2014 Olympics: On Building a Team for the Big Ice

Now that camp rosters are being named and there’s not much else to talk about, preparations for the Olympics seem to be a hot topic of late. With invites handed out, the general managers are beginning to tip their hands a bit when it comes to how they’ll build their teams.

The biggest topic when it comes to team construction is the size of the ice. The 2014 Olympic hockey tournament will be played on a traditional Olympic-sized sheet, 60-by-30 meters (essentially 200 feet long, by 100 feet wide). An NHL sheet is 200 feet long by 85 feet wide, so the difference is significant.

Because of the big ice, there are going to be plenty of differences between how the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team was constructed as opposed to the 2014 edition of Team USA. That said, the differences don’t necessarily have to be as significant as you might think.

What’s important to remember is that the Olympics will include the very best players in the world. Many of these guys already have some international experience playing on bigger ice, or are native to the big surface. Additionally, they’re still playing hockey. The ice is different, but many of the things that make teams successful on the NHL-sized ice will still work on the big sheet.

Because of that, it is difficult to say Canada or the U.S. will be any worse off than any of their European counterparts. You still can’t just throw a superstar team out on the ice without established roles and systems and expect them to just perform. So here are some thoughts on how to sensibly build a team for the big ice, instead of over-correcting for it.

The width of the rink changes the game a fair amount, but the one thing it absolutely does not change is the amount of space between the faceoff dots. There is roughly 44 feet between the dots going all the way down the ice on an Olympic sheet, same as in the NHL.

The extra ice on the outside of the dots has its importance, but the games are essentially going to be won or lost in that 44-foot-wide section of the ice.

Teams that are able to own the middle with disciplined defense and smart positioning in particular, are going to usually come out ahead.  Finland is one of the countries that does this about as well as anyone and a big reason they could be considered a dark-horse gold-medal contender.

For more on this, Justin Bourne of Backhand Shelf did a great job summing up what makes the big ice different from the perspective of a former player who spent a lot of time on both sized sheets in the WCHA.

It’s that extra amount of space between the dots where players can get into trouble and why adjusting to the big ice can be difficult for some. The width creates a bigger perimeter from which to shoot. A team that is having trouble establishing any sort of presence in the slot may start forcing more low-percentage shots from the perimeter, which the opposing team will gladly allow. Those low-percentage attempts usually lead to turning the puck over and playing catch-up.

There is a bit of a myth that the extra space makes for a more wide-open game. That’s really only partially true. Teams with speed can have an advantage, but only if they’re able to capitalize on mistakes and operate flawless transitions from defense to offense.

There is definitely a need for speed, but most importantly, the bigger ice requires brains. Mistakes with the puck are almost always punished more severely when the ice is spread out. That’s where it can tend to be a little more open than on an NHL arena.

So, just like in the NHL, possession counts on the big ice. It might even count a little more.

The U.S. has the tools to build a team that will be difficult to contain on the rush and in transition. From the defense to the forwards, there’s a lot of guys that move the puck well with speed. That’s one area the big ice can be exploited. That said, it’s still so important to own the middle at both ends. If you can’t do that, your transition game might not matter as much.

The bigger ice also increases the emphasis on special teams. Penalties are a little tougher to kill off with extra ground to cover. The European teams have special teams systems that utilize the extra space very well and are also strong at drawing defenders out of position.

What makes power plays on the bigger ice more fun to watch is the movement. Each team has extra space to be a little more creative. There’s really no choice but to move out there. Disciplined penalty-killing units won’t chase beyond the dots and stationary power plays die on the Olympic sheet.

When it comes to capitalizing on mistakes and taking advantage on the power play, no team is better than Russia. As a team that can be more flash-and-dash, they’re mistake prone, but they’re also opportunistic. With some of the best finishers in the world, their only hope is that they make fewer mistakes than the opposition. That’s what will make them tougher to beat on home ice than in Vancouver.

There’s also a bit of myth that size and physicality go by the wayside on the big ice sheet, in lieu of skill. While the bruising physical play most common in the NHL playoffs is not necessarily found in the Olympics, there’s a way to be physical and effective.

This is especially true at the net-front. Establishing any sort of presence in the slot is not easy to do on either ice surface. The battles in front are just as fierce in the Olympics as they are in the NHL. It takes good, strong players to establish and maintain that presence throughout the game. If a team can’t get to the net, it’s not going to have a lot of luck scoring.

Because the 44 feet between the faceoff dots is where most of the action is going to happen, having a good mix of creative skill players and big, powerful forwards is key. There should be a premium placed on having at least a few forwards with size, who are good at driving the net.

This is why power forwards with speed become really important players at the international level. For the U.S., guys like David Backes, Max Pacioretty and James van Riemsdyk, who all have good size and speed, have to get to the net. It’s not going to be easy. If they’re able to break through, they may be among Team USA’s most productive players.

When David Poile goes to put Team USA together, he said he was going to look back at the failures of previous NHL-laden U.S. teams in 1998 and 2006. As I mentioned the other day, he’s going to notice he has more tools at his disposal that make some of the deficiencies of the previous teams moot for the 2014 club.

The important thing any successful team at this Olympic tournament will possess is balance. An international roster’s balance is slightly different than that of an NHL team.

In the NHL, there’s more of the traditional top-six, or two lines primarily used for scoring, an energetic third line that can create some offense and then a fourth line that will particularly be more grind-it-out, tough lines.

At the Olympics however, the U.S. might be better served with a veritable top-nine, with three lines balanced in their scoring prowess. The U.S. is lucky in this regard, seeing as its player pool includes a litany of high-end wings that can score. Pretty much all of the centers have good two-way capabilities with enough skill to create some scoring as well.

The fourth line, however, should be stacked with more defensive minded guys, that also possess some speed. The grit is important, so long as it materializes in each player’s puck pursuit and retrieval. Even if this team isn’t going to be establishing much offensively, their ability to disrupt the opposing team’s possession creates a lot of value.

Having one go-to defensive-minded line can help with match-ups and ensures that there’s a unit a coach can trust for key defensive zone draws or penalty-killing responsibilities, without sacrificing too much scoring depth.. It’s not about going out there and running over every guy that touches the puck, but there will be a need to bring some physical edge.

With the prevailing theory that the international game is more wide open, many assume it’s important to have more offensive-minded defensemen than a normal NHL roster. Some teams will subscribe to this, as long as those offensive defensemen are also solid puck managers.

I’m of the mind that it is very important to have mobile defensemen, but not at the expense of defensive ability. Again, balance is important. You don’t want too much redundancy on the back-end, but if there’s one thing you certainly can skew heavier towards is good two-way defensemen.

The good news for Team USA is that they’re heavy on two-way guys, while they have at least a few options that could fill a typical shutdown role and a few others that can be more offensive.

To me, the perfect defenseman for the international game is Ryan Suter. He has mobility, plays excellent defense and is a smart, effective puck-mover. He’ll be on the ice a ton during the Olympics and can be utilized in every single situation.

The U.S. also has a somewhat rare commodity in a guy like Ryan McDonagh. He’s primarily a shutdown defender, but on top of that, he’s an elite skater. His closing speed is remarkable, which I think is a really important quality on the bigger surface. That’s why I think he’ll see a ton of ice too.

To me, those are the most special guys Poile has at is his disposal. The U.S. doesn’t match Canada’s star power on defense, but what it does have is a large pool of players that have the potential to excel on a bigger surface.

Among them, Paul Martin, Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Faulk, Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, Cam Fowler, Zach Bogosian and John Carlson are all guys that possess good two-way abilities and could each state a strong case for a place on the team.

Then there’s the offensive-minded guys like Keith Yandle and Dustin Byfuglien. I really believe only one of them will make it, but with the extra spots available this year, you never know.

Then you have to look at a guy like Brooks Orpik. He doesn’t match the mobility of the other guys, but he plays good defense, has a physical edge and has Olympic experience. There’s room for a guy with his skill set.

Odds are, the U.S. will be bringing eight defensemen, which gives them a lot of flexibility in structure. Team USA should have decent scoring depth up front, which puts less emphasis on needing big production from the blue line.

Creating a D corps with an established shutdown pair, two well-balanced pairs and one big-play offensive defenseman, much like most NHL units seems like it should work in Sochi as well, given the skill sets available to Team USA.

Another thing that is important to note, some goalies struggle with the transition from NHL to Olympic ice. The angles can be a little different, which makes for some challenging stops at times. With the quality of goaltenders the U.S. has at its disposal, I wouldn’t anticipate this being too much of a concern though. It’s still something to note.

The big ice presents some challenges, but I really do think that David Poile has an opportunity to build a team that would be able to utilize the ice to their advantage. With good speed throughout the lineup and a good mix of size and skill, there’s going to be an opportunity to build a well-balanced squad.

The 2014 Olympics might be the best study yet in how different the bigger ice surface affects the game. It seems as though the skill-level and speed of the players is at an all-time high.

After such a thrilling tournament in Vancouver, the growth of the World Junior Championship and more federations putting an added emphasis on national teams and development, I believe we’re in the golden age of international hockey. Sochi very well could be the pinnacle.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in 2014 Olympics, NHL, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

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