USA Hockey opted to go safe and steady in selecting the men's national team roster representing the United States in the 2014 Winter Olympics. In doing so, the management group, led by general manager David Poile of the Nashville Predators, passed on the opportunity to include the second-best American goal scorer in the past five-plus seasons and the country's best offensive defenseman in the same span.
Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan and Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle were considered favorites to make the team by many analysts, but neither player made it onto the roster announced by USA Hockey on Wednesday following the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium.
The omissions are not wrong, but rather a reflection of the mindset of the management group appointed by USA Hockey, which is led by Poile and also includes Ray Shero, the general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon, Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi and Brian Burke, the president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames.
However, leaving Ryan and Yandle home does have the potential to backfire on the Americans because they will be without two players who can provide instant offense in a short tournament where goals are at a premium. Ryan has 160 goals and Yandle 230 points since the start of the 2008-09 season.
Arguments have also been made that leaving Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo off the 25-man roster will limit the team's offensive production, but those arguments are not quite as compelling as the cases for Ryan and Yandle. According to stories published by ESPN.com and USA Today, the media outlets given inside access to the entire selection process, neither Byfuglien nor Okposo was given much consideration because of concerns about their ability to handle the challenges presented by the larger ice surface used in the Olympic tournament.
Scoring, though, has been a problem for the Americans in the two Olympic tournaments played outside North America since the NHL started sending players to the Games in 1998.
In the first Olympics with NHL players, in Nagano, Japan 16 years ago, the Americans scored nine goals in four games and were ousted at the quarterfinal hurdle after managing one goal against the Czech Republic. In 2006, the United States scored 13 goals in five round-robin games, winning just once. It managed three goals in the quarterfinals, but dropped a one-goal decision to Finland.
The Americans have fared better when the Games are in North America, averaging better than four goals a game in the dozen games played during runs to the silver medals in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Ryan was a member of the team that was an overtime goal away from winning gold four years ago, but he scored just one goal in six games.
There are two main issues at hand when analyzing why Ryan and Yandle were left off the roster: fit in the lineup and the larger international ice surface.
Poile was adamant about taking five centers to Sochi, leaving spots for nine wingers among the 14 forwards.
If the Americans believe that Phil Kessel (Toronto Maple Leafs), Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), James van Riemsdyk (Maple Leafs) and Zach Parise (Minnesota Wild) are in their top-six, they had to consider Ryan's ability to play a bottom-six role. For Ryan, that is a difficult ask because he's not a penalty killer or a grinding forward. He's an elite scorer, but he's not overwhelming anybody with either his skating or defensive acumen.
On the other hand, Blake Wheeler (Jets) is a strong skater with size (6-foot-5), speed and skill. He can obviously score, as evidenced by his 15 goals this season, including 10 in December. T.J. Oshie (St. Louis Blues), Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers), Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens) and Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings) are two-way players and penalty killers who are comfortable in virtually any forward role.
The rub, though, is that Ryan is superior to all of those players in the one category that matters most -- scoring.
SOG: 108 | +/-: -5
Poile and company could have avoided that risk by bringing Ryan to Sochi and dressing him as the 13th forward, a luxury of the Olympic roster rules that allow teams to dress 22 players. In that scenario, Dan Bylsma, the USA coach, could have played Ryan sparingly, reserving him for power-play situations and those times when the team is desperate for a goal, especially in the third period.
Such usage would reduce the concern of exposing Ryan's other perceived warts while still giving Bylsma the opportunity to send an elite goal scorer over the boards. The only American with more goals than Ryan in the past five-plus seasons is Kessel (175).
The argument against Fowler's inclusion is the same argument against Wheeler; this is the first season in which it seems he's putting it all together as reflected by not only his points but also a strong plus-minus rating with good possession numbers against a relatively high quality of competition.
Fowler's body of work during the course of the past several seasons is not as strong as Yandle's, nor is Wheeler's body of work as strong as Ryan's. Body of work was one of the criteria the management team considered when making their picks.
However, the reasons for picking Wheeler and Fowler instead of Ryan and Yandle do make sense. Their roles on the team will be more defined and they're safer, steadier players who still possess high levels of skill and won't hurt the USA's chances of winning a medal in Sochi.
The risk, though, is in the what-if; as in what if the Americans have a tough time scoring and need an extra jolt of energy and flash to jump start the offense?
Ryan and Yandle could have provided that. It might be the difference between taking home some hardware and leaving Russia empty-handed.