MONTREAL – Last time around, Patrick Marleau was invited to camp with the Canadian Olympic hockey team, but didn’t crack the lineup for the 2006 Winter Games in Turin.
This time, the versatile captain of the red-hot San Jose Sharks is making a case for inclusion on perhaps the biggest Olympic showcase the Canadian team has had – the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
Marleau is having a career season, and is doing it as the linemate of one of the best bets to make the 2010 team, centre Joe Thornton
“That would be nice, but right now, we’re just focusing on our team here,” Marleau said Saturday as the Sharks prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens. “They always say there could be a couple of teams from Canada.
“If they call my name, I’ll be ready to go and play, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before that.”
Marleau’s goal in a 2-1 win in Ottawa on Thursday night was his 34th of the season, tying a career high set in 2005-06. And he is on pace to top his career-best 86 points from that campaign.
What may work in his favour is that many of the obvious picks for the Olympic squad are centres, like Thornton, Sidney Crosby or Vincent Lecavalier.
Some centres may be forced to play out of position, but Marleau made the transition last season from centre to left wing. That may be the position where Canada is thinnest.
“It took a while to learn how to play that,” added Marleau. “I’m still learning it a bit.
“Towards the second half of the year, I figured it out a bit and things started to work a little better. But with the system we have now, everybody’s interchangeable. I can end up playing right wing for most of a shift instead of just staying on the left.”
One who will be pulling for the Aneroid, Sask., native is Sharks coach Todd McLellan, who has one of the NHL’s top lines in Thornton, Marleau and a long-shot prospect – 22-year-old Devin Setoguchi of Taber, Alta.
“That’s going to happen a year from now, but I think Patty Marleau has earned the opportunity this year to be considered for a spot,” said McLellan. “He’s done nothing but come to the rink and work hard every night.
“He plays in every situation – power play, penalty killing. He is a utility player in that he can take faceoffs, he can play the wing. It sounds to me like he could be considered.”
Marleau won gold with Canada at the 2003 IIHF world championship in Finland and silver at the 2005 event in Austria, and was part of Canada’s 2004 World Cup gold medal squad.
The 29-year-old was drafted second overall by San Jose in 1997, when the top pick by the Boston Bruins was Thornton. The Bruins traded Thornton to the Sharks for three players on Nov. 30, 2005.
“Between the two of them, they distribute the pressure that’s on them much better when they’re together than when they’re apart,” said McLellan. “Joe might not have a good night, but Patty’s there to pick him up, and vice versa.
“It’s allowed Patty to find his game again and get confident. They’re roommates on the road, they share a lot of ideas. As coaches, we stay out of their way. We let them go and create.”
The Sharks roster is full of potential Olympians for various countries, including defenceman Dan Boyle, who is having his best season since he has 20 goals and 63 points for Tampa Bay in 2006-07.
Canada has a glut of good defencemen, including strong puck-rushing blue liners like Boyle, Washington’s Mike Green and Chicago’s Brian Campbell.
“I try not to think about it,” said Boyle, an Ottawa native who won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004. “I’m one of those guys who is kind of on the bubble.
“I don’t want to worry about that. Obviously, I’d love to play. I know what I can do out there, but it’s out of our hands. I think Patty deserves to be on there, but there’s a lot of good players.”
Another Sharks defenceman is Rob Blake, who played in the last three Olympics but will be 40 when the Vancouver Games roll around.
He smiled when the 2010 Games were mentioned.
“I don’t know, whatever happens,” he said. “I’m playing it year by year now.
“But it’s an honour to be involved with Hockey Canada, as I have been for the last three Olympics. For hockey in general, it’s going to be such a showcase. That was so in Salt Lake (in 2002), but I think it’ll be even moreso in Vancouver.”
For now, the Sharks are more concerned with the torrid pace they’ve set in the current season and shaking their reputation as playoff underachievers.
They have been among the top clubs in the regular season the last three years, but lost in the second round of playoffs each time.
Now, they hope to have bolstered their leadership for the post season by bringing in Stanley Cup winning experience, starting with McLellan who was assistant to coach Mike Babcock in Detroit last season. They also added Boyle and Brad Lukowich from Tampa Bay and recently added 43-year-old winger Claude Lemieux, who won four Cups in his career.
The stumbling block is Red Wings, who they have beaten twice at home this year but lost to twice in Detroit – 6-0 on Dec. 18 and 4-1 on Wednesday.
“Until we get over that hump, we’ll always be the best team not to win a Stanley Cup,” said another veteran, Jeremy Roenick. “That’s in the back of our minds.
“The regular season is nice, but the ultimate goal is still pretty far away.”