Steve Yzerman didn’t play it safe.
The executive director of Team Canada took a bold approach in making his roster selections, calling on several young players at the expense of those with previous Olympic experience.
Yzerman didn’t just sever ties to the team that had a disastrous seventh-place finish in Turin. He also signalled the beginning of a new era in Canadian hockey during a 40-minute announcement in Saskatoon on Wednesday.
“We didn’t specifically go to a younger group or anything, that’s just how our roster unfolded,” said Yzerman. “We’ve got a great group of young Canadian stars and at the end of the day, we just felt like a lot of these guys have overtaken some of our veteran guys and were more suitable to be on this team.”
Fifteen players will be wearing the Maple Leaf on hockey’s biggest stage for the first time.
The most symbolic selection was that of 20-year-old defenceman Drew Doughty, who beat out several more experienced candidates. Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regehr were both in Turin and would have been safer selections for the final spot on the blue-line. Ditto for Mike Green, who has amassed 111 points since Doughty played his first NHL game in October 2008.
Doughty really put himself on Yzerman’s radar at the IIHF World Hockey Championship in May, where he was a standout for the Canadian team that earned silver in Switzerland. That helped earn him an invite to the summer orientation camp.
The Los Angeles Kings sophomore went on to claim one of seven spots on Team Canada’s defence with a good start to the season.
“We feel this guy can handle pressure situations,” said Yzerman, while noting that Green struggled in the playoffs for Washington.
The defence features five players that have never previously been to the Olympics. Canada struggled with its transition game in Turin and should be much stronger in that area this time around, with a group of excellent puck-handlers in Doughty, Scott Niedermayer, Duncan Keith and Dan Boyle.
“We had trouble moving the puck on the big ice (in Turin), I guess would be the best way to describe it,” said Kevin Lowe, a member of Yzerman’s management team. “Now we’ve come almost full-circle in terms of making an emphasis on guys who can move the puck, get it in the hands of the forwards. …
“We think we have that in this group.”
Yzerman’s toughest decisions seemed to come from his forward group and he showed a willingness to think outside the box. Not only did he leave off the fourth-and fifth-best Canadian scorers in the NHL this season (Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards), but he also added Patrice Bergeron, who wasn’t even among the 46 players invited to the summer orientation camp.
Bergeron has a good history with Hockey Canada and started catching the eye of Yzerman and his management team every time they scouted his Boston Bruins. His strongest attribute is versatility.
“When I coached him at the ’04 worlds, he came as an extra and ended up as an important part of our team,” said Canadian coach Mike Babcock. “Five-on-three penalty kill, faceoffs, physical – he did everything right.”
Even though Bergeron was once thought to be a longshot to make the team, he could end up earning a spot on the top line. He’s shown chemistry with Sidney Crosby in the past (2005 world junior championship, 2006 IIHF World Hockey Championship) and could potentially find himself playing on his right wing in Vancouver.
Of course, there’ll be plenty of different combinations floated before Canada opens the Olympic tournament on Feb. 16.
It’s a good bet that some of the forward units will make use of the built-in chemistry that already exists with players. San Jose Sharks teammates Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were all named to the team, as were Anaheim Ducks linemates Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
The Chicago Blackhawks defence pairing of Keith and Brent Seabrook was also added and Yzerman acknowledged that familiarity was a factor.
“(We decided) let’s just go with it, let’s not overthink it,” said Yzerman.
Ultimately, some loyal players were left on the sidelines.
Ryan Smyth and Shane Doan have combined to make 17 appearances for Canada in the world championships, World Cup and Olympics and both were left off. Vincent Lecavalier, Simon Gagne and Brad Richards also failed to crack the squad after competing in Turin.
Yzerman has been through it as a player in the past and knows how tough it is to be left off Team Canada. However, he’ll stand behind every decision.
“We talked about every player,” said Yzerman. “Every player was discussed very respectively and at length. Every decision we made, we didn’t make it lightly. We really put time in a lot of discussions, we debated every decision we made, maybe at times too much quite frankly.”
One of the biggest decisions ended up being an easy one.
Yzerman elected to name Scott Niedermayer captain, essentially choosing him over Sidney Crosby because he felt it was better to go with a veteran leader in the dressing room. On a team filled with so much youth, it’s hard to question the decision.