The only thing tougher than earning a spot on Team Canada is keeping it.
More than half of the 23 players who helped the country win gold at the Vancouver Olympics would likely be left off if Hockey Canada had to pick a national team today.
Two years ago, Steve Yzerman boldly selected 15 Olympic rookies for his team, opting for youth over experience. “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,” Yzerman said after unveiling his picks in December 2009.
Given the success that followed, it’s hard to argue with the strategy. Borrowing from Yzerman’s approach, The Canadian Press has assembled the latest national team by placing a heavy emphasis on recent performance.
As a result, only nine holdovers remain. However, there are 12 Stanley Cup winners, six former No. 1 picks and numerous major individual awards among the group.
The Sochi Games aren’t until 2014—and the participation of NHL players isn’t even confirmed yet. But if we had to pick an Olympic team going into 2012, here’s a breakdown of our selections by position:
This is the toughest part of the process. Inevitably, several elite players have to be left behind while picking just 13 forwards with the right combination of speed, size, skill and sandpaper.
The country also boats a disproportionate number of high-end centremen compared with natural wingers. Yzerman and his management team were reluctant to shift too many players out of position in 2010 and we’ve tried to limit that movement as well.
Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron—all holdovers from the Vancouver squad—will fill the top three centre positions. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins anchors the fourth line and can be swapped out with extra forward Jordan Staal.
Nugent-Hopkins was the toughest decision among the group, especially since the 18-year-old was selected over Eric Staal, Ryan Getzlaf and Mike Richards, to name a few. The rookie earned the nod because he’s having the best offensive season among those players—Eric Staal and Getzlaf, in particular, have struggled—and possesses exceptional playmaking skills.
Two other recent No. 1 picks, John Tavares and Steven Stamkos, would each be shifted to the wing and could play on a line with Crosby. That would allow Toews to centre former Olympic linemate Rick Nash and Chicago Blackhawks teammate Patrick Sharp.
Bergeron would fit nicely with Boston Bruins teammate Milan Lucic and reigning Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry on an energy unit that would be tough to contain, leaving Nugent-Hopkins between Jeff Skinner and Claude Giroux.
This forward group isn’t quite as big as the one Yzerman sent to Vancouver, but that shouldn’t be a problem with the 2014 Games being played on the larger international ice surface. With more room to manoeuvre, the physical aspect of the game isn’t as significant.
Lucic, the player most likely to raise eyebrows for his inclusion, will be counted on for some grit. At six foot four and 220 pounds, he is a bulldog on skates.
Naturally, the team will centre around Crosby, the new captain. He assumes that role from the retired Scott Niedermayer and will be counted on to lead a young group.
Among the forwards who earned serious consideration and didn’t make the cut: Getzlaf, Eric Staal, Joe Thornton, Matt Duchene, James Neal, Logan Couture, Jordan Eberle and Evander Kane.
The retirement of Scott Niedermayer and aging of Chris Pronger have left a fairly sizable hole on the left side of the blue-line.
One of those spots will be filled by right-handed Kris Letang, who played the left side for the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this season while Brooks Orpik was out with injury. Letang, currently recovering from a Max Pacioretty hit, will skate alongside Shea Weber.
Behind them, the familiar Chicago Blackhawks tandem of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will return. As Yzerman put it when adding those players in 2010: “(We decided) let’s just go with it, let’s not overthink it.”
Smooth-skating Drew Doughty is also back alongside Dan Hamhuis, a nice steadying presence who can play the left side. He’s logged heavy minutes for the Canucks this season and is familiar with the big ice after several international tournaments.
Alex Pietrangelo gets the role of seventh defenceman.
Marc Staal, a left-handed shot, will be a strong candidate for a job on this team but was left off for now because he’s missed the entire season with a concussion. Among the other blue-liners passed over: Dion Phaneuf, P.K. Subban, Braydon Coburn and Karl Alzner.
This position creates a potential problem for the coach.
For starters, there is no clear hierarchy among the three players—although we gave Marc-Andre Fleury the No. 1 job based on his two Stanley Cup appearances and stint as the third-stringer at the 2010 Games.
Carey Price and Cam Ward could each replace him if he stumbles early on. That formula has worked twice during gold medal runs for Canada: Martin Brodeur took over for Curtis Joseph in 2002 while Roberto Luongo assumed the job from Brodeur in Vancouver.
We chose to leave Luongo off the team after his shaky performance in last year’s Stanley Cup final. It’s time for a changing of the guard in the Canadian crease.
A look at The Canadian Press’ version of Team Canada: