Take a quick glance around the NHL and you’ll easily recognize that American hockey is stronger than ever before.
Patrick Kane won the Hart Trophy a few months ago. Jack Eichel, who just finished his rookie season, is destined to be a once-in-a-generation talent. The hottest defenseman on the trade rumor mill was skillful Blues blue liner Kevin Shattenkirk. Fifty-five Americans were drafted this summer, including a record 12 of them in the first round.
American hockey is healthy. It’s youthful. It’s strong.
And, yet, it’s no surprise the flagship was the first World Cup of Hockey team to get eliminated, falling to Canada in a listless 4-2 defeat on Tuesday.
The irony in that shouldn’t be lost on American hockey fans. Ever since their World Cup roster selections were announced, USA management has struggled to justify their decisions. The primary party line: they were built to beat Canada.
Canada. A team stocked with world-class skill forwards like Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, and Ryan Getzlaf and versatile defensemen like Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo. A team built with the most skill and pure talent in the world. So why did USA’s Canadabuster armor break down last night?
Oh, I don’t know. Here’s a fun quote from USA general manager Dean Lombardi back when everyone first started asking why he chose to leave his best available skill players home.
That is the philosophy that doomed the USA. It doomed them in Sochi in 2014, when they failed to medal at the Olympics with a mix of skill players like Phil Kessel and gritty forwards. Instead of looking up at the medal stand and understanding it was time for a change, USA management swung the other way.
They dug in. They left Kessel at home. They left dynamic Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk at home. They didn’t even give Shattenkirk an invite. They passed over Kyle Okposo, a guy who can “grit” and “skill,” and loaded up with pure bruisers and grinders like David Backes, Justin Abdelkader, and Ryan Callahan.
It’s the old-school philosophy that if you dump the puck in, bang bodies around, and crash the net then the goals will come. Qualities like “ability to make plays” or “proven scorer” were shelved for values like “grit” and “compete.”
Prioritizing those values reeks of a roster and philosophy you use when you know you’re the weakest team and you have to zig while the contenders zag. It’s actively claiming the scrappy underdog title when nobody else was throwing it at you anyway.
There’s zero reason the United States should ever think this way. Not when you can stock your forward corps with the likes of Kane, Kessel, Tyler Johnson, and Joe Pavelski. Not when Shattenkirk can transform your power play into a lethal weapon or Faulk is ready to improve your transition game.
Coach John Tortorella and Lombardi actively chose not to field the best possible American roster. That’s just a fact. Team USA’s management saw the debacle in Sochi and decided to head into the World Cup with both hands tied behind their backs, ready to headbutt the competition to death.
Of course Team USA flamed out while Kessel sat at home playing with his dog. He saw this coming, too. The only people in the world who didn’t see this coming were the men running the team.
The most maddening thing is that there’s so much hope for the future of Team USA. Eichel. Gaudreau. Kane. Auston Matthews. Zach Werenski. Faulk. Shattenkirk. Cory Schneider. John Gibson. Alex Nedeljkovic. All names that should lead the United States into a golden age of international performance like nothing this country has seen before.
Should. Will they? Not if Tortorella and Lombardi are still around. They doubled down on grit and compete after Sochi, so there’s no reason for anyone to believe they’ll give young guys chances over veterans going forward. As soon as Eichel and Gaudreau are eligible to join the United States in the next World Cup, expect Tortorella, Brian Burke, and Lombardi to bury them in the press box until they earn their places. You know, like Backes and Abdelkader just did.
That’s why the USA Hockey leadership purge needed to happen two years ago. It needed to happen this morning. Hire a coach that hasn’t been fired twice in the last five years. Hire a general manager that didn’t think giving a player like Dustin Brown almost $6 million over eight years was a good idea. Get rid of your advisor who thinks analytics aren’t a blueprint for a championship.
Get rid of them all. Look forward and embrace the talent in the pipeline. Refresh and update USA Hockey’s philosophy now, before this archaic hockey mentality robs American hockey of the greatest potential it’s ever held.