If Team USA is going to win the World Cup, it’s going to have to beat Canada at least twice, perhaps three times. GM Dean Lombardi is already putting pressure on the Canadians by declaring them prohibitive favorites.
In case you haven’t noticed, Dean Lombardi is a pretty interesting and witty guy. When talking about his American roster for the World Cup of Hockey, he channeled his inner historian and talked about how Alexander the Great didn’t reveal his plans for the Battle of Gaugamela in advance.
But like Alexander the Great – the former Macedonian king, not the guy from Washington who scores all the goals – Lombardi knows his opponent/nemesis. And when it comes to the World Cup of Hockey, Lombardi knows his equivalent of King Darius of Persia. All he has to do for that is look over the border.
And like a great tactician, Lombardi quickly identified Canada as the prohibitive favorite in the World Cup, a full 198 days before the first puck is dropped on the event. “Let’s get real here. Canada has always been the marker,” Lombardi said. “History speaks for itself. I think it’s safe to say they’re clearly the favorites, as they should be. If we’re in it to win this thing, it’s not illogical to say you’d better be prepared to beat Canada. They’re clearly the best, so you’d better be prepared to beat them.”
And in order to do that – and beat the other teams in the tournament – Lombardi didn’t think making Phil Kessel are part of the first wave of players was the wise thing to do. That was probably the biggest shock of the day for the Americans, but maybe not so much when you combine the fact that Kessel has struggled in Pittsburgh, while former linemates James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak were putting up just as high numbers without Kessel before getting hurt and being shut down for the season.
Kessel was very, very good for the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi until it mattered most. But in playing very badly in the most important games of the tournament, he had a lot of company on a team that didn’t even show up for the semifinal against Canada by Zach Parise’s own admission. There’s a very good chance that Kessel gets added to the team before the final roster is named in June, but perhaps they wanted to make him a little uncomfortable. Or perhaps they just thought Justin Abdelkader of the Detroit Red Wings was a better choice.
“Every player brings something to the table and a critical part of our team is going to be the mix,” Lombardi said. “You look at Justin Abdelkader, this is a kid who’s getting better. He’s a very difficult player to play against and is only going to get better. You could say, ‘Why did you leave Bobby Ryan off?’ or ‘Why did you leave Justin Faulk off?’ You have only have so many spots right now that we were prepared to go to, so it’s not just Phil Kessel. On the positive side, we clearly though Abdelkader should be in the first group.”
There were really no big surprises in goal with Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider and Ben Bishop. The defense corps will have a nice mix of offensive puck movers and defensive presence, but if you’re with the U.S. brain trust, you probably want a few more stay-at-home types back there. Up front, the Americans will have plenty of offensive talent, with the likes of Abdelkader and Ryan Kesler drawing the defensive/penalty killing assignments.
What Lombardi likes most about his roster is its versatility. “John (coach Tortorella) has an M.O., but he’s also smart enough to adjust to his personnel,” Lombardi said. “The style has to reflect what’s most important – that players accept their identity, play their role and have that competitive edge that comes with playing for your country. We get that in place, John can play a 1-4, a 2-2-1, whatever you want to call it. We have to focus on those intangibles and then let John do what he does best.”
There will be no trouble creating offense, since the U.S. team has the NHL’s top scorer and prohibitive favorite for the Hart Trophy in Patrick Kane, along with No. 7 scorer Joe Pavelski and Blake Wheeler, who is also in the top 15. The goaltending will be solid regardless of which of the three emerges as the No. 1 guy.
And it will have its chance to see how it stacks up against Canada when the rivals play in the round-robin portion of the tournament on Sept. 20. Then the only other time they could possibly meet would be in the best-of-three final. If that were to happen, it won’t be near as David-and-Goliath and Lombardi is making it out to be, but he’s content to let everyone think that.