TORONTO – Steven Stamkos hasn’t played since November, yet his being named to Team Canada for the Sochi Olympics might’ve been the easiest decision of the entire process.
“Quite easy,” said Peter Chiarelli, general manager of the Boston Bruins and a part of Steve Yzerman’s staff. “He’s had a terrific year, he’s been hurt.”
Stamkos broke his right tibia when he crashed into the net Nov. 11. The Tampa Bay Lightning star is back on the ice trying to get healthy, and Sochi is a legitimate target.
But this wasn’t difficult because Canada really had nothing to lose. If Stamkos is unable to play a game by early February before the NHL breaks for the Olympics, an injury replacement can take his place.
“We’re going to take it one step at a time,” said Yzerman, Team Canada’s executive director and GM of the Lightning. “We had to announce 25 players today. If he’s healthy, he’s obviously one of the 25 best players in Canada and should be on that team. We’re not allowed to name 24 today and wait and see a 25th.
“If we didn’t name him today, if no one is injured between now and then, and we hope no one is, we wouldn’t be able to name him.”
There’s certainly no shortage of potential replacements who could play right wing in Sochi, including Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers and James Neal of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Speaking to reporters at the Flyers’ morning skate in Newark, N.J., Giroux expressed disappointment but did not confirm he was in line to make the team in the event of an injury.
“There are several players who are under consideration, and we’ve got time and we’ll continue to watch,” Yzerman said. “I’d prefer to stay away from (any speculation).”
Based on the speed of Stamkos’ recovery so far, it may not come to that. The 23-year-old has been keeping potential Olympic coach Mike Babcock updated on his progress, and Babcock didn’t express any concern about the uncertainty.
“He’s an elite competitor who wants to be on the team,” Babcock said. “He’ll be on the team if he’s healthy.”
Stamkos said his goal every day is to feel a little bit better. He has been ramping up off-ice workouts and lifting weights and working with team trainers and therapists to make improvements.
“It’s just trying to make sure that we don’t try to push anything too much at this stage and make sure everything’s progressing well,” he said at MTS Centre in Winnipeg. “You just don’t want to have a setback right now.”
SMITH MAKES IT AS THIRD GOALIE
Roberto Luongo and Carey Price figured to make Team Canada based on their NHL careers and past experience in international competition. It didn’t take much convincing at the end for the management staff to decide on Mike Smith as the third goaltender, according to St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong.
The Phoenix Coyotes goaltender made it over Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“You have to look at last year’s Stanley Cup-champion, Crawford, was at our (Olympic orientation) camp,” Armstrong said. “His team is the top team in the league again or near the top. Fleury in Pittsburgh’s played very well this year. There was some debate on that, and ultimately we felt that the three guys that we’re bringing can get the job done.”
Armstrong delivered the good news to Smith, who said he couldn’t even describe his emotions, which included understandable relief.
“It’s definitely an exciting time and in the same sense it’s good to have answers,” Smith said. “It’s something you think about and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it. These opportunity only come along every once in a while and it’s one you want to grab onto, play well and earn your spot.”
Smith led Phoenix to the Western Conference final in 2012, but playing well for Canada at last year’s world championships could’ve sealed it for him.
“Playing in the worlds got my feet a little bit wet and was an enjoyable experience for me and my family over in Sweden and I played well, which I think helped my stock a little bit,” Smith said.
Jamie Benn made little secret that not being invited to Canada’s Olympic orientation camp over the summer served as a source of motivation for him. Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff called Benn a “possessed player” this season.
It worked as Benn was one of two players not invited to camp—along with Patrick Marleau of the Sharks—who made the 25-man roster for Sochi.
“You look back now and you think, we probably should have brought him to that camp,” Yzerman said of Benn. “I talked to (Stars GM) Jim Nill at length about him and I think it’s fair to say he’s maturing as an athlete and a person. Over the last month we said: ‘This guy is really playing well. He seems like a good fit. He seems like a player who’s going to excel in this tournament.'”
With files from Scott Edmonds in Winnipeg and the Associated Press.
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.