Going on the assumption that the NHL and NHLPA come to an agreement to send their players to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia (and yes, that may be a fairly dangerous assumption) soon after the shortened 2013 season begins, the focus will move to who is off to a good and bad start.This season, as a result of the lockout and the condensed 48-game schedule, those starts will quickly turn into finishes. And the performances in the sprint, which we will call a season, will bear largely in the decision making process for 2014 Olympic rosters.
Because there won’t be a full season played before the 2014 Olympics, national team management will have to look at the combined results from the shortened 2013 season and the first portion of 2013-2014 to make their decisions, which makes it that much more important for players to come out of the gates strong.
For Team Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman and his brass, as highlighted in the past two Olympic Games during which its starting netminders were yanked in favour of their quite capable backups both times (Curtis Joseph in 2002 and Martin Brodeur in 2010), no position is more important than goaltending.
A History of Veterans
As we have seen previously with Canadian goalies, there is a history of going with what has worked in the past. Sometimes that strategy has worked. Other times, it has failed horribly. If that is once again the way Yzerman and his team will go then there are only two names who will be considered for the number one job:
- Roberto Luongo - After relieving Martin Brodeur of his duties in 2010 before leading Canada to gold, Luongo will be the de facto frontrunner. Whether he is seriously considered will depend on the amount of ice time he gets with the Canucks (if he stays in Vancouver) or his play with his new team (if he gets traded). Regardless, Luongo will get the first look and everyone else will be compared to Lu.
Martin Brodeur - Out of respect for his history in the NHL and with Team Canada and his recent run to the Stanley Cup Finals, Brodeur will also get a look. I suspect this look won’t be as lengthy considering he will be 41 by the time the Games are played. But if there is anyone who deserves at least a shot based on his history it’s Brodeur, arguably the best goaltender in NHL history.
Loyalty to the Leaf
Another group of Canadian goaltenders will be in the mix based on their history of answering the call (and successfully so) for Team Canada in addition to their steadiness in the National Hockey League. These guys have gotten the job done at the World Juniors and World Championships and one has even cracked an Olympic roster. So naturally, they will be given serious consideration for Sochi.
- Marc-Andre Fleury – At the age of 28, Fleury has a wealth of experience in pressure-cooker situations. He represented Canada twice at the World Juniors winning a silver medal both times. With the Pittsburgh Penguins, he has been to the Stanley Cup Finals twice (in back-to-back years), winning the second time around. If there is one knock against Fleury it is his consistency. He has shown the ability to succeed at the highest level, but has also been criticized for underperforming when it counts the most. Despite his ups-and-downs, there is no doubt Fleury is an elite goalie, evidenced by his selection to Canada’s Olympic roster in 2010. He will most certainly be on the radar – if not one of the favourites – for Sochi.
- Cam Ward - Despite having never made the cut for Canada’s World Junior team, Cam Ward has been a loyal workhorse for his country at the World Championships. A year after winning the Stanley Cup as a rookie with Carolina, Ward backstopped Canada to gold at the 2007 World Championships. In 2008, he also played in the World’s capturing silver. He also played at the World’s in 2012. Playing in the World Championships is typically reserved for unsuccessful NHLers who either don’t make the playoffs or get ousted fairly quickly. But Cam Ward is anything but unsuccessful. In his seven seasons in the NHL he has racked up five 30+ win campaigns five times, with the other two seasons being cut short (his rookie season when he was a backup and in 09-10 due to injury).
- Carey Price - Much like Cam Ward, Carey Price has often been said to have ice in his veins. In high-stakes environments like and international tournament, especially the Olympics, that is one characteristic a goaltender must have. Also like Ward, Price came into the NHL and in his rookie season played a large role in the playoffs. Since then, he has developed into the undisputed number one in Montreal and the most stable part of their team. Unlike Ward, Price made the Canadian World Junior team (in 2007) and won gold. But also unlike Ward, he hasn’t had much – if any – playoff success. While Price will certainly be considered for one of the two playing spots on Canada’s 2014 roster, his lack of NHL success and accolades may be his undoing.
- Mike Smith - Despite having only played one full season as a starting goaltender in the NHL, Mike Smith has received a considerably high level of praise. Impressive for a guy who “couldn’t stop the puck” when he was fifteen. Smith put up 38 wins and a .930 save percentage in 2011-2012 leading the Phoenix Coyotes to the playoffs and a berth in the Western Conference Final. Smith displayed signs of promise with stints in Dallas and Tampa Bay before being picked up by the ‘Yotes and confirming all beliefs. His big body (6’4”, 215 pounds), athleticism and ferocity will be hard to ignore for Yzerman and company, especially if he continues on the pace he’s at – in the prime of his career to boot. The knocks on Smith will be 1) the small sample size he has as a starting goaltender, 2) a lack of tangible success at the NHL level and 3) no international experience.
Devan Dubnyk - It has been well documented, if the young and powerful Edmonton Oilers want to have success they will need solid goaltending. For now, those hopes rest on the shoulders of 26 year-old Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk has only 101 NHL games under his belt, and has yet to play more than 47 games in a single campaign. But the Oilers have faith – at least in the short term – in the Regina, Saskatchewan native, and rightfully so. In his last 82 NHL games, Dubnyk has 32 wins. Not bad for a goaltender playing on a team which has lacked defensive depth and hasn’t come close to making the playoffs. His play has garnered notice from Hockey Canada. Dubnyk has been on the World Championship roster the previous two years, and is coming off a stellar gold-medal performance in the 2013 Spengler Cup. His history of representing Canada goes back to playing in the World Under-18 tournament and World Junior Championship, so it is clear he sits in good stead with Canadian decision makers. If his play continues to improve he should at least get an invite to the 2014 selection camp.
- Brian Elliott – Although Brian Elliot isn’t necessairly a newcomer and isn’t really even a clear number one in the league, it would be irresponsible to ignore him as at least one of the darkhorses. Elliott is part on an elite tandem in St.Louis (with Jaroslav Halak) which has the Blues pegged as one of the favourites to lead the Western Conference and contend for the Cup. Personally, Elliott is coming off an incredible season in which he posted 23 wins in only 38 games played and put up a miniscule 1.56 goals against average. He has bounced around the league and hasn’t been able to hold on to the reigns for an extended period, but based on last season’s performance alone he will be considered.
If three goaltenders had to be chosen at this very moment – without taking into consideration what they might do in the next two half-seasons – my picks for Canada’s goaltending trio would be (in no particular order):
- Roberto Luongo
- Marc-Andre Fleury
- Cam Ward
If Luongo is traded and gets the lion’s share of work somewhere in the league for the next year, and if he performs in that role as he has in the past it would be hard not to give him a spot on the team. He has been there before and with success. Whether he is the number one or not, his veteran presence would be calming for any newcomers to the Olympic stage.
Fleury has proven with his Stanley Cup appearances and win, and his perennial ability to perform, that he can handle the pressure and play in front of a highly skilled team. He is young and agile and would be motivated to succeed at the international level – and he would have some great mentorship from his Penguins teammate and captain Sidney Crosby.
Cam Ward is Mr. Canada. Not only has he answered the call whenever he has been asked, but he has done so with success. Couple that with the fact that he is calm and collected and has a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophy on his mantle and you can’t argue that he deserves a shot.
Well maybe you can. In fact you could argue any of these picks and certainly based on what happens over the next 100 games or so, there will be plenty of debate about who will end up in Canada’s crease in 2014.