David Poile and his U.S. Olympic hockey management team have been making what he called "ghost rosters" since August. It's getting close to the time where the roster has to be real.
"We know we're going to have to make these decisions pretty soon," said Poile, the general manager of the American side. "We've also got a number of injuries right now that we have to deal with, and we have to make decisions on that."
Decisions are looming on three players who are out with injuries: Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, defenceman Brooks Orpik of the Pittsburgh Penguins and winger Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers.
Team Canada is dealing with a similar situation with injured Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos—who was considered a lock to make it to Sochi—and could name him to the team even if he hasn't returned after suffering a broken right tibia. Poile, by day the Nashville Predators' general manager, plans to use the same injury exception if he has to.
"If we think any of these players are going to be on the Olympic team or we want them on the Olympic team and they're going to be healthy by Feb. 11, then we'll have to name them on the team and then we'll have to deal with replacing them if their injury doesn't come around," Poile said on a conference call Thursday.
Unlike Canada, which will take advantage of the IIHF pushing the 25-man roster deadline back to Jan. 7, the U.S. will still name its team Jan. 1 at the Winter Classic. Six days may not make a lot of difference in this case.
In answering the question about injuries, Poile used Quick, who's recovering from a Grade 2 groin strain, as his example. He went on to say that he expects the Kings goaltender to be ready.
"The information that we have from Los Angeles, and specifically from (GM) Dean Lombardi, tells us that he's going to be back before the end of the year," Poile said. "If he's a guy that we want on the team, we will name him to the team. If, for some reason, between then and the start of the Olympics, he can't play because this injury didn't come around or what have you, we will be able to replace that player."
Quick, the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy-winner for the Stanley Cup-champion Kings, is a shoo-in as long as he's healthy.
He could even be the starter, though Poile had plenty of good things to say about 2010 silver-medal-winner Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres too. The U.S. has several goaltending options, including Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings, Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils and Ben Bishop of the Lightning.
On defence, the U.S. can't be so sure about Orpik, who suffered a concussion Saturday night when he was knocked to the ice and sucker-punched by Boston Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton.
"It's one of those things probably, with a concussion, that we're going to have to wait and see and kind of see how he reacts," U.S. associate general manager and Penguins GM Ray Shero said this week. "Right now (he's) really not doing too much, just resting."
Orpik was on the U.S. team at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and figured to be a part of the core of the group Poile expects to bring back for Sochi. If the concussion lingers and he cannot play, it would mean the loss of a veteran presence and key defensive stopper and penalty-killer.
The penalty kill would also suffer if Callahan cannot recover in time, and the Rangers captain is in the most danger of that among these three. Callahan suffered a sprained ligament in his left knee in Tuesday's loss to the Predators and is expected to be out four to six weeks.
That would mean a return sometime in January, after the roster deadline but before the Olympic break and before players fly to Russia. Poile listed Callahan among the U.S. team's leadership group and said "in all likelihood" all five—Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Dustin Brown and David Backes, additionally—would make it.
It's hard to replace what Callahan brings, but the U.S. is deep at right wing with Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, T.J. Oshie, Blake Wheeler and Bobby Ryan.
Poile said he and Brian Burke, who was GM of the 2010 team, agreed that it was harder this season to pick the team and that that's a good thing. It's even better because of what injuries could do.
"The most important thing, for U.S.A. Hockey specifically, is our talent pool is so much better, so much more in quantity (and) most importantly in quality," Poile said. "(Players from 2010 are) going to be the foundation of this team. There's going to be some new players, up-and-coming younger players, that are just too good to keep off the team."
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.