Despite World Cup of Hockey Failure, Future Bright for Team USA
Among the biggest stories to emerge from the 2016 World Cup of Hockey tournament was the woeful performance of Team USA. Entering the tournament considered among the favorites, the Americans lost all three of their preliminary-round games and failed to qualify for the semifinal.
In the aftermath of Team USA’s tournament elimination at the hand of arch-rival Team Canada, American general manager Dean Lombardi and head coach John Tortorella faced considerable criticism for the makeup of the roster and the system they played.
Much of the focus was upon Lombardi’s selection of gritty character players such as Justin Abdelkader David Backes, Ryan Kesler and Brandon Dubinsky over skilled players such as Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson, Bobby Ryan and Justin Faulk. This version of Team USA was supposed to physically wear down their opponents whilst creating scoring opportunities for skill players such as Patrick Kane, Blake Wheeler, Max Pacioretty and John Carlson.
However, they had difficulty keeping pace with swifter opponents such as Team Europe, Team Canada and Team Czech Republic. Against the Canadians, they faced a team not only deep in skilled players, but also capable of playing a physical style. That was very apparent in the pre-tournament games between the two teams. The Americans crashing style seemed to catch the Canadians by surprise in the first game, resulting in a 4-2 American victor. The Canadians quickly adjusted in the second game and easily beat the Americans 5-2 the following night.
Tortorella later said Team USA lacked the depth in talent to compete against the Canadians. That’s as may be, but perhaps if the Americans hadn’t left some of their skilled players at home, perhaps they could’ve had a better showing in this tournament.
Much was made about Team North America, the squad comprised of players 23-and-younger from Canada and the United States, siphoning off depth from Team USA. Notables such as Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Dylan Larkin, Brandon Saad, Vincent Trocheck, Jacob Trouba, Seth Jones, Shayne Gostisbehere and John Gibson were unavailable to Lombardi. But considering Lombardi’s mindset toward a more physical and experienced roster, it’s doubtful he would’ve selected many of those young Americans.
Whenever the next version of Team USA involving NHL players is assembled, be it for the 2018 Winter Olympics or another World Cup of Hockey in 2020, it’s a safe bet there will be a different management group in place and a different head coach behind the bench. They will undoubtedly put more emphasis on speed and skills over physicality and truculence.
The good news is they’ll have more skilled talent to choose from for their next incarnation. Assuming the NHL agrees to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, many of those young Americans who skated for Team North America this year will play on Team USA. It’s also possible some of the veterans passed over for this year’s World Cup will be part of the ’18 Olympic roster.
If the NHL passes on the 2018 Winter Olympics, those young Americans will be seasoned veterans in their playing prime if there’s a World Cup of Hockey tournament in 2020. They will provide Team USA with a much-needed boost of skilled talent, and that’s not counting any potential late-blooming talent over the next four years..
By that point, only Matthews and Eichel will be 23 or younger and forced to play for Team North America. Assuming we’ve yet to see the best of Gaudreau, Larkin, Trouba, Jones, Trocheck, Gostisbehere and Gibson, the Americans should give their opponents fits in 2020.
Of course, that doesn’t guarantee the Americans will win the next World Cup or Olympic gold over the next four years. Canada, Sweden and Russia should remain the dominant hockey countries, Finland is improving, the Czechs rebuilding and the mashup that is Team Europe proved to be no pushover in this tournament.
But with more emphasis on skill over brawn, with a bevy of young talent coming into its prime and with a management and coaching staff that sees its club not as plucky underdogs but as genuine championship caliber, the Americans should significantly improve in the coming years.