This time next year, we'll all be setting our alarms for the middle of the night, disrupting our sleep schedules in the name of patriotism as the 2014 Winter Olympics get underway. Now that it's been rumored that NHL players will be competing in Russia, one question burns as bright as any for USA Hockey: who's in net?
It's a good problem to have, for sure, with two of the world's best talents competing for the starting job, and a few dark horses that shouldn't be taken lightly as well. While it's important to remember there is a wealth of hockey still to be played, let's look at where the candidates might stand.
The Incumbent – Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres
Surely you remember the magical run to the gold-medal game three years ago in which Ryan Miller carried the Americans to overtime against a supremely talented Canadian side. Miller helped captivate the hearts of American sports fans in no way a hockey player had since (dare we say) Jim Craig, ultimately falling one goal short.
Since the Olympics ended, however, Miller's career path has been much like an old, wooden roller coaster: lots of painful ups and downs that will almost certainly leave you with a herniated disc.
After suffering a concussion at the hands/forearms of Milan Lucic last season, Miller managed to bounce back and lead a furious charge toward the playoffs at season's end that also fell just short. However, he shook off early season trade rumors to post a career-high six shutouts.
His start to the 2013 season hasn't been as bad as the stats may suggest, when you consider he's got the Buffalo Sabres playing in front of him. He won't easily be dethroned as the top US goaltender heading into the Olympics, but his margin for error has shrunk substantially.
The Challenger – Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
Jonathan Quick was the emergency goaltender on the 2010 squad, but a few pieces of hardware suggest he'll be anything but in Sochi. Quick led the Kings on an improbable Stanley Cup run after qualifying for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference in the last few days of the regular season in 2011-12.
His Kings knocked off the Canucks, Blues, Coyotes and Devils with relative ease en route to hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup last summer. Quick's strong season, coupled with Miller's struggles, had many calling for him to be the starter in 2014.
But when looking at Quick's body of work, one must remember that nothing he's faced thus far will come close to the onslaught of offensive talent that Russia or Canada will assemble. It's tough to hold that against him, but when considering him against Miller, experience must be taken into account.
The Dark Horse – Cory Schneider, Vancouver Canucks
If we told you a day after the 2010 gold-medal game that Canadian hero Roberto Luongo would hardly even be starting for his own team in a playoff series two years later, you'd have called us all kinds of stupid. But, here we are.
Schneider has already somewhat successfully pushed Luongo aside to take control as the starter in Vancouver, so what's stopping him from rising up the USA Hockey depth chart in the same fashion by this time next year?
Well, for one, he won't have the overbearing Canadian media on his side when it comes to comparing him to Miller and Quick. Schneider, like Miller, has gotten off to a rocky start in 2013 after dominating the Swiss league during the lockout. If the team were picked today, he would likely make the roster in an emergency role, much like Quick did in 2010.
The Irrelevant – Tim Thomas, New York Islanders (?)
Tim Thomas' decision to sit out the 2012-13 NHL season at age 38 was a curious one to say the least, but not one that USA Hockey looked at as a troubling situation.
Thomas, who saw some action as Miller's backup in 2010, blazed a new trail for American goalies in 2011, becoming the first US-born goaltender to win the Conn Smythe Award after leading the Bruins to the Stanley Cup. He also was awarded the Vezina Trophy as a result of his record-setting .938 save percentage.
It's been reported that Thomas would like to play next season, but with Tuukka Rask in firm control of the Bruins' goaltending situation, there doesn't seem to be a spot in Beantown for him. If he can find a place to play, he'll have his shot to prove his value exceeds his baggage. We're just not sure anyone will listen.