CALGARY – Canada could take 14 centres and eight right-handed defencemen to Sochi and still have one of the most talented teams at the Olympics.
That’s not going to happen, but the depth at those two spots presents questions for general manager Steve Yzerman and his staff. For the centres and right-handed-shot defencemen, moving to unfamiliar positions may just be part of the deal if they want a roster spot.
“Listen, when it comes to Team Canada, nobody’s going to care whether they’re on the right side or left side,” Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban said. “As long as we win the hockey game and guys are willing to adjust, that’s all that matters.”
Subban—last season’s Norris Trophy winner—is a righty, along with Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Brent Seabrook, Kris Letang, Dan Boyle and final-roster long shots Mike Green and Travis Hamonic. Canada will have eight defencemen on the team in February, and while Yzerman said an even split of left- and right-handed shooters isn’t the “end-all,” he prefers balance.
Figuring that Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks is a lock if healthy, the idea of balance is good news for fellow lefties like Jay Bouwmeester, Marc Staal, Dion Phaneuf, Dan Hamhuis, Karl Alzner, Marc Methot and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
“That’s what I hear is that it’s the best time to be a left-handed shutdown defenceman in Canada,” Alzner said. “I’m happy I’m not a right-handed, offensive defenceman right now.”
Canada has a logjam of those, though injuries during the first three months of the regular season could alter the picture. But if five or six righties play too well to leave them off the team, a couple of them might have to deal with playing the off side.
“Everybody’s so skilled, everybody can adapt to any situation,” Pietrangelo said. “You’re talking about the best of the best here at this camp, and I think the coaching staff would feel pretty comfortable to have everybody on any side and to be able to adapt to play the other side certainly gives you a better opportunity of making the team.”
Of course it’s not just about righties versus lefties. Yzerman has made it clear he’s not constructing an all-star team but rather wants a mix of role players.
Someone is going to need to focus on shutting down Alex Ovechkin, Zach Parise and others, blocking shots and killing penalties. Consider that an advantage for Hamhuis and Alzner.
“I take a lot of pride in my defensive game,” Hamhuis said. “I’m kind of a defence-first guy and also like to contribute offensively. It’s kind of a role I’ve been in, a two-way role with more focus on defence for me.”
Role players are needed up front, too, where Canada is stocked with centres better than any other country in the world. Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews figure to stick at that position, but players like Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Patrice Bergeron and Claude Giroux could get shifted to the wings.
Coach Mike Babcock won’t hesitate to play them out of position to get their talent on the roster. He expects to have a lot of centres on Team Canada.
“I just know in our own situation in Detroit, we play our best players all over,” Babcock said. “We just like them on the ice. And we’re going to do the same thing here. The best players are going to play.”
Picking the 14 best forwards is challenging enough, but half the battle is figuring out which centres could best adjust to playing on the wing.
Tavares got some experience there during the lockout and in previous international competitions, and Stamkos became accustomed to it when playing on a line centred by Giroux at the world championships.
“It was a little bit of an adjustment at first, I hadn’t really played that position in a long time, but after the first couple of games you get used to it,” Stamkos said. “When you’re being evaluated for a team like this, you’re pretty much willing to play any position to be on the team.”
Stamkos and Tavares are virtually certain of being in Sochi. Versatility is more crucial for some of the centres who must earn a spot, like Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche and Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks.
“I think centre you have so many responsibilities at both ends of the rink,” Duchene said. “This team is so strong down the middle that you can almost put 12 guys from that position. I’ve played a bit of wing in the past and I’m comfortable there. Having a centre background also makes you a little more responsible defensively, I think.”
Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues, one of Babcock’s assistants for Team Canada, has emphasized the need to play a “200-foot game.” That’s where it certainly doesn’t hurt to have extra centres who are used to playing in all four corners of the ice.
“As a centre you learn to play everywhere,” Tavares said. “You obviously (have to) be the guy that’s always around the puck and supporting the play. … I don’t think any of those transitions are going to be really difficult for this group.”
Some players make the decision easy. Anaheim Ducks centre Ryan Getzlaf has always played in the middle, including for Canada in the past, while Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings, a natural centre, has played wing a lot in the NHL lately.
“I think as a guy that can kind of move around and bounce around the lineup a little bit, I think that may help out a little bit,” Carter said. “I played the last couple years at wing and I’m comfortable there now. I’m comfortable at centre, too, so it’s a good thing, I guess.”
Flexibility isn’t a bad thing, especially when there’s so much competition for spots. Leaving comfort zones is worth the price if the reward is a trip to Sochi.
“I’m sure that guys will be more than happy to do it if it means they can be on this team,” Getzlaf said. “There is not a guy out here that would have a problem doing it if that’s what it came down to for being on the team.”