It’s not just the fact that Team USA lost its World Cup opener on Saturday that has to be equal parts frustrating and concerning for American hockey fans.
It’s not even the fact the team was shut out (again!) in an international, best-on-best tournament involving NHL players. Or that they didn’t even play the type of hockey they were built to play.
It’s that the management and coaching staff in charge of constructing the roster continues to put itself shorthanded before the games even begin by insisting on taking grit and toughness over skill, and by trying to build a team to play an NHL, grind-it-out style of hockey.
Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Team Europe was pretty much the worst-case scenario for Team USA to open this tournament.
It was also entirely predictable.
It highlighted the flaws in the construction of the roster. It had questionable pre-game coaching decisions. And even worse, it put the team in a position where it will almost certainly have to beat Canada — perhaps the best team in the tournament — on Tuesday if it is going to advance. Even though this team seems to have been constructed with the main objective of being able to beat Canada, that is still going to be an extremely difficult task because, well … have you seen that Team Canada roster?
After Saturday’s loss, Team USA coach John Tortorella said the thing that bothered him the most with his team’s performance was the number of quality scoring chances it was able to generate. That inability to create offense wasn’t a shock to anybody that questioned the roster after they willingly left some of their best, most productive, and most creative players at home.
The construction of the roster was already facing criticism before the tournament began because of who did not make the team.
There was no Phil Kessel (he would not have been able to play due to injury anyway, but the mindset behind the decision was the problem), Tyler Johnson, Bobby Ryan or Kyle Okposo up front.
There was no Justin Faulk, Kevin Shattenkirk, or Keith Yandle on defense.
It didn’t get any better on Saturday when Tortorella, playing what he said was their best roster, scratched Kyle Palmieri, one of only four 30-goal scorers from this past season on the Team USA roster, and Dustin Byfuglien, the top goal-scoring and point-producing American-born defenseman.
A roster that was already short on potential game-breaking talent (especially on defense) made itself even worse so it could dress Justin Abdelkader at forward and Erik and Jack Johnson on defense.
It’s not that they are bad players (they are not. For an NHL team, they are perfectly fine to have on your roster). It’s that they are not the best players at Team USA’s disposal for this type of tournament. They are not quite as good as a lot of the players that were either not on the team, or not in the lineup.
With Byfuglien sitting in the press box on Saturday (after playing as a forward in the third pre-tournament tune-up game) that meant only two of the top-10 scoring American-born defensemen in the NHL this past season (Ryan Suter and John Carlson) were on the ice.
For a team that hasn’t scored a goal in three straight best-on-best tournament games, they probably could have used some of the offensive play that a Faulk, or Shattenkirk, or Yandle could have provided.
(Or a Byfuglien).
In a tournament setting where every other country is taking their best players and realizes they don’t need to limit themselves the way NHL teams do, Team USA continues to work with the mindset that they have to overthink the process and build a team out of role players. They continue to try to model themselves after teams that won championships decades ago when it was a completely different game (and as we mentioned before the tournament, the 1996 team that Dean Lombardi holds in such high regard for the way it played still took the best American-born players in the league at that time).
This mindset is one of the single biggest things that has held them back in recent competitions, and why it’s been 20 years since they won a best-on-best, NHL players tournament. It’s also a big reason why they have been bitter disappointments in two of the past three Olympics.
If Team USA has a strength and a clear advantage in this tournament it’s going to be in net where all three goaltenders are capable of getting hot and carrying a team. If Saturday’s game is any indication of what is to come the rest of the way, especially with a game against Canada looming on Tuesday, they are going to need one of them to do just that.
Team USA really needed a win on Saturday not only because of what it would mean when it comes to advancing in the tournament, but also to help silence the critics of the roster.
They not only failed to do either one, they failed to do them in the worst possible way.
By doing everything that was expected of them.