The Answerman returns after a long, self-imposed exile to ponder the choices for the Canadian 2014 men's Olympic hockey team, set to be unveiled Tuesday…
Q: It looks as if you couldn't resist joining the army of armchair quarterbacks, helpfully offering their assistance to executive director Steve Yzerman and his management team in choosing the men's team for the Sochi Winter Games. They've endlessly scouted, dissected, analyzed and otherwise pondered all their options, but presumably, they're always ready to accept additional input.
A: By now, the roster, minus a few final tweaks around the edges, is pretty much set, which is one of the great ironies of the selection process. Ultimately, how Canada will fare will largely depend upon Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Carey Price and the performance of its core players. It's the oldest hockey cliché in the book – you win because your best players are your best players, right? But it doesn't change the fact the Olympic dreams of many deserving players will either be realized or crushed in the next day or so, and everybody's got an idea of how to fill out the bottom one-third of the roster.
Q: There are two ways of going about this exercise: Do you either select your own Olympic team or do you try to nose your way into the war room and anticipate the direction Yzerman and his team are going in?
A: Let's make it the latter, because ultimately that's what really matters – who they pick, not what anyone else thinks. There'll be all kinds of time after the fact to debate and discuss all the worthy candidates that came up short. Remember, with a talent pool as deep as Canada's, there are really no bad choices, only too many good ones.
Q: Start with goaltender, the position everyone always frets about. How will that play out?
A: Price's play this year with the Montreal Canadiens has solidified his place as the tentative starter, and Roberto Luongo (Vancouver Canucks) is going to make it, too, because he was the goaltender of record when Canada won Olympic gold in 2010 and has had a decent season. The third spot could go to any number of qualified candidates, but they will ultimately settle on Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes. Every four years, you hear people say the same thing: Why not add a young goaltender to give him the Olympic experience? (This time, in case the NHL actually goes to South Korea in 2018.) The answer is the same: If you're down to your third goaltender and you're still alive in the competition, something has gone horribly wrong with your top two guys – and you'll need someone prepared to go in cold and win one or perhaps two games, likely with medals on the line. Smith, an exceptionally competitive goalie with superior puck-handling skills, gets the nod for that reason alone.
Q: There'll be a fair bit of turnover from 2010 on this squad, but arguably the two players they'll miss the most are defencemen Chris Pronger (long-term injury) and Scott Niedermayer (retired) – reliable, experienced, steadying presences on the blueline.
A: Yes, you'd feel a lot better if you had healthy, in-their-prime versions of both Pronger and Niedermayer to draw on. Still, it's not a bad mix on defence anyway. They'll return the top pair from the Vancouver Games: Keith and Doughty. Shea Weber is also back and he'll be paired with a left-shooting, stay-at-home defenceman – either Marc-Édouard Vlasic of the San Jose Sharks or Dan Hamhuis of the Canucks (likely Vlasic). The third pair will be the St. Louis Blues duo of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. Even though he's a high-risk option, Habs star P.K. Subban's undeniable offensive skills will likely get him the seventh spot. So that's four right-handed shots and three lefties. The eighth choice will go to one of Dan Boyle (Sharks), Brent Seabrook or a long shot, Mark Giordano (Calgary Flames). Seabrook is having an exceptional season and plays regularly in Chicago with Keith. That was a deciding factor in 2010. It likely will be again this time around.
Q: Okay, so now we get down to the hardest choices: about 25 qualified forwards that need to be shoehorned into 14 spots. The line between so many of these players – Logan Couture or Matt Duchesne, Claude Giroux or Martin St. Louis – is so fine you almost wonder if they'll need to use a Ouija board or a Magic 8 Ball to break the ties.
A: It will be a little more scientific than that. The key is to pay close attention to what Yzerman and head coach Mike Babcock have consistently said about the selection process. Canada has about 10 qualified centres under consideration, but Yzerman has repeatedly said he doesn't want too many players playing out of position. So there'll likely be more natural left and right wingers on the team than you may think. Babcock says he wants players to play a 200-foot game, equally comfortable in the defensive and offensive zones, so they'll look for forwards with speed, skill and high hockey IQs – because the lessons about systems and tactics will have to be absorbed in a hurry, on the fly.
Most importantly, since the goal is to win an Olympic gold medal, they'll be preparing for third-period contingencies with the championship on the line. Do you have the right players on your bench that you can trust to defend a one-goal lead? Do you have right players on your bench to go out and score the tying goal if you're down one? Yzerman's challenge is to give Babcock as many good options as possible for every scenario that the team might face.
Q: That's an interesting point because there were some players stapled to the bench in 2010, when crunch time came. So start with the centres.
A: Crosby, Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron. Canada can dress 13 of 14 forwards for every game. Crosby and Toews were 1-2 going into the season and nothing has changed there. Getzlaf and Tavares are both in the middle of exceptional seasons and are really natural centres, harder to shift to the wing that some others might be. And while Bergeron has just been okay with Boston in the first half, his pedigree – of playing so well in championship moments for the Bruins, his ability to win faceoffs, his penalty killing – should give him the edge for the fifth spot.
Q: Shifting over to the right side, who do you like?
A: This gets a little trickier. Corey Perry for sure joins Getzlaf's line, the two Anaheim Ducks playing together, just as they did in 2010. Rick Nash finished the 2010 tournament playing on the same line as Toews. Nash's familiarity with big-ice hockey, plus the ability to get behind defences, and that big wingspan in tight, makes him a logical choice in that spot again, even though his NHL season hasn't gone exceptionally well. They probably would like to play Steven Stamkos on Crosby's right side, but if he's not ready to go, his Tampa Bay teammate St. Louis – who is so adaptable and such a respected leader – could slide in there nicely. And for the other spot, an off-the-board choice: Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings, a sniper pure and simple, who could benefit from Tavares's playmaking.
Q: If it goes that way, then just four spots remain open on the left side.
A: Right and, at this point, the temptation may be just to not overthink things. Crosby is the best player in the world, but it isn't always easy for linemates to adapt quickly to his game because he goes so hard to the net – which, by the way, will be critical on the big ice in Sochi. His Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Chris Kunitz does have good chemistry with Crosby, and so would be a natural selection. Similarly, Patrick Sharp is the hottest scorer in the NHL this season and he has spent most of the year playing left wing with Toews in Chicago. Why mess with a good thing? From there, they'll likely look to Patrick Marleau of the Sharks, who usually plays the left wing with either Joe Thornton or Couture. Marleau is attractive because his game is so well-rounded. He is exceptionally fast for a big man, adept at killing penalties, and can shift to the middle in a pinch. That would leave one spot open and it will likely go to Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn.
Q: So you're picking Benn, ahead of Couture, Eric Staal, Matt Duchene, Claude Giroux, James Neal, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Thornton and others? Wow. That's interesting, if only because Benn wasn't invited to the orientation camp in Calgary last summer and the rest of these players were.
A: Yes, but there's an explanation for that. Last NHL season, which is what the orientation camp invitations were based on, Benn played centre for the Stars, not his natural position and a position where Canada was/is stacked. This year, with Seguin in the lineup, Benn switched back to left wing and looks way more comfortable over there. In the above scenario, the opening on the left side would be on Getzlaf's line. But the beauty of having Kunitz on the roster is that in his Anaheim days, he also played with Getzlaf and Perry. So if Babcock is of a mind to experiment – and the lesson of Vancouver is that, oh, yes, Babcock will tinker with his lines – he can try Benn up with Crosby and switch Kunitz down to play with Getzlaf. There's some versatility here and of course, a lot ultimately depends upon Stamkos's status and the pace of his recovery from a broken leg. Once the 25-man roster is named, a handful of the players who come up short will be put on standby as an unofficial taxi squad, available in case of an injury in the month between Jan. 7 and Feb. 8, or the last day of NHL action before play is suspended for the Sochi Olympics.
Q: Looking through this list, you'd have to think Canada will a "Bobby Ryan moment" or six of its own come Tuesday – the inevitable backlash/outcry that will occur because somebody's favourite player is left off the team.
A: About the only difference is there won't be anybody badmouthing players that didn't make the final cut. Until the IOC decides hockey should be like bobsleigh and Canada can enter two teams, this is the way it's going to be. And let's face it, it's a good thing. Wouldn't you be in Yzerman's shoes than those of Matjaz Kopitar, who gets to pick his son, Anze, and 24 other just-happy-to-be there Slovenian Olympians for their team? Either way, there will be no conclusive answer until the Feb. 26 gold-medal game. The proof will be in the result. The postmortems can wait until then.
CANADA'S PROJECTED OLYMPIC ROSTER:
G: Carey Price, Roberto Luongo, Mike Smith.
D: Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Weber, Jay Bouwmeester, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, PK Subban, Brent Seabrook.
F: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares, Corey Perry, Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Sharp, Chris Kunitz, Jamie Benn, Patrick Marleau, Patrice Bergeron.
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