USA Hockey Line Combinations Leave Something to be Desired

Bylsma and company need to do a better job of balancing lines

When Team USA’s men’s hockey roster was announced at the Winter Classic on January 1st, there were quite a few surprises in store for hockey fans.

For one, the team was missing one of the most dynamic offensive forwards that the US has to offer, as Bobby Ryan was left off the list. The US also elected not to bring Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle to Sochi, despite his reputation as a puck-moving offensive facilitator.

Finally, the US also elected to leave talented youngster Brandon Saad off the roster, despite the potent offensive game and blossoming defensive prowess that he has shown with the Chicago Blackhawks this season.

Instead, David Poile and company went for a team that was more predicated on physical, defensive-minded hockey, and the results of those selections were apparent on Monday as the team got together for its first practice in Russia.

Here were the lines that Team USA ran with in their first practice under head coach Dan Bylsma:

Dustin Brown – Ryan Kesler – Patrick Kane
Zach Parise – David Backes – TJ Oshie
James van Riemsdyk – Joe Pavelski – Phil Kessel
Max Paciroetty – Paul Stastny – Ryan Callahan
Spares: Derek Stepan – Blake Wheeler

There are a couple of things that stand out immediately about these lines. The first is that the Pavelski grouping with Kessel and van Riemsdyk might be the strongest out of the bunch. Pavelski is a gifted two-way forward with an aggressive defensive attitude and a lightning quick wrist shot, and pairing him with a speedster like van Riemsdyk and a sniper like Kessel is going to be a match-up nightmare for a lot of teams in Sochi.

Outside of that however, the US lines really aren’t that impressive. Separating Parise and Kane doesn’t seem like that great of an idea, and putting Kane with guys like Brown, who spends more time delivering hits than passes to teammates, and Kesler, who takes a ton of shots and isn’t much of a passer either, doesn’t make much sense.

As for Parise, he is slightly better off than Kane since he does have Oshie to help spread the ice around a bit, but it’ll be interesting to see whether or not he can develop much chemistry with Backes, who is another one of the US’ top physical options.

It would seem to make more sense to set up the lines like this:

Zach Parise – David Backes – Patrick Kane
James van Riemsdyk – Joe Pavelski – Phil Kessel
Max Paciroetty – Ryan Kesler – TJ Oshie
Dustin Brown – Paul Stastny – Ryan Callahan

If the US were to organize their lines like that, it would come with several benefits. Kane is one of the most gifted passers in the NHL, and being able to feed the puck to Backes and Parise would be a very nice option for Bylsma to use. In addition, moving Pacioretty up to a higher line with Kesler and Oshie would provide a great mix of grit and offense, and would maintain the scoring balance that Bylsma is seeking by keeping Kane and Parise separate.

Finally, Brown and Callahan are both good defenders, and having that kind of shutdown line to send out against some of the tough lines that squads like Canada and Russia will field would be a big boost too.

At any rate, no one’s really sure of what lines will look like as pool play wears on. The only thing for sure is that when the US takes to the ice on Thursday for their opening game against Slovakia (6:30am Central time on NBCSN), there will be plenty of eyes watching for how their grit-inspired offense will produce on the biggest stage in the world.

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