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Buffalo connections to U.S. Olympic roster include Gionta, Borgen

While the best teenagers on the planet were playing for the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, USA Hockey was putting the final touches on its Olympic roster.

When the National Hockey League decided to not participate in the 2018 Olympics, USA Hockey knew that there would be 25 great stories when it unveiled its roster.

Two of those stories have Buffalo connections.

Former Buffalo Sabres captain Brian Gionta will captain Team USA while Sabres prospect Will Borgen will be on the Americans' blueline.

Gionta has a long resume with USA hockey, playing on the 2006 Olympic team while being part of two World Junior tournaments (1998, 1999) and three World Championships (2000, 2001, 2005). When the Sabres chose not to resign Gionta, and the NHL decided not to send its players to this Olympics, Team USA found its leader.

"I mean it fell into our lap so the timing was great," said Jim Johannson, the general manager of both the men's national team and the junior team for USA Hockey. He met with members of the media in KeyBank Center before Team USA played Russia in the World Juniors quarterfinal. "He's obviously a guy that's been a great leader every place he's been but he's also an all-in, appreciative guy especially of the type of roster that we have. He knows and has followed the careers of some of the guys that are going to be his teammate over there, so he's a knowledgeable guy. I think from the coaches' side of it, he's a perfect guy to not only be captain but also give the two-way messaging that's going to be needed in the short time in that tournament."

Borgen was part of the U.S. World Junior team that won bronze in 2016. A junior at St. Cloud State, he was drafted in the fourth round (92nd overall) by the Sabres in 2015. Johannson noted that Team USA assistant coach Chris Chelios is comfortable with Borgen.

"He knows him, knows what he could bring especially given the mix we have," Johannson said. "He's a guy that's going to help us on the penalty kill. He's got a little bit of size and sturdiness to him and he's just a safe, steady, responsible player."

With his performance at the World Juniors, Sabres prospect Casey Mittelstadt has impressed everyone who has watched him play in KeyBank Center this past week. Count Johannson among his admirers.

"To me the separator in all hockey is guys that have the ability to beat players one-on-one and Casey has that ability," Johannson said. "That, to me, is a big separator in hockey and you see the guys that are having great success in the NHL, that's the type of players that they are. So I think Casey is on a great path, No. 1. No. 2, he's a guy that's continuing to get a better all-around game."

But the next level doesn't include the Olympics. At least not for this year. Did his play at the World Juniors earn him a spot in the roster discussions?

"To a degree but I think, to be clear, this is the Under-20 championship. This is not the Olympics so it's a little different hockey," Johannson said. "And I think secondly, in fairness to everything that's going on, not only for Casey here with us but being in school and a student-athlete in all sincerity, just didn't think now was the right time. He's a wonderful hockey player and just felt like right now it wasn't the time to rush that."

Mittelstadt is in his freshman season for the University of Minnesota where he has five goals and 12 assists in 19 games.

The only roster spot still undecided is the U.S. goaltending.

Ryan Zapolski was named to the roster, but USA Hockey will name two more goalies to its Olympic team later this month. Zapolski, a former player at Merychurst, is currently playing for Jokerit of the Russian KHL league where he has a 1.63 goals against average and a .936 save percentage through 31 games.

"I'm comfortable saying this – there are five guys in the mix and all five guys know what our situation was," Johannson said of the goalies yet to be named.

Meanwhile, the 2018 Games marks the end of five straight Olympics in which NHL players have participated. That means, well, that means no one really knows what to expect.

"I think even hockey people are going to have a hard time handicapping the tournament especially until all the rosters are out and known," Johannson said. "From my perspective I think overall it will be a little bit lower scoring hockey. Part of that is the ice surface and part of that is going to be the way teams will play. I think secondly just like all the tournaments, special teams and great goaltending is going to be a difference maker for somebody at that tournament."

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