It’s been a few days since the U.S. claimed bronze at the World Championship, so here’s a quick retrospective on that as well as a bunch of related thoughts on Team USA’s Olympic structure if/when the NHL goes to Sochi…
All-in-all, the 2013 IIHF Men’s World Championship can be considered a success for the U.S. Men’s National Team. A big quarterfinal win over heavily-favored Russia and earning the first medal since 2004 with bronze are the big standout moments. It’s quite rare for U.S. teams to medal, so Team USA’s performance carries some extra significance.
Trying to assign reasonable meaning to what the bronze means for USA Hockey is a touch more difficult. The World Championship isn’t a best-on-best tournament, but it’s still an important event on some level. It might not have North American fan interest, but it’s one of many measuring sticks to indicate the health of a country’s national team program.
For so long, the U.S. has not had the depth to compete with other countries, which has been hard to fathom considering the increasing Americans playing in the NHL. The World Championship has proven that the gap in the average talent across the globe is pretty even among the big hockey countries. Even so, the U.S. teams should still be able to compete annually for a medal, so getting bronze is a step in the right direction.
The medal is not a monumental moment for USA Hockey, but it is a step towards something better and brighter. The depth of the country’s talent is as important as continuing to cultivate elite-level players, for sustainability’s sake. As the game grows, the talent should continue to grow with it.
Tournaments like the World U18s, World Juniors and even the World Championships are measuring sticks of varying value. Having some level of success in each is a good sign.
The last few years suggest that the talent is starting to catch up — in terms of American players’ presence in the NHL and NHL Draft, success internationally and across-the-board improvement at the midget and junior levels — to USA Hockey’s monumental membership growth over the last decade.
Now, here are some quick random closing thoughts and facts specific to the World Championship…
The U.S. finished the tournament 6-1-0-0-3. The seven wins, including the last one in the shootout, matches the American record for a World Championship set in 1939, according to USA Hockey. That’s good news.
Paul Stastny’s 15 points ranked second in the tournament, while Craig Smith’s 14 was tied for third and his nine assists led all players. Those two point totals are among the best the U.S. has seen in more than 30 years at the World Championship. The two seem to like playing together.
The U.S. was able to ride 19-year-old John Gibson throughout the medal round and he didn’t disappoint. More on him in a bit.
Alex Galchenyuk and T.J. Oshie were late arrivals to the team, coming in after disappointing playoff losses for their respective teams. Both made immediate contributions, with Galchenyuk scoring the two shootout goals that gave the U.S. bronze.
Defensively, the U.S. got strong performances out of a number of players including Erik Johnson, Justin Faulk and — after an early-tournament adjustment period — 19-year-old Jacob Trouba. Matt Hunwick also proved a serviceable offensive defenseman throughout the tournament.
Faulk was undoubtedly Team USA’s top D. The 21-year-old rising star with Carolina saw the top competition, played the biggest minutes and was a two-way threat. More on him shortly.
The U.S. brought four players that played college hockey last year in Hobey Baker winner Drew LeBlanc, Nick Bjugstad, Danny Kristo and Trouba. It was Winnipeg prospect Trouba making the largest impact of any of the four as he ended up being utilized regularly.
LeBlanc ended up a scratch every game after Oshie arrived, but prior to that he was on Team USA’s second scoring line and contributed three assists. He was an unfortunate casualty in a numbers game.
Bjugstad and Kristo got fourth-line minutes and played very energetic hockey, but neither was much of a factor offensively, which was of moderate surprise considering their scoring ways in college. Both are still quality prospects, but this tournament may have showed a few of their current limitations and why both may need some extra AHL seasoning before jumping into the NHL full-time. Both are close, though.
Ben Bishop struggled quite a bit in the tournament. He finished with an abysmal .876 save percentage over five starts and faced some of the weaker teams in the tournament. That wouldn’t overly concern me if I was a Tampa Bay Lightning fan, though. Bishop has limited international experience and making the adjustment from an NHL-size to Olympic-size rink is one not necessarily easy to make. Some of the goals he allowed looked like a matter of misjudging the angle, which is a common mistake on international ice for North American goalies. I think he’ll get another shot at the World Championship eventually, but this time around wasn’t great.
Paul Stastny — Colorado Avalanche — Stastny quite simply was terrific in the tournament. He wasn’t as dominant as his point total suggests, but was every bit as effective. Stastny was very strong at both ends, good on the power play and penalty kill, and could do a little bit of everything for Team USA. Having substantial Olympic and World Championship experience, Stastny looked every bit the captain Team USA selected him to be. The effort was there, he played loose and made the most of his scoring chances. The chemistry he seemed to build with Craig Smith was noticeable. Even after a less-than-good season with the Avs this year, I haven’t doubted Stastny’s position on the 2014 Olympic team. He’s probably the third or fourth-line center in Sochi and he offers the right mix of defensive ability and scoring pop that will help a lot in those tight contests.
Justin Faulk — Carolina Hurricanes — Faulk has been one of my darkhorse candidates for the Olympics based on the way his game has progressed over his first two NHL seasons. Carolina is a better team with him on the ice and it showed when he was out with injury this year. Faulk’s two-way game is growing each year. He’s become an excellent distributor of the puck and still has a cannon from the point. The former UMD Bulldog has a knack for getting the puck up ice and knows how to make the most of the big surface. The competition for Sochi is fierce on the blueline. The U.S. has an awful lot of high-end puck movers and perhaps not enough elite shut-down guys. Faulk’s defense is good enough to probably help fill that void. He’s used to playing a lot of minutes and can play in any situation. I think he’s an easy invite to the orientation camp and will be in the hunt until the very end.
Alex Galchenyuk — Montreal Canadiens — Despite his youth, it’s fairly safe to say the U.S. lacks players with the level of skill Galchenyuk brings to the table. He still could afford to get stronger, but beyond that he’s showing vast potential. Another step forward developmentally next season could go a long way to putting Galchenyuk on the roster. The U.S. is very shallow down the left wing right now, but there are enough candidates with a touch more experience both internationally and in the NHL that will challenge Galchenyuk mightily. Scoring twice in the shootout and apparently having the boldness to ask to shoot for the win at 19 is really remarkable and something that will be remembered. I don’t think USA Hockey can leave him out of their orientation camp, but I’m still not sold he’s at an Olympic level just yet. No question the upside is there and he could make that leap as early as next season, but it’s tough to say right now in May. A good off-season and camp performance could significantly change that, though.
T.J. Oshie — St. Louis Blues — When I made an Olympic projection for CBSSports.com a few months back, Oshie was on my roster for Sochi. He’s still got the inside track in my opinion to being on the club due to the relative lack of depth. The big issue for Oshie right now is that Team USA is stacked down the right side, Oshie’s natural position. He’d have to move to the left and likely take a third- or fourth-line role, but that’s an area I believe he’d do well in. Right now, Oshie has to fend off quite a few formidable guys including perhaps Galchenyuk. He’s an easy camp invite and as long as he brings his high-energy, physical game, there’s a spot for him in Sochi. Oshie managed one goal at the Worlds, which wasn’t necessarily great for the role he was asked to play in his four games, but he played the style that could get him a spot at the Olympics.
Erik Johnson — Colorado Avalanche — At times at the World Championship Johnson looked like the guy that earned a spot on the 2010 Olympic team and others the guy that hasn’t lived up to No. 1 overall potential. That said, he’s a great defender on the big ice surface due to his mobility. He plays physical, moves the puck fairly well and played panic-free hockey. There were a few times where positioning was a little messy, but for the most part, Johnson showed why he’s got a good chance to return for his second Olympics. He’s got more competition this time around for a spot, with the player he was traded for in Kevin Shattenkirk looking chief among them. They very well could both make it, as the bigger ice is going to put a premium on puck-movers. Johnson is a no-doubter for camp and I think he’d be really tough to cut with his capability to play solid defense on the big ice.
Craig Smith — Nashville Predators — After his nine-assist, 14-point performance, Smith may get some extra buzz, but it’d be tough to put him in the Olympic category at this point. He’s headed into his third NHL season, coming off of a massive drop-off in production in his sophomore campaign. Smith has been an excellent World Championship player though, with 22 points in 21 career World Championship games. He has good defensive sense, but he’d be a very tough sell. While the Olympics is not likely part of his immediate future, his play in three World Championships so far has been nothing less than impressive.
Matt Carle — Tampa Bay Lightning — I thought Carle might be a bubble guy for Team USA’s defense, but after the World Championships, I wouldn’t count on that anymore. He wasn’t bad by any means, but as the most experienced defenseman on the club, I expected to see more from him. He had two assists and 12 shots on goal, while averaging nearly 19 minutes a game. Carle was mostly average. He might get an invite to the Olympic camp, but even that may be a stretch, with the bevvy of candidates available to USA Hockey this time around.
Jacob Trouba — There is a chance, albeit a very slim one, that Trouba could get an invite to the Olympic orientation camp. He’s probably not ready for the big show yet, but I think it would be excellent for USA Hockey to add in a couple of young guys to give them a taste of the level they need to be at. Trouba and Seth Jones would be ideal guys for something like that. This very well could be the last year the NHL goes to the Olympics, but there will be other events like the World Cup on the horizon that would help to give guys like them a chance to get their feet wet. Trouba showed throughout the World Championship that he needs some work, but more often than not, he showed glimpses of his vast potential. The confidence he played with at the Worlds was pretty remarkable. He was scratched two games and came back with authority, saving his best performance for the bronze-medal game. Trouba was quite possibly Team USA’s best defenseman in that game and got a more regular shift. He has a chance to be a really special player for a long time.
John Gibson — While Gibson won’t be in the Olympic mix this time around, he showed why he may be the best American goaltending prospect since Jonathan Quick. He was overshadowed by Jack Campbell in his NTDP years, playing a year behind the most decorated goalie in recent USA Hockey history, but Gibson showed this year that he’s at an extremely high level right now. With the year he’s had now, there’s no shadow. Campbell is still a high-end goaltending prospect, but Gibson showed a level not seen often by goalies his age. He was the MVP of Team USA’s gold-medal team at the WJC and was probably the U.S. MVP throughout the medal round at the World Championship, including the bronze-medal game. What makes Gibson different from his peers, and reason he projects as an elite goaltending prospect, is his poise. The mental aspect of goaltending is every bit as important as the athletic side and Gibson is aces in both. He’s in a Ducks organization that has an embarrassment of riches in its goaltending pipeline, which will likely slow Gibson’s ascent to the NHL, but after this tournament, I find it hard to question his potential as a future No. 1 in the NHL. His track record, from the NTDP to the OHL to the international tournaments is one of enormous success. John Gibson very well could be the future of American goaltending.
Some thoughts on Team USA’s Olympic leadership:
I’m pretty certain, without any confirmation from any sources (Olympic info has been locked tight), USA Hockey already has its mind made up on the men that will be charged with leading the U.S. Olympic team in the capacities of general manger and head coach. The organization won’t announce anything until the NHL has decided whether or not it will participate in Sochi (even though it’s clearer that it’s going to happen), but I’d be shocked if the plans weren’t already in place.
I don’t know if it would take Nostradamus to predict that the head coach is most likely going to be Dan Bylsma of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Pens head coach has had increased visibility at USA Hockey events and has been increasingly involved with various national teams. He was a camp coach at the National Junior Evaluation camp for the 2012 WJC. Bylsma was also USA Hockey’s guest as an “observer” at last year’s World Championship after the Pens were eliminated from the playoffs. Bylsma was even late to his media availability last Sunday because he was watching the end of the bronze-medal game on TV. It is a job he clearly wants.
The timing seems to be just right as well. Of the potential candidates, Bylsma just seems to be a fit. Ron Wilson likely is receiving consideration for the job he did in 2010, but not working in the NHL is not going to help his chances. John Tortorella is on the hot seat in New York as the Rangers flounder in the second round and Peter Laviolette’s Flyers missed the playoffs in spectacular fashion this year. Clearly, none sit in the position Bylsma does now.
Bylsma knows how to manage stars, with two of the biggest in the world on his team right now. He also might know how to slow those two down, too…
The only downside is Bylsma’s lack of international experience. He’s never coached and to my knowledge never played in a major international event. I don’t think that isn’t going to stop him from being the guy, though.
It will also be interesting to see how the U.S. handles its assistant coaches.
With his recent job at the World Championships, you’d have to imagine Joe Sacco will be looked to as an option. He is a former Olympian and has good international coaching experience.
Bylsma’s own assistant in Pittsburgh, Tony Granato, would be an obvious fit as well as a former U.S. Olympian.
There’s also Phil Housley, who was the head coach of this year’s World Junior team and an assistant on the bronze-medal World Championship club. He just took an assistant job with Nashville and is an IIHF Hall of Fame inductee based on his international playing career.
Then there’s Wilson, Tortorella, Laviolette and throw in 2010 assistant coach Scott Gordon as a few more options.
For the general manager, the rumors are swirling and they all keep coming back to the same guy: Nashville Predators general manager David Poile.
Brian Burke would seem to be a good choice for the job he did in 2010, but reports have pegged USA Hockey wanting to go with a current NHL general manager.
Poile was the assistant GM for Burke in 2010 and is well-respected by USA Hockey and its GM-filled advisory committee. I’d expect Burke to be heavily involved in the process no matter who is in charge, but it seems like it’s Poile’s time.
A three-time finalist for NHL General Manager of the Year, Poile has gone through some tough changes in Nashville due to free agency, but he is an excellent builder and has a wealth of experience as an evaluator.
The U.S. has such a terrific pool to choose from, but Poile seems like the favorite right now.
The Olympics decision should be coming soon from the NHL and as soon as it does, expect USA Hockey to move quickly to make its big announcements soon thereafter.