While defense and goaltending are incredibly important when it comes to securing a gold medal for Canada it is the selection of forward group that truly displays the mentality and structure of the assembled roster. It is here that Canada will choose their champion: be it the physical style that is usually used for Canadian teams and that was so successful in Vancouver or a skill based style that more conforms to the international ice surface. This will be where Canada shows its hand to the opposition for better or for worse and its success at the tournament could ultimately depend on which of these two are selected.
Picking physicality at the sacrifice of skill is truly the hill that Canada will die on should they chose to go down that road. Again, it was incredibly successful in Vancouver as grinders like Brendan Morrow had great tournaments. But with the ice surface expanding these same type of players just won’t be nearly as effective. The good thing for Canada is that considering the talent field they have to select from they have players with grit, speed and talent especially on the defensive end. At forward there is slightly more discrepancy.
If this were still Vancouver a player like hometown boy Milan Lucic would be on the roster right away, and rightfully so as he would be an absolute asset in a Morrow type position. But on the international ice that selection would be nonsensical. However, with Peter Chiarelli as part of the management team he might get a little extra look. Granted, one “incorrect” selection at the forward position will not blow this tournament for Canada. But if it reflects the general mentality of the selections then the team could encounter some problems. Below is a look at how Canada should comprise its forward group in order to succeed in Sochi.
Centre is always the most interesting pick for Canada because the country has so many talented players at the position. In fact the team is so stacked at the centre that both wings are usually heavily comprised of centres as well. However, who will play number one centre for Canada is no controversial choice. Sidney Crosby was the hero in Vancouver and remains the best hockey player on the planet. Nobody else can claim to be a bigger lock for any Olympic team than Crosby for Canada. The other lock at centre won both the Selke Trophy and Stanley Cup this year. Jonathan Toews brings leadership and sensational two-way ability to Canada and was the most valuable player for Canada in Vancouver.
Past this it gets a bit muddy as there are any number of solid centres who could fill the bottom two roles for Canada, but two names stand out above the rest. The first in Claude Giroux, an excellent faceoff man and a player who has talent to burn. Watching Giroux play on International ice at the World Championships this year was a sight to see. He had an absolutely dominant tournament despite the quarterfinal exit and combined incredibly well with Steven Stamkos, a potential power play combo for Canada. The other is Patrice Bergeron. While he is in many ways a prototype of Jonathan Toews it is very difficult to see that as a bad thing. With both on the roster Canada has arguable the two best defensive centres in the game, although surely Pavel Datsyuk would have something to say about that. Not to mention Bergeron’s superb ability at the dot, which will be on full display when Canada need a crucial faceoff handled. Having he and Toews as a 1A/1B situation on the penalty kill is also pretty unbelievable.
Moving on to the right wings now and Canada’s forward group hardly falters. Again there are two relative locks at this position. Steven Stamkos was left off the team in Vancouver but there is no chance of that happening again. He could definitely be playing Centre for this team but his faceoff statistics dictate otherwise. Instead Stamkos will enjoy first line time with Sidney Crosby which will hardly hurt his production. That forward combination should be the best the games have to offer. The relative lock is Corey Perry who did an exceptional job for the Olympic team last time around and has always delivered when called upon by his country. A former Hart trophy winner who is currently in his prime he fits perfectly into this team.
While picking older players has definitely cost Canada in the past, see the 2006 Olympic in Torino, there are always a few worthy of selection. This time around that man is Martin St. Louis, the reigning Art Ross trophy winner. There have been few players in hockey recently who have been so consistently impressive both in terms of statistics and level of player as St. Louis. This shortened season was the first time St. Louis hasn’t hit the 70 point plateau since 2002-03. After being overlooked for the last Olympic team it would be foolish to do so again. His playmaking abilities on the international ice will be valuable as will his past international experience. Finally, having a pool of grinders on the ice for Canada may be a poor choice but bringing solid shutdown players who can skate is not. Mike Richards, in combination with Jonathan Toews, made up Canada’s best line and an incredible shutdown pairing in 2010. Richards will probably not get to play with Toews again these Olympics as the Blackhawk should be getting a promotion but he warrants a spot on this team.
Last, but certainly not least, comes Canada’s left wing group. Again this group is made up of mostly of centres playing out of position. Everything about John Tavares’ play at centre with the Islanders warrants him a spot at that position with this team but for all intents and purposes he will play top line left wing. As the player who truly deserved the 2013 Hart Trophy Tavares will demonstrate on the world stage why he is one of the best in the game today. On the other hand, while Tavares was having an excellent season Rick Nash was having a rather forgettable one. Everyone else should forget it too. It was truly a blip on the radar for a player who is among the league elite. Nash has always shown up for Canada no matter the tournament and will do so once again both in making the team and his performance in Sochi.
Another solid centre who will be made a left wing convert is Eric Staal. Staal is yet another player who performed exceptionally in Vancouver and deserves a spot on the roster once again. Despite three Staal brothers being invited to Olympic camp he will probably be the only one to make the team, although Marc has a shot. Staal is the kind of player who keeps Canada’s trademark physical play alive while not compromising the required skill. As for the final left wing selection it could very well have been Logan Couture but Taylor Hall better fit’s the bill. After a couple of years in which he struggled to truly find his footing as an elite NHL player Hall was solid in 2013 transforming into one of the league’s premier left wingers. Furthermore, Couture has no international experience while Hall has represented Canada on numerous occasions and done very well.
As can also be seen with the defense Canada is allowed to bring two extra forwards to Sochi 2014, something of which they will almost certainly take advantage. At this stage it would be nonsensical for Canada to bring a centre in one of the extra two spots as they will have so many already on the team who can step in should an injury take place. What does make sense is bringing a winger for both sides and since he was so difficult to leave off the first twelve Logan Couture will represent the left. He had great numbers playing on International ice during the lockout and is plenty capable of filling the shoes of an injured player. On the right is Canadian talisman Jordan Eberle, he of one of the greatest moments in Canadian hockey history. Eberle seems to take it too a whole ‘nother level with a Maple Leaf on his chest which is pretty ridiculous considering his skill set already.
As per usual there is plenty of talent invited to camp who was left off this team, some more notable than others. Two former Olympians invited to try out have not made this roster. Ryan Gezlaf was a force in Vancouver but his game doesn’t translate well onto international ice. Joe Thornton played on a line of Sharks last time around but that doesn’t seem too likely in Sochi. Logan Couture is probably the only one from San Jose who will make the team if any. Jeff Carter is tough to keep off this team but with Canada so deep, I just couldn’t find the room for him. Matt Duchene is betrayed by his position and lack of experience but is high up on the list as potential replacements and likely won’t miss the cut in 2018. Chris Kunitz is a great scorer and underrated as a commodity without Crosby but doesn’t stand much of a chance considering the other names.
Andrew Ladd was very good with Giroux and Stamkos at the World Championships but was notably the lesser of the three. Hard to validate him making the roster over Tavares, Nash, Staal and Hall (which is also very fun to say). As explained above Milan Lucic doesn’t make sense on international ice and Bruins teammate Brad Marchand doesn’t have the numbers to really place him in the right wing conversation. James Neal is first in line to replace anyone on this team who goes down with injury but it will be tough to say exactly what he can do without Malkin, there is only one centre on Canada better and Neal won‘t be playing with him. Patrick Sharp is another pure goalscorer, like Neal, but doesn’t possess the intangibles to put him in consideration for the top 12. With Bergeron and Toews already on the team Jordan Staal is made the least likely Staal to suit up for the national team.
The fact that there are more slots for forwards than any other position also made room for more camp snubs than at defense or in net. Leading off is the lack of Jamie Benn or Jason Spezza. Benn is a great scorer with nice size while Spezza has some of the best hands in the game when he is healthy. Another often injured player who was left off the roster is Joffrey Lupul who, again, when not hurt has been known to dominate. Jarome Iginla is another former great who was left off the team but after watching 2006 I don’t think too many Canadians will be worried about this. Tyler Seguin had a poor year, especially in the playoffs but was unbelievably dominant in Europe during the lockout. Finally, it would have been nice to have a look at Jeff Skinner who has scored some pretty spectacular goals on the big ice for Canada.
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