Ryan Kesler tries to score on Tim Thomas during the 2011 Stanley Cup final. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
It has almost become conventional wisdom that the greatest generation of American hockey players was the cohort that ran from Pat LaFontaine to Mike Modano, with Chris Chelios the constant throughout. But if you stack up the Yankees of the mid-1980s to late ’90s with today’s burgeoning crop, it’s not hard to prove the current defenders of the USA shield are on their way to usurping the crown. Actually, they’re already there.
My logic? Stack the two groups up against their Canadian counterparts. I don’t think I’m being nationalistic when I point out Canucks have dominated the NHL like no other, even if individuals from Europe have made their mark along the way. So use Canada as a control sample.
Would you rather have LaFontaine in his prime or Wayne Gretzky? Brett Hull or Mario Lemieux? Jeremy Roenick or Mark Messier?
Now step to defense. Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque and Al MacInnis vs. Chelios, Brian Leetch and Phil Housley. The three Canadians are all Hall of Famers and each cracked the top 15 in THN’s Top 100 Players by Position special issue. Chelios will join the Hall once he’s eligible and Leetch is there already, but neither outranked Coffey or Bourque on our list and Housley didn’t make it at all.
In goal, it’s no competition, regardless of the 1996 World Cup victory by Team USA. No one would take Mike Richter over Patrick Roy (particularly since the latter didn’t even play in the tournament) all-time and St. Patrick’s four Stanley Cups naturally trump Richter’s one – no matter how important that particular title was. Roy’s lifetime 2.54 goals-against average also bests Richter’s mark of 2.89 considerably.
Now I’m not trying to rag on these otherwise incredible players. You’d certainly take LaFontaine or Housley or Richter over 90 percent of the NHLers in the history of the game, but take a look at your choices right now and ask yourself if Team USA is better off.
Starting backwards from the goal crease, America rules, flat-out. Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller own the past three Vezina Trophies and if you need a straight-up comparison, ask Roberto Luongo who pumped who’s tires in the Stanley Cup final. Martin Brodeur is a legend and possibly the best of all-time, but how much magic does he have left as he approaches his 40th birthday? Thomas is a young 37 and Miller is in his prime. In the here and now, you want one of the Yanks.
On defense, the top three North American scorers from last season were American – Keith Yandle, Dustin Byfuglien and James Wisniewski. Sure, you take Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty ahead of that class, but statistically at least there’s intriguing fodder.
Up front there is still a gulf. Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos are ahead of Zach Parise and Patrick Kane and that’s not even considering Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry or Eric Staal. But here’s an interesting question: Would you rather have Ryan Kesler or Jonathan Toews? You probably take Toews (Cups are Cups), but Kesler does have the Selke Trophy and was runner-up the year before. At the least, it’s not an outrageous topic to bring up.
Naturally, there is still work to do if Americans are going to catch their northern brethren, but as the World Junior Championship has proven in the past couple years, the kids are neck and neck. It’s always hard to gauge a legacy when you’re right in the middle of it, but don’t sleep on this generation of U.S. stars.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.