By Sean Hartnett
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American hockey fans are still struggling to come to grips with the finalized 23-man roster selected by USA Hockey ahead of this fall’s Word Cup of Hockey. When the tournament gets underway in Toronto on Sept. 17, five of the most talented Americans will be nowhere near the Air Canada Centre ice.
Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Faulk and Cam Fowler were bizarrely omitted when USA Hockey revealed its final seven roster selections on Friday evening. All five should have been shoo-ins for the American squad.
The sting of Finland’s 5-0 rout of the Americans in the 2014 Olympic bronze medal game loomed large in how USA’s 2016 roster has been constructed. An undisciplined and spiritless performance saw the United States crash out of the Sochi games in embarrassing fashion. Throughout the tournament, head coach Dan Bylsma refused to tweak his lines and stayed with a passive 1-2-2 system that had the Americans chasing instead of dictating play. They failed to establish anything resembling a forecheck against Canada in the semifinals and demonstrated abysmal puck management.
Consider the hiring of John Tortorella as head coach and Dean Lombardi as general manager an extreme overreaction to the failures of Sochi. Tortorella and Lombardi are two old-school minds who favor grit and physical strength. Lombardi looked to the 1996 USA team that upset Canada in a best-of-three World Cup final as the blueprint for his 2016 roster.
“This team will be constructed on the basis of two overriding themes,” Lombardi said last August. “One is the complete emphasis upon team, and team will be defined as burying your ego and it’s nefarious agents power, fame and fortune. Team will be defined as accepting your role and team will be defined as the pursuit of a higher cause.
“The 1996 World Cup team, oh my God,” Lombardi continued. “The grace of Leetch, Modano and Weight. The toughness of Guerin, Tkachuk, Deadmarsh, Hatcher. The goal-scoring prowess of Hull and LeClair. The speed of LaFontaine and Amonte. The relentlessness of Chelios, the timeliness of Richter. This group of athletes of compiled a startling collective resume. Six Hall of Famers, 23 Stanley Cups, 87 All-Star Games, 13 first All-Star team selections, 16 second All-Star team selections, five Norris Trophies, one Hart Trophy, a Vezina Trophy, seven players with over 1,000 points in the National Hockey League. And less people think that team was soft, seven players with over 1,000 minutes in penalties. You can probably say eight because Chelios did enough for two people with 2,000.”
The problem is, hockey has changed a lot in 20 years and USA’s roster is overloaded with grinding bottom-six forwards who lack the foot speed to keep up with the Canadians, the Swedes and the Russians. What’s interesting is the big, heavy 1996 gold medal team was outshot 109-86 during the three-game final against Canada. Mike Richter, the tournament MVP, made 35 saves in the series-clincher, including 23 in the second period.
There’s been a lot of talk about “character,” “identity” and “accepting roles.” It seems like the decision-makers at USA Hockey sure wanted to scrape Kessel’s identity off the roster. Kessel evaded character concerns this season by satisfying Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan’s desire for him to (in Sullivan’s words) “go to the battle areas, down in the trenches.”
Let’s bury the unfair perception surrounding Kessel once and for all. Phil Kessel loves hockey and he’s a tough son of a gun. He hasn’t missed a game since offseason shoulder surgery caused him to sit out the first 12 games of the 2009-10 season. Talk about character? Kessel only missed 11 regular season games during his 2006-07 rookie season after undergoing a successful operation after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Kessel led the way at the 2014 Olympics, tying Sweden’s Erik Karlsson with a tournament-high eight points and matching Austria’s Michael Grabner for the tournament goal lead at five. This playoffs, he has been a point-per-game performer for the Eastern Conference champion Penguins.
You know who’s going to be grateful not seeing Kessel in a USA sweater? Pens teammate and Canadian superstar Sidney Crosby.
“When he gets a step on the outside, it’s really tough to stop him,” Crosby told WFAN.com in March. “Some of the shots he gets away — his snap shot is one of the most dangerous in the league. So, when he gets that open space — he creates a lot.”
What it boils down to is a team that is short of firepower and Kessel’s omission is proof of Tortorella’s obsession with cookie cutter players who fit his yearnings for “grit” and “jam.” It’s even more surprising that Tortorella overlooked Tampa Bay Lighting ace Johnson, who, despite his 5-foot-8, 183-pound frame, plays with the kind of in-your-face tenacity that Torts should have embraced. Oh yeah, and Johnson was a point-per-game contributor for the Lightning while being hobbled by injuries this playoffs.
It’s not just the skill and jet-like legs of Kessel and Johnson that’s going to be greatly missed. Again, this isn’t 1996. Speed and possession is the name of the game in 2016. Shattenkirk, Faulk, Fowler and Keith Yandle are blueliners who thrive in transition and offer oodles of playmaking acumen. All four were left off the roster and let’s be honest, Yandle didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of making a U.S. roster headed by Tortorella. Instead, Torts is leaning on bigger-bodied Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson who each represented USA at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics while Torts served as an assistant coach. Neither were part of the 2014 Sochi squad.
Tortorella got what he wanted — a roster full of grinding forwards and a heavy group of blueliners who can handle the punishment of playing a collapsing defensive system and are willing to block an unholy amount of shots. It’s pretty much grab a lead and defend for your life. Cory Schneider, Jonathan Quick, Ben Bishop — whoever gets the nod as starting goalie — is going to have to play lights out for USA to stand any chance of medaling this fall.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey