By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)
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We are not Dan Bylsma apologists -- his flaws as a coach are often apparent, and there's plenty of blame to go his way for the Pens' flameouts in recent playoff series. But we are also realists about how much blame a coach should shoulder when his team loses a hard-fought 1-0 game to a team with vastly superior talent. Not that much.
Dan Bylsma is finding himself a convenient scapegoat for Team USA's failure to win a medal in Sochi. Puck Daddy calls the whole tournament an "embarrassment" and says "Bylsma oversaw the worst 24 hours in recent memory for American hockey." Sunbelt Hockey Journal blames Dan Bylsma for the failure to medal because he gave Brooks Orpik too many minutes. Dejan Kovacevic calls the performance disgraceful and doesn't think Bylsma will be asked back to coach Team USA. Etc, etc, etc.
The problem with assigning blame to Dan Bylsma for Team USA's "embarrassment" in Sochi is that it rests on a faulty premise and conflates two performances that have nothing to do with each other. When the U.S. lost 1-0 to Canada, it was frustrating, not embarrassing. The Bronze Medal game against Finland was an atrocious performance, but to claim that it was an embarrassment that sullies the reputation of Bylsma and the stature of USA Hockey is disingenuous and punishes them for not caring about winning something that they understandably didn't care about winning. Let's take them in turn, after the jump...
The main critique of Team USA's performance against Canada is that the U.S. was not aggressive enough. But that criticism presumes that the U.S. could have been more aggressive. It's easy to say that you want to be aggressive (I'm sure Latvia wanted to be more aggressive, too) but it's another thing entirely to actually be able to do it. As good as Team USA looked at times, their roster was significantly less talented than the Canadian roster. How many guys on Team USA would have actually made Team Canada? Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, Ryan Suter, and Jonathan Quick are definite, and Zach Parise probably makes it. A lot of the guys would have had trouble cracking the lineup had Canada fielded a B-team.
Blaming Bylsma also presumes that there was a better tactical approach for Team USA to take. It's always easy to say you should have done Y instead of X if you did X and lost. But that doesn't mean that Y would have been a better option. Let's say that Team USA is "more aggressive," whatever that is intended to mean. Canada has possibly the three most complete defensemen in the world in Doughty, Keith and Weber, plus a compliment of players who are as smooth at moving the puck as anyone in the league. And then they have forwards who, when they set their mind to it, are impossible to score against. Would being less passive have given the U.S. a better chance of winning, or would Team Canada have exploited that and won 6-2 instead of 1-0? We'll never know, which is exactly the point.
Kovacevic blames Bylsma for failing to adjust "when it looked like the opponent might have had a superior strategy, such as, say, Jonathan Toews utterly smothering Phil Kessel despite Bylsma holding last change." This isn't superior strategy by Canada -- this is called having superior players. Critiquing line matchups is only a valid critique if there's a legitimate alternative. So, what would have been a better matchup for Kessel? Going against Crosby and Bergeron? LOL. Bylsma could have tried Kessel against Getzlaf and Perry, but they're the second highest scoring teammates in the NHL and a combined +48 this season. The reason the USA lost is not because Phil Kessel couldn't get away from Jonathan Toews. It's because Phil Kessel is Team USA's best player and there was not a single advantageous matchup for him to exploit. What possible combination of players could have lined up for Team USA where you would have said, "boy, I really like the U.S. matchup on this shift"? For God's sake, Canada had the best offensive forward in the world (Crosby) and the best defensive forward in the world (Bergeron) ON THE SAME LINE. Is the U.S. sprinting coach to blame because no one can beat Usain Bolt in the 100m dash? Sometimes the other guy is just better.
But surely Bobby Ryan, Kyle Okposo, and Keith Yandle would have made a difference, right? No offense to those guys, but come on. If you're longing for Kyle Okposo to be the difference maker for your country against a roster of future hall-of-famers, therein lies your problem. David Poile, Ray Shero, and Bylsma could have taken all three of those guys and the gap in talent between the two teams would have been the exact same. Don't forget that they were geniuses last week for picking T.J. Oshie instead of them.
Bylsma is most vulnerable to backlash for the U.S. performance against Finland in the Bronze Medal game because, much like his Penguins do, the team quickly melted down once they got frustrated. That's a legitimate concern with Bylsma teams. But sorry to get all Rambo on you here: the Bronze Medal game is un-American. Since when are American hockey players -- or athletes in any team sport played in America-- supposed to care about consolation games? Do you watch the NIT? Do you watch the bowl game before the National Championship game? Would you have been happy if the Pens beat the Kings in a consolation series last year? I agree with the sentiment that U.S. players should have been better in the Bronze Medal game, representing their country and all those cliches. But really, truly, did they care? Should they have cared? Do you, as an American, actually care that our team didn't care about the bronze medal? It was disappointing to see the Americans melt down against Finland. I'll be more disappointed if the day comes when Americans celebrate a bronze medal in hockey.
A final point. Do hockey coaches have magical powers such that they, and they alone, control the outcome of single-elimination games? They can make some difference, but barring some egregious mistake, their impact, especially when they spend less than 2 weeks with their team, is dramatically overstated. Hockey is the most fluid sport in the world -- the whistle doesn't blow after every play so you can make substitutions and change formations. Your job is to put the right players in situations where they are most likely to succeed -- once they're out there, it's out of your hands. When the other team has much better players (you know, like the Canadians), then you just have to hope for great goaltending and a couple bounces to go your way. The Americans got the former; Canada wouldn't let them get the latter.
I suppose it's cathartic to pile on Dan Bylsma; the Pens regular season is meaningless so his elimination from the Olympics is a nice preview for the vitriol that's being chambered for April and May. But all the guy did was make Team USA the talk of the Olympics until they ran into a team that was obviously superior. He lost that game, just like every other team in the world lost to Canada. The good news is that Team USA is standing right alongside Sweden, Finland and Russia, knocking on Canada's door. The bad news is that Canada's got that thing shut pretty tight.