Saturday, July 4, 2009

Orientation, Under-Enrolled

I want to challenge Brian Burke to a game of pickup hockey. We are going to play 5 on 5, each of us get 10 players and a goalie. Neither of us gets to play, but instead, we are going to have the following players on our sides:

Team Burke

TJ Oshie, Kyle Okposo, Scott Gomez, Mike Modano, Ryan Callahan, Tom Gilbert, Ron Hainsey, Ryan Malone, Rob Scuderi, Dustin Byfuglien, Jonathan Quick

Team Morgus

Drew Stafford, Tim Connolly, Blake Wheeler, Paul Gaustad, Keith Ballard, Peter Mueller, Eric Cole, Brian Gionta, John-Michael Liles, Jason Pominville , Rick DiPietro

Finally, Burke’s team will be coached by Ron Wilson, my team will be coached by John Tortorella. Or me. Or my cousin Emily, who has never watched hockey in her life. Or nobody. Either way, I will have the advantage there.

Would my team beat Brian’s 10 times out of 10? Probably not. Am I guaranteeing victory, even? No. But I certainly like my chances.

At this point, you are probably asking two questions. First, what do I have against Brian Burke, and second, what the hell am I talking about.

My response to that is simple. You shouldn’t ask two questions at once. Seriously. It will almost always go badly. The person you are talking to will almost certainly get caught up in one question, then move on to someone else without acknowledging the second. You are better off asking one, then throwing in the second as a follow up. Anyways, since I have the benefit of prose, which allows me to keep track of both questions, and since they are both legitimate concerns, I will make the effort to reply to both.

First of all, to the question what the hell I am talking about, as you may have figured out already (but probably not, unless you follow USA Hockey closely) the Team USA camp roster was released this week and I was, well, um, less than thrilled.

This winter, I started to preview the Olympics that will take place next February. Basically, that series (which will start up again in the next couple of weeks, with the contenders) was building up to a Team USA preview. This was (and likely still will) be a huge column in which I break down all the players in the hunt for Team USA, and throw together a squad that would be able to hang with the elites of the world (Russia, Sweden and Canada). Essentially, I think that the pieces were there, but the camp roster doesn’t seem to have what it would have taken.

So why do I want to take all of this time to put together this roster? You mean apart from being a patriot? Because I think that I should be the General Manager of Team USA .

(Wait! Come back! I’m serious…)

Sure it sounds ridiculous, I mean do I actually think that I could do a better job than Brian Burke, or whatever other NHL exec that they will tab for 2014? Actually, yeah, I do. I did research, watched video online, kept tabs on American players when I watched unholy amounts of hockey this winter, even took the time to get up early and watch the world championships. I really think that the team I will put together (or at least the camp roster) is better than that put together by Burke. That brings me to the next question, what do I have against Brian Burke.

The answer is nothing. Brian Burke is, without question, one of the three or four best GMs in the NHL over the last 20 years. Anyone who doesn’t respect his ability as a hockey personnel man is either naive or foolish. I just don’t think that he should have had this job, but that isn’t even his fault. Essentially, I don’t like his roster, but I can’t really blame him for it.

Let’s say that I am starting a tech company. I decide that I want Steve Jobs to build my company, because I like the work that he did with Apple. Say, in this hypothetical, that Jobs has left Apple, though, and that he is now in charge of rejuvenating IBM, a once strong company which is now struggling (in this scenario, I have no idea if IBM is actually struggling). All of this would be fine, as Jobs is clearly a great man to have running a tech firm. The problem is, IBM is paying Jobs a lot of money to work a high intensity position. Jobs really wants to run my company as well, but it is inconceivable that he is going to walk away from IBM in order to run my operation. Rather than saying ‘thanks, but I’ll find someone who can commit to that position,’ I say no problem, keep your job at IBM, and just work in my company when you get the chance, after all, you will be working with technology at IBM, maybe they will overlap.

Would that ever happen? Would my company have any chance of succeeding? Beyond that, if the company failed, could you blame Jobs? Of course not, no, no and no. Unfortunately, that is basically what USA Hockey has done with the national team GM job. We hired Burke in part time capacity, for a full time job.

After all, all you have to do is look around the world, and you will see that Team USA is the only one not taking this process seriously. Team Canada uses Stevie Y, who has a job with the Red Wings, but he is hardly doing the heavy lifting. He has that Holland fellow to give him a hand with personnel decisions for the flying wheels. Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov doesn’t even have another coaching job, and helps Pavel Bure (also entirely consumed with the national team) with the task of building the team.

Clearly, then, Burke was thrown in over his head (because of his schedule, not his ability) when he was charged with leading team USA in a different direction, while at the same time attempting to rebuild the Leafs. Having said that, while I think that Burke would have been capable of putting the best squad on the ice for the red, white and blue, and I acknowledge that he was given poor circumstance to do so, I still have to lay the blame on his shoulders, as he is ultimately the one who chose the camp roster. So, it would seemingly stand to reason that my problem is not with Burke, but with the players he chose. In fact, I wouldn’t even say that any of the individual players selected by Burke were absolute travesties. Still, I believe my group to be far superior to his.

First, let’s look at them as a group. One thing that Brian and I would unquestionably agree upon is that team USA needs to get younger. It is the way in which Burke did that which I take issue with. Rather than saying, ok, we are going to put together a great young squad with energy and new blood, he went half way with it. Mike Modano was my first “favorite player.” He is a first ballot hall of famer, and maybe the greatest American player of all time, but this is not a team he should be in. The fact is, he is going to be almost 40 when the games are played, and he hasn’t scored 60 points since 2005-06. Modano is a scorer, and if he is no longer a point per game guy in the NHL, he doesn’t belong with this younger group on team USA. If you are going to go young, do it. Forget guys with diminishing skills like Scott Gomez and Modano. I don’t care if you have to extend camp, find a place for the guys who will be able to create a young, skilled team for the next few tournaments like Blake Wheeler, Peter Mueller and Drew Stafford. For that matter, there is a 100% chance that James van Riemsdyk will play for Team USA at one point. For Colin Wilson, the number is smaller, more like 99.5. Why not invite them to camp as well? After all, van Riemsdyk was drafted just one pick after Patrick Kane, who figures to be a key member of this Olympic squad. The last point that I would make regarding youth is that Burke simply picked the wrong players, but I will get to that later.

My second problem is that this team has no identity. There is enough of an arsenal of Americans that a skilled, fast and exciting team would be the best chance to compete. Burke’s roster neglects this. Rather than compliment guys like Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Jack Johnson and Phil Kessel with others who can fit this style of play like Stafford, Wheeler, or even Cole, Burke said ‘well, we better add some grinders,’ and threw in guys like Ryan Malone, Ryan Callahan and Dustin Byfuglien. Byfuglien and Malone are good players, but they are role players, and they play a role that is unnecessary in the international game. You wouldn’t see Team Canada throw roster spots to guys like Matt Cooke or Milan Lucic so that they can look like their squad has grit. They rely on guys like Iginla, Nash and Morrow to bring the intensity and the toughness, while rounding out the roster with skill. The US needs the same thing from guys like Dustin Brown or someone like Tim Connolly, who can bring skill and grit to the table.

Finally, and most importantly, the 10 guys I would have chosen to round out the roster are just plain better than Burke’s. I’m not saying that every single guy on my list is better than every guy on his (I like Byfuglien and Gilbert, and I would admit that someone like Mueller is a long shot), only that my list is, as a whole better.

To me, Tim Connolly is probably the biggest snub. When healthy, he was a point per game player, for the most part. Obviously, staying healthy has been an issue for the 28 year old, but despite playing just 48 games the past two seasons; he has 87 points, more than some of the players guaranteed to be on the team.

Staying in Buffalo, Pominville is a Canadian born player who holds American citizenship, and has played for team USA before. Pominville is another skilled offensive player who could have added scoring depth, rather than a pedantic illusion of grit. Still in Buffalo, Drew Stafford should be grouped with Kane, Kessell, Parise and Statsny in the category of young, skilled Americans. Stafford has yet to put it together for a full season, but he has shown flashes of brilliance both in the NHL and before that by leading the NCAA in scoring at University of North Dakota.

The same message of inclusion in the future of the national team could be said for Wheeler, a young breakout winger who played a key role in the Eastern Conference leading Bruins, as well as Mueller, although Mueller may be just as far off as Oshie or Okposo. Finally, Eric Cole is an absolute burner, who could contribute to a fast team USA that could have the speed to hang with the big guys. Liles, DiPietro and Ballard are defensemen that I think are definitely good enough to be included, although I feel considerably less strongly about them.

As for the guys that I disagree with, there are three categories that guys could fall into. Byfuglien, Scuderi and Hainsey are more or less the equivalents of Liles, DiPietro and Ballard. I don’t think that any of the three should be good enough to make the team, but really, I am for the most part ambivalent to their making the camp. As for the other three categories, I feel somewhat stronger.

Ryan Malone, and ESPECIALLY Ryan Callahan fall into the second category. Malone isn’t a bad player, but neither of these guys is skilled enough to bring anything to the international game. Instead, as I said before, they are thrown on to this camp roster in order to give the illusion that this team has grit. Burke is trying to make it look as though he is taking the advice of Herb Brooks. He is trying to say, “we aren’t going to throw an all-star team together, we want a complete team that can compete.” Instead, what he is doing is weakening the team aspect. Where skilled guys like Stafford or Connolly, or a speedy guy like Cole could add to a roster that is going to try and be faster and more skilled than other teams, Malone and Callahan feel tacked on, and don’t really add anything to the team. It was kind of pointless to add these guys to the camp roster. Sure, they will probably be cut, but why not give that spot to a Wheeler, Stafford or even a VanRiemsdyk who will eventually be an integral part of team USA.

The second group baffles me just as much. It is not that these guys are not good enough to be on the camp roster, but at this point in their careers, they are probably not going to bring as much to the team as some of the younger guys. The problem is, these guys are vets of Team USA, and are unlikely to be sent home after going through training camp. I guess that the one justifying factor is that there are only two guys, Modano and the newest member of Le Blue Blanc et Rouge, Scott Gomez, that fall into this category. On the other hand, Modano, Gomez, Brian Rafalski and Chris Drury are really the only veteran presence on this team, so while I may not have included Modano or Gomez, I can understand the mindset working a few pieces of veteran leadership in with such a young roster.

(Although I’m not convinced that a sniper like Keith Tkachuk wouldn’t have been a better play than Modano…like I said though, he is probably the greatest American player of all time, so I can’t really complain.)

The third group is the most excusable. I like the idea of going young. After all, there really isn’t any other option for Team USA. Admittedly, the best thing to do for this camp was to bring in young, talented players (there are plenty available), and move into the next phase of the United States National Team. That isn’t to say that they should give up on this tournament, but rather that going young is actually the best chance that they have to compete.

The problem is, in my opinion that Burke chose the wrong young players. Oshie and Okposo have been highly regarded prospects for a few years now, but neither has shown anything in the way of NHL production. I can understand taking one of those two, but Okposo has just 41 career NHL points (In 74 games), and Oshie had only 39 points in a good, but not outstanding rookie campaign. Neither of these guys appears to be ready to play internationally. I understand (and agree with) the sentiment of wanting to invite younger players to the camp, so that they can be introduced to the Team USA concept, but I can’t see how taking Oshie and Okposo over Blake Wheeler and Drew Stafford (or even guys without NHL experience like VanRiemsdyk or Wilson, both of whom project likely as better players than Oshie and Okposo) makes any sense. The same could be said about Joohnathan Quick, who has been good (not great) for less than a season in the NHL, or Tom Gilbert, who was sketchy at best in his own zone for Edmonton this year.

Essentially, my problem isn’t that these players were invited, but that they were the only ones invited. Why limit the roster to 34 (Canada has 46 coming to camp), and especially why only bring 2 goalies (the DiPietro snub is particularly confusing, as Burke seems to have shied away from injury prone players for a 2 week tournament)? Going young was great, but there is no reason to choose only a small portion of the young talent available to team USA for the orientation camp.

I can’t help but wonder if the fact that all of these players (and indeed most of the roster) were highly regarded prospects may have influenced their selection. The last time that Burke had to scout many of them would have been when they were looking to break into the league (as these highly regarded prospects), and therefore he was more familiar with the first rounder who hasn’t panned out yet than the late bloomers who have stepped up their games once making the NHL. That isn’t to say that Burke ignored NHL production (Pavelski, for one, would disprove this), only that he was predisposed to pay more attention to the players that were hyped coming out of high school, college or juniors.

So what does it all mean? Probably very little. I think that Stafford, Connolly, Pominville and possibly Cole and Gionta should have been seriously considered for the team, but the fact is this is a 34 man roster. Most of the guys who made up team Burke (other than Modano and Gomez) will be cut, and the fact is, most of the guys who should have made the team are at the camp. While I don’t like the roster for the camp, the fact is, team USA will come down to the performance of guys like Parise, Kessell and Kane, not guys like Cole, Gomez and Okposo. Team USA can still compete, but the fact is, if they want to be a top team on the world stage, hiring an NHL GM is not the way that they are going to be able to do it.