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Luckily for USA Hockey, it’s not like elite scoring helps you win (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

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The thing you really cannot have enough of in hockey is, by definition, goals.

Games are won and lost on goals scored, both for and against, and obviously teams have to strike a balance between offense and defense to some extent. The idea that a team could have “enough” goals, though, is obviously ludicrous. You can never have enough goals.

And yet here is USA Hockey, relying on a brain trust of coaches, general managers, and other executives to determine an Olympic roster that, following an overtime loss in the final game of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, can only have its sights set on gold. And so with this in mind, the team made two exceptionally baffling choices in leaving off two of the most prolific scorers at their positions not only in the U.S., but in the world.

The most obvious of these is Bobby Ryan, somehow snubbed for reasons that themselves defy description, despite the fact that there are few goalscorers more prolific than him in the entire world. For instance, since 2008-09, and prior to last night's games, Ryan had scored 160 goals, putting him 11th in the entire league during that time. The only right wings ahead of him on that list are Alex Ovechkin (who spent most of that time as a left wing), Corey Perry (a former league MVP who played ahead of Ryan in Anaheim and cannibalized his ice time), Phil Kessel, and Jarome Iginla. Obviously Kessel is the only other American on the list of 11, which also includes names like Sidney Crosby, Rick Nash, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jeff Carter, Patrick Marleau and Steven Stamkos.

That's pretty exclusive company, so why did the geniuses who put together the Olympic roster leave off one of the 11-best goalscorers in the past six seasons?

Among the reasons listed in Scott Burnside's deeply illuminating and wonderful look at the selection process are that when he was in Anaheim, he didn't play on the first power play unit (because, again, Perry played his position), he doesn't skate well enough for a checking role (because you should ask perennial 30-goal guys to play the body first and foremost), he “skates sleepy” (whatever that means), and he doesn't kill penalties (a legitimate criticism).

Further, Peter Laviolette expressed concerns over the fact that Ryan, who would be used primarily on the power play if he were taken at all, had at the time scored just four of his 22 points (in his first 23 games, mind you) on the man advantage. Now, far be it for anyone to question the combined century-plus of hockey experience of the guys in that room, but when you're considering a guy for a power play-only role and he is nearly point-a-game despite being poor in that situation, maybe you want to kick the tires on his even-strength play.

Not-scoring when it's easier to score is perhaps not a decent evaluator of how good a hockey player isn't, especially if he is scoring by the bucket at even-strength, when it's harder. Only 39 of Ryan's 160 goals since he became a regular NHL players have been on the power play, which says that he's an exceptional goalscorer at 5-on-5, which is what teams should be targeting because something like 85 percent of the game is played that way in the NHL, QED.

But perhaps most damning of all is the quote from Brian Burke, who drafted Ryan second overall behind Sidney Crosby, which has ruffled feathers nationwide and led the Ottawa right wing — who has 18 goals this season, third among American-born players — to call the comments “gutless.”

"I think we have to know what we're taking with Bobby … He's a passive guy," Burke said. "He is not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary. It's never going to be in his vocabulary. He can't spell intense."

This is one of those arguments you saw in "Moneyball" from the old-school guys who didn't see how statistics now widely accepted as being very good indicators of how good or bad guys are applied to how they did their day-to-day jobs. It's mumbo jumbo. Mysticism. Nonsense. Period.

The fact of the matter is that NHL teams, or teams made of NHL players, shouldn't care how intensely, or not intensely, players score goals, but rather that they do at all. Of course, this is a team put together by old-school hockey guys, who don't understand basic statistical concepts behind what makes a team win. But given that this was put together by Don Waddell (former general manager of the Thrashers, who have scored 250 goals just twice in franchise history), David Poile (who since becoming GM of the Predators has yet to draft a forward who scored even 250 career goals), and Brian Burke (who has long ensured that the teams he ran would be mired in mediocrity for years to come), it's tough to say that we could have expected rational decisions predicated upon offense.

Kevin Allen, the other well-respected writer given access to the selection process, further defended the decision not to include Ryan yesterday on TSN Radio, saying, “Where does Ryan help other than his unbelievable hands?”

That seems like a bizarre question, doesn't it? It's a question that answers itself; he helps only in that regard, and that's fine. Isn't the same true of Phil Kessel? Of Patrick Kane? The U.S. has the deepest right wing group in the world, and just left one of their three best options at home because he doesn't check people enough for their liking. It's madness.

That Burke also threw into the mix that he wished he'd drafted Jack Johnson, a defenseman who makes every player he plays with and team he plays for demonstrably worse when he's on the ice, instead of Ryan tells you everything you need to know about what he values in player evaluation (Being Hard To Play Against) and what he doesn't (Scoring Goals). There's a reason the teams he's run have made the playoffs exactly zero times since 2008. Nonetheless, he'll bring up that Stanley Cup with the team he didn't build until he's six days dead.

And on the subject of Jack Johnson, actually, the fact he ended up being left off is all the better for the U.S., but does it make anyone else nervous that one of Poile's arguments for including him was that “he'd had a dream that Jack Johnson wasn't on the team, a huge mistake.” Why not just climb a mountain and ask an oracle for the roster, then? Might help to see if Apollo thinks you should run one or two defensemen on the second power play unit. Holy hell.

The fact of the matter is that Ryan should be able to skate as sleepily and be as not-intense as he wants, because no matter how one-dimensional he is, his one dimension is “filling the net with pucks,” and “getting his teammates to do the same.”

Over the last six years, only 10 players in the NHL have been able to keep their even-strength on-ice shooting percentage at more than 10 percent, which is therefore a pretty good indicator of how good they are at helping their team score where others cannot. Topping the list, not surprisingly, are Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos. After that, interestingly, is Alex Tanguay, who is personally one of the most successful shooters in NHL history at 18.71 percent (21st all-time). Then there's Marty St. Louis, who's obviously no slouch himself even if he does play with Stamkos an awful lot. Then, at No. 5, is Bobby Ryan. What that means, essentially, is that your Sedins and Malkins and Spezzas and Ovechkins and Toewses and Getzlafs and so on — the elitest of elite NHL scorers — don't have shots on goal hit the back of the net when they're on the ice as often as Bobby Ryan does from 2007 to present.

This is basic stuff, easily looked up, which states that Ryan should absolutely be on the Olympic team over one of the other forwards with whom he was competing. That Ryan Callahan and Dustin Brown, for example, have been “locks” this whole time despite having only eight more points combined than Ryan has goals, is a headscratcher, but apparently this is a team that would be beggared in the “leadership” and “grit” departments were it not for their inclusion. TJ Oshie has a third of Ryan's goals, but was a slam dunk because of his “chemistry” with David Backes and “that shootout move.”

How many shootouts do you think the U.S. plays in when they get to Sochi? One?

That the U.S. basically breeds defensive-minded forwards to cover for Ryan when needed seems to matter very little. There are elite penalty killers throughout the lineup, and anyone can see that. But apparently USA Hockey thinks it has enough goalscoring for general purposes. Canada doesn't have to worry about such things, and at some point you probably need someone to help keep up, rather than hoping to shut down a third line centered by semi-legitimate MVP candidate Ryan Getzlaf. Not including Ryan because he doesn't check people seems especially daft because, on international ice and in the Olympics in particular, physical play isn't exactly the way teams win and lose games. They win by having the puck. Just like the NHL, but more so.

And yet this is the basket in which the U.S. will place all its eggs, as further evidenced by the inclusion of Brooks Orpik on the team instead of Keith Yandle.

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The absurdity of this decision almost outstrips that of the one involving Ryan, but when “defense” is part of your job title, you can almost see the argument. The long and short of this argument probably boils down to Dan Bylsma is coaching this team and is therefore taking His Guy. Orpik is a fine defensive defenseman (fine as in “adequate,” not fine as in “one of the finest in the league), but the idea that he's going to in any way help against the elite talent the Russians, Swedes, and Canadians will be bringing to Sochi is silly. Especially because the team already has more versatile guys with comparable or better possession numbers, like Ryan Suter or Kevin Shattenkirk or Paul Martin or Ryan McDonagh or John Carlson. Among American-born defensemen with 32 games played this season, Orpik, the defensive wiz, is 21st in corsi percentage this season. He's not only redundant, he's also not particularly good at what he's supposed to do.

However, the concern here too is that Yandle is not steady enough defensively. Burke said he watches Yandle play with dread, expecting disaster.

From Burnside's column:

“The feeling is that even without Yandle on the team, there will be enough skill on the power play to be effective with Joe Pavelski expected to play the point at times along with Ryan Suter and Kevin Shattenkirk.”

That's an interesting argument because of how horrifyingly inaccurate it is.

The fact of the matter is that when it comes to producing points, Yandle is among the elitest of elite defensemen in the league. Since became a full-time NHLer in 2008-09, he's the fourth of just four defensemen in the NHL to post 230 points or more, behind Duncan Keith (264), Dan Boyle (252), and Shea Weber (243). Cut that back to 2009-10 and he's one of just three to break 200, behind only Keith (220) and Erik Karlsson (201). If you want a power play specialist, then it's a one-stop shop as far as the USA Hockey decision-makers should be concerned. Yandle is also more mobile if you want that kind of thing. They didn't, though. They wanted defense.

You can never have enough defense. Defense wins championships. Except in Canada's case last time around when their defense was only okay (they allowed 16 goals in seven games, 2.29 per) but they outscored opponents by 19 because they scored a tournament-high 35 goals (5.0 per).

Know what you're not doing when you're defending? Scoring. You can't do it.

By bringing players like the ones selected Wednesday, the U.S. is further ensuring that it won't score as many goals as it possibly can, and in doing so is probably shooting its chances for improving upon its second-place finish last time around in the foot. But at least it'll be a very intense finish.

That's all that seems to matter to them anyway. Goals schmoals.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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