If nothing else, you have to say this for Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey: There is never going to be a doubt as to what their identity is going to be.
But is that necessarily a good thing?
Almost as soon as the selection process for this team began, starting with the decision to go with John Tortorella as coach, to the actual construction of the roster, to the weeks leading up to the tournament, all of the build-up for this team has been about the way it wants to be a physical, tough to play against team that is going to try and impose its will on its opponents.
Just consider the words of Tortorella this week when talking about the way the team is going to play:
“Make no mistake about it: We’re not going to spend a lot of time worrying about other teams how they play,” Tortorella said, via NHL.com. “We’re going to play our game. We’re going to try to inflict and put our will into a game and go about it that way. It’s not going to be a convoluted message.”
That much is obvious.
It is a message that has already started to resonate with the players on the roster. Here is Justin Abdelkader, perhaps the most controversial selection for the team, quoted in the same NHL.com article:
“We’ve got to play a certain way obviously,” Abdelkader said. “The makeup of this team is that of a team that is going to be strong on the forecheck, hang on to pucks, a gritty-type American game, good goaltending, good defense. We’re not going to try to go out there and score eight goals. If that happens, it happens. But we’re going to play good defense and try to capitalize on our opportunities.”
The question here should be why is the motivation, even before the tournament begins, to simply play good, gritty defense and capitalize on opportunities? Why do they have to play a certain way? This isn’t the 1995 New Jersey Devils we are talking about here.
The United States has the talent pool available to put together a team that maybe could score six or seven goals if it wanted to.
Even if you want that physical element on the roster, a player like Kyle Okposo brings it while also being able to score. Paul Stastny can play a two-way game and provide some offense. There are other options than just “go out there and hit them and wait for our next chance.”
But that is not the direction Team USA has been trending in recent years.
When it came to constructing the roster the Team USA braintrust once again went in with the mindset that it wasn’t necessarily looking for the most talented players, but instead players that fit a certain image or role. It’s almost as if the entire goal of this team isn’t necessarily to win, but to send some sort of a message to its opponents that we are going to be tougher and you are going to have to pay for everything you get.
It’s when you go deeper into the roster that you should start scratching your head. They shouldn’t have just stopped with those top players.
Instead of taking players like Phil Kessel (who is injured and would not be able to play anyway), Tyler Johnson, Bobby Ryan, Kyle Okposo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Keith Yandle, Alex Goligoski or Justin Faulk, the team was filled out with hard-nosed, sandpaper type players like Brandon Dubinsky, David Backes and Abdelkader, as well as long-time team USA participants like Erik and Jack Johnson and Ryan Suter.
The thought process behind this type of roster basically comes down to three factors.
Factor No. 1: If it worked in 1996, it must also work in 2016
The first is that Dean Lombardi, the main architect of the team, seemed to determined to recreate what the 1996 USA World Cup team did, the way it played, and the way it was built. He has spoken highly of that team and its style of play on more than one occasion, including during his bizarrely emotional and patriotic speech the day he was introduced as the GM of the team when he referred to George Washington as “America’s first great teammate.”
The problem with using that team as the model is that hockey in 1996 and hockey in 2016 are vastly different games in terms of their style. What worked then, might not work now.
There is also this: Even though the 1996 team had a collection of big, gritty, physical players (again: This is what the NHL style was at the time) the roster was still pretty much largely composed of the best and most productive American players at that time.
If you look at the three-year stretch between the 1993-94 and 1995-96 season, 11 of the top 13 American-born scoring forwards in the NHL during that stretch were on that World Cup roster (Craig Janney and Kevin Stevens at Nos. 7 and 8 were the two exceptions).
Even the “role players” on that team were among the top guys at their disposal, with the lone exception probably being Joel Otto.
On the back end, all six of the highest scoring American-born defensemen in the NHL at that time were on the team, and seven of the top-10.
They may have played a certain way, but they did not over think the roster. They still, for the most part, took the best players, and there really isn’t a way to dispute that fact.
Compare that to the 2016 roster where only eight of the top-13 scoring forwards from the previous three NHL seasons are on the team.
Only three of the top-six scoring defensemen made the cut, and it is really only three of the top-nine.
Factor No. 2: The NHL sized ice surface
Whenever NHL players are being used and NHL executives are in charge of constructing the roster there is always going to be the impulse to build the team like it is going to be playing in the NHL. This is especially true when the tournament itself is being played on an NHL sized ice surface.
But again: This isn’t like playing against NHL teams. You are playing against All-Star teams that are going to have four lines that can score, and this is especially true when you get that matchup with Canada whose projected third line of John Tavares,Ryan Getzlaf, and Steven Stamkos would probably be better than almost any other team’s top line. No disrespect to Abdelkader or Dubinsky, but taking them over a player that might give you more offensive punch isn’t likely to give you a better chance to topple Canada just because they might finish a few more checks.
Which brings us to the third factor…
Factor No. 3: Be tough to play against
The American team seems resigned to the fact that it does not have the overall talent to compete with Canada on a skill vs. skill level. For as good as the American talent pool is, that is a fair assessment.
But does that mean you should willingly take lesser players and not even try to match their skill in an effort to play tough and impose your physicality on them?
The problem with that mindset is that it assumes “tough to play against” simply means skating around and checking people all night.
That is not always the case. It might be annoying, and it might wear players down a little, but tough to play against can also be making the other team chase you around all night.
Trying to get the puck away from a talented player can be also be frustrating.
Skill is tough to play against.
Think about it. If you are an NHL player who are you going to want to go up against every shift, every night? A fourth-liner that is never going to touch the puck against you but might check you a couple of times; or a player that is going to own the puck and make you defend them all night while they create scoring chances?
It’s why a lot of coaches, once they get into the playoffs, tend to go power vs. power in their matchups, getting their best players out against the other team’s best players. You want somebody that can keep up with them and match their skill.
For better or worse, this is the direction team USA has chosen.
Make no mistake, none of these guys are bad hockey players. They all bring skills that are very useful to an NHL team. In a 30-team, salary capped league, they are all, for the most part, top-line players.
It is just that in some cases they simply are not as talented, skilled or productive as some of the ones that are being left home. When you are talking about what is supposed to be, in theory, a best-on-best competition where you have no restrictions as to what you can do with your roster, that seems like a questionable approach. At best.
We have seen this before from Team USA (most recently at the 2014 Olympics) and it has not always worked.
We will see if it works this time.