Before the first series of planes departed from the United States to Sochi, Russia, head coach Dan Bylsma’s impact on the Team USA roster could already be felt.
Nowhere to be seen were defensemen Keith Yandle or Jack Johnson. Instead, a pair of Pittsburgh Penguins — of which Bylsma is also the head coach — were on their way to the Olympic games.
Though Paul Martin seemed to be a lock throughout the process, Brooks Orpik was pushed through with help from his NHL coach. The duo would be paired together for most of the games under the guise of chemistry. It proved to be a costly mistake.
To say Orpik’s Olympic games were a disaster would be an understatement. Orpik looked lost, slow on the big ice, and turned the puck over at every opportunity. In the semifinals against Canada, Martin — who had a surprisingly solid Olympics, despite his partner — had to be held out due to injury. So Bylsma did the most illogical thing possible: elevating seventh defenseman John Carlson to Orpik’s side, and pairing the two against Sidney Crosby’s line. It did not go well.
Orpik was pinned inside his own zone for the majority of his shifts, and was on the ice for the only goal against. He stood and watched as Jamie Benn got position at the side of the net, and deflected a shot past Jonathan Quick, who deserved a better fate. Brought in to be physical and clear the crease, Orpik failed to even get a stick on Benn to prevent the chance.
Despite being down a goal for the entirety of the 3rd period, Orpik was still given heavy minutes. Not only did he have trouble exiting his own zone, but he provided little hope of creating any offense. He’s broken 20 points just once in almost 700 NHL games, and came into the matchup with 1 Olympic assist.
By the time the United States were eliminated from gold medal contention, Orpik had been on the ice for a team-leading 4 goals against.
Team USA was meticulously built on defenders playing in position on their natural side. Bylsma opted to ignore that, pairing together Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh who both play the left side. The two were America’s best, but it forced a less-than-optimal bottom-five, giving Orpik more responsibility than he could ultimately handle.
It also kept Justin Faulk on the sidelines for most of the tournament. He skated just over nine minutes, with almost all of that coming in the 5-0 blowout loss to Finland in the bronze medal game — a disappointing conclusion to a disappointing tournament. Faulk came into the Olympics penciled-in to the top four by the USA brass, but was immediately cast aside during the first practice. Odd, considering he had the most points among the blue-liners since January 1, and had been playing well defensively, especially compared to the extremely sheltered Kevin Shattenkirk.
Faulk wasn’t brought in to be a healthy scratch, or to play limited minutes. Shattenkirk, Carlson, and Martin were his competitors for ice time on the right side, and only Martin appeared to be a lock in the top six. But with McDonagh playing out of position, spots were limited, and Faulk was never given the opportunity to make an impact. Nor were the players left at home.
It’s hard to say what kind of difference Yandle would have had on the outcome of the games. But his superior offensive ability would have been a tremendous aid against Canada’s defensive scheme. The American forwards were far too fancy and tried to be perfect to beat Carey Price. Yandle’s threat to score from the point, something clearly lacking during US powerplay opportunities, would have at least given them another weapon.
After going home empty handed, it’s fair to second-guess a number of things for Team USA. The loyalty to Brooks Orpik was a mistake. Failing to evaluate and utilize all of their skaters was a mistake. Egregious matchups and refusing to adapt to Canada’s style of play was a mistake. All of these fall at the feet of Bylsma, who has proven to be the biggest mistake of all.