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Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Sept. 19, 2011.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A selection committee is two weeks away from drawing up a short list of candidates to serve as Canada's next top soldier and Department of National Defence insiders say there are three apparent front-runners: the current second-in command, the head of the navy and the top Canadian at NORAD.

General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of the Defence Staff since July, 2008, is slated to step down as early as mid-summer – and a selection panel of senior government officials is expected to suggest several candidates by mid-June.

This changing of the guard comes at a critical time for the Canadian Forces, which are grappling with budget cuts, big purchase plans for new planes and ships, and the task of readjusting to life now that the high-profile combat mission in Afghanistan is fading in the rearview mirror.

"The Afghan mission gave the military a sense of focus and cohesion. Now it's like after the Stanley Cup run's over. It's hard to keep a team motivated and on track," one source said.

It's up to Stephen Harper to pick the next Chief of the Defence Staff and the Prime Minister's choice will send a clear signal as to the kind of role Ottawa's political masters want the military to play in the years ahead.

While the Tories lack enthusiasm for peacekeeping assignments that leave troops mired in lengthy conflicts, they're looking for smart solutions to the defence of Canada's Arctic territory and borders, and they are open to limited overseas military interventions such as the Libya mission, provided their U.S. and U.K. allies are leading the way.

National Defence sources suggest key contenders to replace Gen. Natynczyk include: Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, the current vice chief of the Defence Staff; Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy; and Lieutenant-General Thomas Lawson, deputy commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command.

Sources caution there's no decision yet and that the selection committee has not indicated whom it considers top picks.

The vice chief of the Defence Staff is often a leading candidate to succeed the chief because the person in this position has normally acquired broad command experience. They play an indispensable role in managing the Forces and should know how to work the levers of power.

Vice-Admiral Donaldson, the vice chief, previously ran Canada Command – responsible for domestic and continental operations – during the high pressure demands of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver as well as the Group of Eight and Group of 20 summits in Ontario.

Colleagues describe the admiral as a "refined operator" and say while he lacks the pizzazz of someone such as former chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier, he is calm under pressure and known as a "firefighter" proficient at extinguishing problems.

Vice-Admiral Donaldson is not a "pushover" though, one defence source said. "If they want a pushover or a caretaker he's definitely not the right man."

Vice-Admiral Maddison, another contender, helped get Canada's troubled submarine program back on track during his recent stint as head of the navy. To the relief of the Forces, a Canadian sub will take part in the U.S. Navy's Rim of the Pacific exercise this summer.

Lieutenant-General Lawson, currently deputy commander at NORAD in Colorado, has a good relationship with the U.S. military. The government considers him a solid communicator; in late 2010 he was sent on a cross-country PR road show to explain the F-35 fighter jet acquisition to the public.

Heads of all services are all normally considered for the top job – a list that includes Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, commander of the army. Lieutenant-General André Deschamps is commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force but as such his candidacy might be damaged by association with Ottawa's controversial acquisition of F-35 fighters.

A popular army leader, Lieutenant-General Stuart Beare's name has circulated frequently. Last month, though, he was given a new job as head of the super headquarters at the centre of restructuring of DND.

There's still a camp at DND holding out hope that retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie might be tapped to return and replace Gen. Natynczyk. His 2011 report on ways to trim the Defence budget – including deep administrative and headquarters staff cuts – impressed the Prime Minister's Office.