He has a little more than a week left to get his Canadian men’s Olympic roster together, and you can be sure that for much of that time, Steve Yzerman will be agonizing over the decisions he has to make up front. What to do with Patrick Sharp, the versatile and suddenly red-hot Chicago Blackhawks forward? Can the San Jose Sharks’ Joe Thornton, the NHL’s assists leader and No. 5 in the scoring race, be overlooked? How about Martin St. Louis, who stars for Yzerman’s own Tampa Bay Lightning and has hung in there, tied for 13th in the NHL scoring race, despite losing his centre, Steven Stamkos, to a broken leg, back in the middle of November?
Questions, problems, decisions. It is an almost impossible task for Yzerman to shoehorn 14 forwards onto the 25-player roster and not leave himself open to second-guessing because he is going to have to leave half-a-dozen great – and probably deserving – players off the roster.
Defence isn’t nearly as complicated because the quality falls off after the first half-dozen players or so. There may be a call that needs to be made for the seventh and eighth spots, but there is little question that Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban, Dan Boyle and Jay Bouwmeester will be the top seven, with Brent Seabrook and Marc-Édouard Vlasic jockeying for the eighth spot. In goal, despite Josh Harding’s stellar play in the first half, no one has done enough to dislodge the Montreal Canadiens’ Carey Price and the Vancouver Canucks’ Roberto Luongo from the top two spots.
But up front? It gets more and more complicated every day, beginning with Sharp, whose most recent surge has moved him front-and-centre into the discussions. Sharp is now up to 22 goals, tied for fourth in the NHL with the Anaheim Ducks’ Corey Perry, tops among players carrying Canadian passports. Sharp is also defensively sound, speedy and a good penalty killer. His ability to play two positions would be more critical in the NHL than on the Olympic team, because if Sharp makes it, he’ll make it on the left side and if there’s suddenly a need for someone to switch over to centre, well Canada will have lots of centres playing out of position on the wing anyway to choose from.
No, Sharp’s greatest intangible asset is that he’s played most of the season with Jonathan Toews, who’s firmly in the mix as the No. 2 centre behind Sidney Crosby. If Team Canada is looking at including Chris Kunitz because of his familiarity with Crosby, then they’d have to look at Sharp in the same light. Sharp doesn’t have a ton of international experience, but he has been a big-game player for the Blackhawks in three of the last five NHL post-seasons. Toews is acting as Sharp’s lobbyist, most recently telling Comcast that leaving Sharp off this year is not even an option because there are no holes in his game. All true, but Crosby is in there, making the same case for Kunitz and so on and so forth. Wherever Yzerman goes, he gets unsolicited advice, even from the players themselves.
Unlike 2010, Canada did not have the benefits of going on the ice during the summer orientation camp, where the first threads of chemistry could have been detected. So it may well be that if it comes down to a virtual coin flip between two players, then the deciding factor may be familiarity – and the value of having Sharp there to play with Toews, and needing just to get one more player to fit onto the line. Canada played a couple of ball hockey games in Calgary, and coach Mike Babcock was careful to warn reporters not to read too much into the lines. But he did have Kunitz and Crosby playing together, but not Toews and Sharp. Sharp was actually the third player on the Crosby line, playing right wing. Toews had Eric Staal and Rick Nash with him, while a unit that a lot of people could imagine playing together – Stamkos, with John Tavares and Logan Couture – a kid line as it were, now is the one that holds all the question marks. Stamkos is aiming to return for the Olympics and it may well be that he will be listed with an asterisk when the team is named Jan. 7. Couture’s recent struggles have made him a far iffier choice than a month ago, and another player who has fallen off of late is the Los Angeles Kings’ Mike Richards, who made the team in 2010 and played an important two-way role. Babcock actually had Richards playing ahead of Thornton and Patrice Bergeron, who was essentially used as the 13th forward in the tournament and played sparingly towards the end.
If they pick four lines with two players apiece on it that play together in the NHL (Crosby-Kunitz; Toews-Sharp; Getzlaf-Perry; and Stamkos-St. Louis), then that would leave just six openings for (likely) Nash, Eric Staal, Matt Duchene, Tavares, Giroux and one of Bergeron, Couture or Jamie Benn. It would also leave, on the outside looking in, Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Milan Lucic, James Neal, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, among others.
In his parting message to players in August following the orientation camp, Babcock said they explained to “each and every guy, that when they leave here, they’ve got three months to do their part. They’re in control of whether they go.”
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