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#WCH2016: Team USA following Tortorella's lead

by Nicholas Cotsonika / Columbus Blue Jackets

"It's no secret."

You hear that over and over in the Team USA dressing room. It's no secret the way this team is built. It's no secret the way this team plans to play. It's no secret what it will take for this team to win the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

General manager Dean Lombardi built this roster with a deliberate mix of skill and grit. Coach John Tortorella wants his players to skate straight ahead and impose their will on the opposition. Team USA will have to be physical and fast, getting in faces, getting the puck, getting the puck down the ice, getting the puck to the net, and it will need great goaltending.

"That's going to be our identity," Team USA defenseman Jack Johnson said. "We're going to try to make it a long night for a lot of teams."

Team USA fears no one, not even Team Canada, the heavy favorite at home at Air Canada Centre in Toronto when the tournament starts Saturday.

"We're going to play our game, and I think if we play that as well as we can, I think it's going to be tough for them to stick with it," Team USA forward T.J. Oshie said. "We've got some nasty players in here, some guys that I definitely don't like playing against in the regular season. …

"I don't know if I've ever been on a team with so much skill and so much grit at the same time."

Here is a look at Team USA:

Forwards

Patrick Kane is the reigning winner of the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's scoring champion and the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player.

Tortorella will lean on him. He said he would use him as "kind of a rover," not only as the right wing on the top line and on the half wall on the power play, but in other situations where he can boost other players.

"I'm going to stay out of his way," Tortorella said. "I want him to be as creative and as free as he can be offensively. I'm not going to look for a lot of great defensive plays from him in this short tournament."

Team USA's skill goes deeper than people might think, even though some talented American forwards are playing for Team North America -- made up of 23-and-under players from Canada and the United States -- and others weren't selected.

This roster has three of the top eight scorers in the NHL last season: Kane (106 points), Joe Pavelski (78) and Blake Wheeler (78).

Ten of the 13 forwards scored at least 21 goals in the League last season: Kane (46), Pavelski (38), Max Pacioretty (30), Kyle Palmieri (30), Wheeler (26), Oshie (26), Zach Parise (25), Derek Stepan (22), Ryan Kesler (21) and David Backes (21). James van Riemsdyk scored 14 in 40 games after scoring 30 and 27 the previous two seasons, respectively.

"I think we've got guys that can score the pretty goals, and we've got guys that can score the ugly goals as well," Oshie said. "And a lot of those guys can do both."

But grit will be a hallmark with Backes, Kesler, Justin Abdelkader and Brandon Dubinsky, and the hope is that will help make up for the most glaring weakness relative to Team Canada: center depth.

Kesler, an abrasive, hard-working, versatile center who has won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward, drew a telling compliment from Tortorella, who once coached him with the Vancouver Canucks.

"I think he's miserable," Tortorella said. "I like the way he plays."

Defense

Team USA assembled a big, mobile group. Tortorella is emphasizing playing hard below the hash marks and getting the puck going the other way.

"Everyone talks about possession, but a lot of that is how quickly you get the puck back," Team USA defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "If it takes you 30 seconds of defensive zone time to get it back, you don't have the juice to have a sustained attack then."

The decision to include Jack Johnson, when some talented defensemen were not selected, says a lot about what Team USA wants from its defense.

"The thing I love about him, he'll make a mistake through aggression," Tortorella said. "I'd rather have a guy that way than just testing the waters.

"The biggest thing in the discussions on Jack Johnson in being involved in making this team was his play underneath the hash marks. We know Jack can get up the ice. I still like to see that more out of him. But [it's] what he can do underneath the hash marks against big players, his physical play, his willingness to play in the corners, his willingness to use his body."

Expect Ryan Suter to log lots of minutes against top competition in all situations as he always does. But watch for Dustin Byfuglien to play a big role at even strength and on the power play, thanks to his 6-5, 260-pound frame, his booming shot and his attitude.

"I want his personality, foremost his personality," Tortorella said. "He loves playing. He's a bit of a renegade. I want that on our team."

Goalies

This is the strength of Team USA. Ben Bishop, Jonathan Quick and Cory Schneider each allow Team USA to take chances and give it a chance to win, on any given night, in the tournament as a whole.

Remember: This isn't an 82-game season or a four-round playoffs of seven-game series. Team USA needs to finish in the top two of its four-team group after three preliminary-round games. It needs to win a single-elimination semifinal and a best-of-3 final. A goalie could make even more of a difference than usual.

Quick appears to have the edge to be the No. 1 goalie. He had a .918 save percentage last season, 21st in the NHL, but was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for the second time. He has won the Stanley Cup twice with the Los Angeles Kings and was the No. 1 goaltender at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Canada outplayed the United States in the semifinal, but thanks to 36 saves by Quick, it was a 1-0 game.

Neither Bishop nor Schneider has played in a best-on-best tournament before.

But Bishop ranked second in the League in save percentage at .926 last season and also was a Vezina Trophy finalist for the second time. He has been outstanding in pressure situations for the Tampa Bay Lightning the past two years. Four times, twice in Game 7, he has clinched a series with a shutout in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Schneider had a .924 save percentage last season with the New Jersey Devils and has a .925 save percentage over his NHL career, better than Bishop (.920) or Quick (.916).

Special teams

For a team that wants to be physical, the first key is discipline.

"We're certainly not looking to parade to the penalty box," Tortorella said. "We're going to try to play an honest, hard game."

The second key is penalty killing. Team USA has to be prepared for when it crosses the line. Kesler is one of the best penalty killers in the League. Abdelkader, Backes, Dubinsky, Stepan and Wheeler all should see time on the PK up front. All of the defenseman can play on the PK.

The power play has great potential. Kane led the NHL in power-play points with 37 and was tied for second in power-play goals with 17 last season; he will handle the half wall on the top unit. Pavelski ranked sixth in power-play points with 28 and tied for eighth in power-play goals with 12; he is the best in the League at deflecting pucks in front.

Byfuglien and Suter will man the points on the top unit. Byfuglien should take sweet feeds from Suter, fire hard shots on net and generate chances.

"He may not score, but it's probably the best pass," Tortorella said. "Him shooting, how hard he shoots, something good's going to happen if it doesn't go in the net. There's going to be some rebounds. There's going to be puck retrievals."

Coaching

Lombardi picked Tortorella to fit the players and the players to fit Tortorella. He's an in-your-face coach. This is an in-your-face team.

"We're going to be an aggressive team, try to play fast," Parise said. "I think that's kind of the way a Tortorella-coached team plays."

Tortorella has set the tone, appealing to the players' patriotism and sense of duty to the country by bringing in a member of the Army to speak to the team in training camp and stand behind the bench for the first pretournament game against Team Canada in Columbus on Friday, a 4-2 Team USA victory, which preceded a 5-2 Team Canada win in the rematch in Ottawa on Saturday.

With Tortorella, it isn't about X's and O's as much as it is about attitude in a short tournament.

"I just want to give them a foundation and not really beat them up with all the details, because you can really get lost a little bit and you forget about how you need to let them play," Tortorella said. "These are some of the best players in the world on all teams. I just want to give them a foundation, have them believe in it. We'll discuss it, and then get out of their way. Let them play."

As long as they play his way.

"We have a way we want to play," Tortorella said, "and we're going to play that way."

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