Of all the countries in the world Canada has the deepest and most talented pool of hockey players. The competition is so fierce that fans and media pundits alike are often disgruntled not only by omissions from the final roster but also those from the wide array of players selected to take part in the Olympic Camp. While some countries struggle to put together lineups with enough NHL caliber talent to compete Canada has to decide which elite NHL talent to leave off of their roster. It is a scenario that breeds controversy in all positions.
However, the position which always receives the most attention when it comes to Canadian hockey has always been between the pipes and this phenomenon is no different heading into the 2014 Sochi Olympics. It seems that the depth present in literally every other possible position fails to extend to the crease. The biggest question mark within the Canadian team has always been who will start in goal, a storyline many years in the making. Now the field has finally been narrowed down to five names ,as reported by Sportsnet’s John Shannon, who will compete for the three roster spots available in Sochi at the Canadian Olympic Camp taking place in Calgary. Below is a look at the Canadian goaltending situation, and what to expect before the games begin.
It has been an interesting run for the last man to set foot in the Canadian crease in the Olympic games since Crosby scored the goal to clinch a gold medal. Roberto Luongo has seen his starting job in Vancouver disappear only to regain it when Cory Schneider was shockingly dealt to the New Jersey Devils. His main concern next year will be almost exclusively with the Canucks as he tries to regain his footing as an NHL starter on a team that is certainly in for an intriguing year. With Torts behind the bench who knows what will become of the Canucks and Luongo.
But with all that said Luongo is the only goaltender with international experience that has been invited to camp and therefore is almost a lock to make the Canadian team. Not to mention the fact that he was more than good enough for the squad in Vancouver. Luongo has always been a goaltender known for folding in pressure situations but certainly hasn’t looked the part at any point during his international hockey career. If the Olympics started today he would undoubtedly be the favourite to start and unless something goes terribly wrong to begin the season he should at least see some action in Sochi.
While Roberto Luongo may be the current favourite another was once considered almost exclusively the man for the job. That man was Canadiens goaltender Carey Price. In a dismal stretch to end the season Price would not only lose any hope of a Vezina Trophy but also most who considered him to be the frontrunner for the national team starting job. He quickly fell from the number one goalie in Canada to being an unknown entity of sorts, one that none fully trust. Trust issues have always been a problem when it comes to Canadian goaltending, and this is certainly not going to help Price’s case if he can’t find consistency.
The 2013-14 campaign is almost a make or break year for Price as he will try to prove to both Hockey Canada and NHL fans that he is truly an elite talent. The knock on Price has always been his ability to slip into mediocrity almost completely without notice, something that cannot happen in a short Olympic tournament. Couple this with the fact that Price has never truly been able to put together a solid playoff campaign and you will find many wary about giving him an opportunity in net. However, there is a very good chance that a healed and revitalized Price will have a solid start to the 2013-14 season and put himself right back in the conversation as one of the league’s best. Either way there is a very good chance he is selected to make this Canadian roster and rightfully so. He has been very good internationally, albeit at the junior level, where he was the tournament’s best goaltender in leading Canada to a World Junior Championship Gold Medal in 2007. That kind of performance will be ultimately what he is aiming for if he sets foot in Sochi.
If you watched the Chicago Blackhawks playoff run this year there were a couple of things about Corey Crawford that stood out. To begin with, he was consistently able to do enough to get the Blackhawks the win. His goaltending performances may not have always been superb but they were almost always adequate. Secondly, just like the team that played in front of him his mental toughness was obvious. Crawford let in several bad goals during the course of the playoffs but never let them shake him and often came out with the victory when all was said and done. Despite the fact that Patrick Kane won the Conn Smythe Trophy almost everyone on the Blackhawks said that it was Crawford who truly led this team to the Stanley Cup.
This is exactly why Crawford needs to be heavily considered for the starting position, not just a roster opportunity, on Team Canada. The Canadian team has almost never needed a goaltender to steal a game, being plenty capable of providing both defence and offence. What they need is goalie who can be good enough to win games in the high pressure situation of the Olympic games. Crawford has displayed this ability to be good enough throughout the 2013 season and ended up with a ring on his finger because of it. A year later it is not all that unlikely that, given the chance, he could have a medal around his neck. The problem with Crawford is that he often tends to have exploitable weaknesses, exemplified by the five glove side goals he let in during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. But not only did Crawford and the Blackhawks win that game; but he shut the door in the next game allowing for the late rally that ultimately clinched the cup. Crawford may not have the same experience or fame that Price or Luongo bring to the table but he is one of Canada’s best bets between the pipes.
While these three goalies make up the frontrunners to receive roster spots on Team Canada they will be joined by two others when camp opens in late August. Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes and Braden Holtby of the Capitals have been extended an invite as well and will definitely make a push for a spot on the team. Smith was the starter for Canada at last years World Championship and played well for Hockey Canada even if the team was eliminated prematurely. Smith has almost come from nowhere to bring himself into the Olympic conversation and has had some impressive games with the Coyotes. His best season by far was 2011-12 when he led them all the way to the Conference Finals after being spectacular in the regular season. Many would argue that his playoff resume is better than that of Carey Price.
The same can be said for Braden Holtby, he who clearly possesses the ability to put a team on his back and carry them in the playoffs. However, with both of these netminders the sample size is too small. Smith has only really had one outstanding NHL season followed by a decently solid one this past year. Meanwhile Holtby is similar and wasn’t even all that impressive in the 2013 playoffs either, allowing five goals in a Game 7 that eliminated his Capitals. Both of these goalies are capable options should one of Price, Luongo and Crawford go down with injury but to put them ahead of any of these three at this point would probably be misguided. That being said a lot can change before the official Olympic roster is announced and both of these men will certainly be fighting hard for a chance to represent their country.
While these five make up the alleged group of goaltenders that Canada has invited to Olympic training camp there are some notable absences. Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes sticks out as the main surprise considering he has played many times for Canada at World Championships and has had plenty of success with the Canes. Meanwhile, Martin Brodeur who has played for Canada at every Olympic Games that has allowed NHL players, leading the team to gold in 2002, has also been overlooked. Marc-Andre Fleury, who was on the roster in Vancouver, has not been incredibly reliable as of late and therefore has lost an opportunity to represent his country again.
Whatever happens these will be the men under the most scrutiny and criticism as Canada heads into the 2014 games. Nobody is quite sure what will come of Canada’s goaltending but almost all consider it to be the weakness of the team. As for which of Crawford, Price or Luongo will start the tournament Canada will probably pick two of them, more evident which two closer to the time, and split their time in the round robin. This is what Canada did in both 2002 and 2010 when the won gold and both times the goalie initially considered the starter lost his job to the man who would lead the team to the championship.
The problem with this, however, as I outlined in an article earlier this year, is that Canada’s group is not all that competitive. In a Group B consisting of Finland, Austria and Norway Canada will be hardpressed to find meaningful games that will display their calibre of goaltending or prepare the team for what they will face in later rounds. But nonetheless, unless one of these three really conveys themselves as the starter before the tournament begins the two goaltender strategy should be adopted.
Canada’s tournament may come down to the performance of the man that stands between the pipes and these are the five men that have been selected to compete for that honour. In less than a year for now we will discover whether that man finds glory or disappointment.
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