NHL Notes: Team USA won't medal thanks to poor selections

NHL Notes: Team USA won't medal thanks to poor selections
January 6, 2014, 8:30 am
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In the end, the USA Hockey brain trust of David Poile, Brian Burke, Ray Shero, Dan Bylsma and the rest of the decision-makers have put themselves in the cross-hairs. Clearly they’ve put their imprint on the 2014 US Olympic team by emphasizing speed, smarts and chemistry between players.

But in making their selections for Team USA, they also neglected the one thing a deep American talent pool could sorely use on an Olympic sized ice sheet with a crew of international refs making the calls: offense, offense and more offense.

Forget about the blustery Burke quotes about Bobby Ryan’s intensity that stem back to their days as GM and player with the Anaheim Ducks.

Skip the arguments over whether ESPN.com’s Scott Burnsides or the USA Today’s Kevin Allen should have pulled some of their journalistic punches (they shouldn’t have, and thankfully they didn’t) given the unprecedented access they enjoyed with the Olympic team selection process.

Team USA's collection of great hockey minds had the job of selecting the team with the best chance to win the Gold Medal in men’s ice hockey for the United States in Sochi, and they failed at the task.

“We did not pick the 25 best players,” said David Poile, in a statement that will no doubt be used against him when his roster fails to medal in Russia against stacked teams from Russia, Sweden and Canada among others. “We picked the 25 players we thought gave us a chance to win the gold medal.”

In omitting a perennial 30-goal scorer in Ryan and the best US-born offensive defenseman in Keith Yandle, the Team USA management group has made the decision to try and grind their way to a medal in a world class hockey tournament.

It’s not surprising that it all ended this way given the Nashville Predators teams that Poile has built in Tennessee with a budget in mind. Team USA is long on effort, smarts, goaltending and good, old-fashioned defense, but extremely short on explosive goal-scoring ability.

Its forwards all blend together into a very anonymous mixture of solid players that all look the same out on the ice. In choosing guys like Derek Stepan, Max Pacioretty, Blake Wheeler and James van Riemsdyk, they’ve taken a lot of forwards that do the same things well. In the cases of guys like Wheeler and van Riemsdyk, there isn’t a lot of lion-hearted courage that goes along with their ideal size and skating ability.

Some of those players can do different things well, and Wheeler undoubtedly made it on the strength of versatility that could allow him to play a bottom-six role whole doing things like killing penalties.

But Ryan has scored 30 plus goals in each of his four full NHL seasons, and is on pace to do it again this season for the Ottawa Senators. There’s already enough intensity and grit on the USA roster.

The powers that be should have put more of an emphasis on mind-blowing skill and elite offensive ability, but there’s just not enough scoring.

Ryan seems to be able to do it in his sleep, even if he isn’t the sleekest skater in the world or willing to drive an opponent through the glass above the boards. The omission of a player like him puts all the pressure on Phil Kessel, Pat Kane and a hobbled Zach Parise to carry the USA offense as fast, undersized scoring talent.

Some have cried long and hard about the omission of Isles power forward Kyle, Okposo, but he’s a guy that’s never even scored 20 goals in the NHL before. So Ryan is a mountain of a snub compared to the Okposo molehill.

But Ryan isn’t even the most egregious absence on the Team USA roster.

Skipping on the services of Keith Yandle and Dustin Byfuglien leaves the Red, White and Blue Boys without two of the top four US-born NHL scorers at the defensemen position.  

One can understand Byfuglien getting passed over given his freelancing nature, but the Yandle snub defies logic, good judgment and proper team-building.

He is arguably the fastest and most explosive skater among the US-born defensemen, and is a natural fit for the big ice sheet in Russia against similarly explosive opponents. Yandle is a power play quarterback, a valued and respected leader in the dressing room and the kind of player that continued to attack his defensive shortcomings in a desire to be worthy of Olympic selection. He has more points (201) than any other US-born NHL defenseman since the start of the 2009-10 season, and has been doing it much longer than some of the flavor-of-the-month candidates for Team USA.

Credit Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi as one of the few voices among the US Olympic team-builders that lobbied hard for Yandle, and seemed to understand just how much his electric offensive game was made for the Olympic tournament.

It’s hard to argue with Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan Suter as the top three selections among US defensemen, and Cam Fowler’s excellent season in Anaheim helped make the decision easy for Team USA.

But pushing John Carlson and Justin Faulk ahead of Yandle is nonsensical, and allowing Bylsma to lobby for his “shutdown” duo of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik -- two players Bylsma coaches in Pittsburgh during the NHL season -- is the kind of thing that can cost Team USA a medal next month.

Martin and Orpik form what is not exactly the kind of shutdown pair that discourages offensive skill guys. This is the same duo that’s a combined minus-11 during their careers in the Stanley Cup playoffs -- the tournament that most closely resemble the intensity of Olympic play. This is the same shutdown duo that managed two assists and a minus-6 in the Stanley Cup conference finals against the Bruins last spring.

If they were routinely torched by a forward line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton, then Sidney Crosby, Steve Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and the Sedin Twins have to be licking their chops at the offensive chances they’ll be getting.

The mere thought of Orpik on the Olympic sheet trying to keep up with faster, better opponents is a scary one for any Team USA fan.  

One also has to wonder just how ardently those Penguins defensemen are going to punish Sid the Kid physically when he is the key to their Stanley Cup hopes once the three-week Olympic tourney has given way to the NHL grind.

It’s almost fitting, though, that Poile, Shero, Burke and Bylsma are tied so tightly to this particular edition of Team USA. After all the hype and chatter over the last week, now everybody knows who to blame when Team USA struggles to score goals, and flops against the best hockey teams in the world on the biggest possible stage.

“Very few people in the world can do what [Yandle] can do, and that's why I'm a little surprised because he can do things very few people in this world can do with the puck offensively when you need something to happen,” said Phoenix GM Don Maloney. “But, hey, time will tell if they made the right choice.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.
 
JOHNSON ALSO NOT PSYCHED ABOUT TEAM USA
While he didn’t describe decision-makers as “gutless” like an understandably emotional Bobby Ryan did in discussing his Olympic snub, Erik Johnson was bummed about getting skipped for the honor. He had no reason to react similarly given that he wasn’t slighted in any of the stories chronicling the team's selection process. He was simply left off the roster.

Johnson is having a good season with the Colorado Avalanche under Patrick Roy, and is in pace for 14 goals and 40 points in 22: 41 of ice time per night.

But he believes he’s been even better than that.

“I didn't expect to make it at the beginning of the year," Johnson said. "But how well I've played these last three months, I was back in the mix. So that's probably the hardest part, knowing that I couldn't have done any more as far as my play to make it. You know, I played fantastic these first three months, so it's disappointing, but my focus is on this team now. I'll use that two-week break to recharge and get ready for the playoffs.”

While Johnson might be playing fantastically for the Avs, the truth is that his skating ability probably isn’t up to par on the big ice surface against an endless wave of quick-moving opponents.
 
WHEELER DISAPPEARS AFTER MAKING THE OLYMPIC TEAM
If anybody wants to know why I have an issue with Wheeler making Team USA, just look what he’s done in a couple of huge games for the Jets since learning that he made the US Olympic cut. He was a minus-4 with only one shot on net in two losses to the Senators and Bruins following the Jan. 1 announcement he’d made Team USA, and he completely disappeared in the game versus Boston after getting clobbered on the first shift of the game by Zdeno Chara.

At least give Wheeler credit that he talked about being a “non-factor” after the game.

While Team USA officials may have been swayed by his hot streak in December that bumped him up on the dry erase board rankings, he’s made an entire NHL career of playing smaller than his 6-foot-5, 205-pound frame would indicate. Anybody looking for size, strength and some kind of energy from Wheeler against the biggest, strongest, fastest competition in the world will be sorely disappointed next month.

During his Bruins days, he was notorious for tip-toeing through the danger areas on the ice, and Wheeler was never a guy that would absorb a hit in order to make a play. Instead he had a habit of falling down when he felt the pressure of a big hit coming down on him, and it stood out on that Bruins team.

In the mind of this hockey writer, Wheeler never should have made that team.
 
DOAN MAKES HIS RETURN
Good to see Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan return to the Desert Dogs lineup after missing a month with Rocky Mountain Fever. The 37-year-old played 18:38 of ice time in Phoenix’s 5-3 loss to the Flyers on Saturday, and didn’t really factor much into the game. But just getting back onto the ice was a victory for Doan after it took weeks to figure out what was wrong with him after feeling feverish and frail due to the bacterial disease.

Doan never quite figured out how the tick transmitted the disease to him, but it most likely had to with his pet dogs.

“It’s a tick-carried bacteria that gets in your blood,” Doan explained. “How you get it is most likely somehow related to a tick. Whether it’s a bite I didn’t really feel, whether I killed one that was somewhere without really thinking about it, I’m not totally sure.

“But they never found a tick bite but at the same time, we found four of them on our dog.”
 
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “My focus has been to continue to show I belong in the NHL, show I belong back in the Olympics and give myself an opportunity and a chance to get back to where we were the last time. And my hope would be to finish the job.” -- Ryan Miller on his mindset after learning he will be on Team USA in the Winter Olympics.
 
ONE TIMERS
* There was touching, heartfelt moment during the Legends Game at the Big House the day before the Winter Classic between the Red Wings and Leafs. After warming up in his usual No. 26, ‘Bruise Brother’ Joey Kocur switched to the late Bob Probert’s No. 24 for the game introductions as a tribute to the infamous enforcer, who tragically passed away in 2010 at the age of 45 years old.
 Tie Domi was watching from the opposing bench as one of the Leafs legends, and appreciated the gesture after his many battles with Probert over the years. 
“That was a special moment,” Domi said. “I was going to do that and when Joey did, it was a nice thing because they were such good buddies. I’m glad people realized he was watching us over top of the park.”
 
* Yandle had every right to be upset about the Team USA decision, and he surely must have been. But the South Shore kid handled the snub with the kind of class and professionalism you’d hope to see from a 27-year-old that’s probably the best Massachusetts hockey product still active in the NHL.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Yandle said a day after the roster was announced. “I was excited. I thought I gave myself a good shot to make the team. Obviously, I’m disappointed but it’s something I’ve just got to keep working hard, keep getting better.

“It’s not the first time I’ve been cut from a team, probably won’t be the last. For me, I just gotta use it as motivation.”
 
* The Minnesota Wild has received a couple of important wins over the Sabres and Capitals in their last two games, but still remain in a 7-12-1 slide that’s got head coach Mike Yeo on the chopping block. It’s not entirely his fault given the foot injury to star forward Zach Parise, but it’s also clear that missing the playoffs isn’t an option given the money that has been shelled out to Parise and Ryan Suter. Yeo might be about to pay the price for a Wild team that’s underachieving.
 
Remember, keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.