We found out for certain if Team USA’s crash and bang style of play could work at the World Cup. The answer was an emphatic no.
The U.S. team ended one of its worst and most disappointing showings on Thursday night with a 4-3 loss to the Czech Republic, wrapping up a winless World Cup performance that saw them fail to get out of the first round. The actual performance was probably even worse than it sounds when you consider they only played with the lead for about two minutes for the entire tournament.
If you are an optimist, that kind of showing could turn out to be a huge positive in the long run because it should shed some light on the flawed process and mindset that built this roster. It should serve as a wake up call that the entire approach that went into selecting this group, from the coaching staff, to the roster, to the style of play, needs to change.
Sometimes in sports you need to get knocked down, lose, and maybe even get a little embarrassed before you can take a step forward.
To take that step forward Team USA needs to do two things that are somewhat related: It needs to do dump the mindset that heart-and-soul, blood-and-guts players can be a suitable replacement for talent, and it needs to take its obsession with beating Canada and throw it in the garbage.
When it comes to the latter point, it is no secret that if you want to win an international hockey tournament you are going to have to go through the powerhouse that is Hockey Canada at some point. So that focus on wanting to beat them is at least somewhat understandable. But the focus of the entire team can not be on just Canada.
That is where Team USA lost its way at the 2016 World Cup. Everything was about beating Canada. The entire team was built with Canada in mind and figuring out ways to slow them down and beat them. And only them. Everything they talked about in the lead-up to the tournament was about Canada. Everything else was, at best, secondary.
And then Team Europe showed up in the first game and dunked in their faces.
During their post tournament interviews, coach John Tortorella and general manager Dean Lombardi have talked extensively about how the United States could not match up with Canada’s talent. Their solution for this was to find a different way around them. Specifically, to out-heart and out-grit them. And the players seemed to buy into it.
Here are Tortorella and Lombardi talking about the talent-gap and the way to counter it, via ESPN’s Chris Jones:
“I’ll be honest: We’re not as deep as Canada skill-wise,” he said. “Not sure USA Hockey will like me saying that, but it’s the truth. It’s a situation where I still think, in our mind, we could not just skill our way through Canada.”
So Lombardi decided that his team needed to compensate with heart. He used his hands to show the talent gap between Team USA and Canada. He said he could have picked a different roster that would have narrowed that gap, and he drew his hands closer together. Instead, he purposefully picked a roster that widened that gap, he said. He pulled his hands farther apart.
Their heart, he said, would more than make up the greater distance. In his mind, then, talent has a ceiling, but heart doesn’t. Heart must be exponential.
There are many problems with this approach, but the biggest one is this (and this needs to be bolded for extra emphasis): Canada is not the only team you have to play.
You still have to play — and beat! — everybody else. Right now the United States hockey team isn’t even doing that, in large part (at least in this tournament) because of their approach to trying to beat Canada. By trying to build a team that can outwork and grind down Canada (something that would be almost impossible to do in a short tournament, and something that would almost certainly be useless against a team like Canada anyway) all they did was widen the talent gap they already had against them, while also closing it when it comes to everybody else.
They ended up doing Team Europe and the Czech Republic a favor by helping to narrow their talent gap. And those teams capitalized on it.
The result of this is a U.S. team that since the start of the 2014 Olympics is only 4-3 against non-Canadian teams (with only three regulation wins in those seven games) and has an even goal differential (23 goals for, 23 goals against). In the last three games against non-Canadian teams, including the two in this tournament, they are winless and have been outscored 12-3.
If you are the United States, you are not going to win a tournament like this or the Olympics by putting 100 percent of your focus on Canada and using their current misguided approach to beating them.
Instead, the approach should be this: load up with your best players, take care of business against everybody else (which the U.S. should be able to do, or at least have a very good chance to do), do enough to get out of the first round and into the elimination rounds, and then take your chances against Canada in a single elimination, one-and-done game, with the best players you have. Maybe they beat you in the first round. But at least give yourself another chance where you might be able to beat them in a one-game playoff.
In a situation like that randomness can take over. Weird things can happen.
If you believe you have the best goalie in the world (and Dean Lombardi seems to think he does in Jonathan Quick) you take the chance that he might be able to steal a game for you, as Ryan Miller did in the 2010 Olympics in the opening round against Canada. Or, if you are really feeling nostalgic, like Jim Craig did in 1980 against the Soviet Union. You take the chance that maybe Canada’s goalie, Carey Price, has an off day, or I don’t know, wakes up sick that day. And even though he might actually be the best goalie in the world, he is still human and can be beaten in any one game.
You take the chance that maybe one of your forwards has the game of his life and puts the team on his back and scores a couple of goals. The U.S. has enough forwards that could do that in one game, whether it’s a player that was on the team (Patrick Kane, Max Pacioretty, or Joe Pavelski), or one that was sitting at home (like Phil Kessel or Tyler Johnson).
Any of those things are possible in a knockout game. But you never get the opportunity to see if it can happen if you don’t actually get to that game by beating everybody else.
Everybody wants players that play with heart and are passionate about what they do. But while several members of Team USA were hurt and insulted by Kessel’s post-Canada Tweet, Lombardi and Tortorella were equally insulting before (and after) the tournament to the many talented players left off the team by suggesting they wouldn’t have cared enough or played with enough heart to win. Especially when players like Kessel and Johnson have proven time and time again that he plays great in big games. Just look at the playoff performances for those guys in their careers.
The heart over skill mindset is great for individual stories of overcoming adversity. It is great for movies. But when it comes to winning on the ice, the field, or the court, it still a talent based business. There is a reason Rudy only ever played one snap: It’s because there were always better players, and all of the heart and determination in the world wasn’t going to change that.
Team USA management is getting grilled for the way it handled this tournament, and they now find themselves at a crossroads where they can take this thing in one of two directions.
They can use this tournament as the wake up call it should be and change their approach, or they can double down on the heart-and-soul roster that so many American hockey teams have been built on in the past. If history and the past 24 hours are any guide, you should probably expect the latter.
You should be hoping for the former.