The United States men's Olympic hockey team was set for the Sochi Winter Games on New Year's Day, and while it's difficult to get up in arms about many of the selections made by general manager David Poile and the rest of the U.S. staff, there are definitely a few deserving guys who were left off.
It is clear that Team USA attempted to build a true team rather than taking the best 25 players to Sochi; however, there are arguments to be made for some of the players who weren't chosen. It's important to note, though, that the roster can still undergo some changes prior to the Olympics in the event of injuries.
With that said, here are the three most puzzling decisions that the Team USA brass made as it attempts to capture a gold medal in Sochi.
Brooks Orpik Over Jack Johnson
It wasn't particularly surprising when Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik was named to the 2014 Olympic team on Jan. 1, but that doesn't mean it was the right move. Orpik did well for Team USA in 2010 on the NHL-sized ice surface in Vancouver; however, there is reason to believe that he might struggle on the bigger sheet in Sochi. He's a big, physical defenseman at 6'2" and 218 lbs, but he isn't a particularly good skater and could become a pylon, which speedy forwards can potentially take advantage of.
Orpik was obviously helped by the fact that Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma is also the head man for Team USA. Bylsma feels comfortable with Orpik, and it makes sense that he would want him. According to ESPN's Scott Burnside, the coaches were "emphatic" that they wanted Orpik and Penguins teammate Paul Martin on the team. There is a notion that Orpik and Martin could form a shutdown defensive pairing for Team USA, but the numbers suggest otherwise, per Joe Haggerty of CSNNE.com.
There were several options in lieu of Orpik, including offensively minded rearguards such as Keith Yandle and Dustin Byfuglien, but Jack Johnson of the Columbus Blue Jackets was the biggest snub. Johnson admittedly hasn't had a great year for Columbus, but he has answered the bell for Team USA on many occasions, he played great in Vancouver and he would undoubtedly raise his game in Sochi. Johnson is also more versatile in that he has some offensive ability and can skate, so he would've given the Americans more options.
Jimmy Howard Over Cory Schneider
All signs point toward the combination of Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick handling the bulk of the goaltending duties for Team USA, so some might argue that the third goalie doesn't matter much. In terms of preparing for the future and rewarding the deserving candidates, however, Poile and co. dropped the ball. Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard was considered a virtual lock to make the team entering the season, but he has had a horrible year. Howard didn't pay for it, though, as he was rewarded with a spot on the team.
According to Sean Leahy of Yahoo Sports!, Poile admitted that Howard's overall body of work and past performance played a heavy role in the selection.
I know what Jimmy Howard can do and the rest of our committee knows what he can do. Jimmy would acknowledge probably he hasn't had the best season, but when you go on the body of work (3 straight 35-win seasons), fabulous record in the playoffs, winning on the road in the playoffs... all those things that certainly made our decision.
One potential option instead of Howard was Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, who is having a great season, but who struggled in the World Championships last year. With that said, the pick should have been New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider. Although Schneider has had to split time with the legendary Martin Brodeur, the future Hall of Famer was rooting for Schneider to make the team, per Tom Gulitti of The Record.
That says a lot about Schneider's character. He has accepted his current role as co-starter in New Jersey even though he could be a sole starter on most other teams. He and Brodeur obviously get along, and that suggests that Schneider would have been an ideal No. 3 for Team USA. Also, Schneider is 27 years of age, which makes him a strong candidate to start in the 2018 Olympics, so he could have benefited from the experience this year.
Derek Stepan Over Brandon Saad
New York Rangers center Derek Stepan is an offensively gifted player who racked up 44 points in 48 games last season, but he has struggled to regain that form in 2013-14. Not only does Stepan have a minus-three rating, which suggests that he isn't particularly good defensively, he also has just seven goals and 25 points in 41 games. Truth be told, the fact that Stepan is a center has as much to do with his spot on the team as anything.
Since Ryan Kesler, Joe Pavelski, David Backes and Paul Stastny are the only true centers on the team aside from Stepan, Team USA took a cautious approach. Stepan may very well be a healthy scratch for the majority of the tournament, so his inclusion could possibly have no impact on the team. Poile would have been better off bringing a player who is more versatile and in better form, and Chicago Blackhawks winger Brandon Saad fits the bill. For what it's worth, TSN's Pierre LeBrun believes Saad is the top forward replacement should an injury occur.
Leaving Stepan off the team admittedly would have left Team USA with four centers, but both Phil Kessel and T.J. Oshie are capable of sliding into that role if need be, so Stepan's inclusion isn't necessary. Saad is big and fast, he has a strong two-way game and he is playing fantastic hockey this year with 30 points. Team USA would've gotten more use out of him than Stepan, but those in power decided to take a conservative route.
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