Hey remember a few years ago when they had the Olympics in Sochi, and USA Hockey produced a pretty underwhelming team?
You know what I mean: When the brain trust left some of the best players at their positions in the whole world home because of things like a perceived lack of hustle or because they had bad dreams and really only wanted to beat Canada? That team ended up not even winning a medal, and in fact humiliated itself in the bronze medal game with a performance so shameful the people who make these decisions were lucky to keep their jobs.
Or maybe you remember how just a few months ago, when they had the World Cup in Canada, and USA Hockey produced a pretty underwhelming team?
They did this thing where they left some of the best players at their positions in the whole world home because of things like perceived lack of hustle or because they didn’t think being an elite NHL player would translate to a short tournament and, more specifically, beating Canada. That team was, in fact, so bad that the US didn’t even make the medal round and actually lost all three games in regulation. Only Finland did worse.
And while these are short tournaments, so anything can happen, these are the kinds of results that anyone with a brain spent a month before both saying, “Here’s what’s going to happen.” It’s not hard to figure out that if you’re playing best-on-best tournaments, it stands to reason that you should always aim to bring your, I don’t know, best players.
This isn’t advanced nerd-thinking of which long-time Hockey Guys are incapable. It’s a simple concept. And yet …
This week, USA Hockey announced two cuts for its World Junior roster. One of which saw Senators prospect Logan Brown, the No. 11 pick in June’s draft, sent packing. It was a bit of a puzzler but not a huge one; while Brown is immensely talented (he’s currently 11th in the OHL in points per game), he is also coming off an injury suffered in early November. The tournament would have been his first games since then, and Bob McKenzie reported that Brown was seen as having been rusty and potentially wasn’t keeping up with the pace his coaches wanted.
So really, it’s a tough bounce for Brown, but you get the rationale.
Then there’s the Alex DeBrincat. If for some reason you ever needed a perfect distillation of everything wrong with the way Hockey Guys think about this sport, the decision to leave Alex DeBrincat off a World Junior team — which he already made last year — should be Exhibits A-Y (Exhibit Z will be the beautiful Stanley Cup champion Phil Kessel, who is the nicest boy alive).
DeBrincat is everything Hockey Guys are skeptical of even now, after years of what should have been learning. He’s third in the OHL in points per game (2.14) after finishing 13th and seventh in the past two seasons. The first time he broke 100 points in the OHL, in his draft-year-minus-1, that could have been written off as a product of playing with Connor McDavid. Fair enough. But then he did it again in his draft year sans McDavid, forming a lethal one-two punch with Dylan Strome instead. And hey, Strome’s another with a high-end talent level, so maybe you write that off too.
And it seems like a lot of teams did, because it’s tough to think of too many guys who score 200 OHL points across their age-17 and age-18 seasons. Seems quite rare, in fact. But DeBrincat did it and was rewarded for his efforts by dropping into the mid-second round in June.
The probable guesses as to why have little to do with production, and everything to do with some rather tangible intangibles. DeBrincat is listed as 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds. And unlike, say Johnny Gaudreau whose skating and speed are superlative, DeBrincat doesn’t get around at an elite level. So the feeling is that he’s a guy who’s going to score in junior, but it might not translate to the pros. Adding in the fact that he played pretty much his entire OHL career next to high-level talents, and you can see where teams rationalize the decision to drop him down the draft board.
Even this year, when DeBrincat played a big chunk of the year without Strome, who started with the Arizona Coyotes and got sent back to Erie in time to play only seven games there so far this year (in which he has 16 points!), the little guy was still a goals factory when he was on the ice.
Let’s put it this way: Among the OHL’s top-200 all-time scorers (DeBrincat is already 191st after just 156 games), DeBrincat’s points-per-game number — just shy of 1.7 — is 16th ever. Pretty much everyone ahead of him is a “Oh yeah he had a decent career” kind of player or better. It’s even ahead of another small, ultra-skilled recent OHLer named Mitch Marner who many didn’t think would make it in the bigs.
As for the reasons the US cut him, per Corey Pronman, are the fact that he “was lackluster” in the tournament last year, mostly because he got kicked out of his first game and was injured in the next, but continued to play through it and therefore didn’t produce. And the fact that he didn’t stand out in a summer tournament, or in the recent camp, or in the US’s pre-tournament game on Wednesday.
(Also in last year’s tournament: USA Hockey left more than a couple of very good players at home for reasons beyond rational explanation.)
Of course, that leaves out the 70 or so junior games he flat-out dominated in what many consider the best development league in the world. But hey, the US was always always always going to put more stock in like 60 minutes of actual World Junior experience, a short summer tournament, a low-stakes training camp, and an exhibition than the 85 points he’s going to score every 50 OHL games he plays. Which makes a lot of sense.
Pronman had this to say in summarizing the USA Hockey decision to pass on DeBrincat: “In the end, sometimes skills don’t always translate up the competition ladder, and that may be the case here.”
The question is — or at least should be — how often that happens. How often does a kid score a near-historic number of points in his first three OHL seasons and do it in a way that won’t “translate?” Given how much everyone at Hockey Canada loved Lawson Crouse in recent years because he was gigantic, and despite mediocre production in the same league DeBrincat destroys every night, you see where this is a hockey problem. Crouse was a No. 11 pick despite being under a point a game in his draft year. And now in his first NHL season he’s 2-1-3 in 29 games. If Mitch Marner did that his ass would be so on-the-Marlies-forever you couldn’t believe it.
And anyway, the likelihood that DeBrincat scores in the NHL is immaterial to what he does at World Junior; he’s playing U20 players, an age group in which he has literally always humiliated defenses and goaltenders. The likelihood that he would score a lot of points in this tournament is high, based on the 150 or so games of evidence we have.
So yeah, this really does boil down to the “little guys have to prove they can play (over and over and over) and big guys have to prove they can’t” thing. Of course it does. This is USA Hockey we’re talking about.
It is baffling that well-paid decision-makers could look at so many failures — including last year’s World Junior team that only finished with bronze in part because it left a few high-skill players home — and repeatedly arrive at the same conclusions as to what they need to do. If something doesn’t work, you change how you do it. Again, not a difficult concept.
The good news for USA Hockey is that the Americans are bringing a very skilled team overall, and may not end up hurting for goals. But if they do, well, you have to wonder if Bobby Ryan I mean Phil Kessel I mean Tyler Johnson I mean Kyle Okposo I mean Alex Tuch I mean Kyle Connor I mean Jeremy Bracco I mean Alex DeBrincat would have made a difference.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.
MORE FROM YAHOO HOCKEY