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Top U.S. Olympic coaching candidates

3/6/2012

The Olympic buildings in Sochi are taking shape. USA Hockey's Jim Johannson was in Sochi last month just as the roof was being put on the arena where men's hockey will be played during the 2014 Olympics.

Just by looking at the concrete base, he could tell the sight lines are going to be great for hockey. He estimated that it will hold around 12,000 seats, a hockey venue closer in size to the one in Salt Lake City than Vancouver. The views around it are spectacular.

"There's palm trees and you look out and see the mountains," Johannson said when we chatted on Monday afternoon. "The skating venues are all right next to each other. On a 45-minute walk a guy could walk through every venue -- speed skating, curling, hockey -- aesthetically they look like they're going to be very nice venues. Convenient, right next to the village."

The progress is a sign that the games will be here before we know it. So was Hockey Canada's announcement on Monday of its management team. No surprises there, as Steve Yzerman was tapped to lead Canada's defense of the gold medal.

USA Hockey plans on waiting until we know for sure whether or not NHL players will be participating in the Olympics before announcing its management team, but it would be a shocker if anybody but Brian Burke gets the job as the Team USA general manager.

"He's the front-runner," said Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon, a part of the Team USA advisory committee. "He's experienced, is good at what he does ... he's a strong leader."

The advisory committee is loaded with general managers capable of doing the job, including Ray Shero, David Poile, Dean Lombardi, Paul Holmgren, Stan Bowman and Tallon. But Burke's success in Vancouver, where he took a risk with a young American roster that fell just one goal short of a gold medal, should earn him another opportunity. So does his willingness to do anything for USA hockey -- from youth hockey initiatives to Olympic planning.

So it's no surprise that he'd accept the GM position if asked.

"I will always assist USA Hockey in whatever capacity they request," Burke wrote in an email Tuesday morning. "Head guy, assistant, bus driver. Whatever they ask or need."

Things aren't so clear at head coach. And that's where it gets interesting for the Americans.

It might be the deepest pool of coaching candidates in the history of the program.

"I don't know what the pool was like before. It's certainly a terrific pool now," Tallon said. "It's exciting. USA Hockey is really coming on. More and more players, coaches, everything."

Here's a look at the top three Team USA Olympic coaching candidates:

Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins -- His NHL résumé is impeccable. Since taking over as the Penguins' head coach, all he's done is win a Stanley Cup, along with keeping his team among the elite without captain and best player Sidney Crosby.

His international résumé, however, is a little thin. He hasn't had much of an opportunity to participate with USA Hockey as a coach, but that started to change this summer when he spent three days helping with the junior camp in Lake Placid, where he evaluated some of USA Hockey's best young players. "It was the first time for me to wear the USA Hockey on my jacket," Bylsma told NHL.com. "I took it home and I'll be wearing it proudly."

John Tortorella, New York Rangers -- He has a Stanley Cup ring as coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it's quite possible that he'll get another one before the Olympics with the Rangers. He also has a strong USA Hockey coaching background. He was an assistant coach under Ron Wilson at the 2010 Olympics, helping the Americans earn a silver medal. "It was a privilege to be involved with the tournament," Tortorella told MSG Network shortly after returning to New York. "It was pretty cool to be involved with."

Tortorella also has head coaching experience in the world championships and wouldn't have to look far for an assistant. Rangers coach Mike Sullivan is well versed on the ins and outs of USA Hockey. "Mike's very experienced," Johannson said. "Mike is the most knowledgable of that whole group of USA Hockey as a whole."

Ron Wilson -- Wilson is certainly the most intriguing candidate on the list, and he would make for a good story. Burke just fired Wilson as the coach in Toronto, but there's plenty of time to mend fences before the Olympics, and Wilson's international credentials can't be debated.

Wilson was fantastic as the Team USA head coach in Vancouver and also led Team USA to a gold medal in the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, one of the most memorable moments in the history of USA Hockey. Even without an NHL job, Wilson remains in the mix, Johannson said. "You'd have to say he is with his international track record and history," Johannson said.

The field: Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has a long history with USA Hockey, including his time as the head coach for Team USA at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. He twice coached the Americans in the world championships, winning a bronze in 2004. He was the captain of the 1994 Olympic team.

Colorado Avalanche coach Joe Sacco has raised his stature by helping Colorado overachieve with one of the lowest payrolls in the league. Sacco played on eight U.S. national teams during his playing days and helped coach in the world championships.

Maple Leafs assistant Scott Gordon was Team USA's head coach at both the 2010 and 2011 world championships, and also was an assistant on the 2010 Olympic staff. He was a member of the 1992 Olympic team.

Notes

• The Panthers continue to scrap their way to the top of the Southeast Division, and while it may be the ugliest of the six division battles, Tallon isn't complaining. "It's fun. This is what it's all about," he said during a Monday phone conversation. "We're ahead of schedule. Our guys are buying in. They're excited."

Regardless of how the division shakes out, the playoff race is invaluable experience for the young talent in the organization, although it's been veterans like Stephen Weiss and Brian Campbell doing the heavy lifting. "This is a good learning process for our whole organization," Tallon said.

• It'll be interesting to see if Marty Turco clears waivers after signing with the Boston Bruins in a deal worth $600,000, according to Pierre LeBrun. If he clears waivers, he can join the Bruins on Wednesday, but you can't help but wonder if an Eastern Conference rival will consider claiming Turco simply to block him from joining the Bruins.

One of the reasons the Detroit Red Wings didn't call up Ty Conklin after Jimmy Howard injured his groin was because he would have been placed on re-entry waivers and the team would have risked losing him. With the way he's playing in the AHL, Conklin would have been a better option for the Bruins than Turco. And he'd be cheaper, since the Red Wings would have had to split the tab.

• If you were looking for a minute-by-minute recap of Randy Carlyle's first practice with the Maple Leafs, Kevin McGran provided it. In all, it lasted nearly two hours.

Tonight, we find out if the two healthy practice sessions under Carlyle result in a better performance against the Bruins, who have beaten Toronto four times this season. "The practices have been long, but we've been doing a lot of watching too, getting to know the system," Carl Gunnarsson told the Toronto Sun. "We'll have some legs tomorrow and if we're tired, the crowd will help us."