March 27, 2014

Original 6: Next wave of N.E.-born Olympians

By Jesse Connolly

In February, it was reported that the NHL would decide at some point in the next six months whether its players would participate in the 2018 Winter Games. That keeps the dream alive for a number of talented New Englanders who didn’t make the cut for Sochi and have yet to represent the United States in the Olympics. Here are six locals who could be in the mix when Team USA assembles its roster for the next go-round in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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1. Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils

There are undoubtedly benefits to sharing the crease with a future Hall of Famer, as Schneider did during the first half of the season with Devils legend Martin Brodeur, but the lack of significant playing time greatly hindered his chances of heading to Sochi. Since the calendar turned to 2014, however, the Marblehead, Mass., native has been New Jersey’s go-to goaltender — a move that has catapulted the Devils up the standings. Heading into the Olympic break, Schneider (11-11-9) ranked second in the NHL with a sparkling 1.85 goals-against average. If he can maintain that level of excellence in the post-Brodeur era, the former Boston College standout should be worthy of wearing the Stars and Stripes in 2018.


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2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

Atkinson’s name wasn’t in the conversation for Sochi, but if he continues to develop at the speed he has in his young NHL career, don’t be surprised if he’s worthy of strong consideration four years from now. After a dominant season- plus in the American Hockey League, the Greenwich, Conn., native nailed down a permanent role with the Blue Jackets during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. In 2013-14, Atkinson has thrived in a bigger role. Through 58 games, he ranked second on the team with 17 goals, putting the 24-year-old winger on pace for a 25-goal campaign. A national champion at BC in 2010, Atkinson appears poised to become a 30-goal scorer at this level. Undersized or not, that would be nearly impossible for Team USA’s brass to ignore.


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3. Keith Yandle, Phoenix Coyotes

While Senators winger Bobby Ryan was dubbed the biggest Sochi snub, one could argue Yandle’s omission was an even greater injustice. The Milton, Mass., native, who hasn’t missed a game since 2008-09, has averaged 49 points per every 82 games over the last five NHL seasons. He’s also shined in three trips to the postseason, where he’s racked up 19 points in 27 games. You’d be hard-pressed to name many defensemen as consistently productive offensively, regardless of which country they call home. Yandle will be 31 — hardly past his prime — in 2018. If the Coyotes blueliner — who entered the Olympic break tied for sixth among NHL defensemen with 38 points — is still going strong, he unquestionably should belong on the U.S. roster for Pyeongchang.


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4. Nick Bonino, Anaheim Ducks

During his rookie season in 2010-11, former BU star Nick Bonino went from a player who averaged over a point per game in college to one who couldn’t buy a goal or an assist in his first 26 NHL contests. He’s come a long way since then. The Unionville, Conn., native is now a key cog for a Ducks team that leads the NHL with 41 victories in 2013-14. The 25-year-old forward has 16-24-40 totals through 56 games. Those 40 points place him in a tie for fourth among all Americanborn centers. Multitalented, Bonino thrives on the power play, sees a good chunk of time on the PK and is second among Anaheim forwards in blocked shots. That versatility will certainly boost his chances in 2018.


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5. Chris Kreider, New York Rangers

Expectations were sky-high for Kreider heading into 2012-13. The Boxford, Mass., native went from an NCAA champ at BC to an NHL playoff stud for the Rangers, and was about to begin a rookie season that had tremendous Calder Trophy potential. Unfortunately, he spent most of the season in the AHL and, when up with the big club, saw extremely limited ice time. Kreider — still technically a rookie — has blossomed in 2013-14 under a new bench boss in Alain Vigneault. The Phillips Andover product led the Rangers with a plus-12 rating and was fifth on the team with 30 points at the break. If he continues on this path to reaching his potential, the Blueshirts’ winger could be donning a different red, white and blue jersey in four years.


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6. Jon Gillies, Providence College

He’s a heck of a longshot, but we’re taking the go-big-or-go-home approach and making a case for Gillies’ inclusion in 2018. The biggest variable in the equation is when the Friars’ phenom elects to join the pro ranks. When he does, the native of South Portland, Maine, likely won’t wait long to take over the crease for the floundering Flames. There will be some bumps along the way, but after a few years of development have passed and Calgary has assembled a respectable roster around him, Gillies — if his collegiate career is any indication — should be blossoming into one of the top U.S.-born netminders in the game. A U.S. tandem of Schneider and Jon Quick (Hamden, Conn.) with Gillies as their young apprentice has future NEHJ cover story written all over it.

Twitter: @JTCHockey