The predicament that is Team Canada’s roster in Sochi

Sidney Crosby, Team Canada's roster.

Sidney Crosby, Team Canada. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thank you Scott Burnside. Thank you for your brilliant expose entitled “How the U.S. hockey team was named.”

It was the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” of hockey articles. While the dust still settled the day Team USA announced the twenty-five players that will represent America on Russian ice this coming February, ESPN opened a door into the insightful world of hockey management in a way no television show has ever been able to match for sheer, candid honesty. The end result: among other things, a glimpse at the personalities of hockey nobles Dean Lombardi and David Poile, who are otherwise nothing more than hockey names we hear about, but know little of.

I can’t help but wonder about the content of the ongoing conversations between members of Team Canada’s management regarding who should fill out the defending champs’ roster.

Team USA broke the ice by sticking to the original deadline. Meanwhile, every other major hockey nation quietly accepted the one-week extension that was granted by the International Ice Hockey Federation earlier this season.

Team Canada will announce its final Olympic roster on Tuesday, January 7th. Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman is tasked with final say; his player assessment will stand firm as boss. However, as Burnside’s article revealed, it is not uncommon for all members of management, and possibly even the coaching staff, to heavily influence the make-up of an Olympic ice hockey team’s final roster. Stevie Y’s ideals will be implanted into the team’s design, but the opinions of his partners will also weigh heavily on final player personnel decisions.

Let’s meet the team:

General Manager: Steve Yzerman (Tampa Bay Lightning)

Assistant General Managers: Peter Chiarelli (Boston Bruins), Doug Armstrong (St. Louis Blues), Ken Holland (Detroit Red Wings).

Team Canada’s management team is comprised of an experienced, organized bunch of accomplished NHL visionaries. In other words, they definitely don’t seem like the last minute type. There is virtually no chance Yzerman has left several roster decisions hanging in the balance this late in the game. Therefore, most of Team Canada’s final Olympic roster is probably already set in stone.

Burnside’s article – which was so good it likely ruined the chance for any similar exclusive to occur any time soon – revealed that the majority of Team USA was selected awhile ago. In the weeks leading up to the final American roster announcement, only the final few spots were in need of filling. There was plenty of push in the last minute personnel pitches posed by Team USA management members, each of whom were vying for their guy. If not entirely decided at this point, I’d expect Team Canada is in a very similar place right now – overanalyzing the upside and the downside of the seventh defenceman and thirteenth forward.

One interesting element of the American team selection process was the power allotted to Team USA head coach Dan Bylsma. The Pens bench boss was adamant about the inclusion of his own club team’s defenders, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin. Bylsma’s demands were met. If similar selection privileges are provided to Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock and his assistants Ken Hitchcock, Claude Julien, and Lindy Ruff, then there is a real possibility members of the St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins and Dallas Stars have the inside edge over players management and coaches may be on the fence about. Mike Babcock’s Red Wings team doesn’t possess any realistic candidates to make Team Canada, but the Blues, Bruins, and Stars certainly do.

Canada will enter Sochi 2014 as heavy favourites to win gold. The wealth of NHL talent that dawns Red & White with international ambition is a collection of high-end professionals far exceeding any other hockey nation. Therefore, whereas U.S. management was required to construct the right team – a team that can win gold – from a pool of about thirty relevant candidates; it can be argued Team Canada’s number of deserving Olympic hopefuls is closer to thirty-five, if not forty-five. How they will – or have already – narrowed the roster down to twenty-five names is an answer we will likely never know. We won’t know how it was constructed but we will know what the team looks like very soon, two-days from now.

Based on Burnside’s article, one can derive the conclusion that Team USA had a general direction; team philosophy that helped determine player A was a better fit than Player B. For example, winger Bobby Ryan and defenceman Keith Yandle were final roster cuts because neither was deemed offensively dominant enough to play a prominent scoring role, and neither was considered complete enough to fulfill a secondary role on the team. I understand the logic. But I admit it’s risky to disregard offensive talent for safety in a tournament where a hot goalie can single-handedly eliminate a team that lacks elite scorers. By choosing to embark on the journey toward Olympic supremacy without Ryan and Yandle, it appears Team USA general manager David Poile believes it is more likely Ryan or Yandle will play a signficant role in allowing a game deciding goal against than they will in scoring one.

IF Canada’s roster selecting mindset is similar to that of the U.S., we can start crossing some names off the list. The boardroom conversations may sound like this: “If Taylor Hall, Matt Duchene, and Tyler Seguin are not good enough to star on our scoring lines and power plays over Crosby, Stamkos, Perry… maybe they don’t fit in at all. Perhaps the more trustworthy two-way players like Claude Giroux, Patrick Sharp and Martin St. Louis are our best depth options up front.” This way of thinking is especially logical because Giroux, Sharp and St. Louis are offensively gifted with much more experience and defensive clout than younger speedy forwards who shine with the puck, but are still honing their craft without.

Ultimately, team direction, ideology, and philosophy will be the criteria that determines whether someone like Matt Duchene is chosen over a player like Claude Giroux, if both aren’t selected. Team philosophy is essential and Team Canada certainly have some interesting team philosophy options.

Speed may be an attribute Yzerman and his brass hold in high regard. If this is so, the above mentioned Duchene, Hall and Seguin have a significant advantage. Imagine any of those three players flying through the neutral zone on that big international ice surface. These are players – with the puck on their sticks – who can cut through opposing defensive efforts like a butcher knife through butter.

Speed kills. But maybe Yzerman and Co. have comfortably decided to lean on several veterans from the 2010 Games over speedy, skilled youngsters on the rise. In this case, a combination or all encompassing collection of Rick Nash, Mike Richards, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Eric Staal are likely to rejoin a list of returnees you can bank on: Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews, plus Olympic rookie Steven Stamkos, who has basically been named to the team already. In the end, 2010 Olympic experience may be more important to Yzerman than a strong start to the 2013-14 NHL season by one of the game’s more electrifying, inexperienced players. Tough decisions, no doubt.

There is also a chemistry element that has been glorified in the media throughout the season. The thinking is: existing chemistry is a great asset to possess in such a short tournament. Makes sense. If existing chemistry is an important qualification for the 2014 edition of Team Canada, don’t be surprised to see Chris Kunitz, Martin St. Louis, and Patrick Sharp named to the final roster because of their accumulative years of working familiarity with Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, and Jonathan Toews. That being said – more so than Kunitz in my opinion – St. Louis and Sharp have earned spots with Team Canada on their own merits, despite their rapport with club team line-mates. And to be fair, Kunitz is a solid hockey player, as well.

At this stage in the game, Team Canada has already defined its identity for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Guessing exactly what that identity is, well that’s the tricky part. The members of Canadian management with ties to the Red Wings – Yzerman, Holland, (Babcock) – are inclined to prefer an aggressive puck possession style conducive to the philosophy they’ve utilized to win Stanley Cups in the past. And one might wager a guess that the Bruins/Blues influence on management’s decisions will agree with a possession game branded style, but also believe that some rugged elements are needed. Ultimately, a smart combination of the philosophical identities the Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues have designed in recent years is probably going to heavily influence the look and design of Team Canada’s final roster. If so, I like their chances. However, there could be some interesting player personnel decisions that occur because of the need to build a structured team. In other words, some shocking names will be left off Team Canada’s final roster.

Taking into consideration who is building Team Canada, and how they’ve built teams in the past, I have guessed what I believe the final roster will look like.

Goaltenders: Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, Mike Smith.

Omissions: Marc-Andre Fleury, Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby.

Defence: Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Marc Edouard Vlasic, Dan Boyle.

Omissions: Kris Letang, P. K. Subban.

Forwards: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic,Tyler Seguin, Martin St. Louis, Claude Giroux, Matt Duchene, Eric Staal, John Tavares

Omissions: Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Jamie Benn, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Rick Nash, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau.

Forward Lines: 

Tavares – Crosby – Giroux

Stamkos – Getzlaf – Perry

Sharp – Toews – St. Louis

Staal – Bergeron – Seguin

Duchene – Lucic

Defence:

Keith – Doughty

Bouwmeester – Pietrangelo

Vlasic – Weber

Seabrook – Boyle

Goalies: 

Luongo/Price

Smith

No Nash, despite head coach Mike Babcock’s praise of the player after the 2010 Olympics. I will not be one bit surprised if Nash is named to the final roster, however, I believe he won’t be because of his injury riddled, poor season. There may be doubts about his game.

No Subban because he is still considered a learner defensively. His strongest asset is that incredible point shot of his, however, with Shea Weber likely filling the role of first power play point man with a right-handed shot, where does that leave Subban? I’m skeptical about his inclusion on the team.

No Letang because, although he is an exceptional puck carrier and attacker, his defensive game is often criticized. With Keith, Doughty, and other better two-way defencemen possessing strong zone entry skills, I believe Letang will be left off. It also doesn’t help that he can’t stay healthy.

No Hall, Eberle, Benn or Couture simply because I believe Duchene and Seguin will occupy the few spots allotted to younger skill players. Duchene is having a Hart trophy like season that no one is talking about, and Seguin has been around the block; played significant minutes in the 2013 Bruins Cup run, and can easily slide onto Bergeron’s right-wing. Seguin’s defensive game is criticized at centre, however, he is strong defensively as a winger.

No Fleury because of his recent playoff performances.

No Crawford because of his recent injuries. That being said, I think that if it’s not Smith in the third spot, it will be Crawford.

No Neal because I believe his combination of not being on the 2010 team, and not sufficiently proving his recent success isn’t the byproduct of playing with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, place him behind Perry, Tavares, Stamkos, St. Louis, and others on the depth chart.

No Kunitz because the main argument for him is his familiarity with Crosby. I believe Yzerman will, or already has, decided that Crosby can succeed with anyone. Better to have Tavares, Stamkos or one of hockey’s other most gifted goal scorers play on a line with the world’s most talented player.

Those are my predictions.

The truth is, there are far too many talented Canadian born players to choose from, thus, guessing which collection of talents will be selected to Team Canada is nearly impossible. In the end, there are approximately forty Canadian NHL players who can unite to win the gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Can’t wait to find out which players make Yzerman’s final roster.