The American national hockey team may not have left the 2014 Winter Olympics with a medal, but they were still in great shape. They had taken Canada to the wire, just as they had in the 2010 games. Losing to their rivals from the north by one goal in back to back Olympics stung, but was nonetheless impressive. They would have been the top contenders to dethrone Canada in the next tournament. They could have easily stayed the course and iced another elite roster in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Instead, they panicked.
Team USA stopped trying to ice a roster as skilled or as fast as Team Canada, in favor of playing gritty, tough players. This led General Manager Dean Lombardi to inexplicably leave off several terrific hockey players – most notably Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson, and Justin Faulk. Thanks in large part to these awful decisions, America was one of the worst teams in the tournament. They finished the group stage with a record of 0-3, losing in embarrassing fashion to Europe, Canada, and the Czech Republic. Lombardi defended his choices in a press conference following Team USA’s elimination.
‘‘I think that our game allows emotion, competitiveness, caring about each other [to close the talent gap] more than any other sport,” said Lombardi. He went on to say that he wanted “22 guys who care” on the roster.
The implication here is that players like Kessel, Johnson, and Faulk don’t care enough about the game to perform at a high level. For Kessel, a Stanley Cup champion and perennial 30 goal scorer in the NHL, this type of unwarranted criticism is nothing new, as he’s been the target of mouthbreathing journalists for over half a decade now. For players like Johnson and Faulk, it’s a first – but still completely unjustified. Both players are among the best in the NHL at their positions. In their places, Lombardi selected far less productive players like Justin Abdelkader and Jack Johnson. This dynamic was a perfect example of the ongoing battle between the old school NHL types who prefer intangibles, and the newer thinkers who will still be employed in hockey ten years from now.
Lombardi also brought on John Tortorella as the team’s head coach – a man who the Vancouver Canucks fired after a single disastrous season. Tortorella was seen as a coach who would embrace old school tactics and operate well within the team’s new “gritty” style. In reality Tortorella is a man whose tactics have been outdated at the NHL level for years now. The New York Rangers knew that, and fired him as head coach a year after his team made the conference finals. Henrik Lundqvist’s elite play in net had masked Tortorella’s deficiencies for years, and when he no longer had elite goaltending when he left for Vancouver, he was exposed. After the Columbus Blue Jackets hired him prior to the start of last season, their performance unsurprisingly regressed. Given the American coaches who could have been given the job with Team USA, including Joel Quenville, Dan Bylsma and Jack Capuano, this mistake is inexcusable. Neither Lombardi nor Tortorella should be invited back to any future international tournament.
Luckily for American fans, the solution to their international woes is very simple: common sense. The United States is producing both NHL draft picks and elite prospects at an extremely high rate. An American has been drafted in the top five at the NHL Entry Draft for four out of the past five years, including Jack Eichel going second overall in 2015 and Arizona native Auston Matthews going first this past year. There have consistently been 50 or more American players selected in each draft for years now. This is not a country that is on the decline in the world of hockey. If the individuals in charge of assembling the next American national team can use their heads and assemble the best group of players they can, the future is bright for them.
If they don’t, they might just continue going winless in best-on-best tournaments. They might continue leaving stars like Kessel and Tyler Johnson at home in favor of intangible nonsense. There would be many fans across the globe who would be just fine with that, particularly in Canada and Russia. Still, as someone who wants to see Canada win every single tournament, trust me: hockey is more fun when America is good at it.
For more on USA Hockey’s poor showing at the World Cup of Hockey, check out episode one of Holyfield’s hockey podcast, Top Shelf.