Extended Thoughts about the United States' 2010 Olympic Hockey Team

On January 1st, USA Hockey revealed their roster for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the final team to announce their roster.  With three New Jersey Devils named to the roster and a whole lot of youth, Team USA is heading in a new direction.  Already the theme for the team has been set by USA GM Brian Burke, via Puck Daddy:

"We are underdogs," he said, the words hanging in the air for a moment before Burke provided the punctuation.

"If you went to Vegas before this tournament, there isn't going to be a penny bet on us. Everyone's going to be betting on and talking about Canada and Russia. And to a lesser extent, Sweden. We're not manufacturing underdog status -- that's what we are. We're going to be the youngest, and maybe the smallest team in the field, and that's fine with us. As I said to the players: No bold predictions. No bulletin board stuff. We are going there to win."

This is a fair assessment of the team.  It's not overflowing with talent like Canada, it's not a group of veterans leading the way in one last hurrah like the Czech Republic, and it's not a roster that is loaded with legends and players with the gold medal experience of 2006 like Sweden.   Yet, should the team disappoint, criticism should rightfully be lobbed at Burke and USA Hockey for their decisions in making the team among other things.   As an American and a supporter, I have a few regarding the announced Team USA roster for the 2010 Olympics.

Now, team selection is a bit of a tricky thing to criticize because it's not as simple as it is in soccer, where a national team can call up a player of that nationality when able.  No, there's all kinds of drug tests and other regulations that limit who is an who isn't eligible for selection for the Olympics.  That's why Nicklas Bergfors couldn't be considered for Sweden despite the head coach's wishes (report by Gulitti), and that's likely why Andy Greene isn't on Team USA.  Given that evaluation camps and such were done over the past summer, I don't think one could honestly say they expected Bergfors and Greene to break out as they did.  Therefore, I'm cross-referencing my complaints with the evaluation camp list from USA Hockey assuming these players were eligible to begin with.

 

Devils on the Roster - Why Martin?

So far, the Devils who are going to Vancouver have been fairly obvious selections.  Martin Brodeur has been amazing as usual, so he was definitely going to be on Team Canada.  The only surprise for Patrik Elias in being named to the Czech team is that he'll be the captain.  Johnny Oduya may not have impressed early, but he's been healthy and he has the talent and past experience to contribute on the international level with Sweden.  If it wasn't for his poor pre-injury start, I would have thought Oduya was going to Vancouver in February. Zach Parise is probably the most talented American in the NHL right now, and Jamie Langenbrunner has been playing far too well in recent seasons to not be selected.  I get all of these picks except for one: Paul Martin.

Please don't mistake me.  Prior to this season, I would gather he was a lock to make the team.  Sure, he may not provide much in the way of offense, but he's too good in his own end to leave behind.  He eats large amounts of minutes and plays just as well in the final 3 as he does in the first 3.  He can play in all situations. 

But what truly worries me is the injury.  He's had a setback, he won't be available until later this month at best, and who knows how he'll initially perform after missing two-to-two and a half months of hockey.  That Burke named him to the roster can be taken in two ways. The positive is that Martin's talent commands selection and that's laudable. The negative is that Burke is banking on him being healthy by February and that strikes me as a little foolish.  Should he come back and struggle due to all the rust, he's not going to contribute much to the team. Should he remain injured, USA Hockey will have to get a replacement - Burke understands that Martin won't go if he's not completely healthy, per Gulitti - and what would be Plan B in that case?

But that's a minor complaint in comparison to the other head-scratcher on defense.

Why in the World is Jack Johnson on This Team?

Here's the stat-lines for each of the defensemen selected to represent the United States.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
2009 - Ryan Suter 42 2 18 20 7 24 1 0 0 24:04 46 4.3
2009 - Brian Rafalski 37 2 15 17 9 8 1 0 0 23:59 60 3.3
2009 - Paul Martin 9 0 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 23:57 9 0.0
2009 - Erik Johnson 40 4 18 22 0 32 2 0 1 21:37 83 4.8
2009 - Jack Johnson 41 4 12 16 -11 36 2 0 0 22:57 70 5.7
2009 - Brooks Orpik 39 0 14 14 0 28 0 0 0 19:59 29 0.0
2009 - Mike Komisarek 34 0 4 4 -9 40 0 0 0 19:56 35 0.0

Putting Martin's injury aside, I fully understand all of the selections except for Jack Johnson. Ryan Suter is a stud, not unlike Martin.  Brian Rafalski can play the role of veteran who can be in the team's top 4 and the point on a power play unit just fine.   Erik Johnson is young but that he's just one point behind American-defenseman leading scorer Andy Greene is impressive enough to warrant a look.  Managing an even plus-minus on St. Louis does too.   Mike Komisarek can both bring physical play to the blueline and without being a shot-sieve; and Brooks Orpik is a decent enough option as the 7th defenseman. Amazingly, Orpik does have some experience in important playoff situations (and that's really it, outside of throwing some hits, I suppose).

But take a look at this chart I compiled with the current even-strength numbers from Behind the Net.  You'll be asking yourself: why, why, why, why, why is Jack Johnson is on this team?  

Player QUALCOMP QUALTEAM GA ON/60 GA OFF/60 SA ON/60 SA OFF/60
Suter 0.023 0.095 2.23 2.32 27.8 26.5
Rafalski 0.007 0.156 2.00 2.26 24.6 26.7
Martin 0.175 -0.057 2.35 1.81 18.4 28.5
E. Johnson -0.004 -0.046 2.79 2.72 25.6 27.6
J. Johnson -0.048 0.210 3.54 1.77 28.3 21.3
Orpik 0.078 -0.135 2.97 1.92 28.5 25.3
Komisarek 0.023 -0.065 2.29 2.80 23.2 26.9

 

Notice that Jack Johnson faces the weakest competition and plays with the highest relative quality of teammates out of this list. This is no accident.  The Kings protect Johnson on defense because when he's out there, goals against and shots against tend to happen.  Sure, the goals against rise when Martin and Orpik step on the ice; but notice that they regularly face tougher competition while not benefiting from stronger teammates.  The same applies for why the shots against go up when Suter and Orpik come on for their respective teams. (Aside: I hope this also explains why I think Orpik is the 7th defenseman).  From this, I'm concluding that Jack Johnson is most likely not a very steady defender.  This is compounded by the fact that he's been a minus player his whole career.  Yes, he has 16 points. Yes, he's young.  But that doesn't mean he needed to be selected.  Especially when Burke and USA Hockey could have selected this man?


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
2009 - Ryan Whitney 42 3 19 22 -2 34 3 0 0 25:15 69 4.3

He was in Team USA's evaluation camp last summer.  He averages more minutes per game than any other American defenseman not named Joe Corvo.  He's got more points than Jack Johnson and as many as Erik.  Most of all, the shots against per 60 doesn't go up 7 shots when he steps on the ice. Selecting Jack Johnson over Whitney makes absolutely no sense to me from where I sit.

If Paul Martin can't go, Ryan Whitney is the only logical choice to replace him on the roster.

Experienced Players on the USA Roster: Rafalski, Langenbrunner, and...Chris Drury?

The United States hockey team is clearly in transition, with the young talent of today attempting to replace the old guard.  Therefore, experience and leadership is an invaluable trait to have on the team.  Rafalski and Langenbrunner have plenty of experience playing with younger players and on big stages in short tournaments. Those were good selections. 

In fact, I don't have too many complaints about the forwards selected given the evaluation camp roster.   Not even with Ryan Callahan, as it basically breaks down to who do you want on the fourth line as a checking winger: Dustin Byfuglien or Ryan Callahan?  Callahan's actually better than both as a checker as the shots against per 60 drop by 1.4 when he steps on the ice per Behind the Net.  It actually goes up 1 shot for Byfuglien, and guys like T.J. Oshie and Kyle Okposo aren't necessarily suited for that role (in that I'd rather see them on the top 2 lines if there was space available).

But the third experienced vet on this team is...Chris Drury?


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
2009 - Chris Drury 36 5 9 14 -8 14 0 0 0 0 64 7.8

Please go to NHL.com and under individual stats, you can organize the stats by forwards and by Americans.   Notice that Drury doesn't make the top 30 in scoring.  He's currently tied for 40th with 14 points along with (also as of writing) the point-scoring machines such as Mike Rupp, Marty Reasoner, Scott Parse, Tim Kennedy, Max Pacioretty, and Mike Grier.  Per Behind the Net, when he steps on the ice for the Rangers, the shots against per 60 goes up from 27.1 to 29.2 and the goals against per 60 rises from 2.16 to 2.74.   He's having yet another disappointing season in New York and he's going to the Olympics?

Can I say something nice about Drury? Well, he can play on the PK with Callahan and he has a faceoff winning percentage of 52.0%.  So there's that.

Even so, Mike Modano - who has way more leadership and experience than Drury can hope to have - has more points than Drury (well, OK, one).  And he was in the Team USA evaluation camp!  Surely, he could handle playing in a checking role on the ice and locker room leader on the ice for a short tournament.  Let me ignore this suggestion

But if the idea is to go with a veteran who can handle PK duties (and if that isn't it for Drury, then I'm absolutely baffled), then why not Scott Gomez?  Come on, he broke into this league as a Devil; he knows how to backcheck and his breakouts are miles ahead of Drury's.  While he doesn't average 3:03 on the PK like Drury does per game, he does get 2:09 per game in that role for Montreal.  Given that Callahan, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Kesler, and David Backes are regulars on their team's respective penalty killing units, I doubt USA Hockey needed a big-time killer like Drury. Gomez can fit in just fine, I think. And yes, Gomez is only a 49.2% faceoff winner; but Kesler and Pavelski are going to get most of the draws on this team - not Drury or a hypothetical Gomez.  I think he would have been a smarter selection than Drury as Gomez has just as much experience as Drury does and what Drury brings to the table isn't so vital.

All this without me mentioning that Gomez has nearly double Drury's points.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2009 - Scott Gomez 40 5 22 27 1 22 1 0 0 0 79 6.3

A Final Complaint: Evaluation Camps

Ultimately, my own complaints are limited by the cold reality of eligibility rules as I mentioned prior to the jump.  It seems that if you weren't at the Team USA Evaluation Camp, you couldn't go through the procedures to become and remain eligible for the Olympics. There's nothing Burke, USA Hockey, or anyone really can do about that. 

However, notice that everyone on this team was at that evaluation camp last summer.  Even the three goaltenders: Tim Thomas, Ryan Miller, and Jonathan Quick (and thankfully Miller and Thomas have been very good this season).  I don't think that's a coincidence.  What Burke and USA Hockey can do is enlarge the evaluation camps.

Unless I'm sorely mistaken, there's no regulation against how many players could be looked at as possible players for the Olympics.    Not that USA Hockey could have predicted Andy Greene would have a monster 2009-10 season and use that to justify looking at him.  However, a wider pool at evaluation camp makes for more options when it comes time to select a team - preventing bizarre selections like an injured Martin, the lesser Johnson, and Chris Drury.  Given that USA Hockey is literally going through a generational shift, it's difficult to predict who will continue to develop in the NHL and who's development will be stalled or go off track.  A wider pool helps account for that as well as injuries. 

Take the defensemen for example.  Only 12 were looked at: the seven selected, Whitney, Tim Gleason, Ron Hainsey, Tom Gilbert, and Rob Scuderi.  Given that USA Hockey is going in a younger direction, a wider pool could have easily included Matt Carle, James Wisniewski, Zach Bogosian, Tyler Myers, Jordan Leopold, and Keith Ballard.  Yes, many of those are reaches and some players are guys you and I never want to see representing a nation; but that's the point of having a larger pool of players. The same applies at forward where the team could have included some defensive centers (e.g. Gaustad, Reasoner, Jeff Halpern, Craig Conroy) and other forwards new to the national team set up (e.g. Tim Connolly, James van Reimsdyk) instead of settling for Chris Drury.  If they're not ready for international hockey, then camp will reveal that - that's all.  If they're doing very well prior to the tournament, then it's less likely they'll not get selected for representing their nation.

While taking into account the limitations by evaluation camp, even I can't say that Burke and USA Hockey didn't make too many errors in their selection process.  But that means the source of the issue goes back to camp itself.  As American hockey grows and develops, the need for a wider pool will grow if only so the national team doesn't get forced into a corner by "settling" for players to fill a roster.

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