Mike Babcock will have to sift through the pile of lineup cards sitting in his car and come up with something new after two key members of Canada’s World Cup team pulled out this week with injury.
Duncan Keith and Jamie Benn, influential members of the 2014 Olympic squad, will both sit out next month’s tournament with injury, replaced by Jay Bouwmeester and Logan Couture. Babcock, who says he has numerous sheets in his vehicle listing possible lineup combos and defence pairings, will be forced to make immediate alterations.
Keith’s absence in particular stings most, disrupting the team’s attempts at continuity on defence from the Games in Sochi, where Canada captured its second consecutive Olympic gold medal with a stunning degree of dominance (three goals allowed).
The 33-year-old Keith was one half of Canada’s top pair, teaming with then-Nashville Predators defender Shea Weber. Drew Doughty and Marc-Édouard Vlasic formed the second pair.
Who replaces Keith in that front-line role in Toronto wasn’t immediately clear. Babcock said his staff would use an upcoming training camp, with three exhibition games, to come to a decision.
“We’re going to come up with something that works and, if it doesn’t work right away, we’ll tweak it and make it work,” Babcock said Thursday on a Hockey Canada conference call.
Bouwmeester was picked as a replacement primarily because of his experience alongside Alex Pietrangelo, both with the St. Louis Blues and on Canada’s third pair in Russia. He was also, perhaps more importantly, a left-shooting defender, helping the Canadians keep a prospective left-right mix for each pair on the back-end.
Canada’s coaches and management huddled together on a conference call when they learned that Keith wouldn’t be available to determine the best course forward. They went through names of prospective replacements, debating their merits.
“We talked about what makes us the best team and we really felt that going into this tournament we wanted to have as close to a balance of right- and left-shot players as possible,” GM Doug Armstrong said, also via conference call.
They followed the guidance of Rob Blake, a management member and right-shooting Hall of Fame defenceman who stressed the difficulties of shifting from right to left, especially in a short tournament. Babcock felt it was also important in close games.
Right-shooting candidates such as Nashville’s P.K. Subban and Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang were left on the sidelines. Other prospective left-shooters, Calgary’s Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie, were also passed over.
Jake Muzzin, an underrated member of the Los Angeles Kings, seems likeliest to ascend into a greater role for Canada.
The 27-year-old, who averaged more than 23 minutes for the Kings last season, could slide into a spot alongside Doughty, whom he played alongside frequently two seasons ago in Los Angeles. That would leave Vlasic as Keith’s replacement alongside Weber with Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo perhaps returning as the team’s third pair.
Brent Burns, the San Jose Sharks right-shooting everyman on defence, is another option.
“If you look at our left side and our right side, our right side is very offensive and our left side is very defensive so we’re going to have to come up with the best possible pairs,” Babcock said.
Armstrong indicated that no other injury concerns were likely to arise before training camp begins in Ottawa on Sept. 4. Outside of Keith and Benn, Canadian management was also monitoring Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux, who had off-season surgery repairing hip and abdominal injuries.
Keith, who had right knee surgery early last season, opted to sit out the tournament as a precaution. The Blackhawks stressed in a statement their belief that it was in Keith’s “best interests to focus on getting stronger and not risk further injury.”
A winner of the Norris and Conn Smythe trophies, Keith has played almost 25,000 minutes in his NHL career, a pillar of reliability for the Stanley Cup-contending Blackhawks.
Benn had core muscle surgery on July 14, opting out of the World Cup to ensure his readiness for the start of the Dallas Stars’ season.
His replacement, the 27-year-old Couture, led all players in postseason scoring last spring, set to represent Canada for the first time since 2007.