Last week, the rosters for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which begins in September, were finalized with the final seven players being named to their respective teams. Preliminary rosters were announced back in March with each team naming the team’s first 16 players.
The United States’ final roster came under a lot of scrutiny, not because of who they selected but for who didn’t get selected for the tournament. The biggest name left off the roster was Phil Kessel, who led the United States in scoring at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi with eight points in six games and was named the tournament’s top forward. He also has caught fire this postseason scoring nine goals and totaling 18 points in 19 games to lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final.
Team USA’s General Manager Dean Lombardi (current GM of the Los Angeles Kings) recently came out and said his selection process revolved around the idea of putting together a team that could beat Canada. This included taking selecting role and gritty players, such as forward Ryan Callahan and defenseman Jack Johnson, over skill players such as forward Phil Kessel. Lombardi said, “It made it essential that you do all your research in terms of not only the quality of the player and his ability but their history of being a good teammate and things like that.” It is possible that Lombardi didn’t think Kessel fit his criteria for the culture he was building.
One concern with Lombardi’s roster construction is that he has sacrificed skill throughout the roster in favor of strong role players. Travis Yost pondered whether there is any proof that “star and grit” teams play better than “all-star” teams. There isn’t any as it’s almost impossible to quantify how two structurally different teams would play in any given tournament playing three round robin games and three playoff games. Because of this, a country should put it’s best roster on the ice and allow the star players to buy-in to system and take on different roles.
Being blunt, I’m not sure if there is any American roster that could compete with Canada at this World Cup. Canada has four offensive lines that can compete with the United States’ top line. To defeat Canada, the United States will have to play an almost perfect game and will heavily rely on their goaltending.
Choosing role players over skill players drastically alters the United States’ game plan as they likely won’t be able to compete in high scoring matches, but rather will have to play a defense first game. Staples of a successful game plan for the United States includes frustrating the opponent’s breakout attempts and not allowing opponents extended zone time. The other countries in this tournament possess many more offensively talented players than the United States so it will be very difficult to sit on a lead for long periods of time. Once a lead is built, they will have to keep attacking and not go into a defensive shell. It will be very hard to protect a one goal lead early in the third period against Canada. Because of this, the United States should’ve build their roster not around role players that could defend a one goal lead but game breakers that can extend the lead even further.
I put together a roster that would best compete at this short tournament using the same parameters that this team was build under (players 23 and under are ineligible for this team as they fall under the North American U24 team so Jack Eichel and Dylan Larkin, among others were not considered). I built my roster from scratch, ignoring who had already been named to the roster and who different media outlets thought should have or shouldn’t have made the roster to eliminate as much bias as possible. I’ll break down my roster by position:
My roster features 10 of the same forwards that Lombardi named to the team. My three deviations, shown in italics, are Kessel, Tyler Johnson, and Chris Kreider. They replace Justin Abdelkader, Ryan Callahan, and Ryan Kesler. This roster gives the United States four strong lines. In making this switch, the team gain the speed and talent necessary to compete in this tournament. Speed is spread out throughout this lineup from the first to fourth lines.
Kessel was a no brainer with his history of exceeding in international tournaments and his production in this postseason. Johnson, a key contributor to the United State’s gold medal at the 2010 World Junior Championships, has recorded 40 points in Tampa Bay’s last two playoff runs, second in the league only to his teammate Nikita Kucherov. He’s a player you want on the ice when the game is on the line. Kreider consistently produces offense and boosts strong relative goal and shot attempt numbers.
Chemistry is crucial in short tournaments so it makes a lot of sense pairing together players that have already had success together. Canada did this at the 2014 Olympic Games pairing Sidney Crosby with his Pittsburgh linemate Chris Kunitz. Having chemistry with an elite player usually isn’t enough to make a competitive roster on its own, but when a player is in the conversation, it certainly helps their case. In making the final decisions for my roster, I took this into consideration while debating between a handful of players. Kreider’s spot was solidified based on his long-term success playing alongside Derek Stepan. Over the past four seasons, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is the only player Stepan has spent more time on the ice with than Kreider. When together, Kreider and Stepan boost a 64.0% GF% and a 51.5% CF%. When playing away from each other, Stepan has a 61.5% GF% and a 50.1% CF% where Kreider has a 56.6% GF% and a 49.9% CF%. Both are strong players on their own but are even better when paired together.
Similarly, David Backes and TJ Oshie had strong chemistry while in St. Louis (Note: both players were locks for the roster on their own but were paired together because of past chemistry). In the final three years that they were linemates, they had stronger goal and shot attempt statistics while playing together than playing apart.
It is important to note that this has some extent as not all former or current teammates play well with each other. Kessel and James van Riemsdyk were teammates and linemates in Toronto for a number of years but never really found a strong connection, as shown in their WOWY charts.
The United States’ defensive core was built around three main criteria: limiting goals against, offensive production, and limiting opponent’s shot attempts in that order. In doing so, my group features three different players than those that will play for the United States this fall (also shown in italics). Nick Leddy, Justin Faulk, and Kevin Shattenkirk made my roster replacing John Carlson, Erik Johnson, and Jack Johnson. The defensive core remaiend intact while the supporting defensemen were all replaced. Leddy and Shattenkirk had somewhat of disappointing 2015-2016 seasons where they both had negative GF%Rel numbers but will likely rebound next season. In a limited defensive role, both players will be counted on for their offense over defense. As the team’s seventh defenseman, Faulk, will be able to contribute both on offense and defense. He has improved steadily over each of the past few seasons and is ready to make a stronger contribution than he did in 2014 where he only played in two of the United State’s eight games.
It was important to have an equal balance between left and right handed defensemen as it has been noted multiple times how defensemen play worse on their off-hand. This lineup combination gives the United States both reliability in the defensive zone and the ability to make contributions on the scoreboard.
The goaltender position was the only position that I feel the United States got right. I agreed with all three goaltender choices. The main question for the United States isn’t which goaltenders are on the roster but which goaltender to start in the tournament. This season, Bishop was nominated for the Vezina Trophy for the second straight year and was the only goaltender to finish in the top-five in wins, shutouts, save percentage, and goals against average. Schneider kept a below-average New Jersey Devils team in the playoff hunt for a majority of this past season. Quick has led the Los Angeles Kings to two Stanley Championships in the past five seasons, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 2012, and got his second Vezina Trophy nomination this past season. Statistically, all three goaltenders are very similar as they fall in the top 20 of adjusted save percentage over the past three years. Bishop is 7th (92.90%), Schneider is 10th (92.87%), and Quick is 16th (92.70%). All three goaltenders are qualified to start for this team and I’m sure we’ll see at least two of them in the qualifying round. I gave an early nod to Bishop as the as he’s led the Lightning deep in the playoffs the previous two years and Schneider as the backup.
In conclusion, this is the team that I would have named if I was in the General Manager of the United States’ World Cup of Hockey team. This roster, built on the principles of speed and talent, has the potential to be much more competitive in the tournament than their current team.
Follow Steve Ness on Twitter: @QuickkNess