USA All The Way? Can Team USA repeat World Cup Success of 20 years ago?
In 1996, the NHL and NHLPA gathered its best players, split them up by birth country, and had a tournament before the 1996-97 season commenced. Tournament MVP Mike Richter was in goal; Captain Brian Leetch held down the blue line along with other big names like Chris Chelios, the Hatcher Bros., Phil Housley, Shawn Chambers, Mathieu Schneider, and Gary Suter; on the front line, Team USA packed a heavy punch with guys like Brett Hull (tournament scoring leader), Pat LaFontaine, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Tony Amonte, Adam Deadmarsh, etc. In the Finals against Team Canada, USA lost the first matchup, but ended the tournament victorious with consecutive 5-2 wins in the hockey mecca of the world, Montreal.
I must admit – it’s borderline-cruel to compare today’s Team USA with the legendary 1996 roster. Nobody pots 86 goals in a season anymore like Hull (though Patrick Kane breached the 100-point mark last season, earning him a myriad of awards to go along with it). Is Ryan Suter as good as his uncle Gary? Can Ryan McDonagh replicate Brian Leetch? Then again, it’s also unfair to compare today’s Canadian Team to those of years’ past, especially that of the 1987 Canada Cup roster (Gretzky, Lemieux…enough said).
But make no mistake – the Americans have put together quite a star-studded squad and are ready to compete. Team USA is led by San Jose Sharks Captain, Joe Pavelski, with alternate captains Ryan Suter and Patrick Kane. Last summer, Patty Kane was involved in sexual assault allegations. Now, most players would be distracted by all the negative press. But not Patty – the Hart Trophy, Art Ross-winner instead focused his attention and responded by putting up 46 goals and 60 assists in an absolutely incredible career season. And believe me – the Buffalo, NY-native is going to want to find something to celebrate after Chicago’s disappointing playoff run this past spring. So is Joe Pavelski whose Sharks fell short in five games to the Penguins in the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals.
Everybody remembers TJ Oshie’s magical shootout performance against the Russians in Sochi in 2014. Well he’s back, but if any games go to a shootout, you won’t see him shooting more than once under the NHL rules implemented in the 2016 WCH.
The New York Rangers are represented by Derek Stepan and Rangers’ Captain, Ryan McDonagh. Derek Stepan is known for his complete two-way game and knack for playmaking. “Step” gathered two goals and two assists in the three exhibition games leading up to the preliminary games. “Mac Truck” is a quiet leader; rather than vocalizing what’s in his head, he shows how it’s done on the ice. He will be joined on the blue line with two Capitals’ defensemen, Matt Niskanen and John Carlson; big, bad Dustin Byfuglien; alternate captain Ryan Suter; Avs’ defenseman Erik Johnson; and Jack Johnson, who is familiar with USA Coach John Tortorella, who is also coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Niskanen is the smallest (if you want to call him that) of all defenseman at 6’0”. Byfuglien is a massive 6’5” and 260 pounds. Shutting down smaller and faster European skaters will be a major key for the USA against Team Europe on Saturday afternoon.
The New Jersey Devils are represented by goaltender Corey Schneider and forward Kyle Palmieri. Unfortunately for Devils’ fans, it doesn’t look like either player will play, barring injury.
James van Riemsdyk is playing in front of his home crowd in Toronto. The Leafs are currently under construction, and JVR will look to prove to the Toronto faithful that he’s a winner, no matter who he plays for.
Montreal Canadiens’ Captain, Max Pacioretty will look to make a big impact for the Red, White, and Blue (No, not the Blu-Blanc-Rouge – they’ll have to wait until after the 2016 WCH). Pacioretty netted 30 goals and helped on 34 others this past season in a disappointing season for the Habs’, losing Cary Price to injury and missing the postseason despite a dominant start to the season.
Another Tortorella-favorite will appear for Team USA this year: Brandon Dubinksy. Dubi knows Torts from his early New York Rangers days. After being traded in a package that landed Rick Nash in New York, Tortorella was hired as Columbus’ coach shortly thereafter. Dubi is a heart-and-soul type of player – he kills penalties, grinds the puck out in the corners, and plays every shift as if he will never play the game of hockey ever again.
In goal for Team USA is two-time Stanley Cup Champion Jonathan Quick with Ben Bishop as his backup. Both goaltenders have established themselves as world-class, capable of going up against the best the world has to offer.
This all sounds terrific, doesn’t it? Here’s my one problem: Team USA’s coach is John Tortorella.
Yes, he won the cup as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. But, he won the cup in a different era of hockey, an era more conducive to the defensive aspect of the game, one with two-line pass infractions, no trapezoids, smaller offensive zones, and no delay-of game penalties for flipping the puck into the crowd. Torts’ style is “block shots, ask questions later.” Sure, Torts knows how to shut teams down offensively. Unfortunately, that normally includes the one he coaches.
But did Torts’ shortfalls contribute to Saturday’s upset loss against Team Europe? I wish I could just blame Torts for this one, but I can’t. Team USA was blanked on 35 shots. That’s right – America managed to put up 35 shots on goal, but it didn’t seem that way. Quick only made 14 saves on 17 shots. Europe cashed in on rare opportunities presented to them. Marian Gaborik tipped a beauty pass from Frans Nielsen to open the scoring early in the first period. Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello was credited with the secondary assist on the play. Patty Kane turned the puck over early on in the second period after pressure from Leon Draisaitl, leading to a 2-on-0 with Draisaitl and Nino Neiderreiter toying with Quick. Late in the third, Flyers’ Pierre-Edouard Bellemare redirected a Jannik Hansen shot past Quick. Jaroslav Halak played absolutely outstanding against Team USA.
Team USA certainly could have used Dustin Byfuglien on the man-advantage with his heavy shot from the point. Team USA failed to capitalize on four power play opportunities. This decision does fall on John Tortorella. So is the decision not to pull Quick late in the third after Gaborik got caught for hooking at 15:29. I don’t think there would have been any harm in doing so, despite being down only 2-0 with 4:31 left to play. Then again, pulling Quick being down only 2-0 could have led to throwing the game away. Hindsight is always 20/20.
Hopefully Saturday’s upset loss was a rude awakening for Team USA. USA plays its second preliminary game against Team Canada on Tuesday. Canada steam-rolled over Team Czech Republic on Saturday night by a score of 6-0. Sidney Crosby opened the scoring and added two assists, while Islanders’ Captain John Tavares assisted on two power play goals. Perhaps we see a slightly different squad for the anticipated matchup. Team USA and Team Canada split wins during the exhibition phase. Tuesday night will give Joe Pavelski a chance at redemption after losing to Crosby and the Penguins in the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals.