BEIJING — David Quinn has heard a thing or two about the US being the youngest team at the Olympics and does not believe it’s a bad thing.
“Obviously we are young, but it’s no reason we can’t have success,” the U.S. coach said.
The Americans go into their tournament opener Thursday against host China with an average age of 25. That’s younger than the defending champion Russians at 27 and rival Canada at 30.
They’ll also get another young star soon, with North Dakota defenseman Jake Sanderson expected to arrive in Beijing late Thursday night or early Friday morning after being stuck in Los Angeles in virus protocol. Quinn called it something of a best-case scenario that Sanderson is joining and could play this weekend when the U.S. faces Canada and Germany.
“I’m just so glad he’s coming,” said forward Matty Beniers, who at 19 is the youngest player on the U.S. roster. “He deserves to be here. Freak things are happening like this all the time now, and I’m just really happy that he was able to get through it, battle through it. He’s coming, and he’s going to be a big part of this team, so it’s going to be good to have him.”
Counting Sanderson, the U.S has eight players under 21, including Michigan teammates Beniers and Brendan Brisson and Boston University goaltender Drew Commesso. It’s no secret the U.S. is fast, and that speed was on display in a pre-Olympic scrimmage against Canada earlier in the week, and now it’s up to players to turn that into winning hockey.
“We’re going to be buzzing around, and we’re going to be able to play a full 60 minutes and not get tired,” Brisson said. “We use our legs a lot. I feel like when we have the puck, we’re going to be making good plays. And if we get the puck back right after we lose it, if we’re moving our feet, we’re going to have it the whole game and that’s really important to winning.”
The U.S. should be able to score goals in bunches with a talented team that includes 15 college players. The key to how far the Americans can go in the Olympics is how well they keep the puck out of their own net.
Some of that is on Commesso and 23-year-old goalie Strauss Mann, but youthful exuberance can often lead to mistakes and turnovers all over the ice, and Quinn hopes to keep those to a minimum.
“That’s what we’ve been focusing on the past couple of days here: playing without the puck so we can get it back and just making sure we’re moving our feet and reloading and doing everything to get it back and do what we can do,” Brisson said.
Quinn called it a “very coachable group” and has already noticed improvement in a handful of practices. He’s preaching good structure and the importance of defending, but the U.S. identity will be speed and skill.
“We want them to play,” Quinn said. “We don’t want them overthinking out there. We want them to understand when to make a play and when to live another day.”
Minnesota-Duluth forward Noah Cates thinks the U.S. can “play with pace and make it uncomfortable for teams.” Much like the idea that you can’t teach size, none of the other teams in the tournament are getting younger.
“Our energy, you can’t replicate it,” Cates said. “The things we can work on, we can work on. Some things that the other teams need to work on, they can’t, like speed or whatnot. We like where we’re at and where we can go.”