The addition of 22-year-old Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler to the Team USA roster is a success for the club, but the noticeable absences of key players shows the incomplete nature of the selection process
It was announced at the summation of the 2014 Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and the eventual shootout victors, the Toronto Maple Leafs that Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler was named as one of the 8 defensemen selected to play for Team USA in Sochi this winter.
Fowler joins Team USA at just 22 years of age, the fourth youngest player to be named to the team since the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. Fowler joins defensemen John Carlson (Washington Capitals), Justin Faulk (Carolina Hurricanes), Paul Martin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers), Brooks Orpik (Pittsburgh Penguins), Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis Blues), and Ryan Suter (Minnesota Wild).
Although Fowler is in the top 10 of defensemen (top 4 among in the league in scoring by a defenseman), leading almost all defensemen in the league in blocked shots, and is sporting a +10 rating, Fowler very nearly didn’t make this year’s team.
In a tell-all inside story into the selection process of the 2014 squad by ESPN’s Scott Burnside, it seems as though Fowler wasn’t even considered as someone who had a chance to make the team until the last two months of deliberation. And even then it wasn’t unanimous. The choice was between Fowler, Keith Yandle of the Phoenix Coyotes, and Jack Johnson of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Burnside reveals that former Ducks general manager Brian Burke was more in favor of Johnson going to Sochi over Fowler, as was Kings GM Dean Lombardi. In the end, Fowler’s play right before the final selections were made won over 6 of the 9 members of the selection committee and he entered the roster as the #8 defenseman.
According to the same Burnside article, Fowler has earned his way into the top 6 – passing over Orpik as the third pairing left defender…for the moment that is. There’s still time between now and the opening ceremonies for Fowler to either secure his role on the team, or allow himself to be outplayed into waiting in the locker room hoping the boys on the ice can win him a medal to take back home…or an injury to a blueliner could open the door for him. Either way, Fowler will need to keep playing excellently if he wants to make the right impression on Team USA GM David Poile and head coach Dan Bylsma (who will likely give free reign to his boys Orpik and Martin to be locked into the roster).
Aside from Fowler making it in by the skin of his teeth, there was of course, a lot of controversy surrounding the selections made. The most common being: “Why was Bobby Ryan left off the team?” “Why did Orpik make the team over Keith Yandle or Erik Johnson?”
Burnside’s article is both brilliant and incendiary in nature. The long article is a great and well written FAQ almost, to explain why certain players didn’t make the cut, however at the same time Burnside doesn’t shy away from using some of the most brutal criticisms passed along during the selection process.
Perhaps Burnside was a little too candid in what he revealed, especially in the quotes from Burke. Burke had bombs towards Ryan like: “Intense is not a word in his vocabulary. He doesn’t know how to spell intense” and for Keith Yandle (who was left off because Fowler and Shattenkirk are expected to provide offense with a better defensive game) who just missed the cut “I always expect a disaster’s going to happen .” and “If Keith Yandle goes in our top four, I think everyone we play is excited.”
Reading the piece it does make sense why players like Ryan, Okposo, Johnson, and Yandle were left off the team. In particular the selection committee wanted a top 6 of offensive players and a bottom 6 of shutdown players. Another emphasis the committee wished to place on the 2014 team is a system that can effectively play the penalty kill to shut down man advantages they will inevitably face against powerhouses like Canada, Russia, and Sweden. Ryan, Johnson, Yandle, and Okposo are not big penalty killers. Former Duck Bobby Ryan especially was discussed in great length and the most…let’s say a cordial reason for why he was left off – without a role in the top 6, Ryan is not as effective as he can be – he is a sniper.
The idea that the USA needs a bottom 6 that can serve as shutdown players with offensive ability is an iffy one. The Russian/European rinks are much bigger and players who are used to playing on such rinks will find it easier to bypass shutdown and forechecking systems as they will have more room. It’s puzzling as to why the LA Kings‘ Dustin Brown and New York Rangers’ Ryan Callahan made the roster as they simply don’t have the skating ability to be effective in the roles they are being given.
It will be interesting in the end to see how the team plays. On big ice, speed is essential and USA does provide speed with guys like Kane, Kessel, and Fowler but will it be enough? Will the plan to play an American style of shutdown hockey 50% of the time crash and burn on large ice? Or will the Americans find a way to make it work? Can Ryan Miller and/or Jonathan Quick steal games for the Americans? Will the lack of Ryan and Yandle’s offense be enough to diminish USA’s powerhouse status? A lot of questions will be answered in Sochi, but one thing is for sure, we all hope Fowler does us proud, silencing his detractors and bringing home a medal for the US.