In 16 minutes 22 seconds of ice time on Dec. 28, Bobby Ryan landed just one shot on goal. He missed the net with two other attempts. One shot was blocked.
The one puck that Ryan put on net, however, resulted in the deciding goal in the Senators’ 4-3 home win over the Bruins.
USA Hockey declared that Ryan’s touch for scoring timely goals was not good enough to crack the Olympic roster. The winger with a team-high 18 goals will not be welcome in Sochi because he isn’t a fast skater, doesn’t kill penalties, and is considered lazy by some of his critics. Somehow, Ryan has overcome all those supposed liabilities to become pretty darn good at putting pucks in nets.
There are differences between Olympic hockey and the NHL, ice size being the biggest. But the fundamental characteristic of hockey is the same on every rink, be it the 100-foot-wide international kind, or the five-strides-and-stop backyard variety: The team that scores more wins.
By telling Ryan to stay home in favor of Derek Stepan, Paul Stastny, and Blake Wheeler — none with an established finisher’s résumé — the American Olympic bosses proved that spending a lot of time on a decision does not necessarily produce the smartest result. This was paralysis through analysis.
On Dec. 28, the Bruins were missing Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. Tuukka Rask, originally scheduled for a night off, started his second game in two nights because of a roster shuffle that resulted in Niklas Svedberg’s assignment. Zach Trotman, Chara’s replacement, didn’t arrive at Canadian Tire Centre until a half-hour before puck drop.
Amid all that, the Bruins were rolling. They had rallied from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game, 3-3.
Ryan put an end to that.
After Torey Krug bobbled the puck at the blue line, Ryan jumped on the misplay. He neatly kicked the puck to his stick, entered the offensive zone onside, and faked a wrist shot. Chad Johnson, who replaced Rask early in the second period, bit. Ryan pulled the puck to his backhand and lifted the winning goal over Johnson.
Job well done.
Perhaps the hardest part of Ryan’s omission was the pile of dirt his former general manager dumped on his reputation. USA Hockey provided unlimited access to ESPN.com and USA Today to chronicle the team’s assembly. That decision was regretful.
The crux of the controversy centered on former Anaheim GM Brian Burke’s evaluation of Ryan. Burke lamented picking Ryan second overall in 2005 instead of defenseman Jack Johnson. Burke, Team USA’s director of player personnel, also questioned Ryan’s approach.
“He is not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary,” Burke said in the ESPN.com story (USA Today did not use the quotes). “It’s never going to be in his vocabulary. He can’t spell intense.”
Ryan did not appreciate the comments. On Thursday, he told Ottawa reporters that Burke’s rip job was gutless.
Hockey evaluators say critical things every day about players, including their own. Expletives are regularly used. But they are private comments that are not published in major publications. According to Team USA general manager David Poile, USA Hockey had the right to review ESPN.com’s and USA Today’s material before publication.
ESPN.com writer Scott Burnside declined to comment on if he faced any restrictions or guidelines. In an e-mail, Burnside wrote that he did not record any conversations and was asked not to write about the process until the team was announced on Wednesday.
During a conference call on Friday, Poile said a communication breakdown had taken place. Poile did not dispute that Burke made the critical comments. But Poile said there was just as much positive review on Ryan’s performance. Poile noted that when the management team made its final vote, Burke had Ryan on the team.
“I’m trying to apologize to Bobby Ryan,” Poile said. “If that was said about me or one of my players, if I’m [Ottawa GM] Bryan Murray or the Ottawa Senators, or Bobby Ryan or his agent, I’d be very upset with this. I apologize as much as I can.”
In building the team, the Americans followed their guidelines. Because of the larger ice surface, they targeted fast, smart skaters. They wanted defensively responsible players. They considered existing chemistry — David Backes with T.J. Oshie, Paul Martin with Brooks Orpik, James van Riemsdyk with Phil Kessel, Stepan with Ryan Callahan — important in a short tournament.
Ryan did not fit those categories. He does not have the speed of an energy forward. His hockey sense does not stand out. Ryan isn’t used in matchup situations. No other Ottawa forwards were under consideration.
But Ryan has scored 30 or more goals in each of his four full NHL seasons. Among the American Olympians, Kessel and Zach Parise are the only players to have turned that trick. Even in games when Ryan is quiet, like he was against the Bruins on Dec. 28, he has the touch and resourcefulness to turn a sleepy night into a win.
“We left some good players off the team,” Poile said. “I’ve said many times that Bobby Ryan is one of them.”
Ryan could still make the team. Injuries could take place. Players such as Ryan, Kyle Okposo, Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, and Ben Bishop are among the group in play if reinforcements are required.
But that bridge might have been blown up. Ryan’s response, if he’s invited to Sochi, may be similar to the one he gave Burke when his ex-boss called following the announcement. Ryan did not answer. Nor did he call back.
LOSING HIS APPEAL
System worked against Thornton
Shawn Thornton said no mas on Tuesday when he declined to appeal his suspension to a neutral discipline arbitrator. And with that, the NHL declared victory via a Guy Boucher-approved method: stalling with the ruthlessness of the former Tampa Bay coach’s 1-3-1 trap.
The stages of the discipline-and-appeal process itself chewed up six games of Thornton’s 15-game suspension. It’s likely that at least three more of Thornton’s suspended games would have been claimed had he sought the neutral arbitration process.
First, Thornton had to wait six days (three games) between his match penalty and original in-person disciplinary hearing.
Second, after Thornton decided to appeal his case to the commissioner, four days passed (two games) until his sitdown with Gary Bettman.
Third, three days passed (one game) between Thornton’s hearing with Bettman and the commissioner’s decision to uphold the original suspension.
If Thornton had sought neutral arbitration, four days (two games) could have rolled by until that hearing. It is unknown how long the arbitrator would have required to make the decision.
There were circumstances that challenged the timing. The NHL’s board of governors was meeting in Pebble Beach, Calif., prior to Thornton’s disciplinary hearing. The holidays weighed on the schedule.
But this is no way for the process to operate. There is far too much lag time between events, be they hearings or appeals.
Thornton got what he deserved. The 15-game suspension was justified. But Thornton had his right, which the players pushed for during collective bargaining, to go through all the stages of the appeal process. Delays took away that right from Thornton.
Maple Leafs had little choice on Phaneuf
In 2014-15, Dion Phaneuf will carry a higher average annual value than Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, Paul Martin, Ryan McDonagh, Jay Bouwmeester, and Niklas Kronwall, some of the Maple Leafs captain’s peers among top-pairing, left-shot defensemen.
Phaneuf isn’t better than any of them.
Phaneuf has improved since his days in Calgary. He’s quieted his game. He plays big minutes in all situations. But Phaneuf, who signed a seven-year, $49 million contract extension on Tuesday, remains a high-risk player missing the hockey sense that is usually inherent in defensemen making his kind of money.
Randy Carlyle is a discipline-first coach with a love for structure. That Carlyle, of all people, can’t eliminate the hazards in Phaneuf’s game — roaming into the neutral zone, pinching at bad times, sniffing for big hits and taking himself out of position — underscores how ingrained his bad habits are.
Phaneuf also needs the right partner to hang back and cover up for his gambles. Carl Gunnarsson fills that role.
That said, the market dictated the 28-year-old Phaneuf’s contract score. The Leafs would not have gotten equal value had they traded Phaneuf. On the free market, Phaneuf would have gotten a seven-year deal at even more than $7 million annually.
“Dion was going to get seven years regardless,” Leafs GM Dave Nonis said during a news conference following the signing. “If we weren’t going to pay him, he was going to get it. He’s not 32 or 33. We’re seeing, on defense, guys in their mid- and late 30s getting four- and five-year deals. From our standpoint, it wasn’t that Dion can’t play longer. He was eligible for an eight-year. We could have signed him to an eight-year. I think he’ll play beyond the term of this contract. He’s not in his 30s. He’s in his 20s. His game is rounding out and getting better. I don’t think there’s any reason he can’t play seven years and look for another contract.”
Toronto doesn’t have anyone who can assume Phaneuf’s responsibilities. It says much about the rising financial tide and the paucity of high-end defensemen when a player with Phaneuf’s liabilities is guaranteed $49 million.
Andrew MacDonald is the best bargain in the league. The Islanders defenseman is in the last season of a four-year, $2.2 million contract, according to www.capgeek.com. At this rate, the unrestricted free agent-to-be could land a deal 10 times better than his $550,000 average annual value. Through 42 games, MacDonald was averaging 25:58 of ice time, seventh highest in the NHL. He also led the league with 143 blocked shots. The 27-year-old left-shot defenseman plays in all situations, although that’s more a function of the Islanders’ thin blue line compared to other clubs. If the Islanders opt to trade MacDonald instead of re-sign him, he’d be a very good second-pairing fit for any playoff team. And if MacDonald reaches the open market, he’s due at least a five-year deal worth $5.5 million annually, which would put him in line with comparables such as Bouwmeester, Martin, and Andrei Markov.
The old Tim Gleason would have been an acquisition target for the Bruins after Dennis Seidenberg’s season-ending knee injury. They are similar players. Both are sturdy, professional, defense-first, left-shot defensemen. The Bruins used Gleason’s four-year, $16 million contract as a comparable for Seidenberg’s deal. But the 30-year-old Gleason, shipped to Toronto for John-Michael Liles on Wednesday, suddenly looks like a high-mileage player with little tread remaining on his tires. Once Gleason recovered from a concussion, the alternate captain never found regular reps under Kirk Muller. The Carolina coach prefers an up-tempo system with an emphasis on moving the puck rapidly from defense to offense. This is not Gleason’s strength. The Maple Leafs are a slower, more grinding team. Gleason will be a better fit on Toronto’s second or third pairings. And if Gleason’s legs continue to give out, the Leafs can bury his contract — $4 million annually through 2016 — in the AHL. The small-market Hurricanes would not have been able to pull that off.
Ottawa coach Paul MacLean had 18 skaters at hand when Craig Anderson was called for tripping Reilly Smith in the second period of the Senators’ win over the Bruins on Dec. 28. MacLean could have tabbed hulking fourth-liner Matt Kassian, who plays less than four minutes per game, to serve the goalie’s penalty. Instead, MacLean sent Erik Karlsson (27 plus-minutes of ice time per game) to the penalty box for a two-minute sitdown. Karlsson is the game’s best offensive defenseman. But when your own boss tells you to take a seat during a critical penalty kill, the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best all-around defenseman should not be an award you can claim.
As a regular Jamaicaway driver, I’ve seen my share of wrecks. But there was a three-car doozy following the Winter Classic when American Olympians Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, and Jimmy Howard offered their thoughts on receiving one of the biggest honors in sports. The three couldn’t peel themselves away from the microphone quickly enough as they threw together a pile of clichés about serving their country. Not exactly fire-breathing, flag-waving rhetoric from the three Yanks. In contrast, during a conference call on Friday, David Backes was poignant and eloquent when comparing playing Olympic hockey to serving in the military. “It’s different levels of representing your country,” Backes said. “But we’re trying to do us proud like the men and women in the armed services do.”
In comparison to Phaneuf’s contract, Keith’s is a sweetheart deal for the Blackhawks: 13 years, $72 million total, $5,538,462 average annual value. In this market, Keith could ask for $10 million per season and get it . . . John Carlson was born in Natick. Brooks Orpik (Boston College) and Jonathan Quick (UMass) played college hockey locally. But they are the only American Olympians with some of their roots in Massachusetts. It was the same number in 2010, with Orpik, Chris Drury (Boston University), and Ryan Whitney (Scituate, BU) having the only Massachusetts ties from college or earlier. The state has been without Olympic relevance for some time . . . Nice debut for Nathan Horton on Thursday. The ex-Bruin, playing in his first game for Columbus since recovering from shoulder surgery, scored a goal in the Blue Jackets’ 2-0 win over Phoenix. Horton is playing with Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov. Anisimov isn’t as skilled as David Krejci, but Dubinsky is a check-first left wing like Milan Lucic . . . Hockey Canada will have a final meeting in Toronto on Monday. It will reveal its Olympic team on Tuesday, which is now under consideration for becoming a national holiday.