It’s kind of funny – not ha ha funny, but strange funny – to think less than a decade ago, there was all sorts of hand-wringing and a deep-thinker summit to explore the reasons why Canada was not producing enough skilled hockey players.
Canada had just finished eighth in the World Junior Championship and fourth in the Olympics. At that world junior tournament, Canada’s leading scorer was Josh Holden, who scored four points in seven games. The Olympic team was far more star-studded, but badly coached.
In the semifinal against the Czech Republic, coach Marc Crawford thought it would be a good idea to play a style that would result in just 20 regulation-time shots – three in the first period, six in the third – against Dominik Hasek. He then left Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman on the bench for the shootout.
In those days when Canada was winning internationally, it was on superior goaltending and a strict defensive regimen that put its opponents to sleep.
My, how times have changed. Most of the other countries have caught up to, if not surpassed, Canada in goaltending. As we look toward the 2010 games in 15 months, Canada now boasts an embarrassment of riches when it comes to skill at forward.
Which brings us to an interesting question: What are Steve Yzerman and his management team going to do when it comes to choosing the centers for this team? He has no fewer than 11 players with international experience or top-shelf quality, but only four spots to fill.
If all those players continue to play into next fall the way they have performed in the first quarter of the season, Yzerman is going to have some very difficult decisions to make.
The first of those will be his most vexing because it will involve telling one of Canada’s greatest international performers and a sure-fire Hall of Famer that his services will not be required in Vancouver. And if there’s anyone who’s praying that Joe Sakic retires after this season and makes the decision for him, it’s got to be his fellow No. 19.
Canada probably doesn’t win the gold medal in 2002 without Sakic in the lineup and he has been a beacon of excellence for Canada’s program, but what is Yzerman to do? Does he keep a fading 40-year-old over the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Jonathan Toews, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards or Eric Staal? Because that’s exactly what he’ll have to do if he chooses to keep Sakic.
Sakic has already stated he won’t come back next season just to play in the Olympics and that he won’t even consider playing if he doesn’t think his game is up to Olympic caliber. He would be the first to understand if Yzerman put emotion and sentiment aside and went without Sakic in what will likely be the last Olympiad with NHL players.
Even without Sakic, Yzerman faces a mother lode of good-type headaches. Sidney Crosby will be anointed the No. 1 center and possibly the captain of the team, unless of course the coaching staff pulls a Vancouver Canucks and gives the designation to Roberto Luongo.
If you’re picking the Canadian Olympic team right now, Crosby as the centerpiece is as it should be. He might be playing the best hockey out of anyone in the NHL right now and after a head-scratching start, has begun to display the kind of goal-scoring ability and numbers that superstar players exhibit.
Vincent Lecavalier and Joe Thornton almost certainly have to fall into the next two slots because somebody has to get the puck to the likes of Rick Nash, Simon Gagne, Corey Perry, Jarome Iginla and Dany Heatley.
But where do you go from there? Getzlaf and Carter have emerged as two of the most dominant centers in the game, while Toews and Richards are virtual clones – two players who can play both ends of the ice without sacrificing offense and provide a ton of youthful leadership.
Carter and Richards, though, spend far more time killing penalties than any other forward who would be considered for Canada’s Olympic team and Carter has perhaps the best wrist shot in the NHL. (While we’re on the subject of Carter, he and Thomas Vanek are Exhibit A in the argument that goals should count more than assists, but that’s a tirade for another time).
So perhaps you go with them and leave Toews and Getzlaf off the team or have one of them move to the wing.
What are you, nuts? Have you seen Getzlaf play lately? And if you get to a shootout in the gold medal game, would you want anyone but Toews taking a decisive shot?
Even then, what do you do with Staal, Jason Spezza, Marc Savard and the forgotten one, Brad Richards? Perhaps you move some of those guys to the left side, where the pickings beyond Nash and Gagne are Patrick Marleau and Brenden Morrow. Somebody could perhaps move onto the right side along with Perry, Iginla and Heatley.
Of course, Devin Setoguchi, who has 27 points in 24 games this season and finds himself in the top 10 of NHL scoring, might have something to say about that.
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