Wasn't that long ago that it would have been unthinkable that a U.S. roster for a best-on-best tournament would not include winger Phil Kessel.
But it is a reflection of American depth on the wings and of Kessel's declining stature that the Pittsburgh Penguins winger was not among the first 16 players named to Team USA Wednesday afternoon.
What makes Kessel's absence so eyebrow raising is that of the 13 skaters named Wednesday, 11 were members of the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi in 2014.
Kessel was a member of both the Sochi Olympic team and the 2010 Olympic team that lost to Canada in the gold-medal game in Vancouver.
But in spite of being traded by the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs to the Penguins last summer, Kessel has failed to find a consistent scoring groove. While many believed he was primed for a run at the Rocket Richard Trophy playing with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin (both named to their respective World Cup of Hockey rosters on Wednesday, by the way) Kessel finds himself tied for 51st in the NHL in goals with 19 and the Penguins are in a dogfight to hold onto a postseason berth.
One has to imagine that a strong finish to the end of the regular season and a good playoff showing for the Penguins, if the Pens end up qualifying for the postseason, will see Kessel among the final four forwards named on June 1. But it's far from a lock. The problem facing Kessel, a right-handed shot, is that the U.S. has a plethora of quality wingers hoping for a spot on this team and many of them are also right-handed shots, such as Kyle Okposo of the New York Islanders and Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators who were not among the first 16, either. Among the forwards already named Blake Wheeler, T.J. Oshie and the league's leading scorer Patrick Kane are right-hand shots.
Add in the fact that Kessel can primarily play only in the top six given that he is not a particularly strong two-way player or penalty killer, and it is not beyond the pale that Kessel cannot find a place on this roster come June 1. Of course, if he is left off the final roster and the Americans struggle offensively in Toronto, there will be no shortage of second-guessing. But there's no way to quibble with Kessel's absence from the top 16 at this point in the season.
Random thoughts on the American 16:
Must admit that at no point did I ever have Justin Abdelkader on any of our shadow rosters but he is a left-handed shot and brings size and has experience for the Detroit Red Wings playing with skilled players Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. He is a versatile player and can play up and down the lineup. Still, was a bit of a surprise that Abdelkader got the nod over Ryan or two-time Olympian David Backes or even Nick Foligno, who is a left-handed playing for head coach John Tortorella for the Columbus Blue Jackets and who a year ago was the top-scoring American player.
Speaking of Ryan, the Senators winger represented one of the most emotional of decisions for the U.S. management team when he was left off the Sochi roster. He has had a solid season for Ottawa with 21 goals but has just two in his last 11 games and there is a streaky element to Ryan's game that the management team obviously felt needed further observation. Like Kessel, a strong finish and a possible playoff berth for Ottawa would put Ryan in good stead to join the World Cup roster.
Finally, the other surprise -- slight but a surprise, nonetheless -- for us was the naming of Dustin Byfuglien of the Winnipeg Jets to the first 16. Byfuglien was named ahead of Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues and Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks -- both important parts of the blue line corps in Sochi -- but it's a testament to Byfuglien's unique skill set and the fact the World Cup games are going to be played in the smaller NHL rink at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto that paved the way for Byfuglien's place on the initial roster offering.
Asked specifically about Kessel and Abdelkader, GM Dean Lombardi said "we only have so many slots." "It's not just Phil Kessel," Lombardi said, noting that Justin Faulk, a member of the 2014 Olympic team, and Ryan weren't named Wednesday.
As for Abdelkader, Lombardi said that the Detroit winger just keeps getting better.
"He's very difficult to play against," Lomabardi said. "And he's only going to get better."
Assistant GM Paul Holmgren said the management team believed Byfuglien deserved to be in the first 16.
"He's clearly a better player leading up to the World Cup than he was going into the picking of the Olympic team back in 2014," Holmgren said. "He's trimmed down. He's made more of a commitment. He's become a better pro.
"This is, for me, a real positive addition to our team," added Holmgren, who also noted that Byfuglien can play both defense and forward.