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After Olympic Loss, it's Fair to Question USA's Handling of Young Talent

USA's women's hockey team had the talent to contend, but didn't use the young talent it had to its advantage.
Jincy Dunne

In 2015, Jincy Dunne appeared to be the future of USA women’s hockey.

The then-17-year-old scored the game-winner for the Americans to earn gold over Canada in the U18 championship. She went on to Ohio State and emerged as one of many young stars who could assemble the future of USA hockey.

Caroline Harvey, 19, also seemed to leapfrog other young talent to become a cornerstone of what the program was building. She was the youngest player on the roster.

The two barely saw the ice in the Beijing Winter Olympics, where the United States lost to Canada in the gold medal game. Dunne didn’t play a single minute in the final three games.

"As a coach, you're always saying 'shoulda, coulda, woulda' in any situation,” USA head coach Joel Johnson said after the gold medal game. “Line combinations and ice time are always something where if you win, nobody asks that question. When you don't win, everybody's got curious questions. I wouldn't have done it any differently."

Since the 2018 gold medal, USA lost Meghan Duggan, Kacey Bellamy, Gigi Marvin, and the Lamoureux twins. Only 13 players remained from that run, and it sure felt at times like they were the only players with any trust, despite an entirely different coaching staff.

Replacing those who retired was never going to be possible, but, with a pipeline of young talent, there was the opportunity to develop a new core.

Dunne and Harvey could have been a part of that core.

Almost all teams shorten their benches in high-pressure situations; it makes sense. You want the best players on the ice in the toughest situations.

Johnson didn’t just shorten his bench. His young talent didn’t have a legitimate chance to make an impact. Especially after Brianna Decker was injured in the first game, USA needed to test its depth.

Instead, short Decker – and, unlike Canada, USA did not send a taxi squad to Beijing as insurance for injured or COVID-stricken players – USA didn’t have their legs later into the tournament. The power play – again, sans Decker – struggled, going 7-for-29.

That wasn’t a new issue, either; the power play was rough in the World Championships in August, and throughout the Rivalry Series with Canada. They made minimal changes, aside from shifting Dani Cameranesi into a different position. They had months to address that and didn’t inject any energy, even when Decker’s injury provided a reason to experiment just a little bit.

There were times the team clearly needed a spark, and for whatever reason Johnson decided members of the roster that he selected weren’t viable options.

It wasn’t just Dunne and Harvey, though those are the most glaring examples. Nine players played fewer than 11 minutes in the gold medal game, despite heavy workloads for veteran players.

Abbey Murphy, despite a strong showing against Canada in the preliminary round, totaled just 1:43 in the last game. Kelly Pannek played just 5:30 in the gold medal game. Grace Zumwinkle played just 6:43, despite providing bursts of energy in every shift.

Those are the players who will likely incorporate the future of the program. Hilary Knight isn’t going to be around forever. Neither are Decker or Kendall Coyne-Schofield or Lee Stecklein. It’s the Zumwinkles and Dunnes of the world, who could have used this experience in Beijing, who the program will build around going forward.

"Every game presents different matchups. Every tournament presents different combinations," Johnson told reporters. "As we went through the tournament, some of the things we were trying to do led us to certain line combinations. Some people get extra ice. Some people didn't get any. That was just a part of how we felt our strengths and weaknesses played out best.”

Aerin Frankel, a Patty Kazmaier winner at Northeastern, had been long-assumed to be the future of USA goaltending. She didn’t make the Olympic roster, and Alex Cavallini said after the gold medal game she was playing on a partially torn MCL.

Nicole Hensley, who had a strong year between the PWHPA and world events, only played one game. Maddie Rooney struggled against Canada in preliminaries and they moved on to Cavallini in a hurry. If Frankel is part of their plans for four years from now, or future world events, she now doesn’t have the Olympic experience.

USA likely wouldn’t have had the depth of Canada anyways. The Canadians spent the past four years focused on building what may have been their best roster ever. Marie-Philip Poulin got the accolades again, but Sarah Nurse broke an Olympic scoring record. Sarah Fillier is clearly a rising star.

Nurse began the Olympics on the fourth line, and as her play elevated, so did her ice time. She finished playing first-line minutes. Perhaps she is the best example of what USA can learn going forward.

Canada scored an Olympic-record 57 goals in the tournament. They steamrolled everyone. They were second-guessed, too, in their roster-building process; Victoria Bach’s cut came as a surprise. Loren Gabel was cut early, despite high expectations.

But they still built with purpose and gave their young players an opportunity. If USA had a Sarah Nurse-like performance ready to break through, they never allowed themselves the chance.

The Americans didn’t have much direction the past few years. Part of that is the COVID-induced cancellations of world events, but every country dealt with that. Instead, USA didn’t build as cohesive a roster it could have, and with what it had, restricted the talent that has the best chance of bringing a gold medal back in the future.

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