Team USA's World Cup disaster: What went wrong, what needs to change
After an embarrassing early exit at the World Cup, USA Hockey has to do some soul searching
When USA Hockey goes back to the drawing board following their humiliating early exit from the 2016 World Cup of Hockey following a 4-2 loss to Canada in the prelims, they're going to have to ask themselves hard questions.
There are going to be the natural ones: How did this happen? What could we have done differently? How can we prevent this from happening again?
There will be the difficult to digest ones: How did so many people on the outside see this coming and we didn't?
And the most damning of of them all: Why does this keep happening?
It has been 20 years since USA Hockey has won a best-on-best tournament. The 1996 World Cup of Hockey was the venue for that historic victory. And in the years since that tournament happened, so much progress has been made within American hockey in so many other ways. But the one thing that truly makes other countries and your own fans take notice is winning on the biggest stage, whether it is expected to happen or not.
This year was a little different with the presence of Team North America preventing Team USA from adding players 23 or younger. That definitely kept a few really strong players off of the American roster. However, with more Americans in the NHL than ever before, and the quality improving by the year, losing a segment of the playing population just doesn't work as an excuse.
The excuse weakens further when the general manager does not build a team with the best players available to him, even when the talent pool is thinned out some. This team was built to a specific identity with beating Canada in mind and they couldn't even skate with the Canadians Tuesday night.
Losing is one thing, but getting out-classed so thoroughly is unforgivable.
The backslide for Team USA on the biggest stages since coming within a goal of the gold medal at the 2010 Olympics has been troubling to say the least. After the Americans failed to score a goal in the semifinal against Canada and bronze-medal game against Finland in 2014, you had to think it wouldn't get worse than that.
Then the World Cup happened.
So why has this backslide happened? Let's examine what went wrong and where things are headed.
The reason Dean Lombardi picked the team that he did was because he was following a system that has worked in the past. It hasn't worked often, but U.S. teams keep going to the "we're not picking the best players, we're picking the right ones." It's right out of the Herb Brooks playbook and if there's a coach/GM to rip a page out from, it's him.
But Brooks still needed a miracle to defeat the Soviets in 1980.
When Lombardi was named GM, he talked so much about the 1996 World Cup team. He even brought on Paul Holmgren, an assistant coach with that team, to be his assistant GM. That 1996 team won with a mix of skill and grit, brutalizing Canada on the ice while beating them on the score board.
It was an upset to be sure, but that American roster included six Hall of Famers, a goalie who stood on his head for the entire tournament and a much less stringent officiating standard that allowed them to slow games down. They were the right team at the right time.
The American talent pool has evolved since then, but Lombardi was so obsessed with the 1996 team that he tried to build a team to win the 1996 World Cup in 2016. The end result was even worse than many of the pessimists predicted.
It started with the selection of John Tortorella. He was to give this team the identity they needed. Then they started picking players who fit his brand of hockey. That came at the cost of players whose skill set would have been more useful in this tournament.
As soon as the roster was named, the criticism from the outside was loud. When the tournament began, it only grew louder. An unscientific sampling of social media showed just how frustrated fans were becoming as well. There was even a lot of active rooting against Team USA. They wanted this lineup, with this coach and this structure to fail and it failed spectacularly.
Do you know why so many fans seemed to want this team to fail? Because they hoped it would bring about meaningful change.
It was as if they actively put themselves in a hole to start the tournament with such a high emphasis on grit and grind, which never even materialized anyway. When fans and media and whoever else can see what is going to happen before they hit the ice, but the USA staff doesn't and then the exact thing everyone else said would happen happens, that's a huge problem.
And don't give the players a free pass here, either. The roster construction was unarguably poor and Tortorella gets deserved blame for not significantly motivating this group, too. Regardless of any of that, the performance the team put out was embarrassing. There was no urgency and barely any creativity to speak of. Once they were behind, they were toast. It was as uninspiring as you'll ever see a U.S. team look.
USA Hockey's identity crisis
One of the key things that Lombardi wanted this team to establish was an identity. He wanted USA to be an attacking team, to be tough. Tortorella often said he wanted the team to inflict as opposed to being inflicted upon. That's why they built the roster the way they did.
That identity never materialized, though. The gritty, grinding team was getting beaten in all of the areas that grit and grind are supposed to help. They looked more like a team without a plan and at times, without a clue.
This may be a decent starting point for looking how to fix it. That Lombardi wanted to create an identity is not the problem. It's the kind of identity they were looking for that clearly did not work. It was one that is outdated and runs completely counter to the style that younger Americans are playing. It nullified the skill players that Team USA did have and it allowed their opponents to control the puck with relative ease.
When you look at the kids on Team North America, 12 of them are American. The 10 skaters in that group are all fast, skilled and creative. They are playing the style of hockey that is working in today's game where possession is king. Putting those kids on this U.S. roster without changing the "identity" they were going for would have led to the same results.
The identity now has to evolve as the American player has evolved and how the organization has evolved.
Even at the youngest levels of youth hockey, USA Hockey has been preaching skill, creativity and fun. Everything is geared towards developing better, more creative players. It's going to be tough to sell their youth coaches on pushing that style of hockey when their national teams at the highest levels are stuck in plodding, grinding, dispassionate and boring hockey.
There needs to be some evolution at the top. Such a thorough beating at the hands of Canada in Sochi and at the World Cup demands the philosophy change.
Too many cooks
USA Hockey is in need of a massive overhaul when it comes to how they build teams. They have a national team advisory group, which includes multiple NHL executives. They often rotate, but the same group of execs is involved with helping put these teams together, in general. The tournaments featuring NHL players that USA Hockey has won since forming that body of decision makers in 2007 currently stands at zero.
At various points, the group has included Lombardi, Brian Burke (Calgary Flames president), David Poile (Nashville Predators GM), Ray Shero (New Jersey Devils), Dale Tallon (Florida Panthers), Paul Holmgren (Philadelphia Flyers) and former Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell have all been closely involved. Stan Bowman is also involved, but he is co-GM of Team North America for this particular tournament.
Multiple Stanley Cups and some of the game's great minds are all featured in this group. But they might all be canceling each other out. Prior to the Sochi Olympics, there were two pieces written by ESPN's Scott Burnside and USA Today's Kevin Allen, both of whom were in the meetings when this group picked that team. Some of the conversations were beyond concerning in terms of what they were looking for. It all goes back to that identity crisis.
They've been trying to figure out how to beat Canada for years now and somehow have managed to put the team in a worse position than it started in.
It is past time to start over. There is a new generation of players coming in that are going to have another crack at closing the gap. Dissolving the national team advisory group and plotting a new course with new ideas and probably some new people is a better path forward.
Maybe there are some hungry assistant GMs out there that would relish the opportunity to have a bigger say in team construction. Or perhaps they should look to experienced pro scouts, guys who don't also have to make the major decisions for an NHL team on top of their USA duties. Or maybe they put more power in the hands of USA Hockey's in-house hockey ops leader Jim Johansson to make the decisions or hire more people to focus specifically on senior national teams. Whatever they do, it has to be different than what is being done.
The end of an era
There are going to be a few quick fixes to cure what ails Team USA. For instance, John Tortorella probably just coached his last national team. Dean Lombardi might not get another shot as a GM. Perhaps next time guys like Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson, Justin Faulk and Kevin Shattenkirk don't get left off.
One of the bittersweet changes is going to be moving on from the core that came so close to Olympic gold in Vancouver. Zach Parise, the hero of that tournament, may have just played his last game in a USA jersey. The same goes for David Backes and perhaps Ryan Kesler, Jonathan Quick, Ryan Suter, Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson.
Parise, Kesler and Suter in particular were part of the group that set a new standard. From the time they were teenagers, they had helped USA Hockey shift the narrative about the way Americans were being developed. Together, they won the first Under-18 and World Junior Championships for USA Hockey. They helped prove that the U.S. was starting to produce higher quality players after a long lull.
Despite all that, it never translated on the biggest stage. They deserve praise for their accomplishments because all of those things mattered and signified progress. Now it's time to hand it over to the next generation to try to take the next step.
The bright side
While Team North America undoubtedly limited Team USA's talent pool, USA Hockey fans get a glimpse of the national team's near future.
The U.S. kids on North America -- Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Dylan Larkin, Seth Jones, Shayne Gostisbehere, Jacob Trouba, J.T. Miller, Vince Trocheck, Brandon Saad, John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck -- all have a great chance at being part of the core of USA Hockey's future national teams.
There are more coming, too. Alex Galchyenyuk had 30 goals last season for the Canadiens, Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Noah Hanifin and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Zach Werenski will join Jones, Trouba and Gostisbehere as the blue line of the future. Recent Arizona Coyotes draftee Clayton Keller is already drawing comparisons to Patrick Kane and Gaudreau.
In those two groups listed above, there are eight players that won a World Junior Championship together in 2013. There are multiple top 10 draft picks, two highly decorated young goalies and there are more players coming. A record 12 Americans were picked in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft last June and a team full of 15-year-olds won last year's Youth Olympics, which featured other top hockey nations.
The future is bright, but it only stays that way if the culture and philosophy of U.S. national teams changes with them.
Canada is always going to have an advantage in terms of depth and high-end talent, but the U.S. should be able to consistently build teams that at least give them a chance in these tournaments. That was the worst part this World Cup roster. Before they even hit the ice, it felt as though they didn't have a chance and it could have been much, much different.
USA Hockey isn't supposed to need miracles anymore. If they take this World Cup as a starting over point, maybe that will be true again.
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