First, a brief history lesson.
If the 2002 Canadian men's Olympic hockey team had been chosen a year in advance, Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla would not have been a serious candidate. Even with seven months to go before the Salt Lake City Games, Iginla wasn't on the radar screen. He didn't get an invitation to the evaluation camp in the summer of 2001 until after an injury to Simon Gagné, and Iginla was there mostly to fill out the roster numbers.
You remember the rest of the story.
The 2001-02 NHL season turned out to be Iginla's breakout year. He led the league in goals (52) and points (96) and, along the way, he and Joe Sakic were responsible for all the goals that mattered in Canada's victory in the Olympic gold-medal game over the United States.
The point is: things can change quickly in the world of professional hockey, especially with so many of Canada's younger generation maturing rapidly and joining the NHL's elite.
It's why the task of choosing Canada's 2010 Olympic team is so complex.
Sprinkled among the generations are venerable members of the old guard (Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Sakic); a selection of in-their-prime stars (Iginla, Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier); and an emerging group of youngsters (Sidney Crosby, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Mike Green, Shea Weber). All of them are pushing for spots on the final 23-man roster.
Last fall, when Hockey Canada appointed Steve Yzerman as the 2010 team's executive director - to head a management team that included NHL general managers Ken Holland and Kevin Lowe and assistant GM Doug Armstrong - it came up with a preliminary list of about 50 candidates that warranted consideration for the final roster. Since then, the list has expanded, not contracted, and now includes, among others, Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason and Flames forward Mike Cammalleri.
Accordingly, the selection process isn't getting any easier and much can change between now and December, when the final roster will be unveiled. In the 2006 debacle, Canada erred by not considering its emerging players (including Crosby), the way the Russians did. Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin gave their team such a spark at the Turin Games.
With that in mind, here is a preliminary list of the candidates for Canada's men's team in Vancouver:
Roberto Luongo (Vancouver Canucks); Martin Brodeur (New Jersey Devils); Cam Ward (Carolina Hurricanes). On the bubble: Steve Mason (Columbus Blue Jackets), Carey Price (Montreal Canadians).
Luongo has been patiently biding his time as Brodeur's heir apparent. The job is his to win. Brodeur has missed most of the 2008-09 NHL season recovering from injury; his experience and calm demeanour will nevertheless be a valuable asset. Any of Ward, Mason or Price - Generation Next - would be valuable as the No. 3 man.
Scott Niedermayer (Anaheim Ducks), Chris Pronger (Ducks), Robyn Regehr (Calgary Flames), Shea Weber (Nashville Predators), Mike Green (Washington Capitals), Dan Boyle (San Jose Sharks), Jay Bouwmeester (Florida Panthers). On the bubble: Dion Phaneuf (Flames), Duncan Keith (Chicago Blackhawks).
Niedermayer isn't sure if he'll play again next year; his skating ability was badly missed when he had to bypass Turin as a result of injury. Regehr may be the best shutdown defenceman in the NHL; he could be a formidable partner for Green or Weber, who play a high-risk, high-reward style. Pronger and Boyle would add a veteran and winning stability; Bouwmeester and Keith are capable of playing big minutes. Phaneuf is the wild card - talented, but suspect defensively - and needs to be a lot steadier in his own end to land a spot on the team.
Jarome Iginla (Flames), Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), Joe Thornton (Sharks), Patrick Marleau (Sharks), Richards (Philadelphia Flyers), Jeff Carter (Flyers), Ryan Getzlaf (Ducks), Rick Nash (Blue jackets), Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay Lightning), Shane Doan (Phoenix Coyotes), Simon Gagné (Flyers), Eric Staal (Hurricanes), Dany Heatley (Ottawa Senators). On the bubble: Marc Savard (Boston Bruins), Brenden Morrow (Dallas Stars), Joe Sakic (Colorado Avalanche), Jonathan Toews (Blackhawks), Corey Perry (Ducks), Mike Cammalleri (Flames).
The problem is too many of Canada's best players are natural centres. Thankfully, Marleau, Crosby and Carter can all effectively play the wings if necessary. Marleau's strong work with Thornton in San Jose suggests they'll be two-thirds of a solid line - remember, with the limited preparation time, that sort of familiarity will be extremely valuable. If may also make Perry a factor if they decide to take him and Getzlaf together. Iginla and Gagné have played together previously at the Olympics, but Iginla might also be a good fit on Thornton's line.
Richards is valuable as a third-line shutdown centre and Carter's penalty-killing and goal-scoring have been exceptional this season.
Heatley, who has had great success internationally for Canada, is in the middle of a sub-par NHL season; his inclusion, which was a virtual no-brainer going into the season, now will require some scrutiny. And even though he's been sidelined all year with an injury, it's hard to imagine keeping Morrow off the team unless he is slow off the mark at the start of next season.
Sakic (if he returns for a 21st NHL season) will also get some consideration for his leadership ability in a pressure-laden hometown Olympics. And Toews, who started slowly but is coming on, might be this year's equivalent to Iginla eight years ago - someone on the fringes of consideration, but who could rocket to the front of the line with a strong finish to this year and a good start next year.