Andy Greene should be going to Sochi. Andy Greene has been absolutely the best defenseman on the New Jersey Devils since Paul Martin signed with Pittsburgh. He's been one of the few Devils who can claim the calendar year of 2013 to be rather good as Greene simply bossed the blueline. Minutes, points, possession, Greene was the man for the Devils. None of it was good enough for USA Hockey. Not only was he not named to the Olympic Team, but he was never on the consideration list. Back in December, it was known that Greene would not represent his country on the biggest stage of international hockey.
According to this article by Rich Chere at that time, Greene played it off well in public. After this afternoon's announcement of the USA team after the Winter Classic, someone should put up a sign that reads "USA Hockey thinks Brooks Orpik and John Carlson are better than you" in private. If I were him, I'd have a chip the size of a hockey rink on my shoulder.
I am not making this up. Brooks Orpik and John Carlson were not only on the consideration list but they're going to Sochi. So are Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Suter, Kevin Shattenkirk, (currently injured) Paul Martin, Justin Faulk, and Cam Fowler. That's the group of eight. Here's the official story at NHL.com, which notes how young the defense is. Since that's what one wants in a group of players who rely on positioning and decision making - a lack of experience.
Tom Gulitti tweeted out a link to an awesome report by Scott Burnside about the selection process by USA Hockey at ESPN. Burnside sat in with the nine men as they discussed who should and should not go to Sochi. Forget what you think about Burnside; it's a detailed and well-written account about how the decisions were made. It's rather fascinating and at the same time infuriating at what the discussions came down to. Especially if you're reading this dashboard of American defensemen stats at Extra Skater right after it and the NHL.com stats among American defensemen. It's fun to see Greene ahead of nearly everyone except for Shattenkirk (and his high offensive zone start rate) in Corsi percentage while also out-scoring half of the blueline selected for the Olympics. By fun, I mean maddening as an American supporter. Thanks to Burnside's article, it's clear that Greene was not the only snub from this roster. He's not the only one who should have extra motivation for the rest of this season.
Dustin Byfuglien and Keith Yandle were discounted too soon, in my opinion. The word on both was that they were too risky. Now, I don't watch a ton of Phoenix and Winnipeg games. And I understand Phoenix is almost as bad as Washington in terms of giving up shots, while Winnipeg isn't a defensively strong team either. But both Yandle and Byfuglien have been remarkably productive while remaining positive in possession. Especially Byfuglien, who has more shots on net than any defenseman in the NHL and is tied with P.K. Subban for third among defensemen in points. Yes, he takes calls like he's Zidlicky but if that's the price to pay for a guy having a Chara-esque season, then I'd risk paying it out. If they were that calamitous in their own end, then I doubt their coaches would play them over 23 minutes per game. If you're going to take risky players, then I'd rather go with guys who bring the points and have played big minutes ahead of Carlson, who's been less productive and plays a lot on one of the worst defensive teams in hockey, or Orpik, who's not productive and only now ahead of Jack Johnson in possession after falling behind him in 2013.
At least they were discussed. One of the initial surprises I had when I saw the announcement on TV was Justin Faulk going to Sochi. When I sat down to see his numbers, they aren't that bad. He's averaged over 24 minutes per game, he's got 16 points, this isn't his first season, and he's got a good possession percentage. It's just behind Yandle and ahead of McDonagh at 51.1%. From the standpoint of "let's bring a young guy for the future," he appears to fit the bill. But given how many other younger defensemen are going, was he necessary to bring along? Ahead of Greene, Yandle, or Byfuglien? I don't think so.
You know who should be as mad as Greene for not being considered? Matt Niskanen. I know Paul Martin is very good and I have no problem with his selection. I have a problem with Orpik going on the basis of, "He played with Martin." Orpik's possession numbers stink and he brings nothing special to the table. Niskanen has not only been the healthiest among the Pittsburgh American defensemen, but he's also been the best. He's got less than 50% offensive zone starts while owning a very good 54% Corsi percentage in 5-on-5 play. He's got four goals and fifteen assists for 19 points, which puts him ahead of Carlson, Faulk, and his two Penguins teammates. Like Greene, he wasn't mentioned at all. I suspect he wasn't considered either. That omission may also turn out to be a mistake.
There are a few other defenders that I thought should have at least been talked about ahead of Jack Johnson, who apparently was the final cut behind Fowler. Which means Faulk, Carlson, and Orpik were decided without much of a problem. I would have thought Stan Bowman, the GM of Chicago, would have suggested Nick Leddy at some point. Like Faulk, he's a young defenseman with plenty of NHL experience. He's been quite productive this season with five goals and thirteen assists. He'd probably get more minutes if he wasn't behind one of the best pairings in the world in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. He's also got one of the best possession rates among American defensemen at 56.4%. However, he's been sheltered in zone starts so he may not be that amazing of a possession machine.
Likewise, I'm a little surprised there was no love for James Wisniewski. No, I wouldn't pick him for the Olympics. But he's a far better defender than Jack Johnson, who's also on Columbus. Wisniewski has put up more points in fewer games than Johnson and is impressively not below 50% in possession. (He's at 53.2%, which is just really good.) I suppose I'm still miffed at how long Johnson was seriously discussed. He's not even the best Johnson among American defensemen in the NHL. I'd rather have Erik It's a testament to how deep "favorites" go within an organization that Jack Johnson was one of the late decisions and the only man to go ahead of him was Anaheim's top defenseman, Cam Fowler.
And I could continue on further with no mentions of Alex Goligoski, Justin Braun, Matt Carle, or even a token shout out to an underrated/stuck on bad team defender like Tom Gilbert. Again, I wouldn't have picked them to go to Sochi but I rate all them better than Carlson and Orpik at a minimum. I would have liked to have known they were considered, even if it was only briefly. That I can name multiple defensemen who should've been part of the decision making process is a testament to the growth of hockey talent in the United States. Arguments can and will be made for players who aren't going that should be going. A generation or two ago, there really would only be a small group of guys who could be trusted and that's it. The pool is larger. So it is with management as David Polie headed a group that included Stan Bowman, Dean Lombardi, Brian Burke, Dale Tallon, Dan Bylsma and others. It's a rather successful group who should know a thing or two about player selection. Clearly, they were keeping tabs on many players throughout the season. (Aside: good thing they didn't pick Cory Schneider. Forget the lack of results, his even strength percentage is still lower than Martin Brodeur. That's reason enough to discount him.)
But that's also why I have to say that Greene, Byfuglien, Yandle, Niskanen, and others were strangely snubbed. That's why I'm absolutely baffled at the decision making process. One would think that with a larger pool of players, the consideration list should be massive. While not everyone can go, the organization would have a lot of flexibility for when it's time to come up with a roster. It is true that the point is to make a great team and not necessarily a collection of players. But for a short tournament, especially in the middle of an active hockey season, it is just as important to pick players who are playing great. USA Hockey clearly did not follow that last point properly.
McDonagh and Suter should absolutely be on this team but it's not an easy argument that either are even playing better than Greene. I have no issue at all with Shattenkirk, Fowler, or Faulk going but what do they do that, say, Byfuglien or Yandle doesn't or couldn't do? Orpik simply hasn't been good, Carlson isn't some shiny diamond on a terrible defensive team like Washington, and Martin can be very good but he'll be returning from injury. At least three of the eight selections were dubious and that can make all the difference in the Olympics where most of the top teams are as stacked or more stacked in talent than the United States. I won't go as far as to say that Greene, Byfuglien, Yandle, Niskanen, and others staying home or not even being in the discussion will cost the country a medal. But it is true that the eight defensemen selected aren't the best eight American defensemen in the NHL right now and they aren't the best eight to select for a tournament.
What would I do? Greene and Byfuglien would absolutely go if it was up to me. Straight swaps for Orpik and Carlson. They've been productive, way better in possession, they push the play forward, and two more players who have plenty of experience against top players. This way Bylsma can decide between eight defensemen who actually can push the play forward and play all manners of minutes. I'd also make the pool of potential candidates resemble an ocean as to not leave any future players playing well on the outside looking in. Hopefully if/when Polie and some members of the braintrust get replaced for 2018, the latter can be done. It won't help Greene and maybe not Byfuglien or Yandle, but it will reduce the possibility of leaving out guys playing great to go with "favorites" who haven't been. As for those players who were snubbed, I'd make it a focal point for their own game in the second half of this season. USA Hockey may not recognize and reward the great season they're having, but the team it's for absolutely will. Hopefully, this will mean good things for the Devils.