Let’s not sugarcoat this. Missing the podium is a major disappointment for the United States men’s hockey team.
The days of just being happy to make the medal round are long, long gone. It might sound bold to say medals should be expected every Olympics, but when you look at the increasing number of Americans in the NHL, the increasing number of Americans showing up among the league leaders in scoring and the increasing success of the country at the World Junior Championships, there’s no reason that shouldn’t be the expectation. Gold should always be within reach.
The 1-0 loss to Canada in the semifinals was disappointing. Even though the U.S. had some chances, it clearly didn’t play its best game, and Canada was a step ahead most of the day. Had the Americans come out and beat Finland on Saturday and taken home bronze, it might have been easy to write off the Canada loss as a bad game, a tough loss, whatever you want to call it.
Instead, the U.S. fell on its face against Finland, losing in blowout fashion. Embarrassing. Disgraceful. Shameful. They all apply.
The game clearly meant something to the Finns; they wanted to win a medal. The Americans gave up once they fell behind by a couple goals. We can argue about how much a bronze means, but it should mean something. The Americans’ biggest problem on Saturday was that it seemingly meant nothing to them.
And so, with that as the follow-up to Friday’s semifinal loss, we’re left to evaluate an all-around bad performance by the U.S. in the medal round. Not scoring a single goal in two games is extremely concerning. So is the number of quality scoring chances the Americans allowed -- keep in mind that even though Canada only scored once on Friday, it registered 37 shots on goal.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but the U.S. needs to use hindsight now to try to figure out what it could’ve done differently. Everything from how the team was selected to the roles individual players were used in needs to be looked at.
Before we go any further, let’s dispel the ridiculous notion that the U.S. development model is somehow broken. USA Hockey, boosted by the U.S. National Team Development Program, has taken incredible strides over the last 10-15 years, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change. There’s a reason the percentage of U.S. players in the NHL has risen from 15 percent to 25 percent in the last 10 years, and there’s a reason the U.S. has won two of the last five World Junior Championships. It’s because the country is producing a lot more high-caliber players.
Now, about that lack of offense. We knew all along that the U.S. had left a few of its best goal-scorers home. Bobby Ryan is obviously the name everyone mentions, but let’s not forget that Kyle Okposo and Jason Pominville were left off the team, too. Guys like Ryan Callahan, Dustin Brown, T.J. Oshie, Blake Wheeler and Derek Stepan were taken in their place.
You can’t argue with Oshie. He’s a solid fourth-liner, and now everyone knows just how good he is in shootouts. He played a major role in deciding an important game, and performed well enough outside of that, too. Stepan probably had to be there just in case one of the other four centers got injured.
Wheeler’s scoring numbers are on par with Ryan, Okposo and Pominville, but when the U.S. was struggling to score, Wheeler’s minutes remained limited. If he wasn’t brought there to score, why was he on the team? Would Ryan, Okposo or Pominville have been better bottom-six scoring options?
Those are good questions, but perhaps this goes beyond just those 1-on-1 comparisons. Callahan and Brown were considered locks for this team from Day 1. In fact, both were members of the team’s “leadership group” that was announced even before the final roster.
Everyone loves Callahan’s grit and determination and all that -- the number of big blocks he came up with shouldn’t be ignored. But Callahan, who has just 11 goals and 24 points this season, ended up seventh among U.S. forwards in ice time in the Olympics. He finished the tournament with just five shots on goal, none in the medal round. If you want him on the team because of the qualities mentioned above, that’s at least understandable. But trying to make him a top-nine forward was a mistake, plain and simple.
Brown was fine as a fourth-liner. Playing him in the top six early in the tournament was a plan that Dan Bylsma quickly abandoned -- one of the few good adjustments the Penguins coach made. But that raises the question: How many fourth-liners do you need? We’ve already established that Oshie, Callahan and Brown are all fine in that role. Paul Stastny centered that line and did a good job. Bylsma apparently had no intention of using Wheeler in a bigger role. And Stepan would’ve only been a fourth-liner if he got into the lineup. So that’s six fourth-line types, which is exactly what everyone who wanted Ryan, Okposo and/or Pominville on the team feared.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Max Pacioretty -- three guys who were expected to score -- combined for just one goal in the tournament. But that’s exactly why, as the saying goes, you can never have too many scorers. If you rely on one or two lines for all your goals, and some of those guys go cold, you’re going to struggle. But if you have more scorers behind those guys, you obviously increase your chances of overcoming their struggles.
Defense might not have been as big of an issue as scoring in the end, but it wasn’t exactly great either. In both the Canada game and the Finland game, the U.S. found itself pinned in its own zone for long stretches. Jonathan Quick played great against Canada, and that’s the biggest reason Canada only scored once.
A huge part of the defensive struggles in the medal round was the loss of Paul Martin. He was third among U.S. defensemen in ice time in the four games prior to that, and he had been solid in those minutes. It goes without saying that losing a top-four defenseman hurts.
As far as roster selection regarding defensemen, Brooks Orpik remains the biggest head-scratcher. For some reason -- probably because his coach in Pittsburgh was also the U.S. coach -- he was considered a lock from Day 1. That despite the fact that he isn’t having a great season and isn’t exactly the most mobile blue-liner. Bylsma then compounded the problem by playing Orpik too many minutes and using him as a “shutdown” defenseman. Orpik didn’t shut down anyone. It was clear to everyone other than the coaching staff, apparently, that he was struggling to keep up with the world’s best forwards, and yet his ice time hardly wavered.
Could Justin Faulk have handled those minutes and done a better job? We have no idea because Bylsma completely ignored him in the group stage and only used him sparingly once Martin went down. This raises a similar question to the Wheeler question: If Faulk wasn’t going to be used when other guys were struggling, why was he on the team? Why not take someone like Erik Johnson, who has Olympic experience and is having a strong season in Colorado? Johnson is a similar player to Orpik, and he’s having a better season.
Looking ahead to 2018 -- assuming the NHL continues its involvement in the Olympics (which it should, because the Olympics are an incredible international platform for the sport) -- defense should be less of a concern than it was this year. Young guys like Faulk, Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Cam Fowler and John Carlson will all have four more years of experience, and phenoms like Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba should be ready to go. Goaltending should remain a strength as well.
The biggest questions should center around how the forwards are picked and who the coach will be. There clearly needs to be more scoring up front, and if that comes at the expense of “grit” or “leadership,” then so be it. Just as it did this year, the U.S. should have enough scorers to choose from. As far as coaching goes, Bylsma didn’t make enough adjustments and continued to ride guys who didn’t deserve the minutes. The U.S. rarely brings the same coach twice in a row anyway, so it’s hard to imagine Bylsma would be considered for 2018. Who would be is an interesting debate for a later time.
This year’s U.S. team wasn’t good enough to win gold, or even medal, and that’s extremely disappointing because it should have been. Whether that was because of who was picked for the team, who the coach was, how the players performed or, most likely, a combination of all three, the U.S. has a lot of questions to ask itself. Hopefully by 2018, it will have the answers.