Restricted by the NHL’s refusal to send its players to the Olympics, Canada sought to build a roster with big league experience that can play fast, hard and create offense. They checked off those boxes, and now the medal hunt begins.
Nobody really knows how the Canadian Olympic team is going to fare in Pyeongchang when the puck drops in a little over a month. It would not be a surprise to see this group win a gold medal, nor would it be a shock if the players left South Korea with nothing around their necks. When it comes to Canada and the other hockey superpowers in this particular tournament, all anyone is doing at this point is guessing.
But this team should challenge for a medal. Because Canada should always challenge for a medal in every single international competition it enters, whether it’s men or women, sledge hockey, junior hockey or minor hockey. It is a country that has too many players, too many arenas, too many resources, too much money and too entrenched a hockey culture to ever, ever enter any tournament as a darkhorse. Those looking for excuses need not apply.
It would be tempting to look at this group and be disappointed. This is obviously not the best team Canada could produce, but it is the best one it could produce under the circumstances and given the parameters that were placed around player selection. What Canada has is a very veteran team with tons of NHL experience – 5,544 games to be exact – and players who have won at virtually every level of hockey in the world. It will probably have one of the older teams in the tournament, topping out at just over 31 years old, but it is hardly an over-the-hill gang.
Could the team have been a little younger? Absolutely, given that 25-year-old Christian Thomas is the youngest of the bunch. Defenseman Cale Makar, coming off his gold medal win with Canada in the World Junior Championship, turned down an offer to play, just as he turned down the chance to play with Canada in the Karjala Cup in November. But as offensively gifted as he is, he would not have been a huge difference maker in this group, a blueline corps that should be able to move the puck and provide some offense from the back end just fine. Victor Mete, who was not on for a single goal against in the WJC, would have been a fine addition had the Montreal Canadiens not summoned him back to the NHL. Jordan Kyrou? The junior sniper was a possibility, but in the end the team opted to go with experience over youth. “We got the players we wanted,” said Scott Smith, Hockey Canada’s chief operating officer.
This will be a team that will be capable of producing offense at this level. Take Rene Bourque, for example. If he showed NHL fans anything during his tenure in the best league in the world it’s that he’s capable of riding a hot streak. The reason he’s no longer in the NHL is those hot streaks don’t come often enough and he’s too big a liability when he’s not scoring. But if Bourque warms up during this tournament, he’ll be a force. The same goes for Wojtek Wolski, who was in traction with two broken cervical vertebrae and trauma to his spinal cord this time last year. Wolski has a dazzling array of skills and he’ll be front and center if Team Canada finds itself in an important shootout. Derek Roy is producing well in Switzerland and former Vancouver Canuck Linden Vey is right on Ilya Kovalchuk’s tail for the scoring lead in the KHL.
On defense, there’s not near as much NHL experience, but there are decent puck movers and reliable players defensively. Marc-Andre Gragnani is one of the top-scoring defensemen in the KHL and Chris Lee, although he has not played a single NHL game, has an extensive international resume that includes playing with NHL players in the World Championship last spring. In goal, former NHLer Ben Scrivens is a steady presence.
What can’t be understated in tournaments such as this one is the importance of having players who are experienced in the international game. When the tournament is filled with NHL players, this is not an issue. But if you want to beat a team that has Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk on it, you’d better have some players who play against them on a regular basis, which is why Canada has 13 KHL players on its roster. The Czechs won the gold medal in 1998 over teams full of NHL players despite the fact that only half its roster was playing in the NHL at the time. Having arguably the best goaltender in the history of the game in his prime helped, but so did having players who were familiar with each other and had lots of experience in international play.
If Canada is going to medal at these games, it will need to move the puck fast, create offense and play a gritty style of game. And even with the limitations, it has a group of players who check off all those boxes.
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