When the NHL announced it was re-launching the World Cup of Hockey, it received varied reaction. Regardless of your opinion of the necessity of the pre-season tournament, it does serve as a nice barometer to see how national programs are stacking up against one another. USA Hockey put Dean Lombardi in charge of the team and hired John Tortorella to coach it, and that's where things went bad for this iteration of a U.S. national team.
For a tournament as short as this one, the main idea of many teams was to bring the most skilled, complete players and roll out four scoring lines. Canada, for instance, has potential Hall-of-Famer Joe Thornton playing on the fourth line alongside Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, and Team North America has young stars like Brandon Saad playing on the bottom trio.
Team U.S.A., however, elected to go with grit and hard-nosed hockey over skill and the results speak for themselves. Bringing along players such as Ryan Callahan (until he was injured), David Backes, Brandon Dubinsky and most confusingly, Justin Abdelkader. It's even worse on defense as Lombardi decided Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson and Matt Niskanen were better options than Keith Yandle, Torey Krug or Kevin Shattenkirk.
Then, finally, there is the goalie issue, with Jonathan Quick being chosen as the starter and both Ben Bishop and Cory Schneider riding the pine. In no uncertain terms, Quick is the third-best goalie on the team, yet was given the net after a mediocre showing in the pre-tournament games.
Now adding in John Tortorella, a man whose last stint as a head coach is mainly remembered by his attempt to storm the Calgary Flames locker room, worsened the situation. Torts is known to love smash mouth, hard-hitting hockey, with his team blocking plenty of shots. So handing him a lineup full of grinders is like giving a kid candy: they're going to take it, get all crazy and just leave you with a headache.
So, naturally, when the team struggled in pre-tournament play the blame was heaped on players such as Max Pacioretty, whom Tortorella called out personally saying, "I need more out of him." It's rather hard to 'get more out of someone' when you give them the least amount of ice time, despite that player being an outstanding penalty killer and offensive threat.
Now, you normally can't judge a team before the games are played, but as I write this article the U.S.A. has two goals to their credit, and one of them was scored on his own net by Joe Thornton. Two lacklustre showings and one of the biggest hockey nations in the world is sent home packing with their heads hanging. Which, of course, prompted several tweets from roster snubs.
Just sitting around the house tonight w my dog. Felt like I should be doing something important, but couldn't put my finger on it.— Phil Kessel (@PKessel81) September 21, 2016
@dipduncs nah..kill USA hockey with kindness and maybe they'll let me play over 35 adult worlds if I'm not a defensive liability by then.— Bobby Ryan (@b_ryan9) September 21, 2016
Of course, Lombardi and Tortorella were not amused, claiming it disrespects the players on the team and the like. Yet clearly both tweets are a shot at USA Hockey's coaching and management which since Sochi has been a disaster. Scott Burnside famously exposed the flawed process which lead to the Olympic roster in 2014. Including Bobby Ryan being turned down for "skating sleepy" and "not being an intense player."
After failing to medal in Sochi and not even showing up for the World Cup, one would hope there is change coming for U.S.A. Hockey -- but then Dean Lombardi spoke to the media. Instead of mentioning potentially moving towards a skilled team, Lombardi flat out said he wouldn't change his choices. Even going so far as to say, that he knew the U.S. couldn't match the skill of Canada, so he went with grit instead.
Lombardi says US couldn't match Canada's skill and talent level, so he tried to win another way.— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) September 22, 2016
Then he took it one step further saying:
"If you're talking about Justin Abdelkader, Blake Wheeler, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Kesler, David Backes I'll take those guys any day on my team."
"Those guys have big time heart and when I talk about caring, they'd be the nucleus of the caring and they compete and they can play for me any day"
And therein lies the biggest problem: the U.S. program is trapped in a time warp where they think it's still 1996 and that they can just rely on getting outstanding goaltending, and hit their way to victory. It, however, is no longer 1996, and the game is about speed and skill over everything else.
Team Canada built a roster that can roll out four lines and match up against any team's top line. The U.S. put Justin Abdelkader and Brandon Dubinsky in their top six and scored one goal themselves and it was scored by a defenceman, of all people.
With the Olympics looming in two years and likely more World Cup of Hockey tournaments as well, the U.S. is at a crossroads as a hockey nation. They can continue to bring guys who "have heart" and can throw hits, or they can stop ignoring players like Phil Kessel and Bobby Ryan, and become an actual player in the international scene again. However, as long as Dean Lombardi is running the team, it would appear that change is a long way off.
Perhaps this massive embarrassment on the international stage again might actually prompt the necessary change.