As always, most of the immediate questions about Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team – unveiled during a glitzy press conference in Toronto Tuesday morning and broadcast live on two sports networks – centered not on who made the club, but who didn’t.
The usual predictable suspects were all there when they raised the curtain on the 2014 team that will try to defend the Olympic gold medal won in Vancouver in 2010: The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby and the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews lead a strong contingent down the middle that also included the Anaheim Ducks’ Ryan Getzlaf, the New York Islanders’ John Tavares and the Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron.
The defence will rely heavily on a trio of holdovers who played so well for the 2010 gold-medal team – Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty and Shea Weber – along with the St. Louis Blues’ duo of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo and stay-at-home defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic of the San Jose Sharks.
After much debate throughout the fall, the Montreal Canadiens’ P.K. Subban did make the team after all, his ability to be a game changer on offence overcoming any concerns they might have had about his tendency to make defensive errors in his own zone.
As expected, the goaltending will be in the hands of the Canadiens’ Carey Price and the Canucks’ Roberto Luongo, while the nod for the No. 3 job went to Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Among the most prominent absentees up front was a trio of centres – the San Jose Sharks’ centre Joe Thornton, the Los Angeles Kings’ Mike Richards and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Eric Staal – all of whom played for the Canadian team that won the gold medal in 2010.
From a purely personal point of view, the most difficult choice for Steve Yzerman, the team’s executive director, was leaving Martin St. Louis off the roster. St. Louis plays for Yzerman with the Tampa Bay Lightning and is the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner, who is in the midst of another fine season, even after his regular linemate, Steven Stamkos got injured.
Yzerman acknowledged that leaving St. Louis off the team was "personally, a very difficult decision. Honestly, regardless of whether I'm with the Tampa organization or not, he's a tremendous hockey player whose played outstanding hockey for us this year."
Stamkos, who was leading the NHL in scoring when he broke his leg back in November, is on the team, but his participation in Sochi will be determined largely by the speed of his recovery this month. If Stamkos isn’t physically cleared to play, Canada has the option of substituting him out up to 24 hours before its first game against Norway on Feb. 13.
Also failing to make the final roster were some of the NHL’s highest-scoring players: the Philadelphia Flyers’ Claude Giroux, the Sharks’ Logan Couture, the Dallas Stars’ Tyler Seguin, plus the Edmonton Oilers’ young scoring stars, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.
Thornton is tied for fourth overall in the NHL scoring race and leads the league in assists, while Seguin and Hall are tied for 15th and Duchene and Giroux are both among the 16 Canadian-born players currently residing in the top 30.
Other forwards who attended the summer’s orientation camp in Calgary this summer, but failed to qualify for the final roster included Andrew Ladd (Winnipeg), Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand (Boston), James Neal (Pittsburgh) and Jordan Staal (Carolina). The Dallas Stars’ Jamie Benn didn’t get an invitation to the camp, but against long odds, fought his way onto the roster as one of its four left wingers.
For some, the two most surprising selections might have been Los Angeles Kings’ right winger Jeff Carter, who was mentioned on only a handful of shadow rosters, but made it because of his scoring ability; and Sharks’ left winger Patrick Marleau, who had a quiet performance for Canada in 2010, but is prized for his speed, versatility and penalty-killing ability.
Overall, there is a depth to Canada’s talent pool that will always create controversies when these teams are named, something that Yzerman knows and understands only too well.
Yzerman, who made the final decisions in consultation with fellow NHL GMs Doug Armstrong, Peter Chiarelli, Ken Holland and the Oilers’ VP of hockey operations, Kevin Lowe, knows that the second-guessing will last until the gold medal is awarded – and at that point, they either made the correct decisions because they won or they left themselves open to second-guessing because they didn’t.
It can be an awkward, difficult, challenging process – with no real bad options, only too many good ones.
Yzerman seemed nervous for a moment when he stepped to the podium and briefly lost his train of thought when discussing how close it was for Canada to win in 2010 - an overtime game against the U.S. - and how the competition has become even more formidable ever since.
"The hockey world is getting more and more competitive every single season," said Yzerman. "We won a gut-wrenching gold-medal in Vancouver on home ice four years ago and the competition is even harder today. Our goal is to go to Sochi and come home with a gold medal. By no means do we consider this an easy task. That is our goal. That is our hope - as it is for everybody in Canada."
Also getting input into the selection process: Head coach Mike Babcock and assistants Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff and Claude Julien.
"We understand the opportunity is great," said Babcock, "and that means the preparation has to be equal. We won't let you down in that area, I can assure you. In the end, we put together the best group of players we possibly can. Now, we have to be the best possible team we possibly can. It's always a grind, but it's always a lot of fun - and we'll make you proud."
In the end, Canada wanted a team that could play the go-go-go up-tempo style that Babcock believes will be essential to win an Olympic tournament played on the larger international-sized ice surface.
It is why, for example, they took the Colorado Avalanche’s Matt Duchene ahead of St. Louis, probably the hardest final choice. Duchene’s outside speed, and ability to take the puck to the net, will be essential to create scoring chances and to put pressure on opposing defences.
As for the decision to select Kunitz, Yzerman said he made it in his own right and not just because he plays regularly with Crosby in the NHL. Kunitz joined the Penguins from Anaheim where years ago, he also played with Getzlaf and Perry, so there is some familiarity with two additional Team Canada forwards.
"Chris Kunitz has been an outstanding player throughout his career, a Stanley Cup champion. He played for me in the 2008 world championships in Quebec and Halifax and was a good player for us there. He's a hard-nosed player. He's a skilled player. Yes, he plays with Sidney Crosby and he's been a great contributor not only to that line but to his team - whether it be five-on-five, or on the power play."
Canada is in a group with Norway, Austria and Finland – Group B – for the preliminary round. On paper, it is the weakest of the three groups that will play a round-robin to determine the seeding for the playoff round to follow. The group winners, plus the second place team with the best record, automatically qualify for the quarter-finals, while the remaining eight teams will need to play an extra game in a qualification round to join them. The gold-medal game will be played on Feb. 23.
Because the Olympics are in faraway Sochi, Russia, the International Ice Hockey Federation permitted teams to name 25 players to their rosters instead of 23, so that teams would have extra players available in case of injury.
Canada invited 47 players to its orientation camp in Calgary, and 45 turned up (Thornton and Giroux were excused for personal and injury reasons respectively).
On defence, the team elected to go with Dan Hamhuis as its eighth defenceman, meaning, among others, Dan Boyle, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, Marc Staal and Travis Hamonic, all of who were in Calgary this summer for the orientation camp, were passed over. None of the three Staal brothers who attended the camp made the final roster.
Among the players who played key roles in 2010 but won’t be back this time around are defencemen Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, both of whom are out of hockey, as well as right winger Jarome Iginla, who set up Crosby for the Golden Goal in the overtime victory over the U.S.
Goaltender Martin Brodeur, who started the 2010 tournament as the team’s No. 1 but was on the bench for the final game, isn’t back either, nor are Dany Heatley and Brenden Morrow, both of whom have become secondary players for their NHL teams these days.
Altogether, there are 11 returnees from the 2010 team.
Executive director Steve Yzerman has announced the 25-man roster (three goalies, eight defenceman and 14 forwards) for Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team at an event in Toronto.
Goalies: Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, Mike Smith
Defence: Jay Bouwmeester, Drew Doughty, Dan Hamhuis, Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo, PK Subban, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Shea Weber
Forward: Jamie Benn, Patrice Bergeron, Jeff Carter, Sidney Crosby, Matt Duchene, Ryan Getzlaf, Chris Kunitz, Patrick Marleau, Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Patrick Sharp, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Jonathan Toews