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.