There was a moment during head coach Mike Babcock’s final interview session at the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey orientation camp, when someone asked him about his plans for centre – and if Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks is slotted in as No. 3 man on his depth chart.
Babcock’s answer was blunt: There was Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews and, after that, they’d see.
So here we are, with 100 days to go until the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, begin, and “we’ll see” is still a big part of the equation.
Crosby is off to a fabulous start with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Toews is about where he usually is in the first month, the No. 1 centre on the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. As long as they stay healthy, their tickets to Sochi are booked.
But the first month of the NHL season hasn’t gone nearly as well for a handful of other Canadian Olympic hopefuls, beginning with Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux, who didn’t come to camp in Calgary in August because he hurt his finger on a golf course.
No single position player has seen his stock fall more rapidly than Giroux. His five assists in 10 games, plus the fact he’s had so little impact on the outcome of games, is going to hurt his chances of cracking the final roster.
It’s the same with the Blackhawks’ Patrick Sharp and Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins, two players who followed up excellent playoffs last year with ultra-slow starts. Then there are all the forwards who get incomplete grades because of injury – James Neal of the Penguins, Rick Nash of the New York Rangers and Taylor Hall of the Edmonton Oilers.
On the plus side, two of the youngest candidates up front, Logan Couture (San Jose Sharks) and Matt Duchene (Colorado Avalanche) are in the thick of the race. Couture is sneaky quick and Duchene has the sort of outside speed that will play well on the big international ice and could make him a candidate as a depth and energy player – what Marchand might have provided had he done more early.
Two candidates on defence, Kris Letang (Penguins) and Dan Boyle (Sharks), who were considered probables to make the team, have also missed time with injuries, making the evaluation difficult. Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames was No. 2 in NHL defence scoring when he got hurt, but the six-to-eight weeks he’ll miss will effectively disqualify him.
The current longshot everybody’s talking about is Marc-Édouard Vlasic, who had what many considered just a courtesy invite to the Olympic camp, but has the best plus-minus rating in the NHL and is providing unexpected offence for the surging Sharks.
Even though he is the reigning James Norris Memorial Trophy winner, not everybody was sold on Montreal Canadiens blueliner P.K. Subban, but he is off to a good-enough start to legitimately be considered in the top six.
Last time out, the Olympic team’s management staff picked a pair to go – Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both the Blackhawks – in part because of their familiarity with one another. This year, they will have to ponder the merits of the St. Louis Blues duo of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, both of whom are logging big minutes for coach Ken Hitchcock, a member of Babcock’s Olympic staff.
Keith, Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators are considered the top three.
Of the five goaltenders who attended the Canadian orientation camp – Carey Price (Montreal), Roberto Luongo (Vancouver Canucks), Corey Crawford (Chicago), Mike Smith (Phoenix Coyotes) and Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals) – Price is likely the early leader in the clubhouse, with a sparkling 2.12 goals against average, second in the league among Canadians who start in goal.
The No. 1 guy happens to be the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Marc-André Fleury, who has thrown a slight wrinkle into the equation by rebounding from an atrocious 2013 playoffs by starting with a bang – a 1.79 GAA and a .928 save percentage on a team that is winning because of its defensive play as much as its high-powered scoring attack.
Can Fleury’s strong play nudge him back into the equation, considering the evaluation process includes not just what are you doing for me in the here-and-now, but also, how have you handled the pressure moments in the past?
It seems unlikely.
Luongo’s numbers are middle of the pack, but he has the advantage of being the incumbent (helping lead Canada to gold in 2010), and all things being equal, will likely make it as one of the three, provided he maintains his current levels.
Canada’s management will convene in Toronto in about a fortnight to review the events of the early part of the NHL season.
In August, executive director Steve Yzerman estimated a dozen jobs were pretty much locked up and the second 12 were up for grabs. That likely hasn’t changed much, even as the stock of individual players has risen and fallen.
REVISED TEAM CANADA
A look at the projected roster for Team Canada in Sochi
Goaltender: Carey Price, Roberto Luongo, Corey Crawford
Defence: Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, P.K. Subban, Marc-Édouard Vlasic, Kris Letang
Forward: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Martin St. Louis, Eric Staal, Rick Nash, Logan Couture, Matt Duchene, Patrice Bergeron, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards
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