ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Bobby Ryan's exclusion from the U.S. Olympic hockey team has sparked plenty of debate given his scoring output since he entered the NHL.
Among American-born players, only Phil Kessel has more goals (175) than Ryan (160) since his first full season in the league in 2008-'09. Those two plus Patrick Kane and Zach Parise are the only ones with 150-plus goals in that time.
But leaving Ryan off the roster wasn't even the U.S. management staff's toughest decision in putting together the team that will go to Sochi next month. Instead, according to internal discussions published by ESPN.com and USA Today and general manager David Poile's comments, it was more about not taking Jack Johnson on defence and Brandon Saad at forward.
"There was so many tough decisions. ... And we've made decisions to go in other directions. And it was hard," Poile said Wednesday. "We had many debates and deliberations, if you will, with our group over the last six months."
Those debates and deliberations were chronicled by ESPN.com and USA Today, which got inside access to the U.S. meetings and conference calls. Those articles provided insight into how and why Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks was picked over Johnson and Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets over Saad. By the time the days ticked down to the finalization of the roster, Ryan—a member of the silver-medal team in Vancouver in 2010—wasn't in the discussion.
Burke, now president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames and part of the U.S. management team, drafted Ryan in 2005. But he also made some candid and disparaging remarks about the now-Ottawa Senators winger during the past couple of months.
"He is not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary," Burke said during one meeting, as quoted by ESPN.com. "It's never going to be in his vocabulary. He can't spell intense."
Ryan told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday he thought Burke's comments were "gutless." In an interview on TSN 1050, the 26-year-old softened a bit by saying Burke was entitled to changing his opinion over the past decade.
Take away Burke's headline-grabbing comments, and it was clear Ryan's omission was more about his skating ability and the big ice than intensity. If he couldn't crack the top six forwards, there wasn't room for Ryan elsewhere.
"Bobby is a fabulous player," Poile said. "I love him. Love him for my own team. But we have to make decisions and we picked some new guys."
Those new players on the wings include Wheeler, Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens and T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues, all of whom fill specific roles. Oshie is David Backes' linemate in St. Louis and can play in all situations while Poile singled out Pacioretty's skating ability and consistency.
Saad was "achingly close" to making the U.S. team, according to ESPN.com. The 21-year-old left-winger has 14 goals and 16 assists this season for Chicago.
"I am disappointed Brandon Saad not on USA Olympic Team," Scotty Bowman wrote on Twitter. "Coach (Joel Quenneville) has really developed him into a solid 2 Way Player who will be on future team."
Bowman's son, Stan, is the general manager of the Blackhawks and a member of the U.S. management committee. Scotty Bowman also works as an advisor to the team now that his Hall of Fame coaching career is over.
In a later tweet, Bowman wrote it would be best for him to "defer all criticism" to those having to make the tough choices for Olympic teams.
Wheeler got the edge over Saad because he's six foot five and, as was pointed out in USA Today, he scored 10 goals in December, making him the hottest U.S. player down the stretch as the team was selected. His game also fits well on the wider, international ice surface.
"Biggest scorer. Probably our best skater," Poile said. "Speed, size and speed on the big ice surface. Just a combination of things."
A combination of things also went into choosing Fowler over Johnson, a graduate of the U.S. National Team Development Program who played in five world championships, two world junior tournaments and the 2010 Olympics. In his public comments, Poile lumped Erik Johnson in with Jack Johnson, but the reports from inside the room made it clear the Colorado Avalanche defenceman wasn't ever close to making it.
Jack Johnson's spot seemed to be safe early on in the process, but then that changed dramatically.
"He never seems to be living up to his potential or to his play," Poile said in a meeting, as quoted by ESPN.com. "I'm getting this consistently across the board."
Ultimately, Fowler got the nod over Johnson, while others, like Keith Yandle of the Phoenix Coyotes and Dustin Byfuglien of the Jets were further back.
"Cam Fowler, anybody that has seen him play this year, especially in the last six weeks, he may be one of the best defencemen in the league right now on a top team," Poile said. "And his skating ability, his whole vision of the game is just taking his game up to a much, much higher level."
In the event of injuries, any of the snubbed players could get a call. Poile and his staff would continue scouting games and also inform those who could be injury replacements to perhaps not book a cruise for the Olympic break.
"There's going to be certain players that you're going to be probably giving a little bit stronger message to in terms of that they were very, very close and that if anything was to happen that they could be, they could be on the team," Poile said.
Judging from the inside-access stories and what Poile had to say Wednesday, that's likely Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils in goal, either Yandle or Jack Johnson on defence and Saad at forward. The U.S. wants five centres in Sochi, so that could mean Brandon Dubinsky of the Blue Jackets and Alex Galchenyuk of the Canadiens shouldn't go too far if an injury occurs down the middle.
One thing that seemed clear is players who can't handle the big ice need not worry about making the trip. Poile has been consistent in explaining that wider ice surface—100 feet compared to the NHL's 85—was going to play a major role in roster decisions.
Skating ultimately took precedence over pure offensive ability. And specific roles were obviously taken into consideration in making final determinations.
"We're not picking an all-star team," Poile said. "We did not pick the best 25 players. We picked the best 25 players that we thought gave us a chance to compete and win a gold medal."
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.
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