Depth brings up big questions for Canadian men's Olympic roster
TORONTO — Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and John Tavares are safe.
That Team Canada has only a few more forwards who are locks to go to the Sochi Olympics next month speaks to the embarrassment of riches and the bevy of questions facing Steve Yzerman and his management staff.
The 25-man roster that will be revealed today at 8 a.m. in Toronto will show what Yzerman learned from winning gold in Vancouver four years ago, and how he’s adapting to a different situation this time around.
“We’re playing good teams, you need good goaltending,” Yzerman said back in August at Olympic orientation camp. “You need good defence. You need balance. All of these teams are relatively balanced. Any area of weakness can be an issue.”
One area that isn’t a weakness for Canada is down the middle. Beyond Crosby, Toews and Tavares, there’s Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks and Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins.
If Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning can return after breaking his right tibia, he’s expected to move to wing, possibly alongside Crosby. Other centres, like Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche, Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks, Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes and Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers would likely have to do the same.
“I know some guys are going to have play different positions, but you do it for the better of the team,” Lightning winger Martin St. Louis said at orientation camp. “For the better of the country.”
But is it better for Canada to have so many centres playing out of position? If Yzerman and Co. have decided more natural wingers must be in the mix, that’s good news for St. Louis, Rick Nash of the New York Rangers, Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks, Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars and perhaps even Patrick Marleau of the Sharks.
Benn and Marleau weren’t at camp in Calgary over the summer, but Yzerman said then and during the season that that wouldn’t necessarily rule players out when it comes to Sochi.
One player who did earn a camp invite was Pittsburgh Penguins winger Chris Kunitz, whose natural chemistry with Crosby could be an asset in a short tournament like the Olympics. Bringing along linemates wasn’t a perfect recipe in 2010 when Canada took Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley to Vancouver, but Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland said it could still be factored in if two players were tied for a roster spot.
“Certainly we discuss it, but obviously we’re trying to find the 25 best players,” said Holland, who’s on Canada’s management team.
“We discuss teammates, but I think at the end of the day we’ve got to find players that we think are going to have the best chance to put the best team together.”
Canada could go hard with teammates together, including Anaheim’s Getzlaf and Corey Perry and Toews with Sharp. Or there could be a hope that chemistry develops in early games against Norway and Austria.
Coach Mike Babcock, who’s back after leading the 2010 team to gold, might prefer teammates because of the major on-ice difference between the Olympics and the NHL.
“Obviously you don’t know the players you’re coaching near as good,” Babcock said Dec. 21 in Toronto. “You can’t get them as much ice time. You’re a work in progress much more than you would be, say, at playoff time in the NHL.”
Four years ago the Olympic roster limit was 23.
With it at 25 now, Yzerman has two extra spots to play with, but he implied that it won’t change his philosophy on building Team Canada.
“Pretty much any of the group of forwards that we’re talking about, like the broad group, there’s going to be guys that they all play on the power play and there will be plenty of them that are strong enough defensive-minded players,” Yzerman said Nov. 12 at the GMs meeting in Toronto. “I don’t think we’ll have to get a specialist, so to speak, a power-play specialist or a shootout specialist.”
Yzerman said the same is true on the blue-line, where Canada could again feature the top defensive pairing in the tournament in Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators. St. Louis Blues teammates Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo figure to be a good bet to team up in Sochi.
Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings was a bit of a surprising pick in 2010, but he won’t be this time, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Marc-Edouard Vlasic of the Sharks join him. The defensive-minded Vlasic would provide some stability on the left side.
The seventh and eight spots figured to be a place of great debate.
Reigning Norris Trophy-winner P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens might have too risky of a game to warrant inclusion, but if he’s No. 7 and used exclusively on the power play, it would eliminate that concern.
Dan Boyle of the Sharks had six point in seven games in 2010, and at 37 he might be the perfect fit as the eighth defenceman. But like Subban he’s a right-handed shot, and if Canada wants to have complete left-right balance on the blue-line, Dan Hamhuis of the Vancouver Canucks or Marc Staal of the New York Rangers are options.
Hamhuis’ Canucks teammate Roberto Luongo won gold in Vancouver last time after replacing Martin Brodeur in net. But some up-and-down times later have made it so there is no clear-cut starter for Canada.
Luongo (2.23 goals-against average, .922 save percentage) has rebounded this season, but recent injury concerns muddy the picture. Unless a collision with potential U.S. captain Dustin Brown on Saturday night created a severe problem, there’s little doubt Luongo will be named along with Carey Price of the Canadiens, who’s the other logical choice to start.
Price has stopped 452 of 493 shots that have come his way dating to Nov. 19, going 12-3-2 in the process. The last time he represented Canada in international competition, he went 6-0 with two shutouts, a 1.14 goals-against average and .950 save percentage and won gold at the 2007 world junior championships.
The third goaltender spot is more uncertain, though the discussion starts with the three others invited to camp over the summer: Corey Crawford of the Blackhawks, Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes and Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals.
Crawford, who was a Conn Smythe runner-up to Patrick Kane in winning the Stanley Cup last year, just returned from a groin injury. He has respectable numbers, and his ability to play well behind a strong group of skaters could have enhanced his case.
Holtby has started only four of the Capitals’ past 13 games and gave up five on 11 shots against the Minnesota Wild in his last outing. Despite some struggles this season, the 24-year-old has a respectable playoff resume.
But Smith’s playoff history, including a trip to the 2012 Western Conference final, could land him the job. The 31-year-old Kingston, Ont., native has a 2.89 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.
“It’s a dream that every kid has growing up in Canada to play for your country in the Olympics,” Smith said Dec. 19 in Toronto. “It’s hard not to go about it and not think about it. It’d be, obviously, an unbelievable opportunity.”
It was an unbelievable opportunity for those who won gold in 2010. But even then there were plenty of questions about the roster that Yzerman still remembers.
“Could you have put six or seven different guys on that team and still have won? Probably. Maybe?” he said. “(Again) there will be logic behind our decisions, whether it looks like it or not.”