Ryan Kesler, left, of the Vancouver Canucks, is one of the forwards who will bring the puck up ice for the U.S. Olympic team. (Darryl Dyck/Associated Press)
Dallas — When NHL general managers select players, the prevailing priority is the development of their team.
Certainly, they search for the most talented players. But that determination is weighed against the needs of their rosters and the pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
Often in the past, when officials selected the roster of the U.S. men’s Olympic team, the best 25 players were taken, with considerably less attention to the fit.
While that may have changed a bit by 2010, given the considerable growth of the game in this country, which now accounts for nearly one-fourth of all NHL players, the team that will play in Sochi beginning in five weeks is the product of a selection process that eliminated some of the best American-born players because they did not fill the precise roles sought by the coaches and general managers that comprised the selection committee.
It is a problem of riches Canada has had since the NHL joined the Winter Games.
The Americans are getting there.
A testament to the new order is that Jack Johnson (University of Michigan), who was groomed for the role of Captain America for the 2010 Vancouver Games; Bobby Ryan, the highest-scoring American-born player the past four years; and Keith Yandle, the highest-scoring American-born defenseman during that time, did not make the team.
While Canada, Sweden and Russia are all generally favored, the Americans fell one goal short of their first gold medal since 1980 four years ago in Vancouver, and the brain trust that selected the team believes this is a better, more cohesive squad.
“We’re fortunate to have probably the deepest talent pool we’ve ever had in our country that made for some very difficult decisions,” said Dave Poile, general manager of the U.S. team and the Predators.
“In the end, however, we’re confident we’ve selected a group of players that puts us in the best position to have success in Sochi.”
Evidence of the change is how involved the coaches, led by Dan Bylsma (Grand Haven, Penguins), were from the start.
Bylsma created a design for the team, beginning with a series of characteristics he viewed as paramount that were heavily influenced by the larger ice surface in Sochi and his view of international hockey in general.
Bylsma and other coaches involved in the selection — his assistant in Pittsburgh, Tony Granato; Todd Richards from Columbus; and Peter Laviolette, who coached in Philadelphia and Boston, as well as the 2010 team — decided the power play and penalty kill are critical to Olympic gold.
After beginning the process last June, Bylsma presented a blueprint in August calling for a team with speed, aggressiveness, hockey intelligence and patience.
Such precise desires even a decade ago would have seemed impractically idealistic.
“The big ice means skating and intelligence is at a premium,” Bylsma said. “Can we be matching up with a great team and beating them defensively?
“Part of the process in looking at the team was what combinations we might have on the penalty kill and power play and possible line combinations. We looked at the 2010 team and what they did, arranging and re-arranging the lines.
“We also had contingency plans, based on injury or performance, and what combinations we might end up with in all those situations.”
USA Hockey officials permitted ESPN.com and USA Today intimate views of the selection process.
From that reporting, it is clear Ryan lost out despite his considerable offensive skills because the coaches believed they had so much offense without him that he likely would play on a third line. Because the third line is conceived as potentially requiring more defense than the top two lines and Ryan’s defensive skills are plainly average at best, he did not fit there.
Meanwhile, he was unlikely to get a lot of power-play time because Joe Pavelski will be used there, and Pavelski’s game is more multifaceted than Ryan’s.
Yandle also was seen as a strong contributor on the power play, but comparatively weak defensively, especially on the big ice. Ryan Suter and Kevin Shattenkirk, whose games were evaluated as more rounded than Yandle’s, already were plugged into the power play.
And, the coaches already were pleased with the amount of offense and concerned about their priority of skating a defensive club on the big ice against international competitors.
So, Yandle lost out.
Largely because Johnson’s performance is lagging this year, and some on the crew of general managers on the selection committee — including Stan Bowman of the Blackhawks, Ray Shero of the Penguins, Dean Lombardi of the Kings, Brian Burke of the Flames and Poile — believe he never has reached his potential in the NHL, he fell to one of three defensemen competing for the last roster spot.
And Cam Fowler (Farmington Hills, Ducks) prevailed, over Johnson and Erik Johnson of the Avalanche because of Fowler’s manifest versatility. It was even more important than the fact that while Johnson was captain of the 2010 team, Fowler was still playing junior hockey.
In all three situations, the fact that desires for the best squad so easily trumped such talented players who would have brought considerable skill to Russia means this U.S. team is the product of the most team-oriented process in history.
“This is the first time, with all do respect to past Olympics, that we’ve left off really high-end players, guys who are doing real well,” Poile said.