david poile

So another Olympics have come and gone with Canada’s Golden Generation — probably the greatest single stock of hockey talent ever produced in a 10-year period by any nation — having waltzed a bit more breezily straight through to the gold medal for which they were always the heavy favorites.

There aren’t a lot of lessons to be learned, in general, from “Best team wins” headlines, and anyone trying to attribute this to anything bigger than Canada having the talent to medal if they’d sent two teams to Sochi (an oft-repeated trope, but a 100 percent accurate one) is romanticizing things.

On the other end of the spectrum is the country that has in the last several years really cemented itself as the single biggest threat to Canada’s continued international success overall: The United States of America. They beat the brains out of everyone that sucks, barely snuck by Russia thanks a dumb rule that’s so dumb even the depthlessly incompetent IIHF is not going to let it exist any more, and then got creamed by both Canada and Finland en route to an embarrassing fourth-place finish.

As you might imagine, there are lessons to be learned from the way Hockey Canada went about its business both before and during the tournament, and that doesn’t include in the player development process. When it comes to the Olympics, there are right and wrong ways to do things. Canada did things correctly, all other countries, to varying extents and occasionally through no fault of their own, did not.

But because the US was supposed to have been close, as it was in Vancouver, it is the hockey nation that can most directly benefit from taking notes, so that hopefully in 2018 it can, to use the parlance of Jonathan Quick, piss a drop. Here are some of them:

1. Let people who are actually good at picking teams pick teams

Who were the brainiacs who put together the American side? David Poile was the GM, and he has over the course of his career with Nashville done a fine job of getting that team into the playoffs on a relatively small budget; this season will be just the first time since 2003-04 that the Preds do not end up making the playoffs in consecutive years. However, his organizational philosophy, executed by Barry Trotz, is one that does not in and of itself engender offense, and while that might work over 82 games more often than not, it sure as hell doesn’t work over shorter timeframes against the very best teams in the world. Case in point: Not only these Olympics, but also in the Preds’ having advanced out of the first round just twice in franchise history.

His support staff in selecting the team, meanwhile, was a hodgepodge of guys who are generally considered to be bad at being general managers in the NHL. The most visible and vocal was Brian Burke, who shouldn’t at this point be allowed to go anywhere near the process of putting a team together. Beyond him, though, were guys like Don Waddell, whose most recent GMing gig was with the Atlanta Thrashers, which speaks for itself, and Paul Holmgren, who has in the past few years strategically dismantled the Philadelphia Flyers for reasons unbeknownst to any but himself.

Of course, Steve Yzerman, who put together the Canadian team, hasn’t necessarily proven himself to be a great NHL general manager, and while you could put on a blindfold and throw darts at a bulletin board of Canada’s top 40 NHLers and pick a team capable of winning gold, he was also able to rely upon some excellent talent evaluators, like Peter Chiarelli and Doug Armstrong, and to a lesser extent Ken Holland. All those guys have, in their day, built very successful NHL teams. Not sure the US even had guys like that available to them.

Save for one. Reading that coverage of the USA Hockey selection process, Kings GM — and recent Stanley Cup winner — Dean Lombardi came across as being thoughtful, prepared, and someone who’s able to be successful at this level. This was laughed at by the old boys club of failed GMs who would rather write off Bobby Ryan as a “sleepy skater” and try to interpret the dreams they had about Jack Johnson than read what has become colloquially known as the Yandle Manifesto, a lengthy (but ultimately doomed) argument in favor of Keith Yandle, a rare blue line offensive talent that, it turned out, the US badly needed.

2. Bring your best players

Not that Canada brought or utilized its ideal roster (the inclusion of Chris Kunitz, the non-use of PK Subban, etc.), but the US didn’t even bother trying to justify the roster it brought as being the best one it could muster.

Under the guise that including “glue guys” like Chris Drury and Tim Gleason was one of the primary reasons the US took arguably the best team ever assembled to overtime in the gold medal game on home ice, it once again tried to find The Right Players for the job in Sochi and wound up killing its chances for repeating that success, never mind bettering it, in the cradle.

Brooks Orpik over Yandle or Dustin Byfuglien, possession-driving defensemen who may or may not lack for defensive reliability depending upon who you ask, stands out as being chief among these, because Orpik was torched repeatedly while being out there against other teams’ toughest competition for reasons only Dan Bylsma can explain. Or there’s the fact that when the offense dried up and penalty killers Dustin Brown or Ryan Callahan were left sitting solemnly on the bench, Bobby Ryan was working on his tan a hemisphere away, and probably laughing his ass off.

Bobby Ryan’s 121 even-strength goals since 2008-09? That ranks sixth in the NHL, tied with some guys named Jarome Iginla and Sidney Crosby. However, the American quote-unquote braintrust didn’t want to bring Ryan because they thought he couldn’t contribute on the power play. The same power play that spent more time in its own zone than in the other teams’ against Canada and Finland. It’s tough to say he could have contributed more to the US’s success when up a man, but he sure couldn’t have contributed less. You have to wonder if that power play, or the ability to get the puck up the ice, improves if Yandle or Byfuglien makes the team as opposed to Orpik, who was just dire from start to finish but likely only included at Bylsma’s behest.

3. Don’t play passive

The use of Bylsma as coach, by the way, also brought about what could have been the team’s ultimate downfall: It played conservative hockey against the Canadians and Finns from the outset, obviously hoping to score and draw penalties on the counterattack as it had in the preliminary rounds and against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. Canada would obviously brook no such behavior, and instead almost never allowed the US to get forward in the first place. Every shift ended with the Canadians pinning the Americans into their zone, or, at best, the Americans breaking in, putting a shot from the boards into Carey Price’s chest, and getting a faceoff that they promptly lost and thus had to retreat back down the ice. The number of sustained shifts for which the Americans had more than, say, one or two shot attempts had to number in the low single digits.

In playing this way, they conceded the game to Canada, but allowed just one goal and made it look a lot closer on the scoreboard than the 58.5 percent share of corsi enjoyed by the eventual gold medal winners. More of the same against the Finns, and that game got as out-of-hand as the one against Canada should by all rights have done. It’s odd; this isn’t the style the Penguins tend to play in the NHL, but by playing it in the Olympics, Bylsma’s team effectively ceded both games.

Canada, meanwhile, did nothing but attack. Relentlessly. The Finns brought a similar game plan, and despite being significantly less talented, left the US defenders with their innards trailing behind them in the handshake line.

Whoever coaches the next American team (and it better not be Bylsma) will have to have his team play like they’re among the best in the world, instead of playing for an upset that wouldn’t, by any means, be all that much of an upset at all.

4. Try to score at even strength sometimes

You’d have thought this would be self-evident. Oh well.

Comments (15)

  1. Great article. It’s hard to know how much of that ESPN article was just an impressionistic narrative to create a story, but it was really striking that everyone involved in the team laughed off Lombardi with some form of “NERD ALERT!” when he’s the only one of them who’s actually put together a winning NHL team.

    I assume that Orpik made the team because of Bylsma, otherwise there’s really no excuse (not that a coach bringing a favorite player is really an excuse either). Orpik really strikes me as a the sort of supposedly “good defensive player” you’ve talked about in the past, in the sense that he’s not really any good with the puck or fast or skilled, so he *must* be good defensively, right? right? NBC tried to blame the first Datsyuk goal on Carlson who had wandered out pretty wide, but the fact of the matter was that Orpik just could not keep pace Datsyuk. His supposed toughness didn’t pan out so well against Canada either, when he failed to tie up Benn’s stick.

    Aside from your good points about the passive game that Bylsma wanted, I thought that the penalty shots against Finland nicely encapsulate the bizarreness of Bylsma’s coaching and the roster selection. If the US had scored on one or both of those, it would have been a much different game. IIHF rules allow anyone to take the penalty shot, so why not have Oshie, whom they had brought specifically because of his penalty shot and shootout skills? I can only guess that maybe Bylsma wanted to get ice-cold Kane going, but surely you go with the surer thing when you get the second opportunity. Oshie obviously vindicated management’s decision to bring him in the shootout against Russia, but why bring him if they aren’t going to use him for the very situations for which they included him on the team? In fact, it’s that much more bizarre, given his success against Russia.

    • Excellent comment. (I.e., I agree with you entirely, so you must be right!)

    • they changed the rule in the IIHF so the player fouled has to take the penalty shot. If the player cannot be identified, a player who was on the ice has to take the shot. I don’t remember where Oshie was but I don’t recall him playing on Kane’s line so he wouldn’t have been eligible to take those penalty shots.

      • Thanks for clarifying that. I had apparently been going off of outdated information from the IIHF website, but I turned up the updated rules after you pointed that out. In that case, going with Kane makes more sense, because I don’t think Oshie was on the ice in either instance (he played with Stastny and Pacioretty). I guess I’ll have to give Byslma a pass on that one…

  2. Blysma could only have used a player on the ice at the time of the infraction for the penalty shots, and thus could not have used Oshie for the Kane penalty shots. (He could use anyone for a shoot-out situation.)

  3. A good article as always, but the case is a bit over-stated. I don’t think Ryan or Yandle are the difference between a gold medal. As you acknowledged, Canada was simply much better. Every nation had a pretty questionable selection process. Fortunately for Canada they made the egregious error of leaving Crosby off the ’06 team and have shown a willingness to go with youth since then.

    • Thing is, Ryan and Yandle are underrated by most people, including GMs who whould know better. Crosby should have made it in 06, but Taylor Hall should have made it this year too over Kunitz. Not sure what my point is.

      • Conservative GMs are conservative?

        Groupthink is bad?

        GM quality distributes via a Pareto curve, and Lombardi is the 20% with 80% of the brains?

    • I agree that the US team wasn’t a Yandle and a Ryan away from matching such a great Canadian team. But something definitely went wrong in the selection process and on the ice. Yandle would have been a real improvement on Orpik and might have helped a bit with the possession game. Likewise, Ryan could have helped a lot, given the problems the US had with scoring. In such low-scoring games, one goal makes a real difference. It’s not like he would have made things worse than the no-shows from players like Parise and Callahan.

      In some ways, it’s hard to know what lessons USA Hockey should take from their team’s performance. They crushed the bad teams, but they were one lucky disallowed goal away from going 0-3 against the good teams. Then again, had they gotten a lucky bounce or two against Canada, everyone would be talking about the triumph of USA Hockey, no matter that Canada was clearly the better team in that game (a bit like discussions surrounding the Leafs, no?).

  4. ‘ Brian Burke, who shouldn’t at this point be allowed to go anywhere near the process of putting a team together’

    I do not think you are qualified to make this type of statement, even if it is a hockey web-blog

    But then again, I really question leaving Andy Greene off the US team so……

    Go Canada?

  5. Point 3 strikes a chord with me. Being a Pens fan, I was disappointed that Shero decided to extend Bylsma’s contract beyond this year. For just the reason the world saw in Sochi. He constantly preaches making other teams play according to his team’s pace, but then he slows his own team. It doesn’t make any sense. I would have preferred he coach knowing his continued employment hinged on his ability to learn and adapt to previous weaknesses, because then maybe he would have actually acted on what he learned. I don’t see Bylsma sticking around in Pittsburgh past the playoffs, because I’m almost certain the Pens will once again implode when the pressure increases.

  6. I don’t understand the whole crisis mentality around what happened to Team USA at the Olympics. Canada was an absolutely beast… getting badly outplayed by that team is not something to freak out over. The bronze game… that’s not good. But we’ve all seen big games that start ok but come unraveled quickly, so the point Bourne made in his 8 takeaways piece should resonate. It looks bad, but it’s not symptomatic of a massive team problem. If it had happened earlier in the tournament, I can see the argument, and those players will regret one day that they phoned in a medal game, but they’re neither the first nor the last team to bottom out in a consolation game.

    I think the real lesson here is a variation on point #2… regardless of big ice or small ice, it gets tough to score in the medal round, which means A) you need puck-moving defensemen (which goes against the older school of thought around wanting defensive defensemen in a tight game), and B) all your best goalscorers. Maybe neither Ryan or Yandle/Buff make a difference against Canada from a Corsi perspective, but the US was one good rush, one good chance from a tie game, and those are the types of guys who can find a way to make that one rush/chance a reality.

  7. The best thing that can be said about Team USA is it had snubs. That’s not exactly the progress we were looking for, but it’s progress.

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