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Bobby Ryan's Olympic snub a risky decision for Team USA

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Bobby Ryan could have brought an important element to the Olympics. (USATSI)
Bobby Ryan could have brought an important element to the Olympics. (USATSI)

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Much has already been said about the roster for the U.S. Olympic Men's Ice Hockey Team that was announced at the Winter Classic. Every time a roster like that comes out, the biggest news is who gets left out. It becomes even bigger when it is a player that seemingly anyone else outside of the USA staff assumed would be making the trip to Sochi, Russia, with Team USA.

Team USA will not be taking Bobby Ryan to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games despite the fact that he has Olympic experience and is essentially a guaranteed 30 or more goals annually in the NHL. On top of that, Ryan has experienced no offensive dropoff after being moved from the Anaheim Ducks to the Ottawa Senators in the offseason.

The skilled winger already has 18 goals this year in Ottawa, on pace for his fifth career 30-plus-goal season. Only his rookie year, in which he only played 23 games and last year's lockout-shortened campaign did Ryan not surpass that lofty milestone.

It seems, however, based on a pair of stories that documented the decision process, that the ones in the room making the calls on the U.S. saw flaws in Ryan's work on the power play, in his skating and most infamously at this point, his intensity.

Even if any of those things were valid concerns, and they might be in some way, the one thing that has been an undeniable truth about Ryan is that he scores goals. A lot of goals.

It is very difficult to score in international hockey, especially when played on a European ice surface, which is 15 feet wider than an NHL rink. That extra space in the rink doesn't change the fact that a team has to be good between the faceoff dots and have to manufacture offense, often through very disciplined defensive European teams that are more familiar with that ice surface.

Ryan has been a goal scorer and while he likely wouldn't have played on one of the top two lines over Patrick Kane or Phil Kessel, he could have provided some much-needed scoring depth on the roster or at the very least an extra forward who could mix things up offensively.

In Kevin Allen's behind-the-scenes look at Team USA's Olympic meetings, Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon offered his assessment of Ryan on the team:

"I think you need Ryan to score that goal against the teams to qualify," Tallon said. "Those are going to be tight, low-scoring games. You need someone to break one open. That's what he does."

That is what he does and what very few players do as well. It's naïve to think the conversation should end right there, because there are a lot of different things to consider about players, but it seems like that should have been a very strong point in the discussion.

The last time Bobby Ryan wore a USA crest on his jersey was at the 2012 IIHF World Championship. It's obviously not the best-on-best tournament the Olympics is, but for one, Ryan gets credit for going at all. Stars in the league often say no to the tournament that comes at the end of the long NHL season. It can be a grinding tournament as well, as it runs nearly three weeks in May.

Not only did Ryan say yes and play in all eight of Team USA's games, he was effective, scoring five goals on the wider ice surface.

Team USA and Predators general manager David Poile offered this assessment of Ryan according to Kevin Allen, while Flyers' GM Paul Holmgren also chimed in:

"Bobby Ryan is like the hare is out there running and he might do something real good for a while but can't stick (with) it," Poile said.

Holmgren, who doesn't often speak, offered simply that if the coaches see Ryan as a valuable power play guy that alone is reason to put him on the team. If coaches don't need Ryan on the power play, Holmgren said, they would be better off with better-rounded players.

"That makes sense to me," Poile said.

For the record, six of Ryan's 18 goals this year have come on the power play. USA assistant coach Peter Laviolette said that Ryan's power-play percentage was lowest among forwards they were considering at the time, according to Allen.

Holmgren's point is worth noting, too. The one thing you have to be aware of is building a team as opposed to just collecting stars and throwing them out there. Perhaps you've seen the movie Miracle where Herb Brooks tells his assistant coach Craig Patrick, “I'm not looking for the best players, Craig. I'm looking for the right ones.”

In part, you need role players or guys that are going to play on the penalty kill, provide some energy in the lineup and sound defensive forwards.

With that in mind, when you're looking at Bobby Ryan about being left off the team. You don't look at Derek Stepan or Ryan Callahan as guys who made it over him. Or even the majority of the guys playing on the left wing. Those would not be roles Ryan plays, presumably, though his defensive game seems to be quite underrated. It's not high end, but he's not inept.

It sounds like T.J. Oshie was a guy Team USA's coaching staff wanted to have on the roster because of his versatility and built-in chemistry with David Backes. So you take him out of the conversation as well for those reasons.

To me, the player most questionable for putting ahead of Ryan on the list is Blake Wheeler. The difference between the two is that Wheeler is 6-foot-5 and skates like the wind, which is a valuable commodity to have on the bigger ice surface. Both size and speed are important.

That said, Wheeler has been a hot-scoring forward lately for the Jets. He scored 10 of his 15 goals this season in the month of December over 14 games. Even with that in mind though, if there's one thing about Blake Wheeler over the course of his career, it is that he has been fairly inconsistent.

Wheeler was among those on the Winnipeg Jets vastly underperforming at the start of the season. Then he picked it up in December and has scored while boasting a 22.7 shooting percentage, nearly double his career rate. Think it will keep up and even through Sochi? Probably not. So then you start to wonder where exactly Wheeler even fits in the lineup.

Speed and size are important, but given the larger sample, Ryan's historic success scoring goals is where the U.S. is really taking a risk by leaving him off.

Going back to that Tallon quote, if the coach is looking down the bench for a guy who can score in one of those tight-checking games, it's hard to imagine he'd rather Wheeler over Ryan. Even if Ryan doesn't end up on the power play, you still have a guy in the lineup you can look to for offense with a long track record of producing.

It has been said that Wheeler can move into their top six if there is an injury, but over Ryan? It seems like a stretch, especially as that is a role Ryan is both familiar with and perhaps better equipped to deal with.

If we're comparing tools, I'll take proven scoring ability over size and speed any day, even on the big ice.

The U.S. has run into a problem scoring goals in those tighter games in prior Olympics overseas on bigger ice. Team USA had very little scoring depth on an older, slower team for the Torino Olympics in 2006. Brian Gionta and Brian Rolston with four and three goals respectively were the team leaders. In the 1998 Nagano Olympics, with a very talented roster, Team USA only managed only nine goals over four games and finished 1-3.

You can never have enough scoring at these games and when you can bring 14 forwards, which is more than in prior Olympics, leaving home one of the best American-born goal scorers in the NHL over the last five years does not leave much of a safety net if things go south offensively.

Of course, we won't know how much of a mistake this was or wasn't until the games are played, but it is fair to say that leaving out Ryan, who has scored more goals than any American-born player in the NHL since 2008-09 aside from only Phil Kessel, is taking a big risk.

 
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