In a little more than two years, the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver will kick off one of the most highly anticipated hockey tournaments ever.
It might seem like a distant event, but the world's hockey powers are already planning how they will approach what will be, in all likelihood, the last time NHL players take part in the Olympics.
Because the Canadians will play in front of a rabidly enthusiastic home audience for the first time since NHL players were invited to the Olympic festival in 1998, the pressure meter will edge on insane for whoever leads, coaches and plays for Team Canada.
Whether it's Wayne Gretzky, or Detroit GM Ken Holland and his current coach Mike Babcock, or former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman or someone out of the blue like New Jersey coach Brent Sutter, the Canadians will be faced with the task of winning at home after failing miserably at the 2006 Games in Torino. The Canadians were dispatched in the quarterfinals by Russia.
South of the border, the Americans will be looking to erase the memory of their own miserable performance in Italy.
Caught in USA Hockey's generational twilight zone, GM Don Waddell had little to work with and the results were commensurate with that shallow talent pool. The Americans won one single game at the tournament over Kazakhstan.
It all makes the 2010 tournament so pivotal for the United States.
By the time the event rolls around, Team USA will start to see the fruits of its development labors at the NHL level. There is no doubt this team will be exceptionally young with players like Patrick Kane (the first overall pick in last summer's draft and leading candidate for NHL rookie of the year honors), Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel and others expected to compete for roster spots.
Picking the team will require iron as feelings will be hurt once the dust settles. So, who might lead the American contingent?
More than a year ago, USA Hockey established a four-GM management committee to oversee the coach and player selection for the World Championships. NHL GMs Brian Burke (Anaheim), Ray Shero (Pittsburgh), David Poile (Nashville) and Waddell were involved in last summer's tournament (Mike Sullivan, now an assistant in Tampa, was the head coach) and will be again this May when the worlds come to North America (Halifax/Quebec City).
USA Hockey executive director David Ogrean recently told ESPN.com that the GM for 2010 will be selected before the start of the 2008-09 NHL season. That decision will set the tone for the rest of the team and have a significant impact on the Americans' ability to ice a roster that can compete for a gold medal.
That person will almost certainly be Burke. At least, it should be.
With all due respect to other members of the committee and fellow American GMs Jay Feaster and Dean Lombardi, Burke has the personality best suited to put this team together and gives the United States its best shot at a medal.
In the past, there have been political overtones and undue homage paid to the past in who was selected to Team USA, especially in 2006. Derian Hatcher, Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Keith Tkachuk, Mike Modano and Chris Chelios were named to the team, while younger players like Dustin Brown, Matt Cullen and Paul Martin were either excluded or placed on the taxi squad.
Burke favors an up-tempo, physical style of play that has plenty of room for creativity, but puts a premium on toughness.
For Vancouver, mental toughness will also be a major consideration given the Americans will be facing a hostile crowd. (Ask Jack Johnson about his experiences as a junior during the World Junior Championship in Vancouver two years ago.)
To come up with the correct lineup, Burke will need every minute between the start of next season and late 2009, when the final rosters will be named.
One imagines he would call on a GM in the Eastern Conference to act as his assistant; Waddell or Shero could do the job, although Burke has a long relationship with Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren, who also has international experience.
If Burke gets the job, his first major challenge will be selecting the right coach. Burke intimately knows the strengths of San Jose coach Ron Wilson. Peter Laviolette was coach in 2006, but the team's sorry performance can't be laid at his feet. There is also fiery John Tortorella in Tampa Bay. Both Laviolette and Tortorella have Stanley Cups, and their personalities should mesh with the demands of building a team and implementing a system in short order.
Interesting decisions to be made, and they're coming sooner than you think.
The Nashville Predators continue to make themselves heard in the Western Conference playoff race, losing only three times in regulation over their past 16 games following Saturday's 3-2 overtime victory over Phoenix. The Preds woke up Monday in eighth place. Off the ice, the team locked up leading scorer J.P. Dumont to a four-year deal before signing physical forward Jordin Tootoo to a two-year contract extension. There's still a lot of heavy lifting for GM David Poile as Martin Erat, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter can all become restricted free agents this summer and would likely attract offer sheets if they aren't locked up. Still, the Tootoo and Dumont signings are a positive sign for a team that's been battling uncertainty regarding its future.
The Ottawa Senators, a team that looked to be sure-fire Eastern Conference champs no matter what happened to them, are suddenly seeing the Montreal Canadiens looming in the rearview mirrors. The Sens are without captain Daniel Alfredsson (hip) and Dany Heatley (shoulder) and looked disorganized in losing two in a row this week to Boston and lowly Toronto. They're 3-7-0 in their past 10 and were just three points ahead of the Habs.
Coach John Paddock used the terms "stupid" and "stupidity" in describing the team's play, specifically the play of top center Jason Spezza. Perhaps more troubling is the continued aberrant behavior of Ray Emery. The goalie had a war of words with teammate Chris Neil at practice Sunday, his second such dust-up with a teammate in recent weeks. Emery's pattern doesn't bode well for a team that fancies itself a Stanley Cup contender.
Stuck in neutral
Teemu to the rescue? The Anaheim Ducks sure hope so. After going on a tear following the return of Scott Niedermayer, the defending Stanley Cup champs have gone flat, losing six straight games following their 3-0 whitewash vs. Philadelphia on Saturday. It marked the second straight shutout loss for the Ducks, who have scored just five times during their six-game slide. Selanne is expected back this week. While the Ducks, like everyone in the West, have no hope of catching Detroit, they would like to reel in Dallas, the surprise Pacific Division leaders who are six points ahead of Anaheim.
Our top story lines of the week
1. It's easier to count the teams that don't appear to be interested in the services of Peter Forsberg than those that are. And that makes sense. With the Feb. 26 trade deadline a little more than three weeks away and GMs contemplating how much to give up to bolster their lineups, Forsberg would be manna from heaven. All a GM needs is enough cash and cap space to bring in one of the finest players of his generation -- at his prime, of course. The commonly held theory is Forsberg will want a deal that includes at least one more year after this season. But if Priority 1 is winning a Cup and Priority 2 is job security, maybe he'll be interested in making a short-term decision with one team and make another in the offseason. Apart from the Detroit Red Wings, there isn't a clear-cut Cup contender in either conference. If Forsberg went to Ottawa, perhaps the Sens would be that team in the East (see above), which explains their continued interest in the Swedish center. But it might make more sense for Forsberg to sign with Detroit, a team that isn't likely interested in Forsberg long-term, given their salary commitment elsewhere.
2. The Vancouver Canucks, not so long ago perched at the top of the Northwest Division, have won just once in their past eight games and have tumbled straight out of the West playoff picture. Strangely, one of the problems plaguing the defending division champs is not their offense, but keeping pucks out of their own net. Curtis Sanford was yanked against Dallas in the Canucks' first game back after the All-Star break. (Just wondering, but why did Roberto Luongo get a pass on the team's first game back when he blew off the All-Star contest and should have been well-rested to help his team?)
That game was followed by losses to Eastern Conference bottom-feeders Tampa and Florida. In five of his last eight games, Luongo has failed to deliver save percentages of .900 or better. For an offensively-challenged team whose margin for error is always razor thin, Luongo is going to have to get back on track.
3. It's early to start talking coach of the year honors, but if the Colorado Avalanche manage to sneak into the playoffs, you'll have to put Joel Quenneville on a very short list of candidates. Without top scorers Ryan Smyth and Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny, the team's best player, the Avs are 6-3-1 over their 10 games and tied for sixth in the conference heading into Monday's action. Quenneville has managed to keep the team in the hunt with Jose Theodore slowly returning to some of the form that made him an MVP back in the day with Montreal. The team has also received surprising contributions from role players like Ben Guite, T.J. Hensick and Jeff Finger.
4. The good news for the New York Rangers is they seem to be slowly building back into the form that folks were expecting at the start of the season, picking up points in seven of their last nine games (6-1-2). Chris Drury is starting to come around and coach Tom Renney is getting meaningful contributions from his lineup as the Rangers moved into seventh place with a 5-3 win over Montreal on Sunday. But (you could feel that coming, couldn't you?) if there is one perplexing element of the Rangers attack, it's captain Jaromir Jagr, who has just three goals over that span. Jagr will become an unrestricted free agent if he does not reach the 84-point mark (he has 47 through 55 games) and the Rangers don't win a playoff round. It would be startling if the Rangers dealt Jagr before the deadline, but his future in New York is by no means secure.
5. We happened to be in Washington on Thursday when Alexander Ovechkin scored four goals and added an assist in the Caps' 5-4 overtime win against Montreal. Ovechkin's first marker was an unbelievable one-timer off a long, hard pass from Milan Jurcina that Ovechkin turned into a laser over Cristobal Huet even though the pass was not in his wheelhouse. On his second goal, Ovechkin took a long pass from Viktor Kozlov and managed to snap the puck over Huet even though he was being checked. The third was a thing of beauty as a hard-charging Ovechkin didn't hesitate as he rifled a wrist shot through defenseman Mark Streit and over Huet's shoulder before the goaltender knew what happened. Ovechkin scored the overtime winner, threw about eight hits, took a high stick to the face from Alexei Kovalev and had his nose broken. Can anyone say Hart Trophy?
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.