Team USA GM Dean Lombardi 'split hairs' to build a World Cup team that can beat Canada

GM Dean Lombardi -- who cast aside conventional wisdom by leaving a handful of elite, offensive players off Team USA's roster for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in favor of some "grit" guys -- says "identity" will be key to U.S. success. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

ST. PAUL, Minn -- If it were up to Team USA architect Dean Lombardi, the players who make up the American roster that will compete in the upcoming World Cup of Hockey would have more than a short training camp to bond.

There's some jealousy in the general manager's voice when he points out the fact that the 1996 World Cup-champion American team had a month to golf, bond and come together before winning it all.

That's not the case this time around. "It's two frickin' days," he said. "We're not going to mess around."

To help prepare, Team USA's management and coaching staff spent time in Minnesota before camps finalizing plans to try to repeat the success of '96. At the conclusion of the meetings, Lombardi chatted with ESPN.com's Craig Custance about the upcoming tournament:

ESPN.com: What was the focus of the meetings in St. Paul?

Lombardi: Obviously, with the five or six coaches, we had a couple of things to do. One, we gave them an overview on what our philosophy was in terms of selecting the team. As we all know, there are almost no wrong answers when you put together a team with this much talent.

I thought it was good for [Team USA head coach] John [Tortorella's] assistants to understand what our thinking was. And then the second thing was John's area -- putting a team of top players together. It's critical that guys accept their roles. Also, when you essentially have an All-Star coaching staff it can be beneficial -- or you can end up with a gong show.

It's the same thing as your team. It was important that [Tortorella] designate the [coaching] roles and make their responsibilities clear. Each guy started putting that together.

ESPN.com: You mentioned your philosophy in putting together this roster. There's been criticism of how you built this team ...

Lombardi: When isn't there?

ESPN.com: Yeah, but you took on more risk than others in some of your player selections. Does that add more pressure on you?

Lombardi: Using '96 as a model, it's no different than putting together an NHL team. We made it very clear -- all the work I did prior to it, going through it last August in those preliminary meetings -- that this had to be about team and identity.

So much went into this that you can't begin to explain, but that said you have to stay within a certain theme and philosophy. We could have gone another direction philosophically; I just come back to the word "identity." I thought [identity] was critical if we were going to win this thing.

This was a lot harder than I thought. Forget the size of the staff we had -- we had a lot of scouts out there. You're splitting hairs. It really had to be about team because there were so many good players and there wasn't a lot of separation.

It was a great experience. I didn't think it was going to be this difficult. We had to micromanage. We got down to the final one, we sat tighter and it was so close. You come back -- who fits right in? What's the character? Will they fit into the team? That was always your tiebreaker.

ESPN.com: How they fit in with the team was the tiebreaker?

Lombardi: Yeah. That's the other thing that was frustrating. The team in '96 was together for 30 days. We tried to do [team-bonding] things and weren't allowed to because of the union. We can't afford to waste time. You can't have any maintenance. It's too short a tournament. You have no preparation.

ESPN.com: There's a belief that you built this team specifically to beat Canada. Is that a fair conclusion?

Lombardi: Yeah. I mean, they're the best. Who are we kidding? You want to be politically correct? No, they're the best. It's like right now, you've got to beat the [Pittsburgh] Penguins. That's just the way it is. There are really good teams but they're clearly always the favorite going in. So, yeah.

ESPN.com: So how big is the gap right now between Canada and the U.S.?

Lombardi: It's kind of funny. You look at the young guys coming -- it goes in cycles ... I think there are some areas, without getting into it, why you had to go back to team and identity [when picking players]. A lot of people, the whole idea, that's coming with the center ice. One of the things we asked ourselves ... who is the top [center]? You know? Now you are seeing a few coming like Jack Eichel.

ESPN.com: But now you don't have access to the top young American centers because they're playing for Team North America.

Lombardi: Yeah. Even Canada went through a period where its No. 1 defenseman since Chris Pronger wasn't there, and then boom, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo come along. Back then, the Americans had the [top] defensemen, if you looked at it closely.

It goes in cycles. The fairly obvious biggest thing is the middle doesn't have the top [guys]. That said, a guy like Joe Pavelski is one of the top players. He finally got his recognition this year. If you were playing against him, you know how good this guy is. It's not totally fair to say this guy is not a No. 1 center.

ESPN.com: He has to be your captain, right?

Lombardi: John [Tortorella] is going to take care of that. You can try to pump it out of him.

Editor's note: Joe Pavelski was named Team USA's captain on Wednesday.