by David Elfin

With 16 of the 23 players who reached the Olympic men’s hockey gold medal game in 2010 strong candidates to represent the United States again in 2014, there aren’t many roster spots to be had.

However, as general manager David Poile and others from USA Hockey asserted yesterday at Kettler IcePlex, Washington defenseman John Carlson has a legitimate chance to be wearing American red, white and blue, not just for the Capitals this winter, but for Team USA in Sochi, Russia come February.

“We think the world of John and his potential,” said Poile, the Caps’ GM from 1982-97 who now holds the same job with Nashville. “He’s a guy that we need to watch a lot in October, November and December. We want to see who he can be matched with, what areas he could play in. I think he has an excellent chance to make the team.”

USA coach Dan Bylsma sees the 23-year-old Carlson more often than Poile does since he coaches Pittsburgh, one of Washington’s Eastern Conference rivals.

“He’s an excellent skater,” Bylsma said of the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Carlson, who was born in Massachusetts and raised in New Jersey. “His coaches think really highly of him as a player, what he can do penalty kill-wise, power play-wise, his shot. He’s certainly in consideration to be a big part of this defense. You may have one or two guys you think are for sure [on the team]. Then there’s a real big group of players [who] based on what we’re looking for, any number of them could be in that top eight to represent our team.”

Minnesota’s Ryan Suter and Columbus’ Jack Johnson are the top defensemen back from 2010, but Brooks Orpik plays for Bylsma in Pittsburgh – as does Paul Martin — and Colorado’s Erik Johnson also has Olympic experience. New York’s Ryan McDonagh, a thorn in the Caps’ sides during the near-annual playoff matchups with the Rangers, seems like a near-automatic. Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien has won a Stanley Cup and like Carlson and Erik Johnson is a right-handed shot.

Anaheim’s Cam Fowler and Toronto’s Jake Gardner were Carlson’s teammates on the American team that won gold at the 2010 World Juniors, but it was Carlson who scored the game-winner in overtime.

“John was arguably our best player throughout the tournament,” said Rangers winger Derek Stepan, who skated with Carlson on the rush that won gold. “On the 2-on-1, in the back of my head, I was [saying], ‘Shoot it, shoot it.’ He pulled the trigger. It was a big-time goal.”

Carlson, who paired with Karl Alzner in Washington’s top shutdown tandem for two years before teaming with John Erskine last season, has just 23 goals in 234 NHL games, but as Stepan said, “He does have that offensive side to him.”

Rangers captain Ryan Callahan sees Carlson as more of a blue-line force.

“For such a big guy, the way he moves his feet, it’s tough to play against him,” Callahan said. “He’s strong. It’s good to have him on my side [for a change]. I think his skills definitely transfer to the bigger ice.”

As in an Olympic rink that’s 15 feet wider than the NHL version.

“Different plays happen on the bigger sheet,” Carlson said. “When you’re on the smaller sheet, you almost feel secure, whereas in the Olympics it’s bigger and [there’s] a lot more to worry about.”

But Carlson said that although he obviously wants to play for Team USA, he’s not going to lie awake at night until January wondering if he’s going to be one of the eight defensemen selected.

“I’ll try not to think about it, I’ll just try to help [the Caps] and hopefully that’s good enough,” Carlson said. “[Playing in the World Juniors] was a really good experience. Hopefully, I can get a chance to do it again. It would be awesome, a lifetime memory for sure. I’ve been playing hockey since I was 3. The team aspect is always there, but playing for your country … would be really special.”

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.


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