What the Future Holds for USA Hockey, and the Other Teams Eliminated from the World Cup
We take a look at the four teams who didn't make it out of the round robin—USA, Finland, Czech Republic and North America—and where they go from here.
Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
We're down to four in the World Cup of Hockey. After yesterday's action, the round-robin portion of the proceedings is officially in the books and half of the tournament's teams have been sent to the sidelines.
The semifinals take place over the weekend, with Russia facing Canada on Saturday night and Sweden up against Team Europe on Sunday afternoon. We'll have a full wrapup on Monday, which will give us a chance to break down those four teams, how they got there, and preview the best-of-three final.
So today, let's focus on the four who didn't make it that far. Here's a look at each of the teams that were knocked out in the round robin, and where they go from here.
We may as well start with the team that has everyone talking. Well, "talking" may not be the right word. "Criticizing?" "Brutalizing"? "Ruthlessly burying on Twitter?"
Take your pick. And just about all of it is deserved, because Team USA stands as easily the tournament's biggest disappointment. They weren't necessarily expected to win it all, but they did seem to have a clear path to the playoff round at a minimum (one made all the more easy by a format that just happened to leave them and Canada in a group with two of the tournament's weakest teams). At the very least, you figured they'd work in a win somewhere.
Instead, they immediately burned through any margin for error by dropping a stunner to Team Europe in the opener. In the process, they turned their matchup with Canada into a literal must-win, one they had to have to stay in the playoff hunt.
In theory, that should have been fine. This is a team, after all, that made it very clear that they'd designed the roster specifically to beat their northern neighbors. They loaded up on heart and grit, with a healthy dose of agitators to pester Canada's stars. They even brought along Brandon Dubinsky, whose main claim to fame has been suckering Sidney Crosby. And the roster featured so much leadership that they felt the usual captain and two alternates couldn't hope to contain it.
And overseeing it all was John Tortorella, a choice for coach who made it clear that this was going to be a sandpaper squad. When he's not barking at the media or trying to fight the other team, Tortorella is known for demanding a hard-nosed style with plenty of blocked shots and bloodied noses. Sure, he was chosen as coach at least partially because he wasn't working in the NHL, then almost immediately took the Columbus job. No matter. Tortorella's hiring left no doubt about what this team wanted to be.
And for a brief moment, it looked like it all might just work. Team USA earned a win in its first exhibition game against Canada, taking a 4-2 decision in a game that featured plenty of scrums and at least one cheap shot. Canada won the rematch one night later, but the message had been delivered. The players bought in, promising that they would beat Canada just as long as the contest was decided by grit.
All of which made it all the more depressing to watch Tuesday's showdown, in which the Canadians largely toyed with their rivals on the way to a 4-2 win that eliminated Team USA from playoff contention. Dubinsky didn't even play, despite facing the one player he was brought aboard to neutralize. And maybe that was just as well, since it was almost embarrassing to watch guys like Justin Abdelkader being completely ignored while trying desperately to get under the skin of somebody, anybody, in red and white.
By the end, the whole thing just felt kind of sad. As Joe Thornton later pointed out, Canada had plenty of toughness of its own—it just happens to also double as skill. Trying to beat Canada at playing hard-nosed hockey is like challenging the whole country to a poutine-eating contest. It's not going to end well for you.
And that's where the criticism of Team USA's approach will really hit home. The national team's obsession with grit—even at the expense of skilled players like Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson, Justin Faulk and Kevin Shattenkirk—has become a parody. General manager Dean Lombardi explained the roster selection by evoking the memories of the 1996 World Cup squad, still the nation's one and only win in a best-on-best tournament. But that team was packed with skill, with a handful of heart-and-soul types included well down the lineup, more out of necessity than strategy.
For the most part, Lombardi and Tortorella stuck to their guns yesterday. Lombardi admitted that the obsession with Canada was part of the team's downfall, but defended the roster selection by acknowledging that Team USA was never going to match Canada's skill. And while that's undoubtedly true, it's still hard to see how taking an even less-skilled team would somehow work out better. And Lombardi's comical comments about his grinders forming a "nucleus of the caring" suggests that he'd make the same choices again if given the chance.
So would a Team USA that was actually built around the nation's best players have challenged Canada? Not necessarily, at least not without spectacular goaltending and a few lucky bounces. And that's a concern. Even if you swap in a few Kessels or Shattenkirks, there's just not enough American talent out there to rate as an international superpower right now.
But that's where the good news starts to trickle in, because reinforcements are on the way. Some of it could have been here already; the inclusion of the 23-and-under Team North America likely cost Team USA the services of players like Johnny Gaudreau and Brandon Saad. Auston Matthews looks like the real deal, as does Jack Eichel.
But even more importantly, surely this week's disaster will force Team USA to finally get on board with the modern hockey world. Tortorella certainly won't be back, and Lombardi likely won't be, either. Some new blood in the decision-making process should lead to new blood on the roster, presumably with an emphasis on skill instead of in-your-face swagger. And hopefully, the next era of American hockey will even feature toughness—the real version, not the kind that spouts posturing platitudes about a warrior mentality but then gets reduced to tears by a mean tweet.
So, yes, Team USA really will be better, and we shouldn't be surprised if it happens soon. After all, given how this week played out, it's not like it could be any worse.
Team Czech Republic
The Czechs came into the tournament looking to embrace the role of underdogs. They succeeded at that much. That's about where the good news ends.
With Jaromir Jagr choosing not to play and Tomas Hertl and David Krejci injured before the meaningful games began, the Czechs came in lacking both star power and offensive threats. Their strongest position was in goal, and there was some hope that either Petr Mrazek or Michal Neuvirth could deliver a poor man's version of Dominik Hasek's heroics from the 1998 Olympics. It didn't happen.
A tough schedule that saw them open against Canada didn't do them any favors, and a blowout loss made it clear that they'd be facing an uphill climb. To their credit, they gave Team Europe a game, and last night they beat a Team USA squad that just wanted to go home. But they were never a playoff threat, and based on talent it's hard to argue that they didn't get the fate they deserved.
So where do they go from here? This entry was viewed as a youth movement of sorts, but few of those young players project as the sort of elite talent that can shift the balance of power in international hockey. There are a handful of strong prospects who'll make their way to the national team eventually, like Pavel Zacha and maybe Jakub Vrana. But these days the pipeline looks more like a trickle; no Czechs were taken in the first round of the most recent draft.
That doesn't mean that the Czechs can't have a better showing at future tournaments. Hertl and Krejci will be healthy next time, and Mrazek is still just 24; he's shown occasional signs of developing into the sort of goaltender who can cover for holes in the rest of the roster. And, hey, Jagr will only be 46 by the end of the 2018 Olympics, so he'll probably still be a first-line player. But right now, it seems more likely than not that the next few Czech teams will look a lot like this one, and have the results to show for it.
On paper, Finland didn't look like it should have much of a chance. It was in a tough group with Sweden, Russia and Team North America, and the roster didn't feature much in the way of star power.
But we've been here before with Finland, and it always seems to find a way to stick around far longer than anyone expects. Finland has won more Olympic medals during the NHL era than anyone, including Canada. They win an unexpected game early in the round robin, they sneak into the playoffs, and next thing you know they're scaring the hell out of some team in the semifinal.
But not this time. They were the first guinea pigs for the Team North America experiment, and never seemed to recover from that 4-1 loss. A dull shutout loss to Sweden all but sealed their fate, and yesterday's 3-0 loss to the Russians left them without even a point. In three games, they only managed a single goal. It was ugly.
And yet, there's some room for optimism here. The roster was young, especially up front, and unlike the Czechs there's some excellent talent on the way. Remember, Finland accounted for three of the top five picks in this year's draft, including winger Patrik Laine, who played in the tournament and didn't look out of place. The goaltending of the future is a question mark, but Tuukka Rask is only 29 and should have another tournament or two to offer.
Overall, Finland's 2016 experience was a disappointment. But there's reason to believe that the setback will be a temporary one, and that Finland will be able to at least get back to its usual role as sneaky-dangerous spoiler within a few years.
Team North America
The 23-and-under Team North America squad headed into the tournament as an unknown; it was an experiment that felt more like a marketing decision than a hockey one, and there was at least a little concern that it could end up blowing up in everyone's face.
By the time the round robin was over, the unknown had become the tournament's best story. Team North America quickly staked its claim as the event's most exciting team, combining a deadly mix of speed and skill with a roster full of players young enough to have not quite been fully indoctrinated into pro hockey's "take no chances ever" culture. They played all three games like they were mashing the turbo button, from their impressive opening win over Finland to Tuesday's instant classic OT win over Sweden in their finale.
Unfortunately, in between those two games came a loss to the Russians, and that ended up costing them a playoff spot. Despite two wins, the youngsters lost out on the second spot to Russia on the head-to-head tie-breaker, and will head home empty-handed despite scoring more goals than any team in the tournament besides Canada.
That's disappointing, any way you slice it. And it's led to some criticism of the team's coaching staff, after it became clear that the players didn't understand the importance of winning the Sweden game before overtime. If the coaches had gone all out to get that regulation win, the kids could still be alive today.
Instead they're done, and the question of "what's next?" is a uniquely tricky one for this team. For the players, what's next is further development, eventual stardom, and (in most cases) a spot on Team Canada or Team USA by the next time this tournament rolls around.
But the team itself? That's where it gets murky. Heading into the tournament, the NHL made it sound like the concept would be a one-shot deal, a temporary measure in the absence of a proper multi-team qualification round. After the way the kids went out and stole the show, it's hard to imagine the NHL not bringing them back.
But if they do, you'd have to assume it will be under different rules than this year's edition. Let's face it, there's zero chance that the NHL will want Connor McDavid relegated to a gimmick team four years from now, when he's Canada's top center and the league's best player. Same for Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews for Team USA. Whether they lower the cutoff age, institute a "no repeats" rule, or give each of the grownup teams a few exemption picks, the league will have to tinker with the format.
Either way, the team is a good bet to be back. And that might leave Team North America as the only one of these four that has reason to celebrate the round-robin results. They may not have earned a chance to advance, but they likely earned a chance to continue existing. That's not a bad week's worth of work for a bunch of punk kids.
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