Let’s face it. Picking the players who will make up Team USA isn’t the biggest challenge facing general manager Dean Lombardi and his staff ahead of the upcoming 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Stop any halfway knowledgeable fan on the street and off the top of their head they could come up with 20 names that will land on the eventual 23-man roster.
No, Lombardi’s one true challenge is setting the tone for the team by picking the man who’ll guide it into battle. Which is why there was general disbelief when the rumor began circulating on Monday afternoon that he’d selected John Tortorella as the head coach of Team USA.
Yes, that John Tortorella. The man who’d been deemed toxic after a disastrous 2014 season in Vancouver where he’d infamously tried to turn thoroughbreds Daniel and Henrik Sedin into shot-blocking plowhorses. It was a failure so epic that it was widely assumed that he would never coach again.
So how could Lombardi possibly think that turning over a stable full of the country’s top talent to that guy was a reasonable idea?
Consider what this team needs to be successful and you'll see there’s a method to his madness. In fact, it could very well turn out that Lombardi made the one perfect choice for the job.
The management team will assemble a deep and talented roster, one that, with a few breaks, could certainly win the World Cup. But as good as that group will be, there’s an undeniable gap between Team USA and the pre-tournament favorites from Canada, a squad that will boast league MVP Carey Price in goal, a big and mobile blueline, and a forward corps so deep that Steven Stamkos could legitimately wind up on the fourth line.
To bridge that gap, Team USA more than a few breaks. It needs a wild card.
And there’s no one wilder than Tortorella.
Lombardi could have played it safe by tabbing a retread like 2014 Olympic coach Dan Bylsma for the job. Instead, he went for the anti-Bylsma, betting on the spark of passion over carefully considered Xs and Os. After watching Team USA limp to a fourth-place finish in Sochi, Lombardi recognized that while the talent was there, they were missing the fire in their bellies. That won't be a problem with Torts barking commands.
Of course, when you swing for the fences there's always the chance of a huge whiff. That’s a real concern after watching Tortorella alienate his players and fail with old-school thinking at his last two stops with the Canucks and Rangers. But it’s worth remembering that there have been moments when he’s been acknowledged to be among the best in the business. He won the Jack Adams Award as the game’s top coach in 2003-04, the same year he guided the Lightning to the Stanley Cup. He was twice a runner-up for the award.
And he still knows how to push buttons. In a tournament format, that’s a critical skill set. Remember, this isn’t a full-season gig. He doesn’t need to worry about managing the ebbs and flows of 82 games. And he certainly doesn’t need his players to love him.
He simply needs them to take on his personality.
The brashness. The swagger.
For two weeks. That’s it.
Anything can happen in a short tournament. A goalie can get hot. An injury can weaken a lineup. A bounce can swing a close game.
Lombardi can’t control those things. But by handing the reins to Tortorella he’s making a clear statement about the one thing he can control. It’s go big or go home for Team USA.
• Tortorella won’t be spending all of his time between now and August attending to World Cup planning. The coach was named on Tuesday morning as one of 11 analysts who’ll contribute to the NHL Network during the upcoming season.
Tortorella will be joined by Kevin Weekes, Scott Stevens, John MacLean, Dave Reid, Mike Rupp, Neil Smith, Brian Boucher, Marty Biron, Mike Johnson and E.J. Hradek.
It’s a solid group, with standouts in Biron and Boucher, but there is also a painfully heavy New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia presence. No doubt that’s a matter of practicality—the network’s new studios are in Secaucus, New Jersey—but mixing in a couple of Western Conference voices even on a part-time basis would make for a better balanced presentation.
The network also announced that long-time host Kathryn Tappen will return to regular duty after the new year. She’ll be joined by Steve Mears, former NESN host Jamison Coyle, CBS Radio vet Tony Luftman and FSN North’s Jamie Hersch.
• After watching the reaction of fans at the team’s training camp, Mark Lazerus says that whether you like it or not, the Blackhawks are going to have their season-long celebration.
• Tonight’s Kraft Hockeyville broadcast from Johnston, Penn., will have a distinct Slap Shot feel to it. Miss this one and you go to the box for two minutes ... and you will feel shame.
• From the looks of this, David Backes has options if hockey doesn’t work out.
• After a terrific preseason debut from Oliver Kylington on Monday night, this Mark Spector piece about his family background is a must-read.
• It’s not just the building that’s brand new for the Islanders. There’s another fresh aspect to playing in Brooklyn that’s going to take some getting used to.