If you need reason to believe that USA Hockey didn’t learn from its underwhelming performance in Sochi, look no further than its blueline. Ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, many questioned the United States’ blueline. In February, former editor The Neutral wrote about the defense as the country’s biggest weakness:
While the American defense won’t have to worry about a bigger ice sheet, and Dustin Byfuglien brings elite puck-moving skills, much of the criticism from 2014 remains relevant. Given the strength of Sweden and Canada’s (even without Subban) bluelines, it feels like the American blueline is incomplete.
While we don’t often hear about players who have turned down playing for their country at this tournament (Jiri Hudler, notwithstanding), it’s a head-scratcher that 2014 Olympians Justin Faulk and Kevin Shattenkirk were left off this roster given their improvement since Sochi. The U.S. is undoubtedly hurt by the existence of Team North America, as Seth Jones and Shayne Gostisbehere would be improvements over many in this group. The player pool was still plentiful, as seen by Justin Braun, Alex Goligoski, Nick Leddy, and Keith Yandle, the country’s highest scoring defenseman over the past two seasons, all being left off of the roster.
Herb Brooks may have taken the right players over the best ones, but given the strength of American defensemen left at home, it doesn’t feel like USA Hockey did either ahead of this tournament.
Team USA Forwards
Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets
John Carlson, Washington Capitals
Erik Johnson, Colorado Avalanche
Jack Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets
Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers
Matt Niskanen, Washington Capitals
Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild
PLAYERS TO WATCH
After being left off of the American roster in 2014, it’s going to be exciting to see Big Buff roam the blueline. Like Brent Burns, he’s settled in as a defenseman after bouncing around up front and on the back end. Byfuglien is by far the team’s best puck-mover, and should quarterback the Americans’ power play unit.
Many fans reacted to Johnson’s inclusion on the roster the same way Michael Bluth reacted to hearing about his son’s first girlfriend. Like George Michael’s interest in Ann Veal, USA Hockey’s interest in Jack Johnson is incredibly puzzling. He’s posted positive possession numbers relative to his teammates once in his career, and is coming off of one of the worst offensive seasons of his career. Many within the world of hockey still rely upon plus/minus, and Johnson has never been a plus player. He’s been loyal to USA Hockey in the past, but considering he hasn’t represented the team at the senior level in four years and his struggles, this is arguably the most confusing decision in the entire tournament.
The Rangers’ captain stands to benefit most playing for his country, simply because he no longer has to play with Dan Girardi. Despite playing with Giradi for over 1200 minutes this season, McDonagh still posted positive possession numbers relative to his team, albeit barely. He’s a strong, all-around defenseman who could be in for a breakout performance this tournament. If John Tortorella elects to go with a lefty/righty balance on the back end, McDonagh is guaranteed to play alongside someone more capable than Girardi.