As my colleague Ken Campbell pointed out last week, the world juniors were an epic fail for Team USA. Once again, a team with an absurd amount of skill cratered. This time finishing fifth by blowing a 3-0 lead to Canada then losing to an upstart Slovakian team and squeaking by a mediocre Czech squad that was 2-3 at the time.
In past years, the argument could be made the Americans didn’t ice their best squad, forsaking major junior talents in favor of weaker NCAA talents who had nonetheless played in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. But this was not the case in 2009. The team’s top line of Jordan Schroeder, James van Riemsdyk and Colin Wilson are all top-10 NHL draft talents, with JVR going second overall in 2007 and Wilson going seventh in ’08. Plus, three members of the Western League’s Spokane Chiefs – Mitch Wahl, Drayson Bowman and Tyler Johnson - provided valuable finishing experience, coming off a Memorial Cup victory last year.
If arrogance and individualistic entitlement are the culprits year after year (as has been widely suggested), then the short-term change needs to come at the coaching level.
Before coming to the NTDP and USA Hockey in 2004, Ron Rolston had never been a head coach at any significant level of hockey. Sure, he was an assistant at several NCAA programs (including Frozen Four champ Lake Superior State), but he never ran the ship himself. Since coming to the international scene, Rolston has just one tournament victory to his name – a gold at the 2005 under-18 championship.
Needless to say, for this program to thrive with the cards it has been dealt (you can’t exactly ask your top prospects not to be spoiled before they try out), an NHL-caliber coach must be found.
May I make a bold suggestion and put John Tortorella’s name at the top of the list?
True, Torts couldn’t conjure up any magic for the U.S. at the World Championship last year, but that was a tournament filled with NHLers. I suspect his bombastic style would work better on teenagers, especially in a shortened period of time.
Think about it: Tortorella has the ultimate trump card on his second finger – a Stanley Cup ring. He has also coached some of the most elite talent in the world in Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St-Louis, Brad Richards and Nikolai Khabibulin in his prime. And he can scare the crap out of anybody, no matter how big their silver spoon is.
Look at two of this year’s medal winners, Canada and Russia: The Canucks took gold with Pat Quinn behind the bench, while the Russians won bronze under Sergei Nemchinov for the second straight year (and came within five seconds of playing for gold).
Nemchinov won two Stanley Cups as a player, while Quinn has won everything else as a coach. Both brought weight to the job along with knowledge that even their best players, such as Nikita Filatov and John Tavares, know it’s a big deal to be able to learn from them.
Prior to this year’s WJC, Team USA liked to point out how they “played for a medal” the past four years. The fact that medal was bronze and they only won it once usually got left out of the press release.
Bringing in a heavyweight such as John Tortorella next year – assuming he isn’t behind an NHL bench by that time – could be the tonic the ailing U.S. program needs.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.