Sunday, February 18, 2018

Blame the NHL for Team USA hockey getting crushed so badly by Russia

It’s hard to be good without all of your best players.
By Alex Kirshner@alex_kirshner 
Updated Feb 17, 2018, 5:35pm EST 

 Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Olympic Athletes from Russia destroyed the American men’s hockey team in Group B play at the Winter Olympics on Saturday morning.

The score was 4-0, which accurately reflected how bad the Americans looked, if you were able to keep your attention fixed on the game for more than a few minutes. Team USA’s far from out of the tournament, but what the Russians did to it on Saturday reinforces the point that the U.S. probably isn’t going far in this event.
The Olympic men’s hockey tournament is a little lesser this year.

Part of the reason this game wasn’t a bigger deal is that the entire men’s hockey tournament isn’t as a big deal this year as it usually is. That’s because of the NHL’s decision to hold all of its players back from the Olympics, making it the first Games since 1994 to not include talent from the greatest hockey league in the world.

The NHL’s owners and its commissioner, Gary Bettman, were of course within their rights not to let their players go to Pyeongchang. The league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players union doesn’t give the players the right to go to the Olympics if the league doesn’t want them there. (There’s more here on the dynamic of the league’s negotiations with the International Olympic Committee.)

The NHL decided that pausing its season for a few weeks and letting players risk injury for someone else wasn’t worth taking advantage of a once-every-four-years chance to grow the sport locally and internationally. That’s a personal choice, in line with the league’s history of prioritizing short-term convenience over whatever else.
The NHL’s pullout puts the U.S. (and Canada) at a particular disadvantage.

Most of the best players from all of the world are in the NHL. But among American players particularly, virtually all of the best talent is in that league. The United States team doesn’t have a single juniors or college player who would be good enough to make the Olympic roster in a year NHL players weren’t banned from participating. At the 2014 Sochi Games — and at every preceding games since 1998, when NHL players were first let in — the entire roster was made up of NHL players. The story’s been the same for Canada.

Russia’s different. The majority of the Russian roster at any other Olympic Games would be NHL players, but not all of it. The 2014 Russian team had nine players from that country’s Kontinental Hockey League. The KHL isn’t exactly a competitor for the NHL, but it’s a good enough league (which pays enough money) that some players — predominantly from Russia — have passed up pursuing NHL careers to play there.

Russia’s entire team this year is from the KHL, and it includes a lot of really good players who would’ve been among the best on the ice even if they were playing NHL opposition. The headliners are relatively old: former Red Wings all-around maestro Pavel Datsyuk and Thrashers and Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk. But Russia has useful players up and down its roster, almost all of them from two KHL clubs: CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg.

(The other two players are from Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Penguins star Evgeni Malkin’s former team. One of them is Sergei Mozyakin, the KHL’s all-time scoring champ. )

These are good players, and they’re used to playing together.
The American roster, on the other hand, is decimated.

This roster is bad. That’s not a slight against any of the players on it, as much as it probably sounds like one. Almost the entire American team is comprised of fringy minor league players who might have — in the past — gotten called upon for spot NHL duty when players ahead of them on organizational depth charts were injured.

Some, like defenseman Matt Gilroy, were excellent college players, and others, like winger Chris Bourque, have filled nets in the American Hockey League, the NHL’s top minor league. Some had decent and even good NHL careers, once upon a time. Captain Brian Gionta had a nice run and was a key part of a more substantive U.S. Olympic team ... in 2006. He’s had a great run, but he’s also 5’7 and now 39 years old.

The United States never had a chance to be good in these Olympics. It’s no fun to get destroyed by Russia, but the NHL’s personnel decisions made it inevitable.

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