So much of the focus in the immediate aftermath of the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey announcement Tuesday was on-the-bubble players and the difficult choices Steve Yzerman and his management group needed to make.
But in the end, the 2014 team will win or lose because of Carey Price’s play in net; how the No. 1 defence tandem of Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty handle the Russian scoring juggernaut; and if Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews can duplicate their 2010 performances in Vancouver, where Crosby scored the Golden Goal and Toews led the team in scoring.
But it is a measure of how deep the Canadian talent pool runs – and how misplaced the storylines sometimes are – when the difference makers are almost afterthoughts on a day given over to ruminations about the eighth defenceman, the spare goaltender and the two extra forwards.
On the day of the announcement, eight of the NHL’s top 10 scorers (and 12 of the top 15 and 16 of the top 30) were Canadian – and a handful of others, such as Steven Stamkos and James Neal would be there on a points-per-game basis if they hadn’t missed significant time because of injury.
Lost in all the hand-wringing about who didn’t make the team is the realization this has been a banner year for Canadian NHL players – a development you’d have to ascribe to the presence of the 2014 Sochi Olympics on the international hockey calendar.
A total of 45 players gathered in Calgary last August for an orientation camp and every one took the final message to heart – their Olympic participation would hinge on their play in the first three months of the NHL season.
In the end, Yzerman and his management team were true to their word: Many very good players, with strong international pedigrees, didn’t make the team because their first halves were not up to the usual standards.
Yzerman will tell you: From a talent pool this deep, just about anybody could have picked a defensible 25-player Canadian team.
They spent countless hours on the road scouting so they could probe deeper and pick a team that could do what Canada has struggled to do internationally for a while now: win on the road, on an international-sized ice.
So, for better or for worse, they settled for a centre-ice corps that includes the NHL’s Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 10 scorers – Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares and Toews, respectively.
There are 12 20-goal scorers in the NHL this season, seven of them Canadian. Two (Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner) didn’t even get serious consideration for the team. Yzerman had to bypass a player on his own NHL team (Tampa Bay), Martin St. Louis, who happens to be the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner as the NHL leading scorer.
Players that would star on other teams, from Joe Thornton to Claude Giroux, didn’t earn an invitation either.
Yzerman seemed a tad nervous Tuesday, but as the morning progressed, he relaxed a little and was even making jokes by the end. For example, when asked if Tavares was a lock to make the team or an 11th-hour decision, he answered: “We told him he had to get five points [Monday] night – or else he was off the team. Fortunately, he was able to do that.”
That was not meant to be taken literally. But this was:
“We took everything into account,” the Canada executive director said of the decision-making process, “and if they have played internationally before, we talked about how well they did – and what position they played and what role. International experience, and the larger ice, weighed in our decision, as did many other things.”
Yzerman spoke endlessly Tuesday about the need for a good fit and how the plan was to anticipate every possible contingency.
They wanted skill and speed. They wanted left- and right-handed shots on defence. They wanted players playing in their natural positions. They wanted experienced penalty killers. They wanted faceoff men who could win draws on both the right and left side of the ice. They wanted point men for the power play, some of whom could make plays and others who could just bomb away.
They have all that, plus a blend of youth and experience that sets this team apart from any other competing in Sochi.
“What I really like about it is, we’ve got a young group with tons of experience – Stanley Cups, Olympic gold, world championships, world juniors, a lot of international experience that play on good teams,” coach Mike Babcock said.
“All you’re trying to do in the end is give yourself the best opportunity to have success. … Is it a tough process? Yes. It’s tough because we have good players.”
Of course, having the best players is not necessarily the same thing as having the best team, or necessarily winning the Olympic gold medal. Too many sane and rational people make that mistake – and turn the results of an Olympic competition into a referendum on the state of the game.
In a one-game, single-elimination tournament, so many random factors can influence the outcome, from a goaltender in the midst of an otherworldly performance, to an undisciplined penalty, to a bad bounce.
The fact that there were so many hard choices to make, and so many great players overlooked, tells you everything you need to know about the state of hockey in Canada at the highest levels.
It’s about as good as it’s ever been.
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