Submitted by Justin Ryan
My name is Justin Ryan. I’m in my late 20s and live in South Carolina. I was first introduced to the Canes in the fall of 2005, my freshman year in college. Growing up in Georgia, I didn’t see much hockey as a kid. In college, I started watching the regional hockey broadcasts, which happened to be Hurricanes games since I was in Greenville, SC, at the time, and I fell in love with it. (The 2005-06 season was as good as it gets, too. Not a bad place to start as a hockey fan.)
Dustin Byfuglien. John Carlson. Ryan McDonagh. Ryan Suter. Matt Niskanen. Erik Johnson. Jack Johnson.
Those are the seven defensemen on the Team USA roster for this September’s World Cup of Hockey. As Hurricanes fans will have noticed, Carolina D-man Justin Faulk is a surprising omission from that list.
Faulk’s Corsi percentages over the last three seasons paint him as a positive possession player, peaking at 54.5% in 2014-15. That season he posted 15 goals and 34 assists for a total of 49 points. Last year, his assist totals dropped, leaving him with a stat line of 16 goals/21 assists/37 points.
Now, it would be foolish to contend that Faulk is a better defenseman than each of the seven who did make the team. Dustin Byfuglien is known for being a big body, but he has also averaged 19 goals per season over the past three years, and his Corsi numbers match up favorably to Faulk’s. Ryan Suter has never scored more than eight goals in a season, but that’s far from the only metric for evaluating defensemen. His possession numbers are worse than his reputation would suggest, but I don’t have a problem with the idea that he’s one of the best seven American defensemen.
Over the past two years, John Carlson has posted a better points-per-game average than Faulk, although his Corsi is lower. In the same timespan, Ryan McDonagh’s scoring numbers are slightly lower than Faulk’s on both per-season and per-game averages, but not to an egregious degree. His Corsi percentages are on a downward trajectory over the past three seasons, but USA head coach John Tortorella’s familiarity with McDonagh from their time together with the New York Rangers was surely a point in his favor.
It is harder to make a case for the inclusion of Niskanen, Johnson, or Johnson ahead of Carolina’s #27. Erik Johnson has posted a sub-50% Corsi over the past three years and has averaged fewer points per game than Faulk over the last two seasons. Niskanen is an even more confusing inclusion. I admit his Corsi numbers were better than I expected, but they didn’t eclipse Faulk’s. He’s certainly not a better offensive player either.
There is no universe in which Jack Johnson should be on this roster. Negative possession numbers? Unremarkable offensive stats? Jack Johnson has it all! But hey, at least he played under Tortorella on that crappy Columbus team last season. And he’s a left-handed shot, giving the US four right-handed defensemen and three lefties. But I don’t think it makes sense to put a significantly worse player on the roster in search of righty-lefty balance.
The composition of this team, and not just on the blue line, reflects the makeup of Team USA’s braintrust, and that is not meant as a compliment. The general manager role is being filled by Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi. His assistant GM is Philadelphia president Paul Holmgren, and Calgary’s Brian Burke is acting as Senior Advisor.
In particular, this roster has the fingerprints of Tortorella and Burke all over it. There’s an unsurprising focus on grit and physicality, not to mention a dose of cronyism, all coming at the cost of actual hockey skill. While Jack Johnson’s inclusion is the biggest head-scratcher, I think Faulk also should have made the team ahead of either Erik Johnson or Matt Niskanen. If Capitals GM Brain MacLellan calls Ron Francis and suggests a Niskanen-for-Faulk trade, does Francis start laughing before or after he says no?
However, the question I keep coming back to is this – as Hurricanes fans, should we care that Faulk was left off the US roster?
As much fun as it would be to see Faulk play in the World Cup, there’s actually a big silver lining to him being left off of the team. It ensures he’ll be fresh at the start of what feels like a promising season. It means he won’t suffer an injury in a preseason exhibition tournament (if you can’t tell, I’m not buying the idea of the World Cup as a replacement for the Olympics).
If the USA is going to send a team to this tournament, it should be the most talented team we can put together. Unfortunately, this roster is demonstrably not the best we could do. As an American fan, Faulk’s exclusion is disappointing. But as a Canes fan, I don’t think we have to look too hard to find the positives.