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TORONTO – A purge is required for USA Hockey.
A purge of players, as the leadership core of Team USA got its last kick at the can against Canada and instead fell on its collective ass.
A purge of the coach, hired for flimsy reasons and presiding over a roster that fit an archaic dogma that treasures nebulous attributes like “grit” and “compete” over actual skill and talent.
A purge of the philosophy that led to the hiring of that coach, a philosophy that left goal-scorers and strong defenders back home because of petty concerns, unmerited loyalty to veteran players and an unwavering commitment to building a blue-collar team to act as Canada’s collective punching bag.
Team USA’s 4-2 loss to the Canadians on Tuesday night in the World Cup was the final shovel of dirt on this group. They lost the game to their arch-rival and lost any chance to advancing to the World Cup semifinals. The United States of America will play a meaningless game against the Czech Republic to end group play on Thursday night. Team Europe, which was literally invented last year, will instead advance along with Canada.
This is humiliating. Completely humiliating. For the players, like Ryan Suter: “I feel like we let our country down. We let ourselves down. To be out after two games is extremely disappointing,” he said after the loss.
For the fans, who once again must genuflect to their Canadian brethren. For ESPN, which crowed about the return of the NHL and aired what amounted to 60 minutes of apathetic Americans flinging shots and Canadians poking a dead carcass with a stick.
It’s humiliating when goal-scorers who were left home snark about the team that snubbed them:
Just sitting around the house tonight w my dog. Felt like I should be doing something important, but couldn't put my finger on it.
— Phil Kessel (@PKessel81) September 21, 2016
It’s humiliating when other USA Hockey players are thankful they’re physically unable to join this collection of losers:
Really glad I was born without legs. The US sled team has a much better track record of success than the US stand up men's team….
— Josh Pauls (@spudsusa27) September 21, 2016
It’s all just humiliating.
We saw on the ice what the Americans inherently know in their hearts, which is that this group doesn’t belong in the same conversation with the Canadians. Yes, in 2010, Team USA was one goal (or Ryan Miller save) away from beating them on their home ice for Olympic gold. But that group was mentally prepared to hang with them after their win in preliminaries, and we haven’t seen that confidence since.
In 2014, in Sochi, the Americans came into their semifinal against Canada looking like their equals, and then played a subservient game against an opponent they sensed was significantly better. The 1-0 loss felt like 100-0.
Then, in this World Cup, the Americans entered their showdown as underdogs, as unequals and then acted the part when Canada scored three quick goals in the first period. With no margin for error, they gifted a superior team goals. It was literally the thing they couldn’t do to have a prayer against Canada.
“We blow up, self-inflicted, and they surged, and we had no answer,” said coach John Tortorella. “We kept trying to catch up the rest of the game and just couldn’t get it done.”
And neither did their coach.
Tortorella’s hiring as Team USA coach was problematic from the start, and not just because his introductory press conference was hijacked by prank callers:
John Tortorella was hired for three reasons. The first was always asinine: Because he wasn’t currently in an NHL job, which was a requirement for GM Dean Lombardi and the Team USA braintrust. That way, he could completely focus on building and managing this group ahead of the World Cup.
Great plan! Oh, darn, look at that: John Tortorella was hired by the Columbus Blue Jackets, and thus had to do NHL things. You could have named Peter Laviolette coach after all!
The second reason was that Tortorella would give this team a discernible identity, matching management’s philosophy on selecting players: ‘Gritty Jammy Sandpaper That Can Maybe Beat Canada’ guys. The team had skill, but not enough of it, as offensively talented Americans were left home in favor of old soldiers and role players.
Part of the humiliation for Team USA was watching that identity morph into a multiple personality disorder during the tournament.
Why have David Backes and Ryan Kesler on your team, and then instruct them not to play the role of agitator against Canada? To stay away from “after the whistle stuff” that they excel at doing?
Why have Brandon Dubinsky on your team and not play him to agitate Sidney Crosby, which is literally his only notable accomplishment of the last few seasons? Because he might take penalties? Isn’t that point? And if he’s scratched because Kyle Palmieri brings more offense, well, isn’t that decision in direct contrast with how this team was built for “jam” but not for skill?
Why have Justin Abdelkader on the team and move him into a Top 6 role in your most important game? Or have him on the team, you know, at all?
The third reason was that Tortorella, for all his failings as a tactical coach and all his outdated philosophies on how to win in today’s NHL, would at the very least be the kind of coach that would light a fire under his players and have them prepared for a short-sprint tournament like the World Cup. A master motivator, if you will.
And then they lose their first two games of the tournament and are eliminated.
“Just a dud against Team Europe,” said Patrick Kane, after their second dud against Team Canada. “You can probably chalk that one up as we weren’t ready to play, weren’t ready to start the tournament on time.”
Good job, good effort, coach.
It’s been six years since the silver medal in Vancouver. The Americans left Sochi with nothing but a loss against Canada. They’ll leave the World Cup in Toronto with the same.
“To come so close in Vancouver, to beat Canada early in the tournament, and then lose to Canada in overtime in the 2010 Olympics, and then to go to Sochi and play … it wasn’t really the style that we wanted to play … that was disappointing,” said defenseman Ryan Suter. “We had a chance to win a bronze medal there, and we didn’t. And then to come here, and flop like we did is extremely disappointing. Obviously we have to examine ourselves, and what more could we have done, and how can we get better for future tournaments.”
Allow me to begin the examination.
A purge is required.
The Vancouver 2010 team was a product of such a purge. Of the 23 players selected for that team by general manager Brian Burke, only three had previous Olympic experience. The team in Torino had 13 players over the age of 30. It won a single game. Team USA stalwarts like Mike Modano, Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, Mathieu Schneider and Scott Gomez were expunged from the roster. It was a fresh start.
Of the players on this 2016 World Cup team, 14 will be over age 30 if the NHL goes to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
So a purge is again required, with the knowledge that a new generation is on the way.
There is no U-23 team at the Olympics. The Americans would have forwards like Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Brandon Saad, Dylan Larkin and Vincent Trocheck on their radar; they’d have defensemen like Shayne Gostisbehere, Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba available; same deal with goalies John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck.
“I think there is definitely a fantastic future coming here, not only for the USA,” said Tortorella, who won’t be allowed within 100 miles of coaching said future American stars. “I think they’ll bring some juice to the program.”
This team should be handed to them, just like the Vancouver team was handed over to the likes of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and Patrick Kane and Joe Pavelski and Ryan Kesler and Ryan Miller.
The question facing USA Hockey is which players from this World Cup team, and previous Olympic teams, should augment that young core. Who will be their Chris Drury or Jamie Langenbrunner, to use two players from the silver-medal winning team?
The Minnesota boys, Parise and Suter, should be gone. (The former having notched a single point in eight games since his tying goal in the 2010 gold medal game.) Ryan Kesler, David Backes, Brandon Dubinsky and any other player associated with “sandpaper,” gone. Max Pacioretty, though age appropriate, wouldn’t be back either. Jonathan Quick, and his blocker saves into Corey Perry’s stomach, wouldn’t be back either.
Who would return? Joe Pavelski would be back. Ditto Patrick Kane. Ditto Ryan McDonagh. Ditto Derek Stepan, Blake Wheeler and John Carlson. They’d join inexplicable snubs like Kessel, Tyler Johnson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Kyle Okposo and Justin Faulk as a veteran core, joining a slew of the high-ceiling kids.
(Take a moment to read some of those names, and now listen to John Tortorella when asked about what Team USA’s major failing at the World Cup was: “Well, I’m still looking for us to generate offense.”)
(Head, meet desk.)
Purge the rest. Not only to up the talent level on this team, but to reset the memory banks, so when adversity hits against Canada, they don’t wilt.
But they also need to purge their obsession with Canada. Playing the blue-collar underdog because that’s what you’re “supposed” to be against Canada. Constructing teams to beat Canada, rather than be outstanding teams. That’s how you end up with someone like Dubinsky, until his head coach gets buyer’s remorse on the day of the big game. (Training camp in Columbus should be fun.)
This philosophy trickles down to the locker room from the managers. If this were Team Canada, and these managers produced these results over the last six years, there would be regime change.
But this is USA Hockey, so the best we can hope for is that Brian Burke and Paul Holmgren and Dean Lombardi allow someone like a Ray Shero to try something other than Gritty Jammy Sandpaper That Can Maybe Beat Canada with this roster. And allow him to hire a coach with the confidence in his team’s skill and abilities to look elite teams in the eye and know that they belong, rather than retreating to that “scrappy underdog” place.
Maybe the Miracle on Ice accidentally set that template for American hockey decades ago.
It’s fair to say that American hockey fans were split into two groups heading into the Canada World Cup game.
The first group hoped they could win in regulation, beat the Czechs in regulation, advance to the semifinals and potentially challenge for the World Cup.
The second group, to paraphrase Alfred Pennyworth, just wanted to watch Team USA burn.
That second group knew their chances of winning this tournament were about as real as the Easter Bunny carrying a bucket of unicorn tears, because they knew the team was poorly constructed, had the wrong coach and the wrong philosophy. And to achieve what the first group wanted to achieve, Team USA needed to be devastated. It needed a rebuke. It needed a humbling from Canada.
And on Tuesday, they received it, as harshly and as emphatically as they ever have. Right down to the fact that, in the end, Canada defeated the United States by doing the thing they claimed would lead them to victory over the Canadians: The dirty work.
“That kind of fired us up to be honest with you,” said Matt Duchene of Canada, of Team USA’s ‘win with grit’ mantra. “You look at three of our four goals, they’re dirty goals, gritty goals, obviously we’re very skilled but we have a gritty team as well and we showed it.”
The slate must be cleaned for Team USA. The torch must be passed. The era of Gritty Jammy Sandpaper That Can Maybe Beat Canada officially ended in Game 2 of the preliminary round of the World Cup of Hockey.
It has to end for the Americans to excel better on the international stage. Because they sure as hell can’t get much worse.
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