TORONTO — Dean Lombardi pounded the table and tried to explain it all.
His eyes darting back and forth, the Team USA general manager tried to explain the Americans’ unexpected and disappointing early exit from the World Cup of Hockey.
Along the way, Lombardi blamed himself for plenty.
The hockey veteran with two Stanley Cup rings said he would have done four or five things differently, most notably preparing his team to face Team Europe and not focus on Canada. But Lombardi defended the decision not to take more skilled players like Phil Kessel because he believes the U.S. couldn’t match Canada’s depth of talent so it tried to win the tournament another way.
“We got some darn good players, but the reality is, that matchup on a skill basis, if you want to go head-to-head and play a skill game, your odds of winning that game when you look at those matchups is not very good,” Lombardi said during an extensive state of the team news conference Thursday, not long before the Americans played their final game of the tourney. “I think that our game allows emotion, competitiveness, caring about each other (to) close that gap more than any other sport.”
Lombardi criticized himself, his management group, coach John Tortorella and his staff for not getting players more prepared to face Europe in the opener, a 3-0 loss that made the second game against Canada a must win. Tortorella criticized himself for not finding the right mixes of players to generate offense.
But the old-school GM and old-school coach weren’t backing down from the team they selected and the style they chose to play. Lombardi said he wanted “22 guys who care” and insisted he doesn’t believe Kessel belonged more than some of the other forwards on the roster.
“If you’re talking about Justin Abdelkader, Blake Wheeler, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Kesler, David Backes, I’ll take those guys any day on my team,” Lombardi said. “Those guys have big-time heart and when I talk about caring, they’d be the nucleus of the caring and they compete and they can play for me any day.”
Kessel, Tyler Johnson, Kyle Okposo, Justin Faulk, Kevin Shattenkirk and Cam Fowler didn’t play in the World Cup for the U.S., which scored two goals in two games before being eliminated from contention. Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski, Max Pacioretty and Zach Parise were on the team and combined for zero goals and two assists.
Tortorella said USA Hockey has to take its “medicine” and accepted blame. But he’s tired of the second-guessing about roster decisions.
“I’m not going to sit here and let people tell me this team was a bunch of grinders, because it’s not true,” Tortorella said. “I’m not going to say that we should’ve blown up this whole situation on how we built this team because I think we have really good people there.”
After losing to Canada at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, the U.S. made no secret of its focus on Canada. The 2010 team that was one goal away from beating Canada for gold in Vancouver on NHL-sized ice provided the blueprint in 2016, though several of those players were of course six years older.
Players on every team called Canada the favorite, but the U.S. was alone in constructing a team with the two-time Olympic and world championship winners in mind.
“We clearly put an emphasis on that from day one,” Lombardi said. “What could we have done better here to raise our emotional levels. I think for sure, if you were coming here to win this thing, it clearly goes through Canada.”
Canada beat the U.S. 4-2 Tuesday in a game that wasn’t as close as the score. It wasn’t nearly as competitive as two exhibition games against Canada, which Lombardi said might’ve had too much of an impact as Tortorella constantly tinkered with his lineup.
Line juggling prevented the Americans from developing any real chemistry. But Lombardi was more concerned about players not being mentally ready for or respecting Team Europe in the first game and looking ahead to Canada.
“I think even the connotation was ‘Europe,’ so it wasn’t a real team,” Lombardi said. “It was kind of like, it’s not the same as when you’re going up against this is what these tournaments are all about, and that’s the nationalism factor. I think just even the name, you kind of just said, ‘Ah, let’s get through this and get to these guys.'”
Those guys were the Canadians, who went 3-0 and outscored opponents 14-3 in round-robin play and are clear favorites going into the semifinals this weekend. Tortorella doesn’t regret making Canada the focus even as the U.S. goes home.
“We failed,” Tortorella said. “Our thoughts were right at Canada. That’s who teams have to go through to win. We could not out-skill them, and I have to be honest about that. You have to make adjustments. I thought we did it the right way, I thought Dean did it the right way, but the offensive part falls on me to not getting the combination that worked.”
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