NHL Notes: Team USA flawed from the beginning

NHL Notes: Team USA flawed from the beginning
February 24, 2014, 12:45 pm
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Sometimes it’s an unfortunate thing to be right about something you’d hoped to be wrong on.

But all of the fears, reservations and doubts about the team USA Hockey sent over to Sochi ended up as reality when it really mattered.

They weren’t big enough or dangerous enough along the front line, and probably could have used the 6-foot-1, 207-pound Bobby Ryan over somebody like Blake Wheeler: a player that could wheel around and make dazzling plays against the Slovenians in the third period of a blowout game, but was a ghost against Canada and Finland. Wheeler has good skating ability for a player his size, but he’s never actually played as big – or as strongly – as his measurements and test results would indicate.

The dominant line of Phil Kessel/Joe Pavelski/James van Riemsdyk disappeared in the medal round after owning the preliminaries, and couldn’t get it done against the best defensive units in the tournament. Dustin Brown was benched in the loss to Canada after serving as such an effective member of the “Meat Line” with Ryan Callahan and David Backes throughout the preliminary round games.

When it was all said and done, Jonathan Quick and Ryan Suter – and to a slightly lesser extent Ryan McDonagh – were probably the only players that lived up to advanced billing for Team USA. And even those stalwarts all collapsed badly against Finland in the Bronze Medal game right along with the rest of the team.

Clearly there’s a little something to the notion that Team USA “peaked” too early, and played their best hockey in the preliminary rounds while racking up a tournament-best 20 goals. That didn’t leave much against a stacked Canadian team that played their best hockey at exactly the right time, and allowed one goal in three medal round games against Latvia, the United States and Sweden.

It seemed almost exactly like the Pittsburgh Penguins’ arcs over the last few seasons: dominant, offensively impressive regular seasons followed by a fizzling no-show in the playoffs when it matters most. It might be that the Dan Bylsma Effect isn’t a very good one.

But the US hockey team only played one Olympic hockey team worth a damn before the medal round, and they should have lost that game in regulation vs. Russia were it not for A) Quick knocking the goal post off the pins before Fedor Tyutin’s third period goal and B) T.J. Oshie putting on a dazzling one-man show in the shootout. That probably should have been the first indication that Team USA wasn’t quite as good as they looked in beating down a collection of international tomato cans like Slovakia and Slovenia.

Team Russia played their best game of the tournament against the Americans, and clearly outplayed the US prior to the shootout. But in hindsight it now looks like US/Russia game was still an instant classic, but also a reveal between two flawed superpower rivals that simply weren’t good enough to medal.

In the end it all came down to the defensemen selections for Team USA hockey that bit them in the butt.

Clearly USA’s defense was good enough until the Finland game with Suter and McDonagh playing the big, heavy minutes, and the athletic, amazing Quick as a great equalizer for any mistakes made. But the defenseman corps for Canada was one of the best ever pieced together, and they aided greatly in the puck possession game and the transition out of the D-zone for a Mike Babcock-coached team that simply didn’t give up the puck.

If you took a quick glance at the Red and White Team Canada jerseys on the ice during the medal round, you might have even thought you were watching tapes of a Red Wings playoff game from four or five years ago. That’s how closely Team Canada was playing to the puck possession/solid defense formula that allowed Babcock and the Wings to win multiple Stanley Cups in Motown.

But we digress, so back to Team USA for the moment.

The USA Hockey brass (David Poile, Brian Burke, Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma) omitted the NHL’s best American-born offensive defenseman when they kept Keith Yandle at home, and the top American goal-scorer (13) and point-producer (43) among defenseman with Dustin Byfuglien was left behind as well. One can easily see the scenario where Bylsma and Shero stumped for the inclusion of their own Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen pair in Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik instead of better options, and then went with younger defenseman like Justin Faulk and Cam Fowler to fill out the roster.

Martin and Orpik had been contributing members of the Silver Medal team four years ago, but they seemed like much more of a force onto the roster this time around. The injury-prone Martin was just coming off yet another injury weeks before the Olympics, and the fear was he wouldn’t last for the entire tourney. Martin was solid throughout the preliminary rounds, but predictably the fragile Penguins defenseman succumbed to a hand injury when it mattered most in the medal round.

Brooks Orpik was the most self-interested, misplaced choice on the roster by the Bylsma/Shero duo, and there’s no reason why he should have been a lock on the Team USA roster ahead of better skaters, better shooters, and better players. Orpik is a physical performer that still throws out big hits, but he is miscast as a “shutdown defenseman” as billed headed into the tourney and looked like a piranha way out of water on the big ice surface.

When it came to nut-crunching time vs. Canada, the injured Martin had been replaced by young Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk.

Faulk was nailed to the bench in the third period when Team USA had power play chances in a one-goal game vs. Team Canada that could have been pushed to overtime, and a potential shootout. He wasn’t a player capable of helping once Martin went down, and that wasn’t much of a surprise once the poop started hitting the fan.

Could Team USA have used the ultra-skilled and experienced Yandle – a player with more than 200 points in the NHL over the last five years -- for those key power play chances when they couldn’t buy a goal against Team Canada?

Absolutely.

Even worse, Orpik “the shutdown defenseman” was the player that couldn’t make a play in the D-zone when the game-winning goal was scored by Canada. Jay Bouwmeester fed a pass down low to Jamie Benn, and the Dallas Stars captain redirected it past Quick for the game’s only goal. It was a nice play to be sure, but Orpik also failed to lift Benn’s stick on the play while watching it all go down right in front of his net. He was a day late and a dollar short on the coverage in front of the net, and that’s simply not good enough for a gold medal team.  

Team Canada attacked the “shutdown D” that shouldn’t have even been on Team USA, and won the game partially because of it.

Orpik and Martin weren’t the sole reason Team USA lost in the end, obviously.

The team didn’t score any goals, and they were dominated by a Team Canada that was clearly their superior. But it was also plainly obvious to many back on Jan. 1 that Team USA management didn’t take the best possible team to Sochi, Russia with them.

Until that changes it doesn’t appear that a gold medal is in their future.

One would imagine there will be changes given the way Team USA fell apart in the end, and lost a key game to Canada that could have easily been a 3-0 loss had Quick not stood on his head throughout.

Anybody watching with objectivity knows Team Canada was in a whole different class than Team USA during this Olympic tournament, and that should have never been the case.
 
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Sometimes I think we get a little bit confused. It’s not about who scores the goals or who blocks the shots or who plays. It’s about winning. It’s about Canada. It’s about hockey supremacy. We like to brag that it’s our game? If you think it’s your game, you better show it’s your game.” – Methinks Mike Babcock isn’t confused at all.
 
ONE TIMERS
* Watching John Tavares, Henrik Zetterberg, Aleksander Barkov, Paul Martin, Mats Zuccarello and Tomas Kopecky go down with injuries during the Olympics may be exactly the kind of final straw that the NHL needed to pull their players out of the Winter Games. It’s difficult enough that the NHL is the only of the big four sports that challenges the integrity of their regular season every four years with a 2 ½ week break for the Olympics, and doesn’t receive anything in compensation for their sacrifice.

But now a team like the New York Islanders watches the face of their franchise go down for the rest of the regular season, and they get exactly nothing for it aside from insurance money that pays his remaining 2014 salary/medical expenses.

* Both the NHL and the NHLPA would have to be on the same page returning for another tour with the Olympics, and the South Korean experience might be a tough sell given the 14-hour time difference and travel circumstances. But it also seems feasible to continue if both sides can come to an agreement on a World Cup tournament to pair with the Olympics. That would give the NHL a four year cycle of Olympics/All-Star game/World Cup/All-Star game in the middle of the year to break up the two halves of the season, or they could simply hold the World Cup in September.

Whatever it is, I’d expect the World Cup – organized, implemented and managed by the NHL – to be part of the agreement if the Olympics do continue to use NHL assets as part of their experience.
 
* The hockey world lost a friend last week when Boston College information director Dick Kelley passed away after a heroic three-year battle with ALS. Kelley was more involved with the BC basketball team during the winter season per his work responsibilities, but he was always a smiling, enthusiastic ambassador for everything going on at the Heights, and a frequent attendee at the Eagles hockey games as well.

Kelley did an interview with CBSSports.com shortly before his death where he answered a number of wide-ranging questions, including his hopes for the future for people in a plight similar to his.

"I do believe ALS will be defeated," wrote Dick Kelley. "There are a lot of smart and determined people working on it. Trials are ongoing and advances are being made -- very, very slowly. Funding (for drug development) is a stumbling block."

"But I do believe . . . SOMEDAY."

We can only hope, Dick. Rest in peace knowing you meaningfully touched the lives of just about everyone that stepped foot on the Boston College campus.