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Team USA’s Bobby Ryan embarrassment

Greg Wyshynski
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What, exactly, did Bobby Ryan do to deserve this?

The Ottawa Senators forward is, without question, one of the top three goal-scorers among American born players, along with Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane, scoring 165 in 420 NHL games. He’s worn the colors for the U.S. three times, including in the 2010 Vancouver Games. He’s the type of player whose name you pre-print on the roster, filling in other names around it.

And yet he was cut from Team USA.

And cut deeply.

The U.S. Olympic team player personnel group, to their credit, allowed incredible access to Scott Burnside of ESPN and Kevin Allen of USA Today to chronicle the selection process. Their reporting reveals the intense and thorough debates these general managers, coaches and executives have over building a potential medal-winner for the Sochi 2014 games.

But it also reveals how ridiculous this process can be, with grown men entering into evidence dreams they’ve had about players thriving or failing at the Olympics, as if supernatural precognitive visions belong in the same conversation as shooting percentage.

(An aside: Were advanced stats ever introduced into this conversation? Outside of, perhaps Dean Lombardi’s book report on Keith Yandle?)

It was honesty, but in the case of Ryan, it was brutal.

No other player had his reputation maligned like this. No other player was mocked. No other player’s value as an NHL star was questioned. You read these accounts, and you come away thinking that Bobby Ryan is a counterfeit star whose career totals obscure that he’s a lazy, slow, apathetic defensive black hole.

A sampling:

"I think he's sleepy. I think he skates sleepy.” - Anonymous

"He's a passive guy.” – Brian Burke

"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." – Brian Burke

"One of the lowest percentage power-play points guys we have." – Peter Laviolette

The most jarring quotes come from Burke, who drafted Ryan while GM of the Anaheim Ducks. Oh, right, check that … he actually didn’t, as Burke said via ESPN:

Burke recalls fighting with his scouts in Anaheim over whether to take Bobby Ryan or Jack Johnson at the 2005 draft.

The scouts won and the Ducks took Ryan. "I should have taken Jack [Johnson]," Burke says. "No way he lets us down for 12 days.”

Ouch.

To understand the Burke/Ryan dynamic, you have to understand what Bobby Ryan is to Brian Burke, which is a black mark on his resume.

The two clashed in Anaheim early, with rumors that Ryan wanted out due to lack of ice time in the NHL. (He was shuttled to the AHL a few times and kept there due to cap concerns.)

He’s never become the player Burke projected he could become when he said things like the following, to Sports Illustrated in 2009:

"God smiled when He handed out those pair of hands to that boy.... If Bobby turns into the player I think he can, he'll be a star."

Well, he isn’t a star – playing in the shadow of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in Anaheim, and now trying to fill Daniel Alfredsson’s skates in Ottawa. He’s just a damn good offensive player, but that’s not what a No. 2 overall pick should be. Kevin Lowe, a Burke critic, labeled the pick “questionable” in 2008, which must have been like a dagger to the side of a man who fancies himself a master architect of teams.

He put him on the 2010 team in Vancouver, only to see Ryan struggle to one goal in six games on a smaller ice surface than the one he’d play on in Sochi. He didn’t register a shot in the gold medal game. The team Burke built, and knew could win gold, settled for silver in a one-goal game. And Ryan played a part in that demise.

Ryan, who received a call from Burke but didn't return it, has shot back at Burke via the Ottawa Sun:

At one point he referred to the comments as "gutless."

“They were direct quotes and it’s unfortunate they feel that way,” said Ryan. “That’s their opinions and they’ve got to form a team. I guess to a certain degree you have to respect it.

“You don’t have to agree with it, right? But you could have just cut me. You didn’t have to ... Actually I almost feel degraded when it comes out like that. It is what it is. That’s their decision. That’s how they feel about it. I will remember it and use it as motivation.”

He was degraded and he was downgraded. But ultimately, Burke’s the court jester here, and it’s the coaches and the full managerial brain trust that pushed Ryan off the team.

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The hockey-related rationale for leaving him off the team, and the counterarguments:

He can’t be a bottom six forward when he’s a defensive liability.

When in the history of a short tournament has a team failed to juggle its lines at least once? If the U.S. struggles to score – and many feel they will – is it that outlandish to believe a sniper like Ryan gets a look on either of the top lines?

But beyond that, the best defense can be a good offense, and Ryan has proven in the past that he can be one of the better possession players on this team.

He doesn’t produce on the power play.

Ryan played second-unit with the Ducks in the previous two seasons. Whether that was earned or not, there’s a hell of a difference between skating with Perry and Getzlaf on the top unit and, say, Jason Blake.

Ryan is fourth on the Sens in power-play time (2:54) but has produced only eight of his 28 points there. But he leads the team with six power-play goals – as many as Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski, David Backes, Max Pacioretty and more than Blake Wheeler and James van Riemsdyk, a.k.a. U.S. Olympians.

He doesn’t fit this lineup

It’s really an odd thought, isn’t it?

That you can’t find room for a 30-goal scorer on your team because “he's not a top-six forward, his skating doesn't really lend itself to him being a third-line checker” and because he doesn’t kill penalties?

A 30-goal scorer. On an offensively challenged team.

This brings us to the core problem with the Team USA selection process, as evidenced by the behind the scenes reporting and by the final roster:

They’re overthinking it.

As Poile said: “We did not pick the best 25 players. We picked the best 25 players that we thought gave us a chance to compete and win the gold medal.”

Let me amend that: ‘We picked the best 25 players that we thought gave us a chance to compete on an ice surface we’ve never won on.’

From the start it’s been speed speed speed grit speed up tempo speed speed speed. It’s what Dan Bylsma and the coaches want to preach and it’s the style they feel gives them the best chance to win.

Because Ryan doesn’t fit that mold, that’s one strike against him. Then it comes down to whether or not his goal-scoring can overcome his perceived defensive liabilities. They brain trust said no, so that’s strike two. Then it comes down to whether can be an asset on the power play, which Poile and Flyers GM Paul Holmgren – who has tried to acquire Ryan on multiple occasions – didn’t believe he would be for Team USA.

Strike three, and Ryan was out.

The question now becomes whether he gets another at-bat.

Zach Parise’s foot injury is a reminder, or a direct reason, why Bobby Ryan might not be watching the Sochi Games from his breakfast table. If the U.S. has an opening for a top six player, how can it not be Ryan over someone like Brandon Saad? How do you leave that talent back in the North America if concerns about him as a third-liner are wiped away?

The answer is that Ryan likely gets added to the roster, which makes this whole thing so completely regrettable.

USA Hockey embarrassed Bobby Ryan. They allowed access to a process that exists so players can be torn down in favor of their peers. The opened their doors knowing that the praise – Allen notes that Poile liked to remind everyone "these are all good players” during intense debates – would be drowned out by the criticism. The result made for fascinating reading, and some of the best hockey journalism I’ve read; but these people had to understand the fallout.

It’s the reason why the details of contract negations and arbitration hearings are guarded like state secrets: When you’re building a case against a guy you don’t believe in, you bring in the heavy artillery. That’s what Burke was doing, because he doesn’t believe in Bobby Ryan. Every GM does it. But there isn’t a reporter there to hear it. And because the criticism of, say, Kyle Okposo probably didn't generate the heat that Ryan's candidacy did, it seems singular and mean.

This doesn’t get Burke off the hook. You know he’s likely a driving force in opening the room for reporters, as someone that has never shied away from pulling back the curtain and smiling at the media.

They’re all to blame for tarnishing a player in the USA Hockey system – and a player they’re likely to turn to again, in this or another tournament – and having it become tantamount to pouring salt in a fresh cut.

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