James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

‘Pressure is a privilege’ for Team Canada

When discussing the expectations Canada faces in just about any international hockey tournament, Wayne Gretzky essentially echoed Rick Bobby’s “If you’re not first, you’re last.”

Granted, he said it in a very Canadian way to NHL.com, but the sentiment was pretty clear.

In cases like these, one would normally throw out a sarcastic “no pressure,” but it sounds like Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock actually embraces that tension.

“Pressure is a privilege,” Babcock said. “If you don’t have any pressure, it means you have no chance. Do you want to come to the tournament with no chance, or do you want to come to the tournament with pressure? …

“For me, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t think our guys would, either.”

So, does this mean we need to throw out well-worn phrases like “gripping the sticks too tight?” Because that would be quite the shame.

While Babcock is all about the pressure, that doesn’t exactly mean that he’s the sort of risk-seeker who is going to go sky-diving from a hockey sense. As Jonathan Willis explains in this Sportsnet article, Canada’s style is essentially designed to play the sort of “tight” way you might expect from a team under pressure.

Since Mike Babcock’s ascension to the head coaching position in 2010, Canada’s approach has been to emphasize defensive ability. The underlying assumption seems to be that the Canadian team should outscore the opposition in almost any situation, and that the important thing is not to mess up on defence. That means bringing a safe, button-down style to every game and counting on the talent disparity to automatically compensate for any sacrifice on the offensive side of the puck.

In other words, Team Canada isn’t bothered by the dangers of high expectations, but they’re certainly avoiding the pitfalls of taking risks.

On paper, that’s a reasonable plan, yet the vultures will circle if decisions such as picking the likes of Jay Bouwmeester over P.K. Subban end up backfiring. And Babcock seems like he’s made peace with that thought.

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    Hossa, Gaborik explain Slovakia’s hockey slippage

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    Say what you will about communism; it might have had its hockey benefits, at least in Slovakia.

    That’s the way Marian Hossa sees things as he explains his country’s puck plummet to the Chicago Sun-Times.

    “ .. The parents didn’t have to pay big money like they parents do these days. There was big competition because everybody could play and come play and only the best can go further,” Hossa said. “Right now, there’s not enough kids because it costs so much money for the parents. It comes down to economics. I think that’s why there’s a big hole.”

    To Hossa’s credit, he’s trying to make a difference with his charitable organization “Hoss Heroes,” which aims to boost the youth movement by providing free equipment.

    Marian Gaborik spoke about the lack of young players, too, and he wondered if the problem is that coaches in the area fell behind the rest of the pack as far as how the game is played.

    It makes you wonder if Slovakia should consider springing for the sort of hockey summit that boosted Sweden and Finland’s respective profiles.

    For now, it’s about sobering realities such as Slovakia merely sending the following players to the World Cup as a chunk of Team Europe:

    Hossa, Gaborik, Tomas Tatar, Zdeno Chara, Andrej Sekera and Jarsolav Halak.

    That’s a pretty impressive group, but it doesn’t answer the nagging question of “Who’s next?”

    Wow, Dustin Byfuglien is a healthy scratch for U.S.


    Like other hockey nations boasting a variety of options, it’s easy to second-guess John Tortorella and the rest of the Team USA brass. Sitting Dustin Byfuglien makes it even easier.

    After floating the one-of-a-kind offensive weapon around, including that familiar move of putting him at forward, Torts raised some eyebrows in making Byfuglien a healthy scratch altogether.

    Then again, when you consider the fact that Byfuglien’s been snubbed before as far as international play goes, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised? Perhaps the large scorer isn’t in shape, or isn’t in shape according to what Tortorella values? Does this come down to the view from some that Byfuglien’s risks outweigh his rewards?

    (For what it’s worth, Tortorella told the Toronto Sun’s Terry Koshan that the move is “no knock” on Byfuglien and indicated that he could work his way back into the lineup.)

    All kinds of questions come up with this move, especially if the U.S. struggles to create offense against Team Europe on Saturday.

    Seriously, don’t be shocked if a lack of firepower burns America, even if that doesn’t happen this afternoon.

    The other scratches are forward Kyle Palmieri and goalie Cory Schneider. More than a few believe that Schneider is America’s best option (just take a look at his career save percentage numbers), but America is clearly invested in Jonathan Quick.

    Pacioretty: Kane gives U.S. a chance to win World Cup


    TORONTO (AP) Patrick Kane looks at 2010 Vancouver Olympic final loss to Canada as the United States being one goal away from gold. Jonathan Quick looks at the 2014 Sochi Olympic semifinal loss as the U.S. being one goal away from playing for gold.

    This generation of U.S. players has always been one goal away and unable to finish the job. With Kane, Quick, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and captain Joe Pavelski among those back for another crack, the realization is setting in that this World Cup of Hockey is the Americans’ best and perhaps last chance to win an international championship.

    Coach John Tortorella has told his team, “It’s time.”

    “We’re probably in the prime and peak of our careers right now where we feel that it’s time to make something happen,” Kane said. “You can think about that pressure, you can do whatever you want with it, but it comes down to this tournament for us and this tournament only.”

    The Americans open tournament play in Toronto on Saturday against Team Europe, and the showdown against Canada is Tuesday. With only three games in round-robin play, there’s urgency for every team to start strong and no breathing room.

    Kane pointed out that previous American generations won at the 1960 and 1980 Olympics and 1996 World Cup of Hockey. Kane, Quick, Parise, Suter, Pavelski, David Backes and Ryan Kesler have been around for six years and through two Olympics and it’s not just time, it’s about time.

    “We’ve been there and we’ve had our chances and it’s time to break through,” Pavelski said. “We’ve been close, but we’re looking for a little bit more out of each other and to really find that right ingredient and that big play at the right moment.”

    Look no further than Kane, who won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP last season for the Chicago Blackhawks and led the league in scoring with 106 points. He’s the brightest of the U.S. stars and will have to do better than the zero goals and four points he produced in Sochi. Winger Max Pacioretty called Kane “the best player in the game” and the World Cup the perfect situation for him.

    “I’d go as far as to say our team has a good chance because Patrick Kane is in his prime,” Pacioretty said. “This tournament sets up perfectly for him. … A guy like that can change a game in one shift so I think for the rest of the team our identity is be hard to play against, make life difficult for them, but Kaner, let him do his thing.”

    Some things to watch as the United States faces Europe:


    Tortorella has Kane with left winger James van Riemsdyk and center Derek Stepan, and Pavelski centering Parise and Blake Wheeler, but won’t hesitate to shake things up. Already Pacioretty has been bounced around the lineup, and everyone is on a short leash.

    “We can’t wait and it’s not about feeling our way through,” Tortorella said.


    Europe coach Ralph Krueger isn’t professing “it’s time” for a team that has never played together before, but he does know the clock is running out on players like 39-year-old Zdeno Chara, 38-year-old Mark Streit, 37-year-old Marian Hossa and 35-year-old Dennis Seidenberg.

    “For a lot of them it might be the last time on this big a stage to have an opportunity to do something special, and we can feel the hunger for that,” Krueger said.


    Quick starts in goal for the U.S. against Europe’s Jaroslav Halak, who was impressive in the exhibition finale against Sweden. Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Europe’s top offensive players could be a tougher test for Quick than anyone thinks.


    The teams are full of veteran players who are familiar with elite tournaments, but the first game of the entire World Cup could see some early butterflies. A first-period mistake could have a long-term impact, especially because goal differential is a tiebreaker.


    If there’s anything U.S. has more than other teams in the tournament it’s size and strength. Europe can’t match that and will have to use finesse and playmaking to counteract the Americans’ power.

    Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

    Yikes, Tyler Seguin suffered a hairline fracture in his heel


    The Dallas Stars provided bad news after Tyler Seguin underwent an MRI: the star forward suffered a hairline fracture in his heel.

    Stars GM Jim Nill didn’t provide a timetable for his recovery, stating that the team will re-evaluate Seguin in about one week.

    At the moment, this feels like the nightmare scenario NHL teams try to put out of their minds when they think about elite players participating in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which kicks off on Saturday. This is a far cry from the belief that Seguin would merely need a few day’s rest.

    It’s believed that Seguin was injured thanks to this unfortunate spill during Canada’s exhibition run:

    No doubt about it, this has been a really rough several months for Seguin, who dealt with Achilles/calf issues that derailed the end of his 2015-16 season.

    As far as Team Canada is concerned, Ryan O'Reilly isn’t just Seguin’s replacement on the roster … he’s also a big reason why Claude Giroux is an unlikely healthy scratch.