Commentary

Lots of criticism over U.S. selections

Only thing that will put debate to bed is a gold medal at the Sochi Olympics

Updated: January 2, 2014, 5:36 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The criticism of the U.S. men's Olympic team began almost the moment the last name -- Winnipeg's Blake Wheeler -- was announced at Michigan Stadium at the close of Wednesday's Winter Classic.

From around the hockey world, questions immediately arose at the exclusion of Ottawa sniper Bobby Ryan, smooth-skating Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle and Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson.

The man at the center of the storm of controversy -- GM David Poile -- couldn't have seemed calmer, though.

[+] EnlargeKeith Yandle
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThere was some outrage over U.S. snubs like Keith Yandle.
Meeting with the media at the Winter Classic, Poile said the decisions made on selecting the team, which will try to win the country's first gold medal in men's hockey since 1980, were the toughest that have ever confronted a U.S. selection committee.

For the first time, Poile said, he and his colleagues are facing the kinds of decisions that regularly face Canada.

In short, welcome to the big time of international hockey.

On Tuesday, the executive director of Canada's national men's team, Steve Yzerman, an Olympic medalist as a player and a member of the 2002 Canadian team that beat the U.S. in the gold-medal game in Salt Lake City, will unveil Canada's 25-man roster.

Yzerman was asked at an alumni event during the Winter Classic festivities in Detroit this week whether it would be a relief. No, he replied. It would just be the start of more debate once the names were revealed.

Poile said the breadth and depth of hockey talent in the United States now provides a similar kind of dynamic.

That kind of talent represents a double-edged sword.

In theory, it gives you a better chance to win at best-on-best tournaments such as the Olympics, but it also means there will be hurt feelings and criticism.

Naturally, there were those who disagreed.

One NHL scout emailed ESPN.com after the team was announced, predicting the U.S. would not win a medal.

George Gosbee, a member of the ownership group of the Phoenix Coyotes, took to Twitter to share his disappointment that Yandle wasn't named to the team.

Poile was the assistant GM of the team in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics that came within a goal of winning a gold medal, losing their only game of the tournament in overtime to Canada in the final game.

The decisions that faced GM Brian Burke, who is also part of the management team this time around, were nowhere near as complex or emotional as the ones that faced the selection committee for the 2014 team.

Noting some of the quality players that were left off the team, Poile said, "That's the first time we've had to make those kinds of decisions."

Will it yield a long-awaited gold?

"I really feel that we have a chance to win," Poile said. "And I think we expect to win.

"And I think for the first time other countries regard us as a contender.

"I wish we were going over there right now."

Poile, a lifelong NHL executive, also noted that the North American teams from the two previous Olympic tournaments involving NHL players held outside North America (Nagano in 1998 and Turin in 2006) did not medal.

[+] EnlargeJustin Faulk
Lance King/Getty ImagesDavid Poile made a concerted effort to take some younger skaters, like Justin Faulk, who can handle the larger rink in Sochi.
The U.S. selection committee felt there needed to be changes made in the construction of the team to reverse that trend.

That meant taking into account a bigger ice surface and the need to have players who were not just skilled but versatile, able to take on different roles as the tournament progresses. It meant young skaters like John Carlson, Justin Faulk, Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk will make up a core of a young, if untested, blue-line corps in Sochi.

It also meant leaving former Olympians like Erik and Jack Johnson and Ryan off the final list.

"The amount of time we spent on Bobby Ryan is a huge amount. Bobby's a fabulous player. I love him. I'd love him for my own team," Poile said.

While Poile spoke, two of the three players who took part in the Winter Classic and who were named to the U.S. team entered the media room decked out in their U.S. jerseys: winger James van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs and netminder Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings.

In many ways, they reflect the kinds of changes Poile referenced and also the often emotional debate that surrounded the building of this team.

Neither was part of the '10 team, but van Riemsdyk has meshed nicely on a line with one of the top U.S. scorers Phil Kessel, the third Winter Classic participant named to the squad. The two combined to tie Wednesday's game 1-1 as the Leafs went on to beat Detroit in a shootout.

The two represent a handful of teammates that were among the 25 announced, as the issue of building instant chemistry once the national teams gather in Sochi looms large, not just for the U.S. team but for all of the medal-hopeful countries.

Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers are on the team, and they often play together and are successful penalty-killers.

Defense team Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik from Pittsburgh are on the team.

T.J. Oshie and David Backes represent two-thirds of one of the top forward lines in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues and are on the team.

Van Riemsdyk said he and Kessel have gotten better and better over the past year at understanding what the other is going to do, allowing them to make small plays.

"I think that's a good thing going over there," van Riemsdyk said.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Howard
Getty ImagesJimmy Howard has not played well this year, but the U.S. is counting on his experience.
Howard, on the other hand, represents another thought process that was important to the U.S. selection committee, and that was experience in playing in big games, either internationally or at the NHL level.

Howard has had a difficult season for the Red Wings. He has played poorly and just returned from a knee injury. In his one tune-up game before the Winter Classic, Howard allowed five goals on 28 shots in a loss to Poile's Nashville team.

"November wasn't very kind to me," Howard acknowledged, adding that the past 24 hours have been surreal.

But Howard was very good against the Leafs on Wednesday, and he was rewarded for a body of work that has seen him play 42 postseason games for the Detroit Red Wings.

His coach in Detroit, Mike Babcock, who will coach Canada's entry in the Sochi Olympics, said now that Howard's been selected, perhaps the goalie can go back to being himself.

"Howie would be the first to admit that this [campaign] hasn't gone the way he wanted at all," Babcock said.

For Poile and his group that included Burke, assistant GM Ray Shero, other NHL GMs and USA Hockey executive Jim Johannson, the fact Howard has played in and excelled in pressure situations at the NHL level was a deciding factor, even though other netminders, including Tampa's Ben Bishop and Cory Schneider in New Jersey, had better numbers this season.

As will be the case when Canada's team is announced next week, the debate and discussion about this U.S. team will rage on until the gold medals are awarded in Sochi.

Injury issues could further muddy the waters for the Americans.

"It was probably one of the best experiences I've ever had, but it's the hardest experience I've ever had," Poile said of the process.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.