Sunday NHL Insider: Brash opinions hurt

  • Updated: January 4, 2014 - 5:52 PM

Brutal honesty is essential in player evaluation, as was made clear in a report on the U.S. Olympic selection process.

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The Senators’ Bobby Ryan — right, going against the Coyotes’ Antoine Vermette — found out through an ESPN report that his old GM Brian Burke believed Ryan lacks intensity.

Photo: Fred Chartrand • Canadian Press via Associated Press,

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As reporters, we would all give anything to be that proverbial fly on the wall, to hear all the non-politically correct, “real talk” that goes on behind the scenes when a bunch of talent evaluators meet before big decisions.

I’d love to know exactly what’s said in Wild assistant General Manager Brent Flahr’s war room when the scouts compile a draft list. I’d love to be in GM Chuck Fletcher’s end-of-the-year evaluation meetings to hear what the Wild brass truly thinks of its own players and potential available ones.

I’d love to know exactly what was said in the coach’s office before Mike Yeo and Fletcher tossed Zenon Konopka on waivers. I’d love to be hiding behind a book case to hear owner Craig Leipold’s uncensored opinions after a loss. I’d love to understand exactly how the Wild determines when to call on Jason Zucker to drive up and down, as one fan dubbed on Twitter, the “Zucker Expressway.”

On Wednesday, ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside published a fascinating behind-the-scenes, fly-on-the-wall peek into the USA Hockey’s deliberation process for the 2014 men’s Olympic team in Sochi next month.

Burnside was embedded in the selection process from beginning to end, and his piece included some brutally honest inside looks into how the team was determined.

The brashest comments, unsurprisingly, came from 2010 GM Brian Burke, the director of player personnel this time around.

Burke, who was Anaheim’s GM when the Ducks drafted Bobby Ryan second overall behind Sidney Crosby in 2005, was critical of Ryan in the evaluation process.

From Burnside’s article, Burke said: “I think we have to know what we’re taking with Bobby. He’s a passive guy. He is not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary. It’s never going to be in his vocabulary. He can’t spell intense.”

Ryan, now with the Senators, wasn’t named to his second Olympic team. He was understandably embarrassed, telling Ottawa reporters: “I almost feel degraded. … The guy that drafted you, the guy that stood behind you and helped you get into the league and did a lot right by you, so I thought he thought more of me as a player than that.”

It is interesting, because in 2010, Burke told me before the Olympics: “I believe you’ve got to give credit where credit is due, and Chuck Fletcher is the guy. When he was on our staff in Anaheim, Chuck Fletcher is the guy that pushed hardest for Bobby Ryan, not me. What he’s turned into, Chuck Fletcher deserves the credit.”

At the time, I thought that to be a compliment. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t, although USA Olympic GM David Poile, who “apologizes as much as I can” to Ryan, says Burke is a big fan of his former goal-scorer and had him on his final roster submission.

Some fans and reporters have accused Burke of being “classless” for the comments.

But like it or not, these are the real conversations that go on when you are on a committee tasked with trying to assemble the best combination of 25 players that will give the United States the best chance of winning a gold medal.

Every player’s strengths and weaknesses are discussed positively and critically.

The fly-on-the-wall piece told us that Burke was “not a big [Dustin] Byfuglien guy,” that Poile believed there’s “something missing with Jack [Johnson] this year,” that Keith Yandle’s lack of defensive wherewithal makes Burke think “disaster” might strike any moment and that the committee believed Jason Pominville and Kyle Okposo weren’t built for the international ice sheet.

“I would think the bigger ice would help me, if anything,” the Wild’s Pominville said. “But that’s their decision.”

Yes, it is. There’s a lot of heartache that goes into every hockey decision, and the behind-the-scenes talk is usually candid, brash and not normally quoted by reporters.

Burke wasn’t being classless. He was doing what goes on in an evaluation process.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t feel badly for Ryan.

“I will remember it and use it as motivation,” Ryan said.

NHL Short Takes

Can he handle the big ice?

USA Hockey official Jim Johansson texted the U.S. men’s hockey Olympians that they made the team. He got through to each, except Ryan Kesler, who changed his number.

“I had one text exchange with a Canadian guy that had a sense of humor to him; basically a 67-year-old guy who can’t skate but [was] willing to serve his country by suiting up for the USA,” Johansson told Yahoo! Sports.

Really big fans

U.S. players didn’t know yet during Wednesday’s TV telecast which players did or didn’t make the team. St. Louis captain David Backes was rooting for teammate T.J. Oshie.

“I saw [Brooks] Orpik and I was trying to figure out the alphabet, see if ‘O-s’ was before or after ‘O-r,’ ” Backes said. “Then I saw No. 74 and I almost jumped out of my chair.”

The Wild’s Ryan Suter thought it was weird when fellow Wisconsin native Phil Kessel was skipped with the K’s.

But because Kessel played in the Winter Classic, they saved him for last with fellow Maple Leaf James van Riemsdyk and Detroit’s Jimmy Howard.

“It’s just funny how we are all little kids and excited,” Suter said.

Coach will stay away

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, an assistant with Team Canada, said he won’t talk to his three players on the U.S. team during the Olympics. “That’ll be a nice little two-week break,” joked Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

Wild’s Week Ahead

Tuesday: at Los Angeles, 9:30 p.m. (FSN)

Thursday: at Phoenix, 8 p.m. (FSN)

Saturday: vs. Colorado, 7 p.m. (FSN)


Player to watch:

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles

The Kings’ leading scorer is one of the best two-way centermen in the NHL. He’ll compete in his first Olympics because his native Slovenia qualified.

Voices

“When things go bad, you have to hit the bottom before you start growing. We’re as close to the bottom as you can get.”

Wild defenseman Ryan Suter after the Wild’s sixth consecutive loss on New Year’s Eve against St. Louis.
 

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