During a Nov. 19 conference call, Team USA general manager David Poile told his selection committee that he had a dream about Jack Johnson not making the Olympic team.
"I'm announcing the roster and there is no Jack Johnson on the team and I'm thinking there must be a mistake," the Nashville Predators general manager said.
Poile's dream became Johnson's reality because the Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman was indeed not chosen for the team, announced at Wednesday's Winter Classic.
Excluding the 10-time U.S. national team member was one of a handful of agonizing decisions made by Poile and his selection committee, which included seven other NHL executives, four coaches and a USA Hockey official. USA TODAY Sports was allowed unprecedented access to the selection process, given the opportunity to view the constantly changing player rankings and hear player evaluations from August until the list was finalized last weekend.
Over 171 days, Poile and his group allowed two members of the media to attend their three major meetings and all of their regular conference calls, allowing the documentation of their passionate debates and major disagreements.
While the meetings were always professional, it was clear from the first hour of the selection process that all of coaches and NHL general managers had significantly different opinions about who America's best 25 players are.
But the fact that Poile and company had many difficult decisions speaks to the truth that U.S. hockey has come a long way from the days when the Americans had limited options for national teams. The pool of players has grown significantly in recent years, and competition for rosters is keen. In the 1970s, there were a smattering of players in the NHL, and today 28% of all NHL defensemen are U.S.-born.
The popular Johnson couldn't make the team because the Americans were making room for young defensemen Cam Fowler, Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Faulk and John Carlson.
Poile is presumably proud of the roster he will take to Sochi, because he knows his selection committee spent countless hours debating every player on it. The roster isn't the same that he or committee members would have guessed it would be when they met for the first time on Aug. 25, in the eighth floor conference room at the Capitals' training facility.
The first meeting
When coaches and members of the GM advisory committee walked into that room, they were greeted by a white board, propped on a easel. It was both practical and symbolic.
Poile would soon use that board to present possible line combinations and defensive pairings for the 2014 team in Sochi.
The clean board is also a reminder that this group is working with a blank canvas. There were obvious choices such as Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan, Ryan Suter and others. But no one had a spot guaranteed. The group had ample time to argue about player section, tinker and refine the American roster.
It was clear 45 minutes into the meeting that not everyone in the group viewed players the same way.
One of the first players discussed was Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, and the group was a house divided.
U.S. MEN'S OLYMPIC HOCKEY ROSTER
The coaches did their homework and concluded that special teams have played a major role in determining Olympic outcomes since NHL players started competing in 1998. The coaches were intrigued by Byfuglien's offensive potential, particularly his booming shot from the point on the power play.
However, Byfuglien received mixed reviews. A discussion followed about his defensive prowess and his conditioning level — there are always stories about Byfuglien's weight creeping up over 280 during the season.
Committee members Stan Bowman and Dale Tallon, who knew Byfuglien from his days in Chicago, said he could have tremendous impact, each noting that he is a better dressing room presence than an outsider would realize.
"Guys gravitate toward him," Bowman said. "Guys like him and he can play hockey and he can play at a (weight) number that would surprise you."
In a short period, Poile established he is in charge, keeping the discussion focused, and moving the debate along with timely questions and comments. Brian Burke was a strong GM in 2010, and his personality became the face of the U.S. team. Poile is more buttoned-up, less bombastic, but it was clear he is not any less in charge than Burke was.
When he sensed that the debate had run its course, Poile asked for a show of hands for those who can see Byfuglien making the U.S. team. Most believe he could.
Because of their belief that special teams will be critical, the U.S. coaches had already drawn up potential penalty-killing units.
It seemed natural for the coaches to be offering their opinions on what kind of players they would like, but their presence established a precedent. Poile was seeking coaches' opinions more than in the past. That would become important later in the process.
At the first meeting, it was clear that everyone saw Suter as in a class by himself. Ryan McDonagh, Paul Martin, Johnson and Brooks Orpik were in the next group of defensemen. Johnson and Orpik played in 2010, and Martin would have been there had he not been injured.
Kevin Shattenkirk, Erik Johnson, Fowler, Carlson, Byfuglien, Nick Leddy and Keith Yandle were all discussed.
Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi, who sees Yandle often in the Western Conference, lobbied for him. "The kid is underrated," he said. "The kid is tough. The kid often gets pushed aside and I don't understand why."
When the group discussed goalies, it was clear that Jonathan Quick, with a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy under his belt, would be the one to beat. The consensus was that Jimmy Howard was probably No. 2 and Craig Anderson was No. 3. Ryan Miller, the hero of the 2010 silver medal team, was No. 4 only because he hadn't played as well as the others lately.
The discussion ended with a consensus that Miller seemed determined to have a strong season in 2013-14.
The Byfuglien debate sorted itself out early in the season. He is the same offensive force, but the scouting reports and his plus-minus speak to concerns about his defensive game. Support for him wasn't as strong as it was in August.
Jack Johnson moves down
On a Nov. 4 conference call, Poile informed his group that based on scouting reports, personal observations and conversations with committee members, he is moving Jack Johnson off the list of locks on defense.
On what Poile calls his "ghost roster," Johnson was now listed "in red" among those fighting for spots.
"He is not tracking the way he should," Poile said. "I'm not saying he shouldn't be on the team, I'm just putting out a red flag."
Two days before the meeting, Johnson had a tough game. More important, there had been a general impression that he was struggling with all aspects of his game.
It wasn't easy for Poile to raise the issue because there is usually unwavering support for Johnson throughout USA Hockey. He has played for U.S. national teams, and the rule if he is invited to play for the USA, he shows up. He chartered his own plane to be the lone U.S. hockey player to march in the opening ceremonies in Vancouver. He has molten pride in wearing the USA jersey. His nickname is Captain America.
Out of respect for Johnson's reputation, Poile asked if anyone wanted to make the case for him to be on the team.
"I will go to bat for him," Calgary Flames executive Burke bellowed on the call. "At some point, a player's body of work outweighs how he is tracking, unless he is flat-out dreadful."
Burke said he had faith that when Johnson "gets off the plane" in Sochi, coaches can count on him to have a "high compete level" and "good hockey sense."
"It is not just rewarding him because he is Captain America," Burke said. "That's not enough to make this team. It's rewarding him because he has been a good NHL player since he came in the league."
Lombardi, who traded Johnson to Columbus, said the defenseman should be in the team's top five. "It's not close for me," he said.
According to Lombardi, Johnson's issue is living up to unreasonable expectations.
"The whole mystique from his draft day through Michigan, it was like Bobby Orr," he said. "You are not going to live up to that. But this kid is a damn good player. … We have this illusion that he is Scott Niedermayer and he is not."
At this point, the American defense, according to Poile, is Suter, McDonagh and Martin as locks. With Johnson still penciled in at No. 4, that left Orpik at No. 5.
"Faulk is ahead of everyone at six," Poile offered. "Does anyone have Fowler or Yandle ahead of Faulk?"
For now, the group seems fine with that ranking. But the Johnson debate makes it clear that the American team is a long way from finalized.
Poile said there is a logjam for the final two spots, and he asked for committee members to weigh in. He noted that the initial support for Byfuglien has faded. Carlson is in the mix.
Shattenkirk and Yandle are getting a lot a love, but committee members Don Waddell, Jim Johannson and Paul Holmgren make a case for Erik Johnson, who was on the 2010 team.
Holmgren said Erik Johnson has had to live with label of being a former No. 1 pick overall. But when you consider him just as a player, he has performed impressively for the Colorado Avalanche this season.
Burke said he likes Yandle and Shattenkirk but wouldn't take both. He would take one and then add a defense-first defenseman, such as Erik Johnson.
U.S. WOMEN'S TEAM IS NAMED
"Yandle is picking teams apart with his passing," Burke said. "But Shattenkirk is having a better year."
The group debated whether USA needed Yandle on the power play.
Said Holmgren: "It's not as if these (other) guys are Edward Scissorhands with the puck."
Poile asked the group about Fowler, noting that every time he watches him, he sees a player who is very effective and efficient.
On this call, there was no support for him, but that would change soon.
It also became clear that Miller is now in the top three. Quick and Howard were still ranked No. 1 and No. 2, but Miller was steadily climbing. Anderson had struggled with an injury and poor play.
"I've seen Miller several times and he's been outstanding," Burke said. "Their team has been a train wreck, and he's seeing lots of rubber. ... He's been magnificent."
Poile said some committee members were lobbying for the New Jersey Devils' Cory Schneider because he's a younger, talented goalie with a great attitude.
"Schneider is the perfect No. 3," Poile said. "Having said that, if it's my decision, I want to take the best three goalies. I don't want to take a chance of having an injury and going to a third goalie based on chemistry and not on merit."
Seth Jones' rise and fall
When Poile and his advisory group gathered at the NHL office in Toronto for its second in-person meeting, the big news was that Predators rookie defenseman Seth Jones, 19, had started to gain some traction toward making the team.
At the time of this meeting, Jones had played 17 NHL games, but had shown considerable poise and maturity playing alongside star Shea Weber.
The coaches have told Poile that he was currently eighth on their list, but they needed to see more of him.
Poile, not one to gush about his own players, conceded that he believes Jones is a special player. But he said he doesn't want to say too much because he wants everyone to make an effort to scout him in person.
Burke expressed concern about considering a 19-year-old player. Lombardi said he doesn't care old Jones is, noting that Canada took a very young Drew Doughty in 2010 and by the end of the tournament, "he was one of their best defensemen."
The fretting over Jack Johnson's play continued at this meeting. Burke has repeatedly said he would "trust Jack" in this 12-day tournament. He had recently watched him play. "And I'm worried," he said.
At this point, the forward discussion centered on the final two spots. Brandon Saad and Bobby Ryan seemed to be in the lead, but it is a very close race. Max Pacioretty had been a strong candidate early, but an injury undermined his candidacy. Alex Galchenyuk still seemed intriguing and everyone seemed interested in Blake Wheeler.
Kyle Okposo, having a strong season for the New York Islanders, was also listed among the candidates for that spot. One concern is whether he would be as effective on the wider European ice surface. But he still listed on the ghost roster as one of the wing candidates.
The group spent considerable time discussing Ryan, who seems to be on his way to his fifth 30-goal season. The committee unquestionably loved his hands, but wondered about his overall game compared with other forwards available. "His skating is deceptive," Burke offered.
During these discussions, Poile liked to remind everyone "these are all good players."
The point seems to be that the group has to work hard sorting through strengths and weaknesses to make sure they have the best of the best.
After the meeting in Toronto, the group went out together to have dinner and watch hockey games. While committee members are watching, Kings goalie Quick left a game with a groin muscle injury. The news isn't good, but it's not as bad as it could be: Quick will be out until around Christmas.
On Nov. 19, before the Predators play in Detroit, Jones tells USA TODAY Sports that Poile and he haven't discussed his Olympic chances. "I'm just focused on the Predators," he said.
Has he analyzed his chances? "I know that all of the guys who make the team are going to have fantastic years, but I don't look to see how Jack Johnson or Erik Johnson are doing."
His teammates think highly of Jones. Center Mike Fisher said "nothing rattles" Jones. "He has a high hockey IQ," he said.
By the Nov. 25 conference call, the goaltending rankings had Quick and Miller as the top two goalies and Howard and Schneider battling for the No. 3 spot. Shero said the competition between them was close enough that Howard and Schneider could be considered "3A and 3B."
Quick isn't slated to be ready to play until early January, giving him about a month to be at his best for the Olympics.
"If he is not playing well, coaches felt really well with Ryan Miller as the starter of the team," assistant coach Peter Laviolette said.
Forward positions open
There were three forward spots still open, for those who didn't view T.J. Oshie as a lock. The coaches have him as a lock
The coaches, according to Laviolette, still have Ryan ranked ahead of Pacorietty for the 12th forward spot.
"But while he is listed as No. 2, he's climbing north (in the rankings) pretty quick," Laviolette said.
The coaches rank Saad next on the list, followed by Wheeler, Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Dubinsky.
"Should we be taking Pacioretty and Saad over Ryan because of their overall game?" Poile asked, trying to stimulate debate.
"I think you need Ryan to score that goal against the teams to qualify," Tallon said. "Those are going to be tight, low-scoring games. You need someone to break one open. That's what he does."
Laviolette said the coaches have Ryan on their power play list, but the coaches have been tracking power play points "and he's probably one of the lowest power play percentage points guy we have."
Poile said when he compares Saad and Ryan, it conjures up the fable of the tortoise and the hare. "Bobby Ryan is like the hare is out there running and he might do something real good for a while but can't stick (with) it," Poile said. "Brandon Saad is the tortoise. He is probably the steadiest of them."
Holmgren, who doesn't often speak, offered simply that if the coaches see Ryan as a valuable power play guy that alone is reason to put him on the team. If coaches don't need Ryan on the power play, Holmgren said, they would be better off with better-rounded players.
"That makes sense to me," Poile said.
Burke said he is glad that coaches are having more input, but he offered a caution.
"The fear of involving coaches is I think coaches see snapshots and I think GMs watch the whole movie," Burke said. "I've always been real leery of my coaches' evaluations of players. We will play a team, and a guy will get three goals and my coach will say you have to get (him) he had three goals. But it's February and he has eight goals and he saw three of them."
Laviolette pointed out that over the previous two seasons, Pacioretty is among the top five highest-scoring Americans.
Burke said he's glad there is still more time to sort out whether the team is better off with Pacioretty or Ryan.
On defense, Poile reported that 12 defenseman were still alive for the eight spots. Coaches like Suter, Martin, McDonagh, Orpik, Faulk and Jones and are split on Carlson and Fowler for the eighth spot.
"I get more confidence with Jones every time I see him," Tallon said.
None had Jack Johnson or Yandle projected on the team.
Poile said no one is "questioning (Johnson's) effort, but it doesn't seem like he's going to be playing in the top six."
He polled everyone on the call again about Johnson. No one offered support, including Burke, a previous Johnson supporter.
Burke voiced concern about Jones, saying that he had a nightmare that Jones cost the team a medal with a mistake.
"I love the kid, but I don't think he is ready," he said.
Though Jones has the skill set, mobility, poise and playing style to make him the perfect international partner for Suter, it won't be at this Olympics.
While Jones was falling, Carlson was rising. He gained more responsibility when Washington Capitals teammate Mike Green was hurt. The scouting reports on him say he looks confident on the power play and as a one-on-one defensive player. Laviolette also gave a favorable report at the meeting.
One of the adages in sports is that one athlete's injury is another player's opportunity. That was the case for Carlson.
Poile asked everyone in the group to see as many players as possible from the American pool and file reports, but Burke and Waddell did much of the heavy lifting in scouting.
Scouting reports are key
Waddell filed reports from 40 games in October, November and December, and spent 15 consecutive days on the road at one point. He flew 60,000 miles scouting players. Laviolette was fired by the Philadelphia Flyers early in the season, and that allowed him to become a major scouting contributor. It also gave the coaches a set of eyes exclusively trained on potential Olympians.
Some of the USA's top players had few reports filed on them, but most battling for spots had 15 to 20 reports written about them.
The most memorable scouting report was written by Lombardi, who had been asked by Poile to compare Jack Johnson, Yandle and Fowler.
It was a lengthy report. When the selection committee met at the Spanish Inn at Pebble Beach, Calif., on Dec. 9, some of the guys joked that the report was like reading Gone with the Wind or War and Peace.
WHO WAS AT U.S. CAMP
But it was friendly banter, because Lombardi is highly respected for his cerebral, serious approach to his work. He is an insightful manager who is thorough in his preparation.
He couldn't make the California meeting because of a family issue, but he was on a speaker phone. He made a passionate argument for Yandle, calling him America's best offensive threat on the blue line.
"I'm not in love with him defensively," Lombardi said. "But can we afford to pass on the highest-scoring U.S. defenseman in the past four years?"
The criticism of Yandle is that he's not as strong defensively as some of the other candidates. Is he a player that the USA wants on the ice if it is protecting a lead?
Before Lombardi spoke, Yandle didn't receive any votes to be in the top eight in the last balloting. But Lombardi was like Oliver Wendell Holmes making a closing argument, and when he was finished with his oration, Yandle had enough votes to move into the top eight in the rankings.
"What just happened?" Burke asked, laughing. "If I ever get arrested for murder, (Lombardi is) my lawyer."
But when the meeting is over, it was undecided whether Fowler, Jack Johnson or Yandle has the final spot. Johnson still had supporters.
The final meeting
Poile gave everyone a week to make their final arguments and he conducted a conference call on Dec. 27 to finalize the roster.
He offered that he has talked to three of the four coaches, and everyone on the committee and it was unanimous that Howard would be the No. 3 goalie behind Quick and Miller.
Lombardi confirmed that Quick will be back in the Kings' lineup in the first week of January. Poile said he had been assured that Howard will play against the Predators on Dec. 30.
Poile reported that the final vote was 6-3 for Fowler to be on the team. He said he agreed with the group's decision and noted that coaches now have Fowler projected as playing among their top six defensemen.
"I think we have tried to put Jack Johnson on this team, but it was never quite on merit," Poile told the group. "Jack has played better of late, but never had the consistency or level to be as good as Fowler or these top eight."
Poile asked if there was any "push-back" on the decision to leave off Johnson. Even Johnson's supporters offered no complaint.
In the days before this final conference call, there had been a discussion among committee members about whether Dubinsky should be moved ahead of Derek Stepan.
In the end, Poile said, the committee voted 6-3 in favor of Stepan because they believed he could provide more offensive spark if he needed to replace one of the top four centers. Dubinsky is viewed as a more of an aggressive, prickly presence.
"But nothing goes down completely easy," Poile said before revealing that the voting on Oshie, Saad and Wheeler was a dead heat. Ryan also received a vote.
It's been clear from the first meeting in August that the U.S. coaches wanted Oshie. They appreciate the chemistry Oshie has with Backes in St. Louis, and they are thinking about playing him alongside Backes in Sochi. They like Oshie's dominant shootout skill, and his penalty-killing ability.
"They think the intangibles put him above the other guys," Poile said. "The one thing they are asking for is Oshie."
It was clear that this was a very difficult choice because there were logical arguments to be made for all three final forward candidates.
Oshie is a versatile player on one of the NHL's top lines. Wheeler is a big, dynamic speedy winger with a net-front presence. He can make plays, in addition to scoring goals. He could be slotted into one of the top two lines if there is an injury, or if someone isn't producing.
"One person mentioned that if we aren't taking Bobby Ryan, then we should definitely take Wheeler," Poile said.
At 21, Saad is the youngest of this trio, but he can play all three forward positions and he is equally comfortable on the third line as the first line. He has played with Kane for 25 games this season. "He's a winner," Bowman said of Saad.
Poile polled committee members, and it's clear that they believe that Oshie should be on the team. Some have had him a lock on the team for a long time. The coaches' approval sealed the deal for others. But the committee struggled on the Wheeler vs. Saad question.
"Saad is more versatile, but Wheeler has more speed," Tallon said. "And I don't know if our overall speed is good enough. I have to give the edge to speed."
Waddell said he doesn't think you can go wrong with either Saad or Wheeler. He points out that the Americans are small on the right side, and Wheeler is 6-5.
Video of Wheeler and others was shown, and the footage highlighted his speed and skill. The video seemed to have an impact.
Wheeler quickly had the five votes needed for a majority.
"Are we running a democracy or a dictatorship here?" Poile said, still wrestling with the decision.
"You are the boss," Burke said, echoed by others.
"I will take this under advisement," Poile said, noting that he planned to discuss it further with Shero and Burke.
The next day, Poile talks with them on the phone and confirms Wheeler is on the team ahead of Saad. The roster is now complete.
On Dec. 29, Wheeler scored at 4:58 of overtime to give the Jets a 2-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche. With 10 goals in 14 games in December, Wheeler is the hottest American scorer on the day the team is announced.
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