Friday, 22 December 2017

Questioning My Patriotism

There are a few unquestionable truths about me when it comes to hockey. I believe hard work trumps lazy talent in all cases. I believe that Al Iafrate's hardest shot would still a record today if today's players were forced to shoot with tree branches like he did. And I firmly believe in Hockey Canada's pursuit of excellence at all levels of play. Today, though, I find myself questioning the last truth in that I believe the process is flawed, and there was a serious omission made by the coaching staff and management of Canada's national women's team. I'll still cheer for Canada in Pyeongchang, but it's not going to be the same as it was in the past.

Canada announced today that they will take 14 forwards, six defenders, and three goaltenders to South Korea for the 2018 Olympic Games. This is a puzzling decision in that if one defender is hurt, there isn't a true defender to replace her. Meaghan Mikkelson has already been struggling with injuries and has finally returned from her most recent setback, but is this an injury that can re-occur? If it is muscular or joint-related, is there a chance it could flare up with a tweak?

There were definitely some locks on the blue line that weren't going to be released by Team Canada. Laura Fortino has been her reliable self on the back-end, playing well in her own zone, making good breakout passes, and skating with the puck well. Jocelyne Larocque and Lauriane Rougeau will both join Mikkelson and Fortino just as they did in 2014 while Brigette Lacquette became the first Indigenous women to make the Olympic squad after her impressive showing over the last few months.

And that left three defenders for one spot: Halli Krzyzaniak, Renata Fast, and Micah Zandee-Hart. Zandee-Hart had the biggest hill to climb out of the three players named above, and she simply didn't show enough to change minds in the Hockey Canada braintrust. That left two players whose styles were noticeably different, but whose experience and play set them apart.

In every televised game that I watched - all six versus the USA, in fact - Halli Krzyzaniak looked like the better defender. Yes, Renata Fast played a more offence-oriented game that Krzyzaniak did, but the overall game seen by Krzyzaniak in the four games she played was better than what Fast showed in her five games. In fact, Krzyzaniak and Fast tied in points - one assist - in their appearances despite Fast playing one more game, and Krzyzaniak was more disciplined in not taking any penalties against the Americans while Fast was whistled for two minor penalties. In closely-contested battles such as the Olympics, special teams can be the difference between gold and silver. If you need any reminder, the Canadians beat the Americans in Sochi in overtime while on the power-play.

Don't get me wrong: this isn't an attack on Renata Fast. No, we're simply spitballing about the best seven Canadian female defenders this country has produced, and Fast is included in that discussion. Heck, Erin Ambrose would make it an eight-woman discussion. I'm not blaming Fast nor Krzyzaniak for the dilemma that was presented to Hockey Canada's coaches and management when it came to releasing one of them either. In a perfect world, Canada would be taking seven defenders, and both women would be headed to Pyeongchang.

Melody Davidson and Laura Schuler certainly don't have to explain anything to me, but I'd like to know why they'd break from the traditional 13-7-3 setup to carry an extra forward when it's doubtful that Sarah Nurse, who played fairly well, will even see the ice as the 14th forward. I don't know of any country's national team - men's or women's - aside from Canada's women's squad who has opted for 14 forwards and just six defenders. So why be different?

Some have pointed to this moment as the answer.
Yes, Krzyzaniak's shot from the point in the gold medal game of the 2017 World Championship was blocked, and it led to a three-on-two for the Americans which Hilary Knight buried to give Team USA the 3-2 win in overtime and the gold medal. Yes, that was a crushing defeat after Canada and the US had battled through sixty minutes to a stalemate, but this happened back in April! If Schuler or Davidson had any reservations about Krzyzaniak's abilities at that point, why wasn't she released then? Why keep her for so long and send Erin Ambrose home ahead of her if there was lingering questions from April?

Over the next few months, Krzyzaniak put the work in to make sure she wouldn't be victimized like this again. She trained hard, watched video, and redesigned her game to make sure that she was a better defender than before, and it showed in the televised games between Canada and the US. She skated with the fast American forwards. She kept the bigger forwards such as Knight and Duggan from crashing the nets by using her strength. She took less shots, but moved the puck better and faster in all three zones in making better decisions.

It seemed almost to be a perfect storm when Erin Ambrose was released by Team Canada earlier in the month. The opportunity to go 13-7-3 meant that only Zandee-Hart and a couple of forwards would needed to be released. Sarah Potomak was almost certainly going to be one of them, so the tough decision would have been which of Laura Stacey, Bailey Bram, Emily Clark, and Sarah Nurse would be sent home. 13 forwards means that on any injury Canada has a player ready to go up front. Seven defenders means that Canada can weather any issues of one of the defenders is injured. Instead, there will be questions as to Canada's defensive scheme and abilities if one of the six defenders goes down now, and that simply means that Canada gets weaker with a forward on the blue line.

Of course, Canada would go out and win the gold medal and not suffer any injuries. No one will ever bring the topic up again, Schuler will be crowned a national hero, and we'll live in four more years of bliss. However, if Canada falters or has to play a forward on the blue line, there will be questions about why Schuler didn't take seven defenders. If Canada's defensive play causes them to take home a silver medal, there will be questions about Schuler's decision to leave a solid defender like Krzyzaniak at home when she was arguably better in her own zone than Fast. Winning erases all problems, so Canada's mandate is very simple in this trip to South Korea: win. There are no other options unless Schuler wants her decisions to be called into question.

She earned a silver medal in Nagano in 1998. If Canada earns another silver medal in 2018, Laura Schuler might earn the moniker of "Silver Schuler". When one looks back at the composition of Team Canada, there are a lot of good players whose talents should make them the best team on the ice in South Korea. Ultimately, it will be how the roster is used and who is sent over the boards that will determine Canada's standing at the end of the tournament.

I guess it doesn't feel right with Canada not making the "safe" choice. Mike Babcock in Sochi toyed with the idea of going 14-6-3 before settling on the 13-7-3 roster. Canada usually is fairly conservative with its hockey choices, relying on veterans and younger players with a myriad of international experience before injecting some new life into the lineup. The decisions made today feel very un-Canada-like, and I'm not sure I'm comfortable going into the biggest tournament with no parachute in case a defender gets hurt.

With the roster decisions today, the pressure squarely is on you, Laura Schuler. Let's hope you don't need to pull that cord.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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