Why USA Hockey struggles to build a gold-medal worlds roster

Dylan Larkin is among the American players who have elected to play at the world championship. But other top players remain out of the mix. Artyom Korotayev\TASS via Getty Images

Team USA is less than two weeks away from the start of its final major international men’s tournament before the 2018 Winter Olympics, kicking off the IIHF World Championship on May 2 with a pre-tournament game in Milan, Italy.

During the past week or so, the roster for the Americans started to take shape. On Monday, USA Hockey announced that Notre Dame junior Anders Bjork, a Hobey Baker finalist, was the 18th player on the roster.

With established NHL players like Jimmy Howard, Noah Hanifin, Danny DeKeyser, Jacob Trouba, Nick Bjugstad, Dylan Larkin, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson already on the roster, it gives the Americans a fighting chance.

That’s a credit to those players to committing.

Just how good this team looks overall and whether it can be considered a gold-medal contender might hinge on decisions over the next week or so.

First is Jack Eichel. Editor's note: This story was published prior to the announcement that Eichel will join Team USA.

According to a source close to him, Eichel really wants to play. He takes great pride in playing for USA Hockey and would like to erase a frustrating season in Buffalo with a strong showing in the tournament.

But this is also a business. It’s fairly common for players entering the last year of a contract to pass on the world championship. Eichel doesn’t quite fall into that category, but if he doesn’t play, the smart bet would be that a major reason for sitting out is his ability to sign a monster extension on July 1. He’s entering the final year of his entry-level deal, and the Sabres can sign him to a max-term deal once free agency opens. The expectation is that those conversations will happen. That’s a lot of money and term waiting in a few months that an injury during international competition can derail.

Second are the players coming off postseason losses. There was internal optimism that Zach Werenski would play if the Blue Jackets didn’t advance. His mangled face has shot down those hopes. But each of the teams on the verge of elimination has American players who would be huge additions -- with Chicago’s Patrick Kane the crown jewel. It’s just that adding on to the hockey schedule after a grueling playoff series isn’t always an appealing idea.

And it’s one of the many challenges those building this roster face. Perhaps more than any country.

We’ve been critical of the mediocre teams Team USA has sent to the tournament in this space, and the current one is a small step in the right direction. But it’s not just us getting steamed. American fans are frustrated. Coaches are frustrated. Other players are frustrated. Those building the team get frustrated and have asked players what they can do to help the process.

“It disappoints you when you’re there, and this is no knock on the people who are there, but you know there can be a better team,” said Nick Foligno, who played on the 2016 team that advanced to the bronze-medal game before losing to the Russians. “I get disappointed in our program because a lot of guys say no. I don’t even understand the reason.”

There are lots of reasons given.

Players cite the long season, being away from families, injuries, contract situations and interrupted training just to start. But all NHL players on all countries have those hurdles to overcome, and it doesn’t seem to slow them down.

What makes American roster building more challenge? In talking to players about it, there are a few obstacles.

One, according to a former national team development program and NHL player, is the fact that the world championship simply wasn't on the radar of American kids growing up. None of them grew up wanting to play in the tournament. They probably didn’t know they existed.

So, he argued, when we compare Team USA to Team Canada, it’s an unfair comparison.

“It’s such a different culture growing up. [Canadians] watch the world juniors on TV. They watch Team Canada in the worlds,” he said. “In the States, they don’t have the same emotional ties. You’re watching the NBA playoffs and MLB, all those other things. In Canada, you’re a god if you play for Team Canada. They televise it, no matter what level. More girls are saying hi to you at the bar if you play for Team Canada.”

Hard to compete with that!

But it goes even deeper.

USA Hockey has been burned by so many players declining invitations through the years, one player said he wasn’t even asked. He saw all the college players on the original roster and had his coach reach out to Team USA to see whether they’d be interested in adding him. They assumed the whole time that he wouldn’t want to go.

“We had six to eight college players on our team and a lot of good NHL players who didn’t come, maybe they weren’t asked,” this player said. “I wanted the experience, and they always asked, ‘How can we get better players?’”

The college player issue is one that came up a few times, especially from those who played junior hockey in Canada -- they feel as if there’s a preference toward the college kids.

“Stop bringing college kids to the World Championships unless they are obviously better than any NHL player,” one former player said via text. “That’s a huge turn-off for guys.”

The roster this year is loaded with college players, rather than waiting to see how many NHL players in the playoffs are willing to play, which is a strategic mistake, according to one former player.

“Look at when the roster is named,” he said. “They can wait until the first round is over to sort the roster out if they wanted to.”

There’s also a divide between national development team players and those who weren’t part of the program.

The NTDP has been a great way to develop high-end players, but it’s also created a bit of a class system among American hockey players. Whether that class system actually exists among the decision-makers or not, there are American players who didn’t come up through the development program who say there’s a strong bias toward those who did.

If you see a young late bloomer who wasn’t part of the program and turned down a chance to play for USA Hockey, that might be part of the reason. Guys don’t like being left out until they’re needed.

The last criticism, or perhaps solution, came from players who wanted to see the U.S. follow Canada’s lead and make the tournament more of a family vacation for the players. Canada bends over backward to get players to go over there. They have the funding to do it.

One player said Canada asked his teammate to play; he told them he needed to bring his wife and kids, and they didn’t bat an eye. It was all covered.

Once families are there, Canada does a great job including them and making sure they’re taken care of as part of the experience.

“It’s hospitality,” Foligno said. “Things to do with your family. The big thing is, guys have families. It’s a commitment. If you make it feel like it’s worthwhile for your family to come over, there will be things to do and they will be well taken care of, then it’s an unbelievable experience.”

If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that USA Hockey can’t spend lavishly with over-the-top perks for the men at the world championship without the expectation that women will get the same treatment. So this is a fine line they have to walk.

Make it appealing. Do it within a budget. But make it worth the time for NHL millionaires who have been away from their families for months.

The best argument to players should be this: Don’t get used to not playing hockey in May. Players on the Hurricanes and Coyotes and Sabres and Devils and others suffering through playoff droughts should play. They don’t want to get conditioned to training this time of year.

It shouldn’t be surprising that this American roster is Red Wings-heavy. Those guys just expect to be playing hockey right now. So they’re doing it.

Whatever the reason, players who end up going typically end up loving it. Once they get over the initial hurdle of the commitment.

“It’s a great experience,” Foligno said. “Sometimes during the season, it’s a long season so you’re like, ‘I don’t want to play.’ Then you get over there and you realize how fun it is. Both my experiences were a blast. The guys you meet, it’s amazing.”