While other nations prepping for the World Cup had designs on building the most talented roster possible, Team USA GM Dean Lombardi had something different in mind: a team that could topple Canada from their spot atop the podium.
Lombardi’s roster decisions have been questioned since the day the team’s preliminary roster were released. The obvious choices, such as Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski, Zach Parise, T.J. Oshie and Blake Wheeler, were named to the club, but among all the other talented, smooth-skating and sharp-shooting talent Lombardi had to choose from, some were surprised to see Detroit Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader on the preliminary roster. While not a knock against Abdelkader, a good player in his own right, he’s never been a top offensive star. But naming Abdelkader to the roster was just step one.
When the final rosters were announced, Lombardi added another skilled forward in James van Riemsdyk, but he was joined by power forward David Backes and in-your-face forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan. Meanwhile, left off the roster were stars such as Phil Kessel and Kyle Okposo and Tyler Johnson and...well, you get the point.
There’s a method to Lombardi’s madness, though, and the Los Angeles Kings GM told the Associated Press’ Stephen Whyno that the goal is to build a team “that (we) think can beat Canada.” After all, Canada has captured the past two Olympic gold medals and two straight World Championships.
Lombardi said part of the process wasn’t putting together a pure all-star team — “you can’t just have all skill just like you can’t have all grit,” Lombardi told Whyno — but one that would be solid in all facets of the game.
In players such as Backes, Dubinsky and Callahan, the American roster has penalty killers. In Abdelkader, the second power play unit for Team USA — maybe even the top unit, honestly — has a net-front presence that can cause havoc for opposition goaltenders. That’s not to mention each can throw their weight around and make life tough on defenses, making them a heavy team that fits the mantra of Lombardi’s Kings and senior advisor Brian Burke’s Calgary Flames. Backes, Dubinsky, Callahan and Abdelkader are also the kind of shot-blocking group that coach John Tortorella will appreciate.
While the four aforementioned players aren’t the most fleet of foot and maybe not the highlight-reel goal variety, it’s still a rather speedy and skilled roster, all things considered. It’s not as if Lombardi is the only World Cup GM to take this approach and mix in a few specialist players, either.
When Sweden unveiled their roster, center Marcus Kruger, a third-liner with the Chicago Blackhawks, made the team. Kruger’s a specialist, a two-way player who will take defensive zone draws, see the puck out of the Swedish zone and then exit the ice. He hasn’t scored a goal, albeit in part due to an injury that saw him miss half the past season, since the 2015 playoffs. He was picked over players such as Gustav Nyquist, Rickard Rakell and Mika Zibanejad, who have combined for 158 goals since the beginning of 2012-13. Kruger has 15 over that same span.
But picking role players helps everyone on a team know exactly what’s expected of them, Lombardi told Whyno. You can’t always expect a first-liner to play effective fourth-line minutes overnight. It sometimes takes time for those players to get acclimated to those duties, and the roster selection was done in part to expedite that process.
''You don't have time for players to figure that out,” Lombardi told Whyno. “That’s what a player wants. He wants to know his role, then he'll fit into your team concept.’'
The hope is that Lombardi’s concept, building Team USA as though it were an NHL squad and not one assembled in a video game, can help the Americans unseat Canada and the other six teams to win the World Cup.