Hockey Headlines

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Major Decisions

For a man who already has a pile of experience coaching a red-and-white clad team, Mike Babcock will be under intense scrutiny once again in February when he leads Team Canada into Olympic play. For every person in Canada, there are opinions on who should and should not be on Team Canada, but there are definitely a few locks that no one disputes. The most difficult three months are on the horizon for GM Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock and his staff, so I'm going to wade into the debate by offering who I think should be wearing the maple leaf on their chests this February.

I will base my selections on those made by Canada's sports leader, TSN, and their panel of experts. While I certainly am not including myself in their circle of hockey fiefdom, I do believe that they have made some grave errors when picking this team. I'll explain below as I run through the list of players I would include on my Canadian Olympic team.

Forwards

There are a pile of players I agree with on the TSN list, so there's no need to justify including these players. This list includes Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter, and Patrice Bergeron. These men should make up the core of the forward unit that Canada takes to Sochi, and I can't see these players not going unless seriously injured.

There are some near-locks, though, and they need to be discussed. These are players on TSN's list that I feel could be left watching the Olympics on TV if they play poorly at the start of the NHL season. I'll give my reasons for leaving each behind below.
  • Rick Nash - Everyone seems to believe that Nash is a lock, but I'm not convinced. I expect Nash to be there, but he disappeared in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, and he wasn't on many highlight reels throughout the season. While Nash will get his twenty goals this season, he need to prove to me that he has the dogged determination to do what it takes to win in order to make this team. I'm not questioning his heart, but I am suggesting he needs to play 200-feet of ice much better this season. If he disappears like he did in Torino, I may pull an "I told you so".
  • Chris Kunitz - Kunitz had fantastic season alongside Sidney Crosby last season, but it will take prolonged success alongside Canada's top centerman to convince me that he belongs in this group. Chemistry is vital in a short tournament, and it's clear that Crosby and Kunitz have it. The problem is that I could put a pylon alongside Crosby in some situations, and it would finish the season with 15 goals and 20 assists. Kunitz has to set himself apart from some of the other wingers on here in order to lock his spot on the team, and he can do that by clicking with Crosby early on.
  • Patrick Sharp - Sharp, like Kunitz, needs to find some chemistry with teammate Jonathan Toews early on this season if he hopes to play with Canada. Sharp can be an effective player in a number of roles, but it's his work alongside Toews that could put him over the hump in making this team. Expect Sharp to play bottom-six minutes in Sochi if he goes, but he's an effective, speedy goal-scorer and an excellent forechecker.
  • Martin St. Louis - It's hard to imagine that the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner would be among the players listed as near-locks, but Martin St. Louis has fantastic years where everything goes right, and then he has horrible years where he hits more posts than netting. Again, chemistry is important and his work alongside Steven Stamkos is well-documented, but his start to the season will determine if he has a ticket to Russia.
Finally, there are players that I'm not sure will make Canada a heads-and-shoulder favorite in Sochi. These players are undoubtedly all-stars in the NHL, but the big ice can reduce a man to invisibility as we saw in Torino. These are the guys who I feel may be under the most pressure, and I will suggest replacements who may prove to be a better alternative given what each brings to the table.
  • Eric Staal - Staal played well for Canada at the World Championships last May, but giving him a second-line spot as TSN did might be a bit of a stretch depending on how Carolina breaks out of the gates this season. There's no doubt that Staal can play, but he hasn't shown that tenacity I expected out of him throughout last season. He needs to get it done early on this season, or he may be watching from home this year.
    POSSIBLE REPLACEMENT: James Neal - He scores timely goals with the Penguins, and checks with the same ferocity as Staal. The difference? Neal has better wheels and better hands. I like Neal to go over Staal, but he might miss taking sweet feeds from Malkin on the biggest hockey stage.
  • Ryan Getzlaf - Getlaf was effective alongside teammate Corey Perry (chemistry!) on Vancouver's small ice, but he doesn't fit the mold for a large ice surface. While Getzlaf has the heart and desire, his speed can be eclipsed by a number of players in the NHL not on this list. The big ice surface demands speed, and Getzlaf may not be the fleetest of foot any longer. I like his hands, but it's speed that will kill on the big ice.
    POSSIBLE REPLACEMENT: Mike Richards - Richards is an effective forechecker, a solid scoring threat, and a fantastic shutdown guy. He has chemistry with Jeff Carter already, and Richards was incredibly effective in Vancouver and with several World Junior teams. All in all, Richards more than makes up for what is lost in not bringing Getzlaf.
  • Logan Couture - Couture is an interesting choice because he appears to be on the verge of breaking out as a legitimate NHL star. However, is he ready to be an Olympian this year? I'm not sure that he is. There's no doubt that Couture would benefit from playing, but he would have to show an impressive start to the season to knock off one of the near-locks.
    POSSIBLE REPLACEMENT: Milan Lucic - If the reports about Lucic are correct, sending the big man over to play alongside teammate Patric Bergeron should be nearly automatic. Off-season reports have him cutting his weight and improving his foot speed, but nothing is confirmed until he hits the ice. If the rumors are true, though, and he kicks off the season the way he ended last year, Lucic could be heading to Russia.
There still are a few guys that should be mentioned as part of the group. I will fully admit that the names listed below are longer-than-longshots to make the team, but I'd love to see these guys get some recognition by having their names added to the discussion.
  • Pascal Dupuis - Is there anything this guy doesn't do? He kills penalties, he scores goals, he back-checks like a demon, and he has speed to spare. For some reason, Dupuis never gets mentioned, but I'd put him on a checking line with Toews and Carter and watch him drive the opposition nuts. Some may say I'm crazy, but I'd almost take Dupuis over Kunitz simply because of how multifaceted his game is.
  • Matt Moulson - I'm surprised that Moulson doesn't get more respect considering that he has three straight 30-goals seasons alongside John Tavares before last season's shortened schedule. Even with the shorter calendar, he still would have averaged 26 goals on his pace. Moulson should get more respect for his skill, and naming him to the team would certainly put him into the spotlight.
  • Jamie Benn - How he was missed for the orientation camp is anyone's guess. But to not recognize Benn's talents here would be criminal. Jamie Benn is a fantastic forward who scores in bunches and has speed to burn. He is and will be Dallas' best player for a long time if he continues on his current development. The fact that he was overlooked for the Canadian orientation camp should motivate him to bump one of the bubble guys listed above.

Defencemen

There are your definite locks on the blue line for Canada as well as Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, and Shea Weber are must-have players for this type of tournament. Like forwards above, though, there are guys who shouldn't be on TSN's list, and I have trouble justifying their inclusion. However, here are the near-locks for the Canadian defensive corps as I see it.
  • Brent Seabrook - Let's see: Stanley Cup? Yup, got two of them. Olympic gold medal? Check. World Junior gold medal? That's in the bag, too. Brent Seabrook should be a lock alongside defensive partner Duncan Keith. Again, chemistry along should make his selection a no-brainer, but somehow he doesn't even crack TSN's projected lineup. I'm not sure why people keep overlooking an intangible such as chemistry, but Keith and Seabrook go together like hockey and beer. Book him a ticket.
  • Alex Pietrangelo - Alex has taken some time to round into form, but I think he would be an excellent fit alongside a player such as Drew Doughty. Pietrangelo doesn't have to be a stand-out defenceman alongside Doughty. He just needs to be his steady self that he is with the Blues. Having Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock on the coaching staff should help Pietrangelo fit into his role, and the Blues alternate captain beings leadership with him.
With five of the seven positions occupied already, there isn't a lot of room left for some of the other guys. But, again, I cannot justify TSN's selections of some players, so here are those players and who I would replace them with in terms of this team.
  • Jay Bouwmeester - His time has come and gone. Bouwmeester was an effective defenceman when he was younger, but Sochi isn't his game. I'm not sure why TSN has such an admiration for Bouwmeester. He was horrendous in Calgary, and he hasn't done much to prove his worth in St. Louis. All in all, this seems like a nostalgia pick. As you're aware, gold medals aren't won with nostalgia.
    POSSIBLE REPLACEMENT: Travis Hamonic - Maybe you saw this guy play against the Penguins last year in the playoffs? He's a shut-down beast. He checks like the dickens, he hustles on every shift, he sacrifices the body, and he'll be a vocal leader. Could you imagine a shut-down pairing of Weber and Hamonic? We'll just call that pairing "Seek and Destroy".
  • Dan Boyle - Boyle's inclusion is one of veteran savvy and leadership. Essentially, Boyle would be thrust into Scott Niedermayer's role from Vancouver where he would be looked to in key situations. The problem? He's lost a step since turning 40. I really like Dan Boyle for his offence and veteran presence, but there's already a guy on the orientation roster who can do what he does in Duncan Keith and Shea Weber.
    POSSIBLE REPLACEMENT: Kris Letang - I may take heat over this pick, but if Boyle is going to quarterback the Canadian powerplay, why wouldn't you take the defenceman who had the most powerplay points last season? Not to mention that Letang also was the highest-scoring rearguard last season as well. While I wouldn't use Letang as part of the regular six-man rotation, I would certainly add him to powerplays where he is lethal.
  • Marc Staal - How does TSN give Marc Staal a spot on this team when he missed more than half the season? Staal is a safe pick in that you know what you're going to get with him, but this love affair with all things Staal needs to be kept in check. There is a better shut-down guy on the orientation roster already who has a pair of World Junior gold medals to justify his pick.
    POSSIBLE REPLACEMENT: Karl Alzner - That guy is Mr. Alzner. There's a reason why Washington leans so heavily on Alzner: he's that damned good. He won't wow you with gaudy stats like Letang, but he's a warrior and he's got deceptive speed. He played a better shut-down role than Staal ever has, and he was one of the reasons that Washington rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Rangers last season. Don't think he's good? Ask Rick Nash how good Alzner was in blanketing him.
You'll notice that I've said nothing of reigning Norris Trophy winner PK Subban. This was done by design. PK Subban, for as good as he is offensively, seems to forget about playing defence occasionally. He takes dumb penalties. He yells at teammates when things aren't going so well. In short, he's immature. At a tournament like the Olympics, the last thing you want is immaturity. I'm not saying that Subban shouldn't go, but I'm saying that at this point I wouldn't have on my team.

Goaltenders

While the coaching staff and officials surrounding Canada's Olympic team have said that no decisions have been made about goaltending, let's cut the crap and just say that Roberto Luongo is a lock. He's going to be in Sochi regardless of how he plays simply because he has risen to the challenge in big games before on the international stage. In saying that, book him in as one of the three men taking the goalie equipment to Russia.

Of the other four men invited, I'd say that the other two spots should be filled by Carey Price and Cory Crawford at this point. Braden Holtby hasn't been good enough for long enough and Mike Smith put together one good playoff run for the Coyotes. While other men such as Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Ward should be tossed into the mix as well, there's no denying that Price and Crawford have the pedigrees to take the final two spots.

Other interesting names that have been mentioned include Devyn Dubnyk, James Reimer, Jonathan Bernier, and Brian Elliott, but I'm not sure that any of those four men have proven themselves better than the five men named to the orientation camp. Of course, you could probably eliminate one or two names in comparison, but it's hard to eliminate Price and Crawford from the discussion when it comes to these four men.

So my goaltending picks would be Luongo, Crawford, and Price in that specific order.

What say you, readers? Am I off? Anything you like or dislike? Have I forgotten anyone? Have your say in the comments!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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