By: Dan Grant
EXT. – Somewhere in Canada. Probably Moose Factory. Where they make the Mooses.
Grant: Daniel, did you know the Sochi Olympics are coming up?
Reynolds: Sochi? I’m torso-deep in the Oscars here! When does that circus get going anyway?
Grant: In like two weeks man!
Reynolds: That can’t be right…
Reynolds: Well kiss my grits! So they have! Do you want to write something about it?
Grant: No, I’m typing all this out so that I could write about ‘Ride Along‘. Of course I want to write about it!
Reynolds: No need to get snarky. Godspeed. And stay away from ‘Ride Along’, I’ve got a review coming next week! [Ed. Note: He most certainly does not.]
Grant: OK! Let’s hit it!
Amid the excitement of the NFL’s final weeks, the tumultuous NBA and NHL seasons, the A-Rod suspension and MLB’s off-season, the World Cup Draw and all the excitement this year’s NCAA basketball has wrought, something has been quietly creeping up on us.
The Sochi Olympics are just days away! Which means a lot of things but, most of all, it means that soon we get to watch Olympic hockey again! Hooray!
I feel like there’s so much time between the Olympic tournaments and so much rigmarole that goes into creating a World Cup of Hockey (only two have been played in 19 years. Come on!), that we, as sports fans, sometimes forget how enjoyable the game is to watch when the absolute best players from each country are on the ice. Hockey has never been more global, the competition has never been fiercer and the unique experience of watching our best against the world is something that really can’t be topped, particularly when your best are as talented as Team Canada.
That said, that fierce competition I was talking about is poised to stand in the way of Canada defending its Olympic title. Let’s take a look at the team, and what the maple flavoured side has going for it, as well as what might potentially stand in it’s way.
The Team (In alphabetical order no less! You get right up front Jamie Benn!)
Jamie Benn – Dallas Stars
Patrice Bergeron – Boston Bruins
Jeff Carter – Los Angeles Kings
Sidney Crosby (CAPTAIN) – Pittsburgh Penguins
Matt Duchene – Colorado Avalanche
Ryan Getzlaf – Anaheim Ducks
Chris Kunitz – Pittsburgh Penguins
Patrick Marleau – San Jose Sharks
Rick Nash – New York Rangers
Corey Perry – Anaheim Ducks
Patrick Sharp – Chicago Blackhawks
Steven Stamkos – Tampa Bay Lightning
John Tavares – New York Islanders
Jonathan Toews (ALTERNATE CAPTAIN) – Chicago Blackhawks
Jay Bouwmeester – St. Louis Blues
Drew Doughty – Los Angeles Kings
Dan Hamhuis – Vancouver Canucks
Duncan Keith – Chicago Blackhawks
Alex Pietrangelo – St. Louis Blues
P.K. Subban – Montreal Canadiens
Marc-Edouard Vlasic – San Jose Sharks
Shea Weber (ALTERNATE CAPTAIN) – Nashville Predators
Roberto Luongo – Vancouver Canucks
Carey Price – Montreal Canadiens
Mike Smith – Phoenix Coyotes
The make-up of Team Canada has been evolving since the moniker was first applied to the Canadian National Team, back in the late 1960’s. Skill always went hand in hand with toughness for Canada; massive size, hard hitting and a grittiness not found in their European counterparts was their calling card. The Soviet Union was the rival first, and every now and again Sweden, Finland or Czechoslovakia would make some noise. As we entered the 1990’s, the game grew exponentially in the USA, thanks in no small part to ‘Canada’s greatest export’, Wayne Gretzky.
The point is, Canada has had to get more selective in building its roster. Blessed with a massive talent pool that still accounts for over 50% of the players in the NHL (which is really mind boggling when you think about it), the debate about who should make up the Canadian squad is often heated.
After losing the inaugural World Cup to the Americans in 1996 and being stoned-walled by Dominik Hasek at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, Hockey Canada had to re-evaluate their team building process. More care was put into putting a ‘team’ on the ice, as opposed to just fielding the biggest names in the game. This led to a gold medal in Salt Lake City in 2002, shockingly Canada’s first Olympic gold in men’s ice hockey since 1952.
After a victory at the 2nd World Cup in 2004, Hockey Canada was riding high. Domination on the Junior level and in other international competitions made is seem like a gold medal at the Torino Olympics in 2006 was a given. Think again. This team was built of a mostly new cast of players from 2002 and often looked leaderless and slow footed.
2010 in Vancouver is almost an unfair measurement of the team’s evolution. Canada was playing at home; home ice advantage in the Olympics, for a team featuring such a talented roster, was almost unfair. Still it took Sidney Crosby’s ‘golden goal‘ to win the tournament.
Despite the ups and downs, talent is still a huge advantage for Canada. We could field two teams and both could be competitive. The selection committee is only getting better at this. They’re getting more experienced and they have everything we just mentioned to rely on. Keep in mind this is just the fifth Olympics to feature NHL players.
Steve Yzerman, a member of both the losing 1998 Nagano team and the gold medal Salt Lake City team, has headed the National Program for the past several years. He was ultimately responsible for the team in Vancouver and his fingerprints are all over the team for Sochi. Learning from mistakes made by predecessor Wayne Gretzky (who played in Nagano, and selected the Salt Lake City and Torino teams) Yzerman has made sure to take into account his surroundings for the Sochi tournament. What do I mean? I’m talking about…
3. Team Speed
The Canadian squads that got dusted in Nagano and Torino lacked the requisite team speed to compete on the Olympic sized ice. For those who are unfamiliar – both NHL and International ice surfaces are 200 feet long. However, the NHL rinks are only 85 feet wide, whereas the International rinks are 100. It might sound like a small difference but it’s actually very noticeable when watching the games. Players have a lot more time and space to make plays, making team speed absolutely essential.
This roster for Sochi features few of the slow footed centremen that we saw in Torino. Ryan Getzlaf and John Tavares are the only players in that mold, and they’re strong enough on the puck that they should be able to hold their own. In Torino, we saw myriad players of this make: Vincent Lecavalier, Simon Gagne, Shane Doan, Ryan Smyth, Joe Thornton, Todd Bertuzzi. The team was made up of power forwards, the likes of which helped Canada win in Salt Lake and at the World Cup. The key difference? Those two events were played on NHL rinks, where power and a presence in front of the net makes for a strong team. Nagano and Torino were played on the International ice surface, and these players were far less effective. The fact that Canada can feature a ‘checking line’ that will likely feature Patrice Bergeon, Jonathan Toews and Jamie Benn is a luxury most other teams won’t have at their disposal. Those guys can fly.
The other place speed is noticeable is on the back end. Canada has moved away from the massive defensive anchor, guys like Chris Pronger, Adam Foote and Scott Stevens. Instead, their defense is easily the most mobile and talented in the tournament, featuring eight players who not only have excellent speed, but are also excellent at changing speeds and making offensive plays. Duncan Keith, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty in particular are the cream of the crop in terms of NHL defensemen, while Jay Bouwmeester is often regarded as one of the smoothest skaters in the NHL. Bouwmeester will likely be paired with young star Alex Pietrangelo, which brings us to Canada’s final strength, something that can’t be overstated.
If you scroll through the roster, you’ll notice that many players have been taken from the same team. This is not an accident. Chris Kunitz is a fantastic story but if he didn’t play on the same line as Sidney Crosby, he’d have about as much chance as making this team as me. Instead, the 34 year old figures to play next to Sid the Kid on the first line, using their otherworldly chemistry as a weapon. Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo are an elite pair on the back end and should play big minutes. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp from Chicago and Getzlaf with partner in crime Corey Perry will make up parts of Canada’s 2nd and 3rd lines. All these players figure to play significant minutes together during the tournament, a savvy move for the Canadians, who are given very little time to practice together. Many of the other international teams practice either year round, or play together at the World Championships. As most of Canada’s players are featured in the Stanley Cup playoffs at that time, their actual on ice time together is limited. This should help them overcome that.
Now this isn’t a guarantee, but Canada looks a little shakier than normal in goal. Roberto Luongo has a gold medal pedigree from Vancouver and figures to get the first shot at things but he’s not the sure thing he once was. A potential controversy between Luongo and Canadiens goaltender Carey Price may have been diffused by Price’s recent injuries and shaky play, but whoever is backing him up figures to have the chance to nip at his heels.
A bad goalie can lose a short tournament for a team, just like a hot one can win one. The Canadians simply need their goalies to be above-average. The coaching staff can’t be afraid to make changes; a quick pull of Curtis Joseph in 2002 led to Martin Brodeur playing out of his mind for the rest of the tournament; in 2010 it was Brodeur who was tossed aside for Luongo. It will be interesting to see who is named to back up Luongo, if Price and Mike Smith (both suffered minor injuries recently) can’t go. A good bet would be Chicago’s Corey Crawford. Beyond that we’re looking at the embattled Marc-Andre Fleury, which is dicey to say the least.
If Steven Stamkos hasn’t fully recovered from his broken leg in time to be the sniper Canada needs on the power play, this team might score a bit less than we’re used to. While the forward group is exceptionally talented, it lacks the firepower of previous teams, which featured snipers like Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla, Joe Sakic and even Yzerman himself.
Rick Nash is someone the team is going to look to for offense. He’s struggled since going to New York but he’s one of Canada’s best international players and is likely to start the tournament alongside Perry and Getzlaf. That line could be a potent and necessary scoring combination if the projected top line of Crosby, Taveres and Kunitz runs in to any issues.
The team features a bevy of centremen, including Crosby, Stamkos, Taveres, Getzlaf, Toews, Patrice Bergeron and Matt Duchene. There is a method to this madness, as centres are generally the stronger skaters on a team, and as we mentioned, team speed was a priority. However, since there are only four centre spots, that means at least half of these guys will be playing out of position, in a competition where you really can’t afford to have any missteps.
That said, this is a minor issue that the players should be able to overcome. The lightning speed of Bergeron and Duchene should see them move to the wing with ease. Beyond that, Taveres is likely to move over due to his slower footspeed. This is also a fluid situation and something that will certainly change based on results, or lack thereof. It’s just always risky to ask so much of your team to play positions they’re not familiar with, and something that will have people second-guessing Stevie Y throughout the tournament, should their be any issues.
4. The Crowd
In Vancouver, we had home ice. In Salt Lake, we had strong representation from our fans. In Nagano and Torino? Not so much. And now we’re walking into Russia, Canada’s most storied rival, and expecting to come out victorious?
You’re damn right we do!
It’s only the goaltending that really concerns me. The scoring and positioning will work themselves out if Canada can find a goalie that can simply keep them in games. They lucked out with their initial draw, getting to play Austria, Norway and Finland in their group. Only Finland should give them any trouble, and that’s their third game. Hopefully a goaltender distinguishes himself early on, and this controversy isn’t something hanging over the tournament. I couldn’t listen to four years of ‘Canada’s goaltending development is broken!‘ stories. I just couldn’t. Don’t make me.
A Canada-Russia final. I can’t go any further than that. How could it not happen? And if it does happen, remember Phil Esposito please.
Grant: IS ANYBODY AS EXCITED AS I AM RIGHT NOW?!!?
Reynolds: I mean, I’m getting a little fired up, but as excited as you? Literally nobody. Except maybe this guy.