Todays SlapShot

13 September 2016: Team USA goalie Jonathan Quick (32) is congratulated by defenseman Erik Johnson (6) following the game against Team Finland in the World Cup of Hockey Pre-Tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. where the Team USA defeated the Team Finland, 3-2. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)
One Timers

Column: Team USA must fail to succeed

Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

The United States outshot Team Europe 35-17 on Saturday afternoon, but still fell 3-0 in a trying affair for the Americans. While Team USA carried play, Europe used snipers Marian Gaborik and Leon Draisaitl to get ahead… and never looked back.

The loss was especially concerning for John Tortorella’s team because he had stressed the need for a quick start in the short World Cup of Hockey tournament, yet America came out of the gate slow anyway. The question immediately became — what happened? While that is certainly an arguable topic, another question should be asked following the defeat.

Should USA fans be rooting against their own country? 

John Tortorella was named Head Coach for the United States on Sept. 21, 2015. On March 2, 2016, USA named the first sixteen players to their World Cup of Hockey roster. The listed included Justin Abdelkader, who finished with a mere 42 points in 2015-16, good for 0.5 points per game. For comparison’s sake, other players that finished with 0.5 points per game in 2015-16 include Joonas Donskoi, Brandon Pirri, and Alex Tanguay.

Abdelkader’s career high 44 points pointed in the direction of being a depth player at best for the United States, a sign that USA management wasn’t prioritizing the adding the best talent, but instead going for a more physical, grittier style.

The issues only continued when GM Dean Lombardi, Tortorella, and company announced the remainder of the USA roster on May 27, 2016. Erik Johnson and Jack Johnson each found their way onto the roster, as did David Backes and Brandon Dubinsky.

Left off the roster were Tyler Johnson, Phil Kessel, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Keith Yandle, despite being offensively gifted players that could potentially match the firepower teams like Canada bring into a tournament. When asked about the roster construction, Dean Lombardi explained his line of thinking:

“You’re not building an All-Star team, you’re building a team, and there’s a big difference,” Lombardi said.

This is where the problem began for the United States, and where the problem continues. USA’s management has a misguided belief that there must be “bottom six” players on the roster rather than rolling four lines of stars. This is how Justin Abdelkader made the roster over Kyle Okposo, and a direct contribution into the United States’ scoring woes.

The explanation continued with help from ESPN’s Scott Burnside:

The Los Angeles Kings GM has cast aside conventional wisdom by leaving a handful of elite, offensive players off the roster and instead has assembled a team that has a clearly defined identity and is already aware of the roles each player is going to be expected to fulfill — even before it takes its first steps on the ice at training camp in Columbus, Ohio, in early September.

Hard? Oh, you bet.

Gritty? Check.

Capable of the heaviest kinds of hockey? Got it.

“I think you’re on the right track,” Lombardi said in a recent phone conversation.

Lombardi essentially confirmed that he left superior players off of the roster to “build a team” while his rival GMs picked the best players available for their respective countries. The United States would thus become a grinding, hard-to-play-against team in a tournament based on skill and speed.

On defense, point-producers and puck-movers were left off the roster in favor of gritty defensemen, favorites of John Tortorella.

Once again, USA stepped on their own toes, hurting the ability to keep the puck moving from the defense forward.

Add John Tortorella’s touch, and the United States were destined for failure. Tortorella took the inferior roster handed to him (though he almost certainly contributed to the decision making) and plummeted their chances further. Benched was Dustin Byfuglien, in was possession void Jack Johnson.

Benched were the two goalies with superior numbers, in was Jonathan Quick, the misguided favorite. Max Pacioretty was called out for his effort, but Justin Abdelkader and Brandon Dubinsky skated along despite failing to contribute in the pre-tournament games.

While it was a surprise to some when the United States were shutout by Team Europe, others pointed to the lack of skill in their inability to put the puck past Jaroslav Halak. The United States strayed away from their physical style, instead skating in circles and having no idea what to do with the puck.

There was a startling lack of chemistry, a brutal lack of offensive skill, and a fair share of questionable decisions straight out of the gate.

To solve their scoring woes from the opener, it appears John Tortorella feels he has the perfect solution.

As an attempt to score more, the United States will move 44-point man Justin Abdelkader to the second line, and demote 64-point man Max Pacioretty to the fourth line.  

This is American hockey today.

Perhaps the United States will shock the world and defeat a very strong Canadian squad. They were advertised as “built to beat Canada”, but they’re going up against a team with four lines of superstars compared to USA’s ragtag group of “gritty” players.

The entire purpose of the change in direction for the United States was to avoid another 1-0 loss at the hands of Canada as they did in Sochi. Somehow, they determined the way to score more goals was to replace the goal-scoring threats, like Phil Kessel, on the roster. It feels far-fetched to assume this same team that lost 3-0 to a motley crew of Europeans can beat the stacked Canadian lineup.

Should Canada defeat the United States, USA will be eliminated or extremely close to elimination. Considering the United States entered the tournament with aspirations to win the whole thing, it would be a massive disappointment for American hockey. For the fans, it could be a positive, however.

If USA hockey is embarrassed in the World Cup of Hockey, it could lead to changes.

Out could be Dean Lombardi and John Tortorella. Perhaps the new management will be inspired by whoever wins the tournament, a team that’s guaranteed to be full of their nation’s best players.

Perhaps Phil Kessel will don the red, white, and blue again. Maybe Keith Yandle will dazzle Americans across the nation, and Tyler Johnson could sneak his way through opposing defenses. America will be a threat again, all because they were taught that their previous style was no way to attempt to dethrone the kings.

If the United States finds their way into the final four, it may be enough for the leaders to keep their jobs. The 2018 Olympics (should NHL players participate) may include the same style, with a similar brass leading the way. Very likely America will be mediocre once again, and very likely America will learn nothing from their ways once again.

As odd as it sounds, it is imperative for Team USA to fail in the World Cup of Hockey. One step back could lead to many steps forward, a necessity for American hockey.

Column: Team USA must fail to succeed



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