In February 2010, Team USA nearly strutted out of Vancouver with Olympic gold. Had Sidney Crosby not slipped a so-so shot past Ryan Miller in overtime of the final, the Americans could have countered with a winning strike past Roberto Luongo.
That the Americans put themselves oh so close to gold underscored their commitment to their singular identity of abrasiveness. The Yanks practically lifted their hind legs and marked their territory on Vancouver ice, much like Nathan Horton would do a year later when he poured water from the melted TD Garden sheet onto the Rogers Arena surface.
That identity will have to change next February if Team USA aims to be in a similar position in Sochi, Russia. It will not be an easy transition.
On the standard NHL rink, the crash-and-bang approaches of Dustin Brown, David Backes, Ryan Callahan, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Chris Drury gave the Stars and Stripes the snarl and tenacity that propelled them to silver.
Part of that element will remain in 2014. Brown, Backes, and Callahan will return. Newbie energy guys such as T.J. Oshie and Justin Abdelkader will push for roster spots. They play hit-to-hurt, high-caffeine games.
But on Sochi’s international ice, intimidation cannot be standard practice. You can’t scare what you can’t catch. This does not foreshadow good things for the Americans.
In 2002, the US also lost to Canada in the gold medal game. As they were in 2010, both teams were on North American ice at the time. The American bosses do not believe it is a coincidence they won their silver medals in Canada and the US.
“We came up with a philosophy of truculence, grit, the top half vs. the bottom half of the lineup,” Team USA general manager David Poile, during a conference call on Monday, said of the 2010 approach. “The philosophy and strategy have to change a little bit. It’s pretty obvious the reason why. It’s not a North American arena. It’s in Europe with the bigger ice surface.”
The Americans with international experience and those who played in Europe during the lockout know it is a different game.
In the NHL, corners are tight, nasty areas. Big bodies and short tempers work best in such real estate.
On the bigger rinks, corners are practically square. If a winger is late on the forecheck, the puck is gone — D to D or up the wall — and the counterattack has been triggered before he can stomp on the brakes and turn the other way.
So in late August, when the Americans gather for their Olympic orientation camp in Arlington, Va., some previous silver winners will not be present.
Out: Langenbrunner, Tim Gleason, Ryan Malone. In: Justin Faulk, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan. Stationary, wide-bodied players will not be in favor. Mobility, quickness, and speed will be emphasized.
“We all know we need some skating,” Poile said. “I can’t imagine we’ll have too many players who are not real mobile. It’s going to be a quick game.”
The up-tempo approach will benefit Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, and Phil Kessel, the US’s most dangerous forwards. They are not among the NHL’s biggest bodies, but they have north-south speed, shiftiness, and creativity. Of the three, Parise is the most willing to crash the net for loose pucks.
Team USA’s shortcoming is how abruptly the speed and skill tumble off. There is separation between the Parise-Kane-Kessel group to the second tier of up-front talent (Bobby Ryan, Joe Pavelski, James van Riemsdyk). The successful grinders won’t be playing in the close quarters they prefer.
On the back end, there is some retrieving and puck-moving ability. Ryan Suter will be the defense’s anchor. Complementary players include Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, Keith Yandle, and Kevin Shattenkirk. They are young, mobile defensemen. But their offensive instincts can be associated with defensive risks. They are potential liabilities the US bosses are willing to accept. Rugged stay-at-homers such as Gleason and Brooks Orpik are less effective on wider ice.
“He’s a guy who probably fits the mold of what we’re looking for,” Poile said of Shattenkirk. “He’s a skating, puck-moving defenseman who can make a first pass and transition from defense to offense.”
Goaltending can eliminate weaknesses. In that area, the Americans will be among the elite. Jonathan Quick projects to be the starter. Miller, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson, and Cory Schneider will battle for the two remaining spots.
But even Miller’s brilliance in 2010 (5-1, 1.35 goals-against average, .946 save percentage) wasn’t good enough as a complement to the bruising American style. It will be very difficult for the Americans to tweak their identity and compete with Sweden, Canada, and Russia.
In Turin in 2006, the Swedes won gold. Their federation’s hallmarks — speed, smarts, positional play — made them the world’s best on big ice. Sweden doesn’t have to change a thing to swipe gold once more. The Americans, meanwhile, must figure out a different approach. That’s an awfully big task.
Jersey looks good on Jagr
On Tuesday, Jaromir Jagr signed on with his fourth NHL employer in the last two years. The ex-Flyer, Star, and Bruin agreed to a one-year, $4 million contract with New Jersey. The 41-year-old should be a very good fit in Newark, where GM Lou Lamoriello is seeking offensive firepower to replace Ilya Kovalchuk, who left to play in the KHL.
Jagr will join a group of fellow hired guns that includes Newfoundlanders Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder. The three unrestricted free agent signings will complement incumbents Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, and Adam Henrique to form a heavy top-six crew that can lug the puck, cycle down low, and draw penalties.
Jagr is passionate about the sport. He erased any concerns about his defensive commitment with his last-minute hustle for the Bruins in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh.
“Because I love the game, I was looking for the team where I was going to have an opportunity to play,” Jagr said during a conference call. “I was talking to Lou even before Kovalchuk retired. After he retired, I think there was even more opportunity for me to play on the Devils’ roster.”
During his time in Boston, the future Hall of Famer proved his hands, vision, and puck-protection ability remain among the league’s elite. Jagr will be the first- or second-line right wing, and the quarterback along the right boards on the power play, where he can feed Marek Zidlicky for one-timers from the point. Fitness will not be an issue for Jagr, who opted for late-night workouts at the Garden instead of returning to his downtown hotel room.
Ultimately, Jagr wasn’t the right fit for the Bruins. He was a desperate Plan B after preferred target Jarome Iginla chose Pittsburgh as his landing spot.
Iginla, as he should prove in 2013-14, will have a cleaner adjustment period with the Bruins. Iginla is an up-and-down skater and can create space for Milan Lucic and David Krejci off the forecheck.
Jagr’s approach is to slow the pace, sniff for openings, and play with his back to the net.
The Bruins demand north-south, 200-foot efficiency from their forwards. There is no room for freelancing in Claude Julien’s system, not even from a legend.
DOWN TO WIRE?
Wheeler signs before hearing
On Friday, three days before his scheduled arbitration hearing, Blake Wheeler signed a six-year, $33.5 million contract extension with Winnipeg. The ex-Bruin had 19 goals and 22 assists in 48 games last season. The Jets committed $57 million toward their first line in less than a week. On Monday, Bryan Little, Wheeler’s center, signed a five-year, $23.5 million extension. Both were scheduled for arbitration. So far, seven cases have been settled before their hearings. The only remaining players with pending hearings are Mark Fraser, Mats Zuccarello, Paul Postma, Zach Bogosian, and Trevor Lewis.
July has been a good month for Travis Hamonic. On July 5, the rugged Islanders defenseman signed a seven-year, $27 million extension, according to www.capgeek.com. The 22-year-old will earn more per season than veterans such as Tim Gleason and Brooks Orpik, two defensemen who play a similar style. Then Team Canada made Hamonic a surprise selection for its Olympic orientation camp. Hamonic is a long shot to make the Sochi roster, but there are very few around the league who don’t have good things to say about Hamonic. The in-your-face defenseman won’t put up big points, but he’s nasty in the danger areas and quick to drop the mitts (just ask Evgeni Malkin). It’s a good deal for both sides. Hamonic scores an early long-term payday — most defensemen sign short-term bridge deals after leaving their entry-level contracts — while the Islanders lock up a future letter-wearer for seven years.
Milan Lucic’s bump-first style is not well-suited for the 200-by-100-foot tundra of international ice that will serve as center stage in the 2014 Olympics. In comparison, Lucic’s game would have been a perfect fit for the claustrophobic dimensions of the old Boston Garden. Yet the Team Canada bosses invited Lucic, for the second straight Olympic cycle, to participate in their summer orientation camp. There is no other player on the 47-man camp roster with Lucic’s skill set of straight-line speed, brawn, and touch. It is a game-changing package, even on big ice. Even if Lucic doesn’t make the Sochi roster, the left wing’s camp inclusion will benefit his NHL employer. Lucic’s regular-season downfall in 2013 was his poor conditioning after the lockout. When Lucic’s legs and lungs fell short, his confidence hit the deck, too. This summer, the Olympic camp should provide even more motivation for Lucic to hit the sweet spot of his offseason training. When Lucic leaves Calgary, the site of the Olympic camp, and reports to Boston, he should be peaking physically.
There will be a new snow-clearing standard during TV timeouts in 2013-14. At least eight shovelers, preferably on skates, must be on the ice in each segment. At the start of each pause, the first two shovelers must proceed directly to each crease. Each crew member must use a scoop shovel and plastic bucket to remove all snow from the net area. Then each end zone will be cleared with 48-inch-wide plastic shovels. Crew members should work from side board to side board, including two sweeps behind each net. All snow must be deposited at the side boards, not in the slots. The last area to be cleaned will be in front of the benches, which will allow players and coaches to communicate early during the timeout. The recommended tools (six to eight 48-inch, single-handed shovels, two poly scoop shovels, two plastic buckets) can be purchased at www.thesnowplow.com. Those not following these specific instructions will be punished with snow down their pants.
Good nugget from the Devils regarding Jaromir Jagr: The short-term Bruin is one of two Czech-born players to have won a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal, and world championship. Jiri Slegr, also a former Bruin, is the other . . . Detroit’s bankruptcy filing is not expected to alter plans for a new sports and entertainment district downtown. A replacement for Joe Louis Arena will be one of the anchor landmarks. The proposed 45-block project is estimated to cost $650 million, with $283 million coming from public dollars, according to the Detroit News. The Red Wings’ current facility was opened in 1979 . . . Vancouver signed Zach Hamill to a one-year contract on Thursday. The Bruins selected Hamill eighth overall in the 2007 draft. This will be Hamill’s fourth organization (Boston, Washington, Florida) since 2012. Hamill hails from Port Coquitlam, a Vancouver suburb, but doubtful his hometown fans will see much of him. The underwhelming center is most likely bound for Utica, the Canucks’ AHL affiliate . . . Bill Guerin and Doug Weight, named to the US Hockey Hall of Fame on Thursday, cited the 1996 World Cup win as a pivotal point for the US in international competition. Weight recalled that roommate Brett Hull repeatedly said the Americans would win before the tournament. By the time the puck dropped, Hull’s proclamations had turned into belief . . . John Tortorella will be reunited with fellow ex-Ranger Dale Weise in Vancouver. Weise, who had filed for arbitration, signed a one-year, $750,000 contract on Wednesday. The gritty Weise played 10 games for Tortorella on Broadway in 2010-11 before Vancouver claimed the forward on waivers. Weise is a Tortorella-type player, which is to say he’s a plumber . . . Tough stretch for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s new music director, is recovering from a severe concussion. Conductor/pianist Christoph Eschenbach, scheduled to perform at Tanglewood this past week, was grounded because of an inner-ear infection. Singer Ferruccio Furlanetto was KO’d from a Tanglewood performance because of a bad cold. No doubt they would have been conducting, playing, and singing had this been playoff season. Because it’s the Cup.