both healthy for the Pens.
Of the five Penguins players that were possible roster projections for Team USA, only Niskanen has played in all 42 games this season, the other four have seen significant injuries that have severely limited their playing time this season. Orpik has just recently returned to action after missing eight games with a concussion suffered when he was attacked by Shaun Thornton early last month. Martin missed all of December after suffering a broken tibia and Bennett ended his season and chances at Team USA when he had wrist surgery in late November. Scuderi had been out since late October after breaking his ankle against the Maple Leafs and has only recently been reinserted in the lineup.
That leaves the lone healthy Penguin that was an early front runner for America’s on ice version of the Dream Team. Since he was acquired the trade that sent Alex Goligoski to Dallas and brought both him and James Neal to the Steel City, Niskanen has seen both his stats and ice time increase.
For the past two seasons Niskanen has tallied only four goals per season, he has already matched that and is on pace for his best goal scoring season since his rookie campaign that saw him score seven. Niskanen is also on pace to set his highest season plus/minus rating since his +22 rookie season, he currently has a +19 rating. Aside from the stats, he has held together a Penguins defense that has been ravaged by injuries and filled with rookies for most of the season.
Rob Scuderi may have more experience (He’s the oldest Pens player at 35) and youngster Beau Bennett may be more of a scoring threat, but it’s 27 year old, Virginia, Minn. native Matt Niskanen that fans should be mad about being snubbed.