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Bias and Risk: Building an Olympic Roster

Team USA and making an argument for going off-book

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Let's talk about bias for a little bit. It's a funny thing, especially in hockey, where a few bad moments can pretty much label you for the rest of your career. Once you make it to the NHL it's really not that big a deal but every four years it just might come back to bite you.

That's the Bobby Ryan story. There's no need to retread it, we all know it by now, but it brought about the interesting question of what goes into a snub? Looking through the roster you see that pretty much every member of Team USA has considerable experience representing the US in international competition. Several are products of USA Hockey's venerable National Team Development Program.

That is not a bad thing. Since the NTDP was founded the US has had enormous success in IIHF competition, winning gold seven times in the under-18 tournament and three at the World Junior Championship, the most recent coming in 2013.

Again, this is all for the better of the American development system. Bringing together the nation's best developing players and introducing them to international competition early is a great idea. But what about the guys who don't get into the club early? Development curves are funny things, and sometimes you just don't get what you want. Does that mean you're doomed?

If you're trying to make the U.S. Olympic roster, yeah maybe you are.

If we've learned anything about the selection process for the world's hockey powers it's that GMs and coaches love taking the known commodity.

Patrick Kane, aside from being one of if not the most skilled scoring American, was also a member of the NTDP. So was Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. Those guys were locks for obvious reasons, their lengthy Team USA resumes made the decision all the easier.

Then you look at a guy like Bobby Ryan who played in the OHL and only represented the US once at the World Juniors before playing in the Vancouver Olympics. Dustin Byfuglien has never represented the US in international play. Those two will not be going to Sochi.

Thanks to Scott Burnside we all know that Brian Burke kinda sorta doesn't like Ryan. He's a "sleepy skater" who can't even spell intensity apparently. He's been hearing that kind of criticism forever, but do you think he'd still carry that (rather inaccurate) reputation had he spent some more time in USA Hockey's system?

To really grasp the point I'm trying to make let's take a look at Jack Johnson. The Blue Jacket's blueliner is, by a lot of standards, a mediocre defenseman and despite not making the team (thankfully) the debate over him was anguishing. The Team USA brain trust had to think long and hard about bringing Johnson along for the ride despite not playing up to the advertised skill.

What made Johnson so special? Well, he was a NTDP alum and represented the US in 10 international tournaments, including serving as a captain at the Worlds. They know him very well, and like many hockey federations, they like rewarding loyalty.

Johnson did not make the team, and was pretty angry about it, but he received way more consideration than a player of his skill level probably deserved. In the same vein, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik made the team that will be coached by Dan Bylsma, their coach in Pittsburgh.

The guys over at In Lou We Trust made the case for Andy Greene who currently sits with a 56.4 CF%, a higher rating than nearly every American defenseman not named Kevin Shattenkirk. Greene played six games for the US in the 2009-10 Worlds and, as far as we know, didn't get much consideration. The Bruins' own Torey Krug has 10 goals and is in consideration for the Calder Trophy, but has never represented the US in an international tournament, though his favorable deployments may not have made him the best choice anyway.

As a pair, Byfuglien and Green have 17 goals and 56 points from the blueline. Orpik and Martin? Three goals and 22 points.

You can say that it is not all about scoring goals, and in the regular NHL season, sure you can make that case. But in a short, single-elimination tournament it is all about scoring goals whether the powers that be want to admit it or not. With every game carrying that much more weight you can't waste roster spots on people who can't contribute points.

This brings me back to my original point on bias. The current thinking on building teams for international competition, at least for North American teams, is wrong. Rather than bringing the best players available they prefer to build off antiquated notions of what wins long regular seasons. GMs want to grind their way to a medal and are only willing to take calculated risks on players they know well.

Maybe it's just me, but Team USA is building from a position of strength in goal and could probably afford some less than perfect defense if it means outscoring their opponents.

In the end, I still like Team USA's chances, but one has to wonder if they could benefit from taking some risks. Because if there is anything that really captures the American spirit, it's taking brave risks.