A Guest post By Chris O’Neil
After writing an article for The Hockey Writers entitled “Training Day: What NHL Players do in the Off Season”, I have been given the opportunity to follow the Canadian Men’s Olympic Hockey Team as it develops. I will start with the orientation camp in Calgary when it is completed and will be following the progress of those who are going to be competing for a roster spot this February and will provide detailed coverage of the Olympics as well as an analysis of victory or post-mortem of any result but gold.
Picking the Team
Every time Hockey Canada has to choose its players to represent its country in international tournaments the issue becomes as contentious as a separation referendum. Everyone has their favourites, their whipping boys and everybody thinks they know enough about hockey to put the team together. I am no different than every other Canadian but I feel compelled to state on the record that if anybody knows these players Steve Yzerman is that person. Not only is he a champion, a student of the game and an assistant to one of the best GMs in hockey but he also knows what it takes to successfully represent Canada internationally and has played with or against most of the players invited to camp making him a better judge of their character than any Canadian hockey fan could dream of being.
The one area where Canadians have an absolute luxury is depth. If, for example, a defence roster spot comes down to Dion Phaneuf or Mike Green then Hockey Canada will be cutting a top two defender on pretty much any other team in the tournament and one could argue that fact is true for any position. I fully expect disagreement with my criteria for how I would choose the Olympic team but that’s ok; after all where would hockey be without its passionate fans?
When selecting players for team Canada I would select based on three main criteria: Performance, Character and Experience.
Performance is the part of the criteria that I think should carry the most weight when choosing players to play for Team Canada. Performance this season can not be measured yet as the NHL season hasn’t started. I think when the final decisions are made for the December 31 2009 deadline Hockey Canada should focus on which players are playing best at that time, which ones are having a great overall season as well as which players are underperforming or injured. As a Canada fan I want the top players playing at the top of their game in the Olympics and don’t want the roster decided simply on the name on the back of the jersey.
The main area I always take flak for when establishing my criteria for picking team Canada is that I don’t want to ice an all star team. I firmly believe that when the Russians have a power play, having Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley killing the penalty would be a tragic mistake. I believe that the top six forwards should be fast, skilled and reliable. They should be the absolute top class playmakers and scorers that have proven they can produce under pressure and are also defensively responsible. Players like Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla and Eric Staal come to mind here.
I believe that the bottom six forwards have to possess the ability to score but must first be willing to do the dirty, inglorious jobs that don’t show up on the score sheet but are necessary to win; like shutting down the other team’s top players, diligent back checking, blocking shots, taking hits, killing penalties and watching from the bench as the top six get the most accolades. For example, I think Gretzky’s decision to pick Draper and Maltby in 2002 was a great one as they were the top two penalty killers in the NHL at the time. I do believe that most players have the character to do this but Dany Heatley, who would rather have a prominent role on a losing team than a ‘diminishing role’ on a winning team, proved to us that not everybody is happy without marquee status. In my bottom six I would rather have team players like Mike Richards and Jeff Carter who are more than capable offensively but seem to be the kind of players who would take the shut down role and run with it.
I believe in a strong mix of toughness and skill on defence. Some folks may look at the stats column and may wonder how somebody like Robyn Regehr might make the team over somebody like Mike Green. My answer to that is, while offensive numbers are important for those players on the power play or when choosing a puck moving defenceman, premier shut down abilities are often overlooked but absolutely necessary to win. If Team Canada goes down two men against Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, Markov and Gonchar, I would want Robyn Regehr on the ice. Scott Niedermeyer, Chris Pronger and Jay Bowmeester will be locks to represent the team so the real battle comes down to the final two spots and that battle goes between Mike Green, Dion Phaneuf, Shea Weber, Francois Beauchemin, Duncan Keith and perhaps a future star like Doughty or Mark Staal. Personally I think Shea Weber is among the top defencemen in the NHL. If he did not play for Nashville and played for Toronto or Montreal, he’d certainly get top billing. Weber quietly got 23 goals and 30 assists in 81 games last year while dishing out punishing hits and playing very effectively in his own end. At 24 years old he’s ready.
Goaltending is the biggest gamble to me. How much is good goaltending in the NHL a product of a good team and how much of it is ability? Why do goalies like Tim Thomas come out of nowhere very late in their careers and dominate while Calder trophy winners like Andrew Raycroft fade into obscurity? Does Marty Brodeur still have it at 37? Will Luongo melt down in a big game like he did against Chicago last year? If there’s one area I don’t envy Steve Yzerman in his selection it’s goaltending. I do think, however, that with Canada’s defence, that having Brodeur, Luongo, Fleury, Ward or Steve Mason have every opportunity to be successful should they be at the top of their respective games.
Playoff and international experience make up the third part of the criteria that I think is an important part of selecting Canada’s roster. I do believe that in a high calibre tournament like the Olympics, big game experience is a must. Somebody like Scott Niedermeyer, who has a won a Memorial Cup, a World Junior Championship, a Stanley Cup, World Cup, an Olympic Gold Medal and a World Championship, is definitely a guy a coach want on the ice in the final minute of a gold medal game when his team is defending a one goal lead against the world’s best. For young guys I think playoff experience, international experience as well as awards are a good indication of how they will perform when the pressure is on.
My Team as of August 2010
For fun I made up a roster that I would chose if the Olympics started tomorrow. This roster can and WILL change by the time the December 31 deadline rolls around but as I said, it’s just for fun and we’re still in August.
“Taxi Squad” Thornton, Morrow, Spezza, Toews
My top six are made up of players that fit all or most of the criteria I mentioned. As much as I question Dany Heatley’s character based on his reasons for a trade request and lack of a reasonable explanation for denying the Edmonton trade, I still think he can score goals at the highest level. Sydney Crosby has won a Stanley Cup, two Eastern Conference Championships, an Art Ross and a Hart trophy all before his 22nd birthday. He’s the best player in the world in my opinion so he gets the top spot. Iginla is a sniper to compliment Crosby and has the physical ability to be an effective fore checker to create turnover. Eric Staal also has the physical edge as well as the playmaking and scoring ability for the top line but would have to move to the wing. I put Doan on the second line as I think he’d provide some good forechecking to allow Lecavalier and Heatley to work their offensive magic and has the ability to go to the net hard and provide some tertiary offence to that line. The bottom six are all skilled two way players who could be on the first line for most other countries. I put Richards with Carter and Getzlaf with Perry because they have tremendous chemistry on their respective NHL teams and chemistry is at a premium in a short tournament in the middle of an NHL season. I think the third line is dangerous in their size, skill and work ethic but the fourth line is deliberately physical and designed to be very tough to play against as a fourth line should be. They could shut down Ovechkin and wear down Gonchar for example but can also put pucks in the net if the opportunity arises.
I paired these defence based on chemistry mainly as Pronger and Niedermeyer played together for years in Anaheim and in my opinion, were the biggest reasons the Ducks won the Cup. Regehr and Bowmeester will be on the same team and likely in the same pair this year in Calgary and should develop chemistry although this remains to be seen. I put Phaneuf and Webber as 5 and 6 as they are left and right shots, 24 years old and can both physically shut down opposing teams and also put up offense. They’d be tough to play against in both zones. I have Mike Green as a 7th defenceman but he could easily fit into the top 6. I put him behind the others as I feel the others fit my criteria more completely. Again, Mike Green would be top 2 or 4 for most other countries.
This is the toughest but I went with experience and potential. I figure the job is Brodeur’s to lose. He’s the Niedermeyer of goaltenders for this team as he’s a proven winner. Roberto Luongo has shown the ability to win games almost on his own and last year in the playoffs Marc Andre Fleury showed he can make the big timely save in big games. As with the other positions I feel as though team Canada is spoiled to have three goaltenders that would start for almost any other country.
I fully expect my list to change and for there to be some disagreement with it. I will attend the Red and White game Thursday and write in with my thoughts on it although I don’t expect to be swayed one way or the other based on a pre-pre-season scrimmage. Ultimately nobody can know who is best suited for the team until closer to the Olympic Games but I have nothing but full confidence that Steve Yzerman is the best person for the job this time. When Team Canada hits the ice for the 2010 Olympics the team will be favourites to win gold no matter whose names are on the back of the jersey.