USA Hockey at the Olympics — Final Assessment

The dust has only begun to settle in the days since the Olympics ended on the sourest of notes for USA Hockey at the Olympics. From 3:26 away and a post away from a gold medal in women’s hockey to the disaster that the bronze-medal game devolved into for the men, it was not a great 72-hour span for American hockey.

SochiThere has been much written about what it all means and what it tells us. But I keep looking back at it and wondering how much can we really learn from 72 hours of hockey?

I’m sure had the men found a way to beat Canada in the semis and the women claimed gold, there would be much written (not here) about the arrival of American hockey and I bet north of the border it would have been viewed as a national travesty requiring sweeping changes from top to bottom and blowing up the whole system.

That is the Olympics for you. This grandiose event from which we’re supposed to learn so much about these athletes and the programs is built up to be the end-all, be-all. It is the biggest event in international hockey, but it’s hardly the defining event of the sport it is so easily made out to be. In fact, no one event is. At least not when trying to figure out what it says about where a country’s hockey program is or is going.

This isn’t to excuse the poor results. Everything is about results in sports. If you win, you were successful. And now, as far as the United States is concerned, if you don’t win the tournament, you have failed. I think that’s a good place to be, but it’s not comforting when the results are unfavorable.

What makes the Olympics particularly disappointing form an American perspective is that the women were literally minutes away from victory only to see it slip away and the men started so strong only to end with the loudest of thuds. Both, once again, fell to Canada in the process.

That led to a pretty raw reaction from American hockey fans, media and whoever else you could find that has an opinion. Some even went so far as to call the Olympics a step back for American hockey. It’s no doubt a setback, because much was expected. However, to say this result shows where USA Hockey is and where it is headed is probably irresponsible.

The Olympics means whatever you want it to mean, so I can’t tell you how you should feel about it, but I can talk about what it tells me.

What I learned from the Olympics is that the U.S. men’s team lost two crucial hockey games by not playing at the level they were capable of. Maybe there were some errors in coaching and personnel decisions, but I also think we didn’t see the vast majority of the team play up to its full potential. From the women’s game, I learned that the team didn’t close out a two-goal lead in the closing minutes of a game. Not because of a failure to develop talent on either side, but a failure in the moment where failure wasn’t supposed to be an option. If you break the games down further, we’re talking about a span of minutes.

Drawing grand conclusions from minutes in a hockey game where nothing is a given seems a little unrealistic.

The men’s bronze-medal game was a great game, right up until Finland scored two goals in 11 seconds. Two poorly-timed defensive breakdowns and the U.S. never recovered. Up until that point, the U.S. was playing a really solid game.

Though Canada dominated the semifinal, once again, it was a defensive lapse and an inability to recognize it in time that led to the only goal Canada scored and Team USA’s response wasn’t good enough.

I don’t even think it was lack of effort or as one writer alluded to, a sense of entitlement. It was a failure to rise to the moment that was presented or a failure to respond when adversity hit. Bad times for that to happen, but it’s a matter of minutes, which is all it can take to change a single hockey game.

That’s it. If you’d prefer to ignore the rapid growth of the game in the United States, the improvement in player development at the junior and college levels, the rising draft numbers for Americans and the increased profile of American players in the NHL, that’s fine. Or on the women’s side if you’d prefer to ignore the vastly increased numbers, the improvement in women’s college hockey, the five world championships in seven years and splitting three of the first six women’s world U18 championships with Canada, OK.

If 72 hours and three games is enough to drive you to question everything you thought about where the United States stands as a hockey country, I can’t help you. I’m not saying you can’t be mad. You should be mad. I’m mad. But let’s not take a torch to everything else that is going on because of three hockey games.

And let’s also not confuse things here. There is room for improvement. A lot of room. The fact that the U.S. has the number of people playing hockey compared to silver and bronze medalist Sweden and Finland, respectively, and not doing better at the senior level competitions is alarming. As is the fact that those countries, despite their numbers, find ways to produce best-of-the-best talent at a similar rate as the U.S.

Should the country be producing more top end players? You bet. Was this group in Sochi up to the standards of the other elite teams? Without question. Two games doesn’t change that.

Now, hopefully for the players, coaches, decision-makers and anyone that analyzes or studies hockey, there is plenty to be learned from these events. Things that can be utilized in motivating the next set of Olympians and ensuring they don’t befall the same fate.

This isn’t to let anyone off the hook. I think there’s plenty of criticism to go around.

Focusing more on the men’s side, where there was a little more widespread criticism due to the raised profile, I think there was a lot of fair critiques in the media, some over the top. So here’s my two cents…

Team Construction

Any time you lose in a tournament, the very first question comes down to personnel. What if this guy was on the team and this guy wasn’t. Second-guessing is easy, because there’s nothing but hypotheticals to hold up against a very real result.

I keep going back to the Canada game and I don’t think there’s a single player in the American system that would have changed the result. One or two guys, and that’s what we’re talking about here, would not have made the U.S. forecheck any harder or be more stable in the defensive zone.

I don’t think that’s the type of game a player like Bobby Ryan (who I was just as surprised as anyone else was left off and disagreed with that) would be a difference maker in. Same for Keith Yandle. You love the offense he gives you from the back end, but are you giving him the tough minutes in that game? No chance. Same with Dustin Byfuglien and I don’t know that Kyle Okposo has the wheels for a game played at that pace.

Dustin Brown was pretty poor in the Canada game (though he, like most of the U.S. team was fine in the first period). Ryan Callahan blew his coverage on the Canada goal by leaving the point open and Brooks Orpik got burned by Jamie Benn getting to the net on the play. So they come into question. But like everything else, they had good moments and bad moments. Their bad moments came in some really big moments.

I think it’s important, though I don’t know he would have made a marked difference in the game, that Paul Martin was not in the lineup. You lose your No. 3 right before the biggest game and he eats some of the tough defensive minutes the U.S. ended up having to give John Carlson, who was also on the ice for the goal against and had a few scary moments (though had one of Team USA’s best scoring chances of the whole game). It’s not an excuse, but it is worth noting.

Would one guy here or there have made the difference? I’m not so sure and it doesn’t matter because we’ll never know.

The result leaves everyone open to criticism though and I have no problem with that. This is just how I see it.

Semifinal Breakdown

I think the Canada game is the one that you have to look at say, why was the U.S. so thoroughly outclassed? I went back and watched the game, with a particular interest in the first period.

That was the most even of the three periods and for much of the period, it was more tennis match than the ice-tilter the rest of it was. The one thing the U.S. never once established in the game was any sort of forecheck. Part of that was because of how talented Canada’s D were, the second is that the U.S. wasn’t very aggressive.

The transition game was pretty well suffocated, too. That was part of why Team USA’s zone entries were just a mess for much of the last half of that game. When they did manage to get in the zone, Canada almost always had at least four skaters back and ready to defend. They sealed off the middle of the ice and forced most shots to come from outside angles.

When Canada went up a goal, the U.S. was put on its heels and never recovered.

Canada was able to spread the ice out, which is something the U.S. did very well in earlier games and had no chance to establish against Canada’s relentless pressure in all zones. It was a game of keep-away for a lot of the last two periods and the U.S. was running all over the ice.

The aggressiveness out of Canada couldn’t be matched. Every time the U.S. forwards had the puck, it was off their sticks as quickly as possible even when they had some extra time. There were more icings, neutral-zone turnovers and lazy dump-ins.

I’ve seen criticism of Dan Bylsma for playing a 1-2-2 in that game, but to be honest I didn’t see it. Maybe it looked that way, but when the U.S. was at it’s most aggressive, F1 was on the puck and almost never got it. F2 was in the area, but Canada’s quick puck movement negated the second forechecker entirely. Then it was chase and back check… rinse and repeat.

The U.S. needed to be better on the forecheck, but Canada gets a boatload of credit for the defense getting to every puck and making smart decisions with it.

The U.S. was never meant to be a dump and chase team and weren’t except when forced to by stacked blue lines like in the Russia game and then again in Canada. Teams were setting up fences, essentially, in the offensive zone. That means guys who make their living off of controlled zone entries like Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel had no where to go. Then Team USA’s crash and bang line of Dustin Brown, David Backes and Ryan Callahan, the line you tell to dump in and F1 kills the guy with the puck established nothing by way of forecheck.

It looked like a passive system, because Canada made it look passive and because the U.S. forwards far too often sat back and let Canada dictate the pace.

When the U.S. did get a rare chance, Carey Price made the save and made it look easy. I just don’t see how a change in personnel would have made a difference as a result.

Coaching

As I noted above, there was a lot of criticism about Bylsma’s passive system, but as Zach Parise noted in the Star-Tribune, it wasn’t a passive system. The U.S. players didn’t execute because they weren’t aggressive enough when they were supposed to be and blew up plays because they didn’t know what to do without the time and space they had grown accustomed to.

I think if there is a criticism for Bylsma, it’s that if there were adjustments made, they weren’t overly noticeable and they weren’t at all effective in the big games.

The U.S. needed a better response to being down against Canada. There was no back-against-the-wall push from the U.S. and that’s part on the coach because he’s got to get his guys to buy into that mentality and the rest is on the players because they didn’t have it when they had everything to lose.

I think it’s unfair to view a six-game tournament in the same prism as you do an NHL season. The lack of familiarity with teammates and the fact that these guys get minimal practice time and are somewhat learning how to play with each other on the fly is different than what happens over the course of an 82-game season.

There have been suggestions that he should have blown up the lines against Canada. Maybe it would have worked, but those lines scored 20 goals earlier in the tournament. In a short tournament, you need to gel quickly, and the U.S. lines did that.

The two that weren’t working as well, had minor changes that immediately worked for both. Dustin Brown was dropped from the Kesler-Kane line to the “Meat Line” with Backes and Callahan, while Parise switched with Brown. The results were perfect in the quarterfinal against the Czechs. Brown had a goal, Parise had a goal.

Those lines then didn’t work against Canada as well. Blake Wheeler got plugged in more. Max Pacioretty took Brown’s spot a few times. You can’t make sweeping changes to lines in a one-goal game though. Not when you have no idea how certain guys will play together since you’ve never once seen it.

The biggest criticism I have for the coaching staff and the team is that in these short tournaments, where teams come together just before, there has to be a focus on getting better every game. I never felt this team played its best game and there was no trajectory of improvement. They started out strong, were OK against Russia, only OK against Slovenia, much better against the Czechs and not good enough in the last two. I don’t know if that was a message to the team, but you want to see a team get stronger with each game. Team USA did not.

Bylsma had zero international experience coming into the tournament, not as a player or as a coach. That may have played a factor in the in-game adjustments that came or didn’t come, but I don’t think he was the wrong choice as a result.

Like all of Team USA, could have the decisions and deployments been better? Yeah, but were they completely out of control stupid? No, but they didn’t work.

Bronze Collapse

To me, the bronze medal game was more disappointing than the Canada loss. The U.S. was the better team against Finland until those two quick goals in the second period.

The effort level was fantastic to start, too. The guys laying out to block shots, playing physical and more aggressive to start that game. The effort level was there. But then the game got flipped as I’ve seen so many times internationally, particularly in games involving Finland at Worlds, WJC and past Olympics.

Jonathan Quick gave up an uncharacteristic goal on Finland’s first, then the second came after some dreadful defending in the neutral zone. You give Finland a multi-goal lead at any level internationally and it’s going to be tough.

Patrick Kane’s near misses on penalty shots could have been game changers, but they’re near misses. You have to take advantage of the opportunities you’re given on the big ice against a team like Finland and the post got the better of Kane after he had Tuukka Rask beaten on his second attempt.

After Kane’s second miss, the life from the game was gone and the U.S. was toast. It had that feeling of “not meant to be” and so that was it.

The third period was just unacceptable hockey for Team USA. It was one of the worst periods I’ve seen in international hockey. Just a complete lack of anything resembling a push-back with a medal on the line. The Finns scored three more times and made a game that started fine look like the disaster it was seemingly meant to be.

That was where I think the average American hockey fan went from sullen to apoplectic and I couldn’t blame a single one of them.

The Conclusion

Looking back on this Olympics, it is going to be viewed as a failure. To me, it’s more a missed opportunity than anything else. I can’t be convinced that this roster wasn’t capable of winning a gold medal. They didn’t, though.

That leaves everything open to scrutiny, which is what’s happening now.

I don’t know if the NHL will allow its players to play in PeyongChang in 2018. I know that I hope they do. I think the Olympics is a great showcase of the best hockey talent in the world. Even though the Sochi Games wasn’t as thrilling as Vancouver from start to finish, it was still a great showcase of the game as a world game.

Slovenia won two games for cripes sake. Sweden and Finland were worthy medalists and Canada a more than worthy champion.

For the U.S., it’s back to the drawing board on both sides. The women will be going on 20 years with no gold when they get to South Korea in 2018. They have to find a way to end that streak and will probably spend every day of the next four years figuring out how to do it.

For the men, a lot will depend on whether the NHL is back or not, but if the trend continues of more Americans making it to the NHL and making an impact, the U.S. should be icing a very strong contender in 2018, like they’ve done in 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2014. They’ll have to learn from the mistakes of the past teams, including 2014, that fell below expectations.

It seems that in each Olympic failure in the NHL era, all of which have come overseas, it was something a little different that caused things to go awry. Which is why Sochi is such a bitter disappointment. They were doing OK until it really mattered.

For the rest of hockey fans, however you viewed what happened in Sochi, you can use it as a data point in your evaluation of the game, but viewing it as the stand-alone measuring stick of the U.S. against the World is ill-advised. It’s a big data point, with a lot of attention for sure, but it’s two weeks of hockey that can go a lot of different ways.

Regardless, the disappointment of 2014 will take at least four years to subside for American hockey fans. Now the book is closed on Sochi. For USA Hockey and all other national federations (even Canada), it’s time to get back to work.

Editor’s Note: This is the final piece on the Sochi Olympics and with that I thank you so much for following along with the coverage here. I had so much fun covering the Olympics for the first time on the blog. I started it in December of 2010, long after the Vancouver Games were over, so this was just a real thrill.

This was a record month for United States of Hockey in terms of traffic, so I can’t thank you all enough for stopping by and reading. I hope you enjoyed what you read here. It really has been a lot of fun the last few months focusing in on the Olympics from both a current tournament and historical perspective.

I’m going to be taking a break from United States of Hockey for a short while. This was something I knew would probably be coming after the Olympics. I haven’t planned a time frame for when I’ll get back into things here, but I need to focus on some outside projects for the time being. I’ll still be active on Twitter and over at CBSSports.com. I hope when I get back, you’ll come back, too. Thanks for reading and interacting. It is an honor to have the opportunity to write for such an engaged audience of hockey fans. You guys are the best. See you soon. — Chris

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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, Women's Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to USA Hockey at the Olympics — Final Assessment

  1. Original 6 says:

    Chris, great work as always. I thoroughly enjoyed all the coverage that you gave the Olympics and World Juniors. The depth of coverage that you provide just can’t be found elsewhere. It’s nice to read a measured response to the Canada and Finland game. My take was USA had no first line center on the roster. This was a gaping hole they couldn’t overcome. Talented centers, gritty centers? Yes. Big Gifted? Big Creative? That’s a stretch. Canada could stand up the blue line bc USA had no one to carry the puck into the offensive zone with speed and back up the D. Kane tried, way to often in fact. And you can’t dump and chase and forecheck against world class puck movers like Doughty, Weber, etc. You just can’t. Maybe the next wave of USA players will address this: Galchenyuk. Eichel. Maybe. USA already produces world class talent at F, G and D. Let’s hope the Centers start to follow suit.

  2. per djoos says:

    congrats on a great job, as always, and on some well-deserved time off. cheers.

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