There was an inkling when Dean Lombardi was introduced as the general manager for the U.S. team for the World Cup of Hockey. It became clearer when John Tortorella was announced as coach. As the roster was revealed, it was unmistakable.
Team USA was going big on grit.
If you watched either of the pretournament games between Canada and the U.S., particularly Friday’s contest, the American game plan was laid out for all to see. Finishing checks, chipping pucks deep and getting in their opponents’ faces as much as possible between and after the whistles was all part of the black and blueprint.
They looked a lot like Tortorella’s teams from when he was leading the New York Rangers. Speed was an element, but physical play and blocking shots were a big part of the process. That also meant that the U.S. was getting badly outshot by a Canadian team with superior skill.
In Friday night’s game, the U.S. still won, based mainly on opportunistic scoring and Jonathan Quick’s incredible performance early on when the U.S. was getting absolutely housed on the shot counter by their North American rivals. On Saturday, Team USA put themselves in a hole from which they would never emerge.
One shouldn’t read too much into exhibition results, but the style of play and the Americans’ insistence on disturbing the peace whenever possible is exactly the brand of hockey we expected them to play. After seeing it, now we have to wonder if it’s going to work when the games matter.
Many have been critical of the U.S. roster construction for this tournament, but it’s not hard to understand the logic behind it — even if you (like me) disagree with it.
The fact is, the 23-and-under team took a number of candidates out of the American talent pool. Johnny Gaudreau and Brandon Saad would have been virtual locks for this U.S. team, among a few others with a good shot.
Even if they had the U23s and even if they added more of the eligible proven scorers, the U.S. was never going to come close to matching Canada skill for skill. The depth disparity had to be foremost in Dean Lombardi’s mind.
That’s why, instead of guys like Phil Kessel (who wouldn’t have been available anyway after having surgery on his hand this offseason), Kyle Okposo, Tyler Johnson, Justin Faulk or Keith Yandle, the U.S. went for players whose most notable attribute is grit.
Justin Abdelkader was one of the first 16 players named to the team, while Brandon Dubinsky was a clear Tortorella pick, as was Jack Johnson. All were valued because of the style of their game despite declining returns in other categories like scoring.
Here’s one of the things that Tortorella told NHL.com about including Johnson, who was one of the most controversial selections:
“The thing I love about him, he’ll make a mistake through aggression,” Tortorella said. “I’d rather have a guy that way than just testing the waters.”
How often do you hear a coach say how much they love the way a guy makes mistakes? That’s a window into the thought process of building this team: Get players who are nasty, who want to make it hard on the other team physically and worry about the rest later.
Instead of going with at least three strong scoring lines, the U.S. has stuck with a more traditional top six for scoring, third line for “energy” and fourth line for checking. Meanwhile, it looks like they’re still searching for the right mix on defense.
For much of those two exhibition games, Team USA’s top line featuring Joe Pavelski, Patrick Kane and Max Pacioretty was held in check by one of Patrice Bergeron or Jonathan Toews. Pavelski and Kane scored in the first game, but they never got going in the second one and it exposed a weakness for the U.S.
When Team USA loses that top line’s production, the trouble begins. They have to hope their second line comes through or the other team makes a mistake they can pounce on.
It’s amazing how big a difference one or two players can make, but in a short tournament like this, depth is so incredibly important. If USA doesn’t find the right mix, they’re going to be in trouble when it comes to scoring. Even with a better offensive roster, Team USA couldn’t create much of anything in the final two games in the 2014 Olympics.
With all of the previous stated, the U.S. still is very much a threat to win the World Cup. We’ve seen U.S. teams win without having the best team before and it’s those teams that still inspire the roster building of today, sometimes to their detriment.
Take the 1980 team for example. It is now part of Herb Brooks’ legend that he was not taking the best players, but the right ones. That was less about grit and more about character, but it impacted roster building similarly.
Even though Brooks selected the “right players” that team still needed a miracle to win the gold medal. A miracle.
Of all the players Brooks picked, the most important “right player” was Jim Craig. Yes, they needed a team effort to beat the Soviets, but without Craig’s performance there is no Miracle on Ice. Team USA was out-shot 39-16 in that game. Craig stopped 36 of those shots and stole that game from them.
What about in a best-on-best scenario? Dean Lombardi cited the 1996 team so often in his introductory remarks, you knew that he would build this year’s team in that image. They had great players, some of the best Americans ever, but that was also a different game then. And even though they had great players, the U.S. still couldn’t match Canada’s skill and if not for Mike Richter in net, there’s no iconic U.S. victory.
In the decisive third game of the best-of-three series, Richter made 35 saves. Canada had out-shot the U.S. 32-14 over the first two periods. Richter allowed one goal over that span. Meanwhile, the American offense woke up in the third period, or more specifically, woke up with four goals in the last four minutes of regulation to erase a 2-1 deficit and win.
Grit played a role in the win for that 1996 team, but not as big a role as Mike Richter did.
You look at most tournaments the U.S. has performed well in — even the silver medal team at the 2010 Olympics — and I’ll show you a goalie that stood on his head.
Meanwhile the overall talent pool continues to deepen in the U.S., but the philosophy for roster building has not deviated from the blueprint much. The players at the top of the lineup are better now, but the players at the bottom are virtually unchanged in terms of role and style of play.
What has changed, however, is the game itself. That 1996 team won with the style of the era and still needed their goalie to come through for them. Now things are different.
Puck possession, skill and speed have been hallmarks of recent Stanley Cup champions. Lombardi’s two Cup teams in Los Angeles used a lot of grit, too, but those rosters were long on talent still. And Quick was a beast in that first Cup run.
If you look at the other teams in the World Cup, most have tried to load up on as much skill as possible. Canada is still physical, too, but they didn’t add guys who are primarily physical. Their fourth line is basically Claude Giroux, Matt Duchene and Joe Thornton, which is an insane amount of talent on a fourth line.
Meanwhile, you look at Team North America and it’s almost an all-skill, all-speed team. Johnny Gaudreau put it best:
When asked if North America was concerned with physicality from US-Canada, #Flames Gaudreau said “It’s tough to hit someone you can’t catch”
— Michael Traikos (@Michael_Traikos) September 10, 2016
That’s what the U.S. has to contest with.
This tournament is going to be a fantastic case study on the value of grit. As almost all of the other top teams sought skill through four lines, the U.S. is choosing not to fight fire with fire, but something more like the more traditional water cannon.
This won’t be a definitive case study as it’s a small sample, but that’s also why the U.S. has a chance. They don’t need this style to work for 82 games. They need it to work for a maximum of seven and it just might if other factors like a hot goalie and timely scoring come through for them.
If they succeed, the controversial choices and reliance on grit are vindicated. If they fail, it will become abundantly clear for the U.S. to finally shelve the roster-building philosophy that has been collecting dust and start believing that sometimes the best players are indeed the right players.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Team USA is putting the value of ‘grit’ on trial at the World Cup of Hockey