By Evan Presement
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go for the World Cup of Hockey organizers, who very obviously formatted the tournament in such a way that Canada and the USA would meet after the round robin. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, either, for Team USA, who were carefully constructed, piece by piece, to be the most versatile of teams – a Swiss arm-no, sorry, a Team Europe army knife, of sorts.
Unfortunately, anyone with a brain and some slight hockey knowledge knew that Dean Lombardi and Co. were doomed from the start. Well, everyone but for Dean Lombardi and Co.
The ‘type of the team that you think can beat Canada’
The very premise of this team is flawed.
Dean Lombardi has alluded multiple times to the fact that he built this team with the idea of replicating Team USA’s 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship squad.
Yes, the same team that boasted Chris Chelios, Phil Housley, Brett Hull, Pat LaFontaine, Brian Leetch, Mike Modano, and Keith Tkachuk – some of the greatest players, regardless of nationality, to play in the NHL.
Now, how many players named to the most recent version of Team USA could you put in that category? Patrick Kane? Maybe?
Of course, Lombardi wasn’t talking about the plethora of obviously elite talent, he was talking about the ‘grit’, the ‘determination’, and the ‘winning pedigree’ that the 1996 team had. That’s what he wanted to be able to replicate and that’s very obviously what he, along with the rest of his staff, attempted to do.
Now, that’s all fine and dandy – intangibles, whether the stats community wants to admit it or not, does have at least some value. However, to ignore the obviously insane amount of talent on that ’96 roster and chalk their victory up to ‘grit’ is, frankly, pretty fucking stupid.
Regardless, that’s the direction Team USA decided to go. Names like Kevin Shattenkirk, Keith Yandle, Justin Faulk, Phil Kessel, Bobby Ryan, Paul Stastny, and Kyle Okposo, to name a few, were left off the roster. Instead, Erik and Jack Johnson, Matt Niskanen, Justin Fucking Abdelkader, Ryan Kesler, David Backes, and Ryan Callahan (who was later injured) were named to the team because they’re ‘good in the room’, you know?
Also, it’s not like the game has changed at all since the mid-90’s, right?
Anyone who’s watched a single NHL game over the past couple years has more that likely noticed a sizeable shift from physicality to pure skill. Sure, the game has always been fast, but it’s gotten even faster, more high-paced in recent years, phasing out the slow, unskilled players who can’t actually play the game.
To take a successful model from 20 years ago and use it as your main template now is borderline irresponsible, but that’s exactly what Dean Lombardi did, and that’s exactly why he failed.
Sure, we can criticize all of Team USA’s roster moves all we want, but the most puzzling move of all is the naming of John Tortorella as head coach.
John Tortorella was an effective coach… in 2004. Over the last five or so years, he’s been proven to be one of the worst and least effective coaches in the NHL. His philosophy is archaic, and it’s clear that his style of coaching does not translate well to the modern NHL.
Sure, many will point to the fact that he was out of a job when he was hired, and that he was able to dedicate 100% of his time to the team. Still, though, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a terrible coach, players hate playing for him, and he hasn’t been effective for a long, long while.
Also, anyone who knows John Tortorella knows that he loves to be the centre of attention, often attracting negative press for the stupid things he says. Why should we have expected anything different this time around?
“If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game,”
Of course, this was Tortorella, just days before the tournament was set to begin, commenting on one of the hot-button topics in sports right now. He could have said nothing. He could have said, “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” But no, instead he goes full out idiot, and singles out the only black player on Team USA (Dustin Byfuglien) in the process.
As it would turn out, Byfuglien wouldn’t need to sit during the national anthem to get benched, as Tortorella planted Big Buff firmly in the press box for the team’s first game against Team Europe – a game where they lost 3-0, and could have really used a player like Byfuglien.
Also, there was the comment that Tortorella made in response to one of the greatest tweets of all time:
Just sitting around the house tonight w my dog. Felt like I should be doing something important, but couldn't put my finger on it.
— Phil Kessel (@PKessel81) September 21, 2016
Tortorella on Kessel: "I just wish he didn't say anything, because it makes him look bad"
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 22, 2016
Yes, Torts, leaving one of the best goal scorers in American hockey history, and the leading scorer for the States in Sochi off of the team in the name of grit and having him complain about it looks bad on him. Sure. Got it.
It’s hard to understand why Lombardi would pick Tortorella over coaches like Peter Laviolette, Dan Bylsma, or Jon Cooper. But then again, it’s hard to understand why Lombardi made 99% of the moves he did.
Hindsight’s 20/20′, ‘Who could have seen this coming?’
As fate would have it, Team USA didn’t win a single game at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, losing to Team Europe, Team Canada, and Team Czech Republic. Throughout those three games, Team USA scored a grand total of five goals, three of those coming in a 4-3 loss against the Czech Republic.
Now, many of you may be saying “well sure, they sucked, but who could have seen it coming?”
Well, I myself have written a few times about Team USA, once when their roster was announced, and the other during the pre-tournament games. In each of those posts, I talk about how they are one of the most poorly assembled teams in the tournament and argue that they’re actually one of the three worst teams attending. Little did I know that they were actually just the worst, not third.
I was far from the only one, though. I read a number of pieces similar to mine, calling out management for making the wrong decisions then, which turned out to be the wrong decisions now. This has nothing to do with hindsight, or just simply ‘not working’ – Team USA was doomed from the start.
They couldn’t have beaten Canada, anyways
This is something that many of those who defend what Lombardi tried to accomplish will say.
“Yeah, well, even if the did ice their most skilled lineup, they still wouldn’t have beaten Canada.”
Is that a true statement? Yes, absolutely – the States would have probably lost to Canada with their most skilled roster, no one’s arguing that. However, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to lower your odds of winning just because you think skill can’t get it done alone.
Also, there’s another part to this. Let’s imagine a scenario in which the USA couldn’t have beaten Canada, no matter what. Imagine there’s already a loss added on to their record. That leaves them two games against Team Europe and Team Czech Republic. If they win both of those games, they more than likely move on to the semi-finals.
Again, just imagine they brought their most skilled roster knowing they were going to lose against Canada. Would a roster that included Shattenkirk, Faulk, Yandle, Kessel and Okposo have helped to Europe and the Czech’s? Absolutely, and if you think otherwise you’re wrong.
Instead, Lombardi was so worried about Team Canada, that it seems as though he forgot he had to actually beat teams other than the Canadians in order to advance. Any way you look at that argument, it makes no sense at all.
The silver lining
Believe it or not, there is a bright side to the debacle that was Team USA at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Sometimes it’s necessary to hit rock bottom before you can get better, and that’s what many are hoping happens to this USA program.
It’s almost a lock that John Tortorella will not be the next head coach of a USA international hockey team at the men’s level, so there’s a plus. On the other side, though, Dean Lombardi doubled down on his roster decisions, so if he’s in charge for the next international event, look out. Ignore that for now, though.
USA hockey, outside of this tournament, is flourishing. They’re one of the heavy favourites at the upcoming World Juniors tournament and had a number of players selected with high picks in the last few drafts. Sure, some of them will turn out to be duds, but with players like Auston Matthews, Clayton Keller, Matthew Tkachuk, Kieffer Bellows, Charles McAvoy, Jack Eichel Noah Hanifin, and Kyle Connor on their way to the pro’s, the future looks bright for USA hockey.