Team USA 2019 WJC Roster: Breaking down the camp invites

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Back for a limited time only, I’ll be providing some thoughts on Team USA in the build-up to the 2019 World Junior Championship starting today with the camp roster.

Team USA’s bid to improve on a bronze-medal finish and extend an unprecedented three-straight medals streak alive will start in Everett, Wash., with the start of training camp. USA Hockey announced the 29-player preliminary roster that will be whittled down to 23 before the World Juniors begin on Dec. 26 in Victoria and Vancouver, B.C.

Logo_USA_hockeyThis should be an interesting group for Team USA, with several available returnees from last year’s squad. As the Americans in this age group showed during the summer camp, they’re going to be a fast-paced team that can get involved physically and should have more than enough skill throughout the lineup.

That said, there is going to be a Brady Tkachuk-sized hole in the lineup as the Americans are not expecting to get the Ottawa Senators forward. He was a dominant force in last year’s tournament and is now having an incredible start to his NHL season. Team USA simply does not have an adequate replacement for a player with Tkachuk’s skill-set, but they’re going to be able to supplement with some decent depth.

So let’s take a look at the roster.

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USA beats Slovakia, advances to Quarterfinal: Recap, analysis, stray thoughts

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Every coach who has ever coached an international tournament as at one point or another told his team that it is all about getting better in every game you play. The U.S. can’t say they’ve gotten better each time out, but they can say they had their best game to date when it mattered most. The Americans beat Slovakia 5-1 in the qualification round to advance to Wednesday’s quarterfinal against the Czech Republic (The game will air Tuesday night at 10:10 p.m. ET.

The Americans played their most complete game from start to finish, making only a few errors and playing through maybe one or two lulls in play, which mostly came in the first period. Team USA was able to keep pressure on, got major contributions from their top line and Ryan Zapolski made some key saves early in the game. Special teams were better, too. A lot went right.

USACrestThe thing that went most right was that Team USA has Troy Terry and Ryan Donato and other teams don’t. Donato scored two of the goals, while Terry had three assists. Their center, Mark Arcobello, also scored a goal off of a slick feed from Terry. Team USA’s top line has become very difficult to contain and they were buzzing in a big way in this one, having contributed to four of the five goals scored.

Another thing that I think is really important to bring up is that it is really, really difficult to beat the same team twice in the same tournament. You can’t play the same game twice and expect to win, basically. USA didn’t. Craig Ramsay is a great coach and you had to figure he was going to make some adjustments. Slovakia actually carried play for a good portion of the first period, but they started making mistakes in the second and the U.S. capitalized. Then they dominated the rest of the way.

This is a huge confidence booster, but the U.S. still has just two wins in the tournament and both are against Slovakia. The Czech Republic, which finished with the second best record overall in the preliminary round is going to offer a bigger challenge in the quarterfinal. So as good as Team USA was against Slovakia, they’re going to have to be even better against the Czechs.

So, some stray thoughts…

Donato and Terry were ridiculous. Seems like we say it every time. The college guys have been so good in the tournament and these two were at their best. I thought Donato’s play — while mostly good — has been a little uneven in the Olympics. The effort is always top notch and he can make plays others don’t, but we’ve seen some youthful errors with some turnovers and trying to force things. Today, he made smart play after smart play and even when he wasn’t scoring, he was involved in the play. He’s become a player teams have to be aware of at all times. Meanwhile, Terry’s ability to make plays and use his speed have made him next to impossible to contain. A good example of how well they’ve been playing came on USA’s first goal.

You can’t see all of it develop in this clip, but Matt Gilroy won a puck battle to start the transition, the puck bounced to Terry who made a tremendous pass to spring Terry, whose speed got him past the D. The goalie makes a nice save on Terry, but Donato gets himself to a good spot on the ice, while Terry and Gilroy managed to get just enough of the puck to get it to an open Donato whose finish was perfection.

Also, the pass Terry made to Mark Arcobello for USA’s third goal was high-skill. His vision is off the charts. I can’t say enough about their games at this event. His four assists in the tournament lead Team USA.

Garrett Roe’s goal was huge for a few reasons. First, his line with Brian O’Neill and Broc Little has been buzzing throughout the tournament with little success on the score board. They deserved to be rewarded. O’Neill made it happen with his work along the boards and speed to the outside. He found Little with a drop pass and Little had the patience to get around a defender and send the puck to a wide-open Roe.

For one, it was a nice play from a line other than the Donato-Arcobello-Terry line. They need that line to help out a bit. Fact is, they’ve been a factor in games but Roe hadn’t really been, at least not offensively. His wings, Little and O’Neill had been doing most of the damage with their speed. They also did all the work to provide the golden opportunity for Roe, which he finished well. Maybe that goal is the spark they needed.

Bobby Sanguinetti had his best game of the Olympics. I have been a touch critical of the Sanguinetti and Ryan Gunderson pairing, but they were strong today. I thought Sanguinetti defended well and helped get the puck up ice a lot. He had more minutes than anyone with 20:37 of ice time. It was a great bounce back from a rough game against the Russians. He managed to be a factor in all zones.

Ryan Zapolski made some big stops. When The U.S. had to battle a bit, Zapolski was able to bail them out. He still looked a little shaky doing it, but the only goal that beat him was a laser through a screen on a power play. Everything else he managed to keep in front of him. The Jokerit netminder made 22 saves, some of which came after he got run into. It looked like he might have to come out and give way to Brandon Maxwell. After the game, Zapolski explained why he almost had to leave.

Yeah, that doesn’t sound good.

Before that happened, I thought Zapolski was fighting the puck a bit, as he has been for much of the tournament. That said, the players in front of him were protecting the net well to not allow second chances. He also was making the first stop, which hasn’t happened every game. Perhaps that will be a confidence booster for the goalie after the rough outing against OAR.

James Wisniewski came through on the power play. He is on the team for one reason and one reason only — to play on the power play. Wisniewski has not yet topped seven minutes of ice time in any game the U.S. has played, but he delivered in a big way against Slovakia. Wisniewski scored a power-play goal on an absolute bomb from the left faceoff circle. He also sprung Donato down the wing for the goal that made it 5-1. Wisniewski’s legs are pretty much toast, which is why he’s a power play only player right now, but he still has the puck skills and the mind geared for offense. I think there is plenty reason to be skeptical of giving roster spots to players who aren’t going to play a versatile role for you, but if Wisniewski can keep coming through like he did against Slovakia, then he proves USA’s brass right.

Bad penalties will be costlier against a better team. One area of the game where the U.S. wasn’t particularly strong was discipline. They only took three penalties, but two of them were fairly unnecessary. Both Brian Gionta and Jordan Greenway got slashing penalties. Greenway’s was the most poorly timed as it allowed the Slovaks some life with a late second-period power play that they scored on. What I liked, however, was that Greenway was put right back out there and had a great shift to close out the second alongside Gionta and Chris Bourque. That line has had its ups and downs throughout the tournament, but the good outweighed the bad in that particular game. Still, the U.S. can’t be taking careless penalties the rest of the way. The Czechs are better than the Slovakians at this tournament and if the U.S. wins that game, they’d likely play OAR again in the semifinal.

A win away from playing for a medal. Despite a 1-0-1-1 preliminary round, the U.S. is one win away from guaranteeing themselves a chance to play for a medal. This tournament has been wildly unpredictable. Only Sweden has a perfect record with three regulation wins and the Czechs have two regulation wins and one overtime win. Everyone else has lost at least one game. I don’t think any of use really knew what to expect with this tournament, but anything seems possible at this point. Having watched at least one game for most of the teams here, the U.S. certainly isn’t the best among them, but they have enough to compete. There’s no guarantee the U.S. will beat the Czechs, but I think it’s a good draw for them. If this team can play for a medal, even if it’s bronze, I think that’s a huge accomplishment. This is not an easy tournament for anyone.

Quick look ahead. The Czech Republic’s biggest win of the tournament was a shootout victory over Canada. The Czechs seem to like to play things slow. They managed to shut down the Canadians over the last two periods and won the shootout after Canada’s Maxime Noreau beat the goalie but not the post. In the Czechs’ first game, they narrowly beat host Korea, 2-1. All three goals in that game were scored in the first period. The Czech Republic closed out tournament play with a 4-1 win over a Swiss team that just lost to Germany in the qualification round. The Czechs can shut teams down and play a really boring game. The U.S. is going to have to jump on them early and try to dictate the pace of the game. It’s going to be a real tough one, especially with the Czechs getting some extra rest and USA playing games on back-to-back days.

The game is at 10:10 p.m. ET Tuesday night on CNBC.

Posted in Olympics, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey | 1 Comment

2018 Olympics: USA falls to OAR, 4-0: Recap, analysis, stray thoughts

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Coming into the game, if you looked at the two rosters, you’d have expected the Olympic Athletes from Russia to be the better team and they were. The U.S. dropped a 4-0 decision to OAR and despite a shot counter that favored the Americans, 29-26, anyone watching the game saw that the Russians were better in a lot of different ways.

That’s not to say that the U.S. didn’t have chances to keep the game tighter than the final scoreline ended. They certainly didn’t get run out of the building or anything. But the Americans’ inability to capitalize on the best chances took them right out of the game.

USACrestBrian Gionta had three scoring chances in the second period alone. The first was a breakaway off o a great play by him to sneak through the defense and the puck rolled off his stick. Then he had a point-blank shot that caught the top of the goalies pad and lastly, Jordan Greenway set up an opportunity for Gionta to pop out and he shot a backhander right into Russia’s goalie, Vasili Koshechkin. The bad news is that Gionta didn’t score, but the good news is that he played his best game yet in South Korea. They need to get him going to give themselves a little extra depth because that hasn’t been there.

We should mention that Koshechkin was very good today as well. USA tested him just enough for him to need to be sharp and he was. Stopping Broc Little on a breakaway was probably his most important stop. He definitely earned the shutout.

Meanwhile, USA goalie Ryan Zapolski didn’t have his best stuff tonight. The first goal there wasn’t much he could do as the Russians worked the puck around and Nikolai Prokhorkin buried from in close. The second goal was a shot from distance by Prokhorkin that Zapolski didn’t get a good look at and missed. It was a heck of a shot and he was using the defenseman as a screen, but that one stung the U.S. The dagger, however, was Ilya Kovalchuk’s one-timer that leaked through Zapolski just ahead of the buzzer to end the second period. Kovalchuk didn’t get all of that one and Zapolski was where he needed to be, it just got through at the most inopportune time. The last goal was a Kovalchuk breakaway thanks to a couple of USA players running into each other going for the same puck.

Obviously goaltending is a big key, but — breaking news — you have to score goals, too. Special teams has been a huge key so far and the power play was not good today. The PK was pretty solid, but the power play has to get you some traction in a game where the other team is that much better 5-on-5. The U.S. went 0-for-3 with the advantage.

I thought Russia did a good job of bottling up Ryan Donato, Mark Arcobello and Troy Terry. If that line isn’t going, USA isn’t going. Donato did hit a crossbar on a rush that could have been a difference-making goal had it been just a little lower. Jordan Greenway’s line, which sometimes featured Chris Bourque and Bobby Butler, and sometimes Gionta, was probably USA’s most consistent threat.

Now Team USA will have to wait to see who they’ll play in the qualification round. The Americans finished in third in Group B thanks to their regulation win over Slovakia, and Slovenia beating the Slovaks in a shootout. That helps them seeding wise a little bit. We won’t know until Sunday’s games are complete who Team USA will play Tuesday, but there isn’t another team in the tournament that has the weapons Russia does. I think the Americans have enough to get through the quarters if things fall the right way for them.

Here are some stray thoughts from the game…

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Jordan Greenway was really strong today. The Minnesota Wild prospect was probably Team USA’s best player for most of the game today. He used his size well, he battled along the boards and won a lot of those battles. Even though Russia had a lot of NHL-caliber players, Greenway was making things difficult for them in the offensive zone. He played 17:07, most of any forward on Team USA and also finished the game with four shots on goal. The young guys continue stepping up and I think Greenway in particular gets better with each game.

Team USA’s D had some rough moments today. The worst was probably the fourth OAR goal with Kovalchuk getting a free look 30 seconds into the third period after Bobby Sanguinetti whiffed on a bouncing puck with a flailing stick. The pairing of Sanguinetti and Ryan Gunderson was on the ice for both of Kovalchuk’s goals. They were also out there for Slovenia’s game-tying goal in the first game. Additionally, Noah Welch took two unfortunate penalties in this game. He’s been very hot and cold in the tournament. I like his physical presence and his size, but some poor decisions with the puck and shaky moments on the back end haven’t been great for confidence in him as a No. 2. Jonathan Blum actually got a fair amount more ice time today and I think he’s been a pretty steady, stable presence out there. Meanwhile, James Wisniewski remains a power play-only player and Will Borgen continues to be a scratch.

It’s Zapolski’s net no matter what. One thing that is abundantly clear — and basically has been since the roster was announced — is Ryan Zapolski is the undisputed No. 1 goalie on the team regardless of what happens. He’s had some shaky moments throughout the tournament and currently owns an .890 save percentage. This team needs a goalie that can steal them a game and I’m not sure they have it. That said, now that the tournament has reached the elimination stage, I don’t think you can go to either Brandon Maxwell or David Leggio over Zapolski. I might have wanted to see either of them come in after the fourth goal just to see what they looked like on Olympic ice, but I don’t have a problem with Granato sticking with his guy. We’ll just have to see if his guy can get the job done when the team’s tournament lives are on the line. After the game, Granato told the AP’s Stephen Whyno that Zapolski is their goalie.

Tony Granato wasn’t happy with the Russian coach. Oleg Znarok can rub people the wrong way, no doubt, but putting his best players on the ice in a 4-0 game on the power play isn’t that big of a deal. Total goal differential is the third tiebreaker when it comes to seeding for the qualification and quartefinal rounds. Russia is not guaranteed the No. 1 overall spot in the QF, which is why they should want to score as many goals as possible. Apparently Granato wasn’t happy at all with it and they didn’t shake hands with the Russian coaches. I kind of hope he was just doing it to deflect attention from the players after a tough loss because Znarok did exactly what every coach should do in that situation in international hockey. Maybe it’s a different story if it’s in an elimination game and goal differential doesn’t count, but in the prelims, goals matter a great deal. Also, it’s USA-Russia. There’s no way they’re taking the foot off the gas, nor should the U.S. if the roles were reversed.

Looking ahead. The thing that we all figured would be a problem before the tournament is a problem now. The U.S. has four goals through three games at the Olympics. They had four goals in three games at the Deutschland Cup, too, and that was without Terry, Donato, Greenway and a few others.

Scoring is hard on the big ice, it just plain is. But that was a big reason USA Hockey took so many European pros. These players have produced on the bigger surface and they need to start finding ways to put pucks in 5-on-5. There aren’t enough penalties being called to hope you can pop a few in on the power play and the power play hasn’t been consistently good enough to rely on goals coming from there anyway. That said, aside from Donato, there aren’t a lot of high-end finishers on this team. There are a lot of pass-first guys. Aside from a few college players, there weren’t a lot of snipers in the player pool, either. Even though that may be the case, the U.S. has to start finding ways to score.

Now that the Americans have had three games at the Olympics, there shouldn’t be any more surprises and I don’t think there will be fore them. Whoever they get in the quarterfinal is going to be a beatable team, but there are no guarantees in this tournament, not with this or any roster. The team is taking a full day off tomorrow, they’re not even practicing. After they recover a little bit, perhaps they can work on some more combinations up front.

I continue to wonder what Greenway would look like between Broc Little and Brian O’Neill. Garrett Roe has been their center so far and I don’t think he has been driving play enough for the two of those speedy guys to get activated consistently. I wonder if Greenway opens up the ice more for them and they’re able to be even more of a threat. Outside of Donato and Terry, Little and O’Neill have looked the most dangerous offensively, but they’re not taking that next step. A guy like Greenway, who is playing with confidence and winning a lot of puck battles needs to have better options to get the puck to and guys that can get the puck back to him. That said, it may make things tougher for Bourque, Butler and Gionta, but Greenway seems like he’s on the cusp of a breakout. Heck, maybe even they could try an all-college line a little bit.

Today’s result should not have come as a shock to anyone. The U.S. was coming in a big underdog. I think they hung with Russia better than I expected and that’s a somewhat positive thing. The lack of finishing ability is a big concern, but the tournament remains wide open. Canada losing to the Czechs in a shootout is another good example, and that Finland-Sweden game should be a real thriller tomorrow.

Now it’s win or go home time for the U.S. It’s amazing how quick things go once the tournament gets started. I think we’ve seen these Americans respond well to some adversity. The game against OAR was a good experience to have before the games take on the higher stakes of potential elimination. Now we’ll see if they can take those lessons and put them to good use.

Also, if you’re looking for reasons to root for Team USA, check out this touching piece from ESPN colleague Wayne Drehs about the U.S. players getting the call that they made the team. I definitely teared up a little bit reading it, especially the parts where the players talk about sharing the news with their spouses, parents and children.

There’s no doubt that these guys are playing hard. Effort has not once been an issue or concern with this team. It’s all about execution at this point. Now that they’ve played three games together, let’s see what they can do with their tournament lives on the line.

 

 

Posted in Olympics, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey

2018 Olympics: USA beats Slovakia — Recap, analysis and stray thoughts

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Team USA bounced back in a big way from their shocking loss to Slovenia with a 2-1 win over Slovakia. With the win, the U.S. has four points in the standings and holds sole possession of first place in the group with one game to play. It’s quite a swing from the bitterness of Wednesday’s collapse.

Considering Slovakia successfully outplayed OAR, the most skilled team in the tournament for a 3-2 win Wednesday, the U.S. had to work for the little bit it got. More importantly, however, Team USA had to minimize mistakes as Slovakia’s passive game thrives on opportunism over attacking.

USACrestThe Americans were able to tilt the ice just enough to minimize the quality chances against and took advantage of the power plays they had. Ryan Donato scored twice with the man advantage, first with a great shot and second with a high-skill play in tight. Special teams are huge in the international events as the old cliche goes, and it proved to be the difference in the game.

Meanwhile, the U.S. played a more complete game than it did against Slovenia, which is a huge understatement. Aside from a short period of uneasiness after Slovakia tied the game 25 seconds after Donato put the U.S. ahead 1-0, they were on an even keel for most of the game. They played the attacking style they wanted to play without overdoing it,  as they did in the early goings against Slovenia. It was more calculated and as a result they were fresher as the game wore on.

Team USA faces its biggest test Saturday when they take on the Olympic Athletes from Russia, but today’s game was a big step forward from the start. If they can continue to get better as the tournament wears on, they’re going to at least have a chance to make a run.

Here are some stray thoughts from today’s game…

So, the college kids are their best players… Through six periods, Team USA’s most threatening forwards are Troy Terry and Ryan Donato. They’re dynamic together and they appear to be maximizing each other’s talents.

Terry is the most skilled player on the roster by a wide margin. He is their go-to guy for zone entries and creating chances. His entry and drive to the net opened things up for his slick drop pass to Donato who had room to pick his spot.

Meanwhile, Donato is showing that he can score just like he has been doing all year at Harvard. The first goal was a nicely-placed, hard shot, while the second goal from in tight was just a tremendous play.

I’ve also really liked Jordan Greenway’s game. Since I’ll be writing up something on all of the NHL prospects at the Olympics over at ESPN Insider later on, I’ll save the details aside from this — Greenway’s growth as a player from two years ago is pretty impressive. He has a better idea of how to use his size and it’s making things tough for the opposition.

They paced themselves without losing their identity. After watching Team USA play so well in the first period against Slovenia only to see their energy melt away, we talked about managing the game in the last post. That’s absolutely what they did today, but didn’t lose their edge. The Americans were physical early, they forechecked hard, but they didn’t play with such reckless abandon. They made more patient plays, slowed things down when they had to and protected the puck very well. Slovakia likes to sit back and make you work for everything, while hoping for power plays and turnovers to generate their offense. That can wear teams down, but it did not appear to impact the U.S. in any noticeable way.

It’s still fair to be concerned about USA’s 5-on-5 play. While we saw Terry and Donato, who play with Mark Arcobello, play extremely well, there were far fewer chances generated by the other lines. Team USA finished with 31 total shots on goal, but it was really hard to get to the middle of the ice against Slovakia. I think Team USA has some players that have been driving the net hard, but they have to be able to finish a little better. Donato is their go-to scorer at this point, but they need more from guys like Chris Bourque and Broc Little, who have solid offensive ability, to use their skills and make some plays in the middle.

Slovakia’s goal was pretty brutal. Coming 25 seconds after the U.S. took the lead, Andrej Kudarna redirected a puck from a tough angle that leaked through Ryan Zapolski. It was a tough goal to give up, especially because of the timing, but also because it was the kind you’d expect Zapolski to have. One wonders what the coaching staff will do against OAR. My gut says they’ll play Zapolski again and maybe only Zapolski this whole tournament if they have the choice. Losing to Slovenia made it tough to do anything differently.  Still, it may not hurt to give Brandon Maxwell or David Leggio a look in a non elimination game, as Saturday’s is.

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So, about those college players… The most common thing I heard from people about this U.S. team on Twitter last night — given the success of Terry, Donato and Greenway — is that they should have taken more college players. As easy (and really early) as it is to second-guess now, I agree.

I saw some suggestions that they bring all college players, but I think that would have been extreme. From the very beginning, I thought the roster should have seven to eight college players, give or take one or two. I know this was a decision the staff wrestled with a ton and I think the final decisions to go with the roster they went with were made for fair reasons. Going young is risky, but as we’ve seen, the young guys are the closest this team has to NHL players and all three of the aforementioned guys could be in the NHL as early as next season. At all levels and pretty much in all leagues, younger players are having a bigger impact sooner.

The U.S. also has scratched Will Borgen in each game and I’m pretty surprised by it. I think he gives them more versatility on the back end, but they appear set on having James Wisniewski as a power-play specialist for their seventh defenseman. In Wisniewski’s defense, I thought he was pretty good in that role against Slovakia, but I still think I would prefer seeing Borgen get third-pairing minutes for this team. He’s a really mobile kid who defends on the big ice extremely well.

But getting back to the idea of adding more college players. It’s pretty easy for us to sit here now and say it, as we’ve seen six periods (plus an agonizing 36 seconds of overtime) and the young guys are killing it. Also, OAR’s Kirill Karpizov is the tournament’s leading goal scorer at 21 years old. The tournaments leader in points with six right now is Eeli Tolvanen who is 18 (and was supposed to go to Boston College this season, but didn’t get cleared academically). Their teams are entrusting them with big roles, just as USA is doing with Terry, Donato and Greenway, and they’re excelling.

That said, I think there was a lot of resistance to bringing guys that also played in the World Juniors like Casey Mittelstadt because of the academic side of things. Some of those guys probably aren’t going back to school next year, but managing the World Juniors, their own team schedule, and then the Olympics is asking a ton of a teenager. So I think that weighed pretty heavily and if that was the case (and based on previous conversations with the late Jim Johannson, it was), then their hearts were in the right place. Others who weren’t at the WJC, like Adam Gaudette, were definitely in the mix for a spot, but in the end they went with the older guys that they knew a bit better. Time will tell if that was the right decision.

With all of that said, the U.S. is currently in first place in their group. They have a chance to earn a bye to the quarterfinals, which is something I didn’t think would be possible after losing to Slovenia. If they can get progressively better, then maybe they can keep moving forward. Terry and Donato are no longer secrets, though. Teams are going to know if they can shut down those guys, then they’ll probably have a chance of shutting down the U.S. completely. They need to be more than a one-line team going forward.

The game against OAR, which is at 7:10 a.m. Saturday morning, is going to be a huge measuring stick game. OAR absolutely pummeled Slovenia after losing their opener to Slovakia. I don’t know that the U.S. has the guns to keep up and they might have to play a more boring style of hockey to even have a chance, but I’m pretty darn excited to see what they can do.

As we’ve seen throughout with a lot of tight results, this Olympic tournament remains wide open. You get hot at the right time and you’ve got a chance. So let’s all enjoy the very weird tournament. It’s getting kind of fun.

 

Posted in Olympics, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey | 1 Comment

2018 Olympics: USA falls to Slovenia — Recap, analysis, stray thoughts

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If you’re an American, you were probably like me sitting there with your mouth agape as Jan Mursak was left all alone in front and sent a shot past Ryan Zapolski to give Slovenia a shocking 3-2 overtime win over the United States. Yeah, not an ideal way to start the Olympics. Not an ideal result at any point.

What’s so unfortunate about the game is that the U.S. was in control. They were the better team by far through 40 minutes. Their first period took me by complete surprise.

USACrestHere is a team that had never played a game together, only had six practices including a morning skate (and one where not everyone was there due to flight delays) and they were rolling. Slovenia may not strike fear into the hearts of more traditional hockey power, but this is a team that has been together for a while and has a lot of guys with Olympic experience. It’s their very best players minus Anze Kopitar (which is a huge minus).

Team USA had jump, they had such tremendous speed and they were on every puck. Slovenia didn’t even have time to come up for air, basically. It was a really strong effort and things were clicking. Out to a 2-0 lead, it looked like they were in control completely. And then…. they just kept lagging, fading and then disaster.

The first game of a tournament is always tough. That’s true at any level of international hockey, but especially so when you’re as unfamiliar with your teammates as this group is. It’s also a game big on emotions and adrenaline due to the excitement level. So they came out flying and perhaps it was an issue of peaking too soon. All of that adrenaline and emotion that they started to fade and so did their legs. The U.S. seemed to look tired. They started making mistakes with the puck. And suddenly the ice was tilted the other way.

They were not outright dominated in the third period, but they allowed Slovenia some life and also gave them the net-front. The first goal came off of a great shot and excellent traffic in front. The second goal is probably the unforgivable one. Letting Jan Mursak stand alone on the doorstep at even strength was pretty brutal. He was their best player all game, threatening all game and he couldn’t have had an easier look. And actually, the Slovenians had two players alone in front. It was a complete misfire defensively for USA.

Then it goes to 3-on-3 overtime and that’s as good as a coin flip no matter who is on your roster with all that ice. The U.S. got the first possession, wasted it and the game was over after that. I have a hard time believing USA spent a ton of time on 3-on-3 in practice given all the other things they had to cover with the six they had. That’s not to excuse the way things played out because these guys are professionals, but that’s one where everyone has to be on the same page. Tough to get there in this situation.

Slovenia worked the puck around and all three USA players got lost out there and once again gave Mursak a free look, which he buried.

So that leads me to this: For as bad as that loss appears on paper, and it does look awfully bad seeing as the tournament only gets harder from here, it’s certainly not the end for this U.S. team. There were enough positives in the first 40 minutes of the game where I actually thought they played better than I was expecting them to. That’s aside from the third period of course.

So here are the things I’m taking away from this game aside from lamenting the lost two points in the final minutes…

USA has to manage its game better. They came out so hard and so fast that they just couldn’t keep it up for 60 minutes. They out-shot Slovenia 10-3 in the first period, then gave up nine shots in the second. They still were keeping Slovenia’s chances limited even though more got through. Zapolski was tested mostly from outside. Then the third is when they got super leaky.

I don’t think they’d be able to dial it back a lot and still be successful against better teams, but you take as many of those elements as you can and find a style you can sustain for 60 minutes. I think they have enough ability to be able to do that. What they don’t have is time. There can’t be a lot of experimentation as they’ve only got two more games before it comes down to the elimination rounds.

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The line of Ryan Donato, Troy Terry and Mark Arcobello was excellent for most of the game. Putting the two college kids with one of the top scorers in Switzerland has worked out well. Terry and Donato had a lot of the higher-skill plays that you expect top prospects to be able to make. They drew penalties, they created chances and they were able to keep Slovenia on their heels more successfully than any other U.S. line. That said, both Terry and Donato got caught a few times trying to do too much. They were guilty of a few turnovers that you’d rather not see just because they hung onto the puck too long. I don’t know that you give them too much grief for that though because they really had a positive impact on the game.

Ryan Zapolski certainly doesn’t deserve much, if any, blame for today. The three goals Slovenia scored weren’t on the goalie. The first was a shot through heavy traffic that found a hole. Then the second two were Mursak by himself from close range. You just have to tip your cap. Zapolski had some shaky moments out there, but overall he played solidly with 22 saves in the game. I didn’t see anything that will cause him to lose his job as the No. 1.

Brian O’Neill had a strong game. Involved in both U.S. goals, O’Neill was a factor in a lot of ways in the game against Slovenia. He scored the first one on a well-placed shot and assisted on Jordan Greenway’s goal by kicking the puck free while fighting off a check. He just played hard the whole game, too. I certainly wouldn’t see him and Broc Little get a couple of extra minutes in the next game. I wonder if the two of them might be a fit playing with Greenway a little more as they spent most of the game with Garret Roe.

Defense had its ups and downs. I thought Matt Gilroy played well overall, but he was on the ice at the end of the game when Mursak tied it. It was one bad play amid many other good ones for the former Hobey Baker winner and it proved costly. He’s clearly USA’s No. 1 D though, playing over 26 minutes against Slovenia. Overall I think he’ll be fine. Noah Welch had that incredible goal-saving block in the first period, but that chance was partially created by one of his turnovers and there were a few rough ones in this game from him. He was kind of emblematic o the team in that he had his share of great and poor plays.

Bobby Sanguinetti and Ryan Gunderson were the pair on the ice for the game-tying goal (FYI, the score sheet has this wrong), but I don’t think the blame should specifically be on them as all five players got a little lost out there. James Wisniewski played 2:51 today as it appears he is here strictly for power play duties.

They got leaky at the end, but the forwards were also pretty poor in the neutral zone in the third period. There were a lot of bad turnovers and it put USA’s defense on its heels. Early in the game, they were doing a good job of getting pucks up to the speedy forwards and the forwards were managing the puck well on entries and through the neutral zone. Big difference in the third.

I’ll be interested to see if Will Borgen gets in against Slovakia after being scratched today. He’s got good mobility and is a smart defender. Stakes are a little higher now, though.

I’d be more worried if… The U.S. didn’t create a lot of chances. With 36 shots on goal, they created a lot of quality chances. Greenway, Donato, O’Neill and some others were doing very well in getting to the middle of the ice. Slovenian goalie Gasper Kroselj had a much better game than he is being given credit for. There were some big saves off of deflections and with traffic in front that were not easy. If there were NHL players shooting, you’d probably expect a few more of those to go in. That said, I thought it would be very difficult for the U.S. to generate a lot of good chances even against Slovenia. I think teams have to work a lot harder for their chances on the big ice and the U.S. was doing that for much of the game.

So yeah, it’s a loss to Slovenia. It doesn’t look great. It’s not great. I’ve been saying since the summer that you have to manage your expectations with this team. The lack of a pre-tournament exhibition schedule, the inability to play together as a team until today, that is no small thing to overcome. But I think we learned that there are some really good players on this roster and that the U.S. has the talent and speed to compete. We just have to see if they have enough time to put it all together. With Slovakia beating Russia, I think it only further proves that these Olympics are wide open.

The U.S. is going to the qualification round no matter what. So long as they continually improve and start peaking in the elimination round, there’s always a chance. They remain a medal longshot, but this loss does not end those hopes outright.

Now, I don’t want you to think all of this silver-lining stuff from your ol’ pal CP means you can’t be mad about losing to Slovenia. It’s the natural setting for any international hockey fan, and please feel free to rage on. There’s still quite a bit of hockey left and I think there are some things to like about this U.S. team out the gate. Once you get over that they’re not NHL players and just watch the game without the filter of “this would be better with the NHL” it becomes a pretty decent product. I thought the early goings were especially entertaining due to the speed and flow of the game.

Now we have to see how the U.S. responds. This is a gut-punch of the highest order because of how it happened more than because of the quality of the opponent. The Slovakians are going to be better than Slovenia, but if this U.S. team has some push-back, they’re going to have a chance. That next game is going to tell us an awful lot about where this team is and where it might actually be able to go after Wednesday’s disappointment.

So, the blog is back for a little bit when I can write. I’m actually at the U18 Five Nations this week in Plymouth, Michigan, so that is my priority for coverage. But I’m going to try to do a little something after each U.S. men’s game. Just think of the blog as kind of like the McRib. It’s here for a limited time only and could come back again without warning (again).

Posted in Olympics, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey | 1 Comment

On Will Butcher signing with the Devils and the debate we’re still having about NCAA UFAs for some reason

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Will Butcher, the most coveted in a class of former collegiate players who let their own draft rights lapse or were not signed by their drafting team, has signed a two-year deal with the New Jersey Devils. The Hobey Baker winner took advantage of the CBA rule (not a loophole) that allows players to become UFAs if they do not sign with their drafting team by the fourth June 1 following their draft year.

Butcher’s final two collegiate seasons were brilliant for the Denver Pioneers, with a senior season for the ages. The Sun Prairie, Wisc., native put up a career-best 37 points in 42 games while captaining DU to the national championship and collecting the Hobey.

Drafted in the fifth round by the Colorado Avalanche coming out of the National Team Development Program in 2013, Butcher’s first two seasons in college were not necessarily awe-inspiring. They certainly weren’t bad, but he had fair amount of pedigree coming into the NCAA. He made the World U18 Championship as an underager in 2012 — playing on a blue line with the likes of Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba and Brady Skjei on what was the most dominant D corps I’d ever seen in that tournament. Butcher also had a strong showing in his under-18 season at the NTDP, on a D corps that includes new Devils teammate Steven Santini. But he sort of blended in at Denver as a freshman and sophomore and had a so-so showing at the 2014 World Junior Championship.  The important thing to note is that Butcher showed tremendous growth over his four years at DU, culminating with him rounding out into one of the best blueliners in the NCAA and eventually the Hobey Baker as the best player overall.

New_Jersey_Devils_logo.svgThe Devils are adding some much-needed depth on defense, an area that hasn’t been as adequately addressed in the rebuild as the forward group has with draftees like Pavel Zacha, Michael McLeod and most recent first-overall pick Nico Hischier. The 22-year-old could conceivably make the opening night roster, but one would think the Devils aren’t going to rush him if they don’t think he’s ready.

In the best-case scenario, at least in the short-term, Butcher provides a low-pairing option to aid in puck-possession and could potentially see some power-play time right away in the NHL. Longer-term, there’s moderate top-four potential due to his poise with the puck, vision and overall intelligence. Butcher absolutely controlled games from the blue line the last two years in ways most college defensemen cannot. It doesn’t always translate, but I think Butcher has been generally underestimated during this free agency period based on what I’ve read and comments I’ve seen.

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Posted in American Prospects, NCAA, NHL, NTDP, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey | Tagged | 4 Comments

The many challenges of building the 2018 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team roster

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It was never going to be easy. No one would have argued that, given the NHL’s decision to keep players out of the 2018 Olympics. But building the 2018 U.S. Olympic Men’s Hockey Team roster is going to be far more challenging than anyone is willing to let on.

That’s not to say that USA Hockey can’t put together a competitive roster, but putting a roster together is far from the only hurdle they’ll face in the lofty quest to secure a medal of any color. There are obviously also concerns about the opposition in the actual tournament, the unpredictable nature of short tournaments in general and other on-ice things. But most of all, the challenge of building the 2018 men’s Olympic team comes down to logistics.

As I noted in a recent post, USA Hockey took a really good first step in building a staff that is uniquely qualified to lead this team. I think they have the right people in place. There is one issue, however. For most of the staff, preparing for the Olympics is not their first and only job. Even general manager Jim Johannson will have other responsibilities, like preparing a World Junior team for a title defense on home ice and the everyday duties of being USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations. If anyone can do it, it’s him, but it’s still a lot to handle on top of building a team for the most important international hockey tournament that exists — with or without the NHL players.

To be clear, this isn’t something I view as a problem as I don’t think anyone knows the available player pool as comprehensively as Johannson does. But it is worth noting as one of the challenges that exists for USA’s GM.

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The writing was already on the wall that this was a possibility, so Johannson had already built a list that he says runs about 80 to 90 players that are options for the Olympics. Those 80-90 players will span college hockey, recently retired or unsigned NHL players, the AHL and ECHL (so long as the players in question are not under NHL contract) in North America and a multitude of European pro leagues — most notably, the KHL (Russia), DEL (Germany), NLA (Switzerland), SHL (Sweden) and SM-Liiga (Finland). That’s a lot of ground to cover with six months to go before the Olympics.

So before I get into which players specifically are among those that either could be or should be under USA Hockey’s consideration, I thought it made sense to detail what the staff is up against as it tries to put together a medal contending team.

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