2014 Olympics: Team USA Assistants Named, Orientation Camp News & Notes

It’s been a busy couple of days when it comes to the Olympics, but it sure is nice to have NHL players headed to Sochi once again. Team USA’s big news Tuesday was the addition of three assistant coaches. Additionally, more details surrounding the selections for the Olympic orientation camp, were unveiled Tuesday.

Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette, Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards and Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato will join Dan Bylsma behind the bench in Sochi.

It’s a staff with a good amount of experience at the professional level, but also provides a solid mix of international experience with familiarity. Laviolette was the Olympic head coach in 2006, while both Richards and Granato have worked with Bylsma in the past. Granato and Laviolette also bring experience as past Olympians, which may prove particularly important this year.

Coming up after the jump, more thoughts on the completed coaching staff, as well as some details about the Olympic Orientation Camp and other odds and ends from David Poile’s Tuesday teleconference.

The coaching staff for this team is important. As we saw in 2010, finding the right mix of ideologies and experiences helps a lot. Ron Wilson was the right man for the job in 2010, with a team on an NHL sheet, prior international success (1996 World Cup of Hockey) and he had quality assistants in John Tortorella and Scott Gordon.

Like last time around, all of the coaches on the bench have NHL head coaching experience, which is something Poile highlighted as a huge positive. Granato is the only one of the three that isn’t a current head coach, but he spent time in that capacity with the Colorado Avalanche.

Now there’s a bit of an interesting dynamic behind the USA bench as well. Laviolette and Bylsma coach rival teams and have had some heated exchanges in the past. None more notable than the blow up between the benches in a late regular-season game in 2012.

Laviolette’s ire was a result of Bylsma’s putting his fourth line out in a 6-3 game against Philadelphia’s more skilled players.

After the game, when asked what sparked Laviolette’s between-the-benches tirade (which resulted in his ejection from the game) the Flyers head coach said this:

“Those guys hadn’t played in 12 minutes. It’s a gutless move by their coach. It’s just… ya know… gutless.”

So there’s that.

Poile said that he and the rest of the advisory group met with Bylsma and they came to an agreement on who would be behind the bench. Laviolette brings experience that only Ron Wilson and 1984 Olympic coach Lou Vairo possess as the only living past U.S. Olympic coaches.

Laviolette also coached Team USA on an Olympic-sized ice surface in Turin in 2006 and, like Bylsma, has led a team to the Stanley Cup. Additionally, Laviolette is a two-time Olympian as a player and a two-time head coach for Team USA at the World Championship. In many ways, he’s an ideal guy to have on the bench given Bylsma’s lack of international experience in any capacity.

I’m sure he and Bylsma have let bygones be bygones as the professionals as they are. One thing that has been made clear by everyone involved with Team USA is how their focus will shift from NHL to national allegiance as soon as the time comes. So it’s interesting to see Laviolette here given the history, but at the same time, these guys both want to win a gold medal for their country.

Conversely, Bylsma gets two familiar faces to help out. The current Olympic head coach was an assistant to Todd Richards while both were with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the American Hockey League. When Richards was hired away by the Minnesota Wild, Bylsma took over the WBS Pens before taking over mid-season for Michel Therrien and winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh.

Richards has been doing a great job in Columbus after a rocky ride in Minnesota. He’ll also have some keen insight on Sergei Bobrovsky, the odds-on favorite to start for in-group rival Russia in Sochi. So that’s helpful.

As an assistant at the 2010 World Championship, Richards does have a little bit of international experience which is more than Bylsma can say at the present. That’s an added bonus. More than anything, however, it’s important to have guys Bylsma knows and trusts on the bench. Richards is certainly in that category.

So is Tony Granato, which gives Bylsma one of his current assistant coaches and a guy he can lean on heavily. Also if an opposing coach stands up on the other bench and tries to walk across the boards, Granato will stand between him and Bylsma like a good lieutenant, as evidenced in the above video.

Granato has been working with Bylsma for the last four seasons and has both the experience of a solid NHL career and a trip to the Olympics as a player in 1988. I was actually surprised to find out Granato’s international coaching experience is limited. This will be his first time behind the bench for a U.S. national team of any kind. He has worn the U.S. jersey many times, though.

The staff as constructed seems like it should be a good one for Dan Bylsma. There are subtle differences between the Olympics and the NHL, but the extra experience of Laviolette and Granato in particular, combined with the familiarity between Bylsma and Richards should be a recipe for success.

Orientation Camp Notes…

— The U.S. Olympic Orientation Camp will take place Aug. 26-27 in Arlington, Va., at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, practice facility for the Washington Capitals. The camp will serve primarily as an opportunity to get everyone to know each other and explain to the players what will be expected of them.

— There will be no practices or scrimmages, due to the high cost of insuring the camp. GM David Poile called the cost a “ridiculous number” and also felt there wasn’t much benefit of two days of practice in August.

It’s disappointing for the fans, but unavoidable it seems. It just puts that much more emphasis on the first half of the season for all of the Olympic candidates.

— The camp will have one day where it is open to the public. According to USA Hockey’s communications chief Dave Fischer, Aug. 27 is the likely date for the public component of the camp.

— Team USA’s jerseys for the Olympics will also be unveiled August 27, which is probably the only really notable thing that will come out of that camp.

— The players will be addressed by guest speakers from the U.S. military as well as former Olympic Decathlete Dan O’Brien at certain points of the camp. The entire 48-player group will also attend a Washington Nationals game.

Here are some more highlights from David Poile’s teleconference Tuesday.

— Poile on players not in camp: “Just because a player is not at this camp, doesn’t mean he won’t make the Olympic Team.” Poile also noted that any player in the camp shouldn’t feel his chances are any better because he was invited. This is good news for guys like Jason Pominville, Brandon Dubinsky and Alex Goligoski who didn’t get an invite. Each has quality attributes that could prove helpful.

— Poile explained that many of the invites to camp was a result of rewarding success, hence so many young players and perhaps a reason the aforementioned three snubs weren’t among the invited. He talked about wanting to bring in players that have won at the international level including from the 2010 and 2013 World Junior gold medal squads and the 2013 Men’s World Championship bronze medal team.

Poile was asked to address many of the young players specifically and his answers were similar for each, citing that each is a tremendous player but that it was important to bring them to camp simply for the experience.

There is a chance some of the younger guys like Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Saad could push for a spot on the team, but it was pretty clear Poile is inviting so many youngsters with eyes on the future as opposed to simply 2014.

— A few of the interesting comments from Poile regarding a few individuals…

Poile called Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien a “wild card.” Citing Byfuglien’s lack of international experience, Poile said he will be watched closely throughout the season.

Regarding Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk who is just 21 years old, Poile said Faulk’s “star is rising” thanks in part to his play at the last two World Championships, where he was arguably Team USA’s best defenseman. Poile didn’t mince words, saying the young blueliner has “an excellent chance” of making the final roster.

Trevor Lewis was one of the more controversial additions to the camp roster, but Poile explained pretty clearly that Lewis will be watched for a defensive role. Poile said he visualizes Lewis a fourth-line player, who could bring energy and grit to the lineup while playing in a shut-down role. Poile compared the role Lewis might be able to play to that of Ryan Callahan, who was a surprise add to the 2010 team that worked out incredibly well. It’s clear the U.S. is looking for guys that can fit a role. Lewis is no lock, of course, but he brings a set of skills that gives him a realistic chance.

Poile also mentioned that he expects Callahan to possibly play a bigger role on this year’s team.

On Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, Poile, even while maybe still be feeling the burn of Suter’s departure from Nashville in free agency was laudatory. Poile envisions Suter being the top defenseman and Parise being one of, if not the top forward on the squad. Not exactly going out on a limb there, but Poile said the team will be leaning heavily on these two players.

— Summary…

Based on what Poile was talking about Tuesday, it seems like he has a lot of spots for this team figured out, but is keeping an open mind and will wait to see how the first half plays out. He said the primary evaluation will come out of the first three months of the season, so the pressure will be on for making Team USA.

One thing that strikes me about Poile is his keen interest in looking back at where the U.S. has failed while playing on Olympic-sized ice surfaces. The U.S. took silver at both the 2002 and 2010 Olympics, which were both held in North America, but not in Nagano in 1998 or in Turin in 2006.

What I think Poile may end up finding was that those U.S. teams didn’t necessarily have the same assets at their disposal in those years that they do now, which should be comforting.

Going back to 1998, that was a team that largely made up the 1996 World Cup squad, which had beaten the world’s best on North American ice sheets. That team had a serious lack of mobility on the back-end, which can be killer in international games. There was plenty of speed and skill up front and the goaltending was fine, but they tried winning an NHL style game on international ice.

In 2006, Peter Laviolette had a roster in flux. He had mostly the old generation of players and the new generation really hadn’t arrived yet. Chris Chelios and Derian Hatcher were still on the team, for example. As was a fading Mike Modano. The goalie was Rick DiPietro.

This year’s U.S. club might not match the star-power of 1998, but it will certainly be younger and faster. It will also have much more quality depth than the 2006 team, without a doubt.

I still think there’s value in looking in the past, but I think Poile is going to find this team is better positioned for success than either of the previous entries overseas. The totality of skills available to Poile this time around is far broader than it was as recently as 2006.

When it comes to philosophy, it sounds like Poile wants to have a team that can really open things up and put teams on their heels with speed and skill. Physicality is not going to be tossed out as unimportant, however, which was something Poile mentioned somewhat in passing. I think it’ll be a really exciting team to watch with some more room to move.

It was really interesting to hear Poile’s takes, as it is clear he’s spent a lot of time analyzing this group and the challenge ahead in Sochi. He’s clearly a smart guy who knows the responsibility he bears and I think he has a real passion for this job. Now we’ll have to see if he can put a winner together.

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.
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