Now Scotty Bowman did not start out as an advisor for Team North America for the World Cup of Hockey, but when one of the most decorated and brilliant hockey minds the game has ever seen offers his services, it’s probably best to accept it.
It all started when Stan Bowman, the assistant GM of the team, had a conversation about potential players with North American GM Peter Chiarelli. Bowman mentioned in passing that he had spoken to his father recently about Auston Matthews. “And (Chiarelli) said, ‘So what does your dad think?’ ” the younger Bowman recalled. “And after that conversation, he said, ‘Why don’t we just have him be part of some of the phone calls?’ Because he just pretty much sits at home every night and watches games. That’s all he does, is sit home and watch players, so he has a take on these guys.”
So when the first 16 members of the 23-and-under team was unveiled Wednesday, Bowman’s fingerprints were definitely on the final product. And so were those of coach Todd McLellan, which explains why a player such as Sean Couturier was on the initial roster and a more offensive player such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was not. It was a source of debate for myself and colleagues Matt Larkin and Ryan Kennedy on our podcast yesterday – yes, this is a shameless plug – that can be found on this website.
One of the many interesting debates – and, boy, we love to debate this stuff – that came from the day was whether it’s more effective to take the best players regardless of role and have them adapt their talents to the role they are assigned or take players who excel in fewer areas of the game, but are specialists in their craft.
And that’s where Couturier comes in. Among players who are eligible to play for the North American team, only Bo Horvat of the Vancouver Canucks and Adam Lowry of the Winnipeg Jets spend more time killing penalties than Couturier. But Couturier is far more experienced than either player and has a superior winning percentage in the faceoff circle – albeit with a smaller body of work because he’s been injured – than Horvat or Lowry.
Given his druthers, Chiarelli probably would have rather avoided the potential for another Steve Yzerman–Martin St-Louis powder keg and named his guy to the team. But as GM of the team, he also has to listen to the people around him such as Bowman and McLellan or it’s pretty easy to lose credibility. And so it was in one of their early meetings that both Scotty Bowman and McLellan urged Chiarelli and Stan Bowman to make sure they had a player who could do more than just create offense.
“Todd said, ‘Listen guys, somebody has got to kill penalties in this group. Not everyone can play the power play,’ ” Stan Bowman said. “And my dad agreed and that’s how Couturier’s name came up. Todd had him in the World Championship and my dad said, ‘He plays an important role on the team and it’s not an easy role and not too many young guys can get enough confidence from their coach to match up and play defense and to take faceoffs and do all that. So if you have a coach here who likes a player and is familiar with him, maybe he’s not the first name that comes to mind, but you have to listen to your coach on this one. He likes the guy and I’ve watched him play and he’s a good player.’ That helped crystalize things for us.”
The class of this tournament is Canada, as it should be in any best-on-best event. Then Sweden, with its embarrassment of riches on defense, comes in as the early second seed. But if you’re looking for a dark horse in this tournament, you could do a lot worse than team North America. It will be fast and dynamic and it will be able to create offense. And if John Gibson can ride a wave of playoff success with the Anaheim Ducks this spring, he’ll gain the confidence that he can play with the best players in the world. They’re in a killer pool along with Finland, Russia and Sweden and realistically have to win two of their three games to advance.
And if it comes down to a big penalty kill at the end of a crucial game and you see Sean Couturier coming out to take the draw, you’ll know that Scotty Bowman was part of that thought process. And that’s fine with me. Because, without sounding like Captain Obvious, Stan Bowman has a rather unique perspective.
“When he sees something in a guy for the good and for the bad, you have to listen,” Stan said, “and realize that he’s seen a lot of hockey players in his time and he knows what he’s talking about.”