Is It Time for Canada to Freak Out About Its Olympic Hockey Team Yet? (Yes!)
Canada is generally a fairly calm nation. As long as our beer is cold, our bacon is crisp, and somebody doesn’t try to order a breakfast sandwich in the Tim Hortons drive-through and make the entire neighborhood 45 minutes late for work, we’re a pretty laid-back people.
But there’s one glaring exception to that rule: hockey. We can occasionally get a little intense about that. And that’s especially true when the Olympics are involved, since there are only two possible outcomes for Team Canada — a gold medal, or a crushing, humiliating failure that ends with all the players being herded onto an ice floe in the Bay of Fundy.
Last week, Team Canada held its initial orientation camp, in which 47 potential Olympians were invited to get together in Calgary. Because of insurance issues, there were no actual on-ice workouts. The event consisted entirely of a friendly few days of team-building, walkthroughs, and photo ops. Needless to say, this plunged Canadian hockey fans into chaos.
And so, in what may need to become a regular feature around here between now and February, here’s a look at some of the Olympic-related topics that your neighbors to the north are currently in a state of abject panic about.
They snubbed Jason Spezza!
Most hockey fans could probably name the top four active players in points per game since the 2005 lockout: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, and Joe Thornton.
But can you guess who comes in at no. 5? I bet you can’t. Go ahead and try. [Realizes he already gave the answer away in the header.] Crap. OK, yes, it’s Jason Spezza, who’s outscored Olympic sure-things like Pavel Datsyuk, Steven Stamkos, and both the Sedins.
And yet, he didn’t even earn an invite to the Canadian camp. This seems to be a pattern, as he was also initially left off the list in 2009 (though that time around, he was added as an eventual injury fill-in).
Why everyone should calm down: It’s not all that hard to figure out what’s going on here. Spezza’s a center, and Canada is already ridiculously deep there. In most countries, the fact that players as talented as Spezza can’t even get a camp invite would actually be considered a good sign. But this is Canada, so …
There are way too many centers!
Yes, Canada is loaded down the middle, with guys like Crosby, Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, and John Tavares already as close to locks as you can be at this stage. Add in names like Thornton, Patrice Bergeron, and Claude Giroux, and it just starts to get embarrassing. And we didn’t even mention Ryan Getzlaf or Mike Richards or Logan Couture or Eric Staal or … You get the picture.
Will there be room for everyone? Not really, given that the team only needs four or five centers. And what about the wing, where there’s decent depth but nowhere near as much star power?
Why everyone should calm down: Go back and read those names again. Does having too many players like that really sound like a problem to you? The reality is that all those guys can make the team, with some of them just shifting over to wing. While playing out of position is never ideal, moving from center to wing is probably the easiest switch to make. I’m pretty sure these guys will be OK.
The centers will be fine. Canadians should save the panic for a position that needs it …
The goaltending is terrible!
See? That’s more like it.
Goaltending is always crucial in a short, single-elimination-style tournament. And for years, Canadians were able to bank on excellent netminding. Ever since NHL players started going to the Olympics, Canada has been able to bring two or three of the world’s best goalies.
Not this year. For a variety of reasons, the three goalies who led Canada to gold in 2010 are all major question marks. Roberto Luongo was put through the wringer in Vancouver. Martin Brodeur got old, and frankly just isn’t all that good any more. Marc-Andre Fleury is, let’s just say, not an ideal option.
There’s a void in the Canadian goaltending ranks, and so far nobody’s stepped up to fill it. Right now the consensus best goalie in the world is Swedish, the two next best may be Finnish, the reigning Vezina winner is Russian, and the best of the rest all seem to be Americans.
Meanwhile, Canada waits for someone to emerge. Eddie Belfour is not walking through that door. Curtis Joseph is not walking through that door. Patrick Roy might walk through that door, but if so it’s only because he wants to fight all the other goalies and then leave again.
Why everyone should calm down: Canada won’t go into the tournament with the best goaltending, but it’s not like they’re going to be awful. Luongo is still one of the world’s better goalies, Carey Price has occasionally been in that discussion, and Corey Crawford just earned both a Stanley Cup ring and a terrible contract.
And at least whoever earns the starter’s job for Canada will be playing behind a formidable defense, right? Um, about that …
The best defensemen all play on the same side!
Canada will be missing defensive mainstays Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, but the blue line should still be a strength. After all, how hard can it be to pick six or seven great Canadian defensemen? Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Brent Seabrook, Kris Letang, P.K. Subban. Done!
Except there’s an issue with that list: Other than Keith, they’re all right-handed shots. And that’s a problem, because apparently it’s crucial that every team has an equal number of defensemen who can shoot from each side.
(I say “apparently” because this only seems to have become important over the last few years. I honestly have no recollection of ever hearing about which side defensemen shot from until about 2011. Am I alone in this, hockey fans? Did I miss a meeting?)
So if Canada decides that they need more lefties, that means players like Jay Bouwmeester, Marc Staal, Dion Phaneuf, or even Marc Methot are in the mix. And guys like Letang and Subban (who, let’s remember, is the reigning Norris winner) suddenly become long shots.
Why everyone should calm down: First of all, it’s not like those left-handed guys are all pylons. Some of them, yes, but not all of them. So if Canada does insist on a roughly equal split, they’ll still be icing a solid blue line.
But history says they may not bother. After all, Niedermayer and Pronger are both lefties, and they paired up just fine. Asking a defenseman to play on the other side is a bigger adjustment than moving a center to wing, but we’re still talking about some of the best players in the world. You’d have to think that at least a few of them could handle it.
The big ice!
The 2014 games will be played on international ice, which is 15 feet wider than the North American standard. While the importance of that difference is often overstated, it does have an impact.
Will it matter? Remember, Canada won gold on Vancouver’s small ice in 2010, but is only one-for-three in the other NHL-eligible Olympic tournaments played on the wider surface. Also, Canada has to obsess about the big ice in every international tournament. It’s a national law.
Why everyone should calm down: Almost every top player in this tournament will be from the NHL, so the big ice will be an adjustment for everyone. Yes, it’s a bigger adjustment for North Americans, but let’s not get carried away. Suggestions that Canada needs to base its roster on the rink dimensions (for example, by focusing on speed over size) seem like an overreaction.
Besides, ice size is boring. Let’s get back to panicking about the forwards.
Chris Kunitz is on the first line!
Chris Kunitz is a lot of things. Good player. Owner of multiple Cup rings. Coming off a career year that saw him named a first-team All-Star. My wife’s cousin, which probably won’t impact his Olympic chances but still feels like something I should mention.
What he’s not, despite last season’s big numbers, is a player who comes up often in discussions of the very best of the best. That made his inclusion on the Canadian camp invite list a mild surprise, though it made some sense when you factored in his chemistry with Penguins linemate Sidney Crosby. He may be a long shot to make the team, but he’s at least earned a look, right?
But then the TSN panel came along, with its early prediction of Canada’s eventual Olympic lineup. (Yes, Canadian sports stations are already having panels pick the Olympic lineup. This is what happens to a country when it doesn’t have Tim Tebow to argue about.) Based on its own evaluations as well as its read on the management and coaching staff, it had Kunitz slotted in on the first line.
Cue the nationwide record-scratch sound effect.
Why everyone should calm down: It’s early. Yes, there will be an initial wave of predictions, but there’s no need to get worked up about them. It’s certainly possible that management likes the idea of pairing Kunitz with Crosby. They clearly play well together, and in a short tournament it’s never a bad idea to come in with some pre-packaged chemistry.
But it’s safe to assume that Crosby would have decent chemistry with just about anybody, because he’s the best player in the world. If Kunitz picks up where he left off last year, he has a shot at the job. But if he goes back to, well, being Chris Kunitz, then somebody else will slot in just fine. Either way, it’s nothing to worry about right now.
What about Taylor Hall!
That same TSN panel prediction that liked Kunitz (and which, again, was heavily weighted toward what they’re hearing from Canadian management) included 14 forwards on its final roster. None of them were Taylor Hall.
That would be the same Taylor Hall who just put up 50 points in 45 games, despite being just 21 years old and playing for a terrible team. He’s one of the best wingers in the league, and would have earned second-team All-Star honors if the PHWA had been able to remember which position Alexander Ovechkin played.
If Hall does get left at home, it would continue a Canadian tradition of identifying the nation’s best young player and then inexplicably leaving him off the team. They did it with Crosby in 2006. They did it with Stamkos in 2010. Maybe this year is Hall’s turn.
Why everyone should calm down: It’s early. Yes, there will be an initial wave of predictions, but there’s no need to … wait, I feel like we did this already, I need something else.
OK, barring an injury or some sort of massive season-long slump, there’s really no way to defend leaving Hall off the team. It would be a massive mistake.
But that’s why Canadians should relax. Team management is smart. It’ll come around on Hall. Heck, maybe it already has, and is just sending him a little message to keep him motivated. Either way, there’s no reason to worry that it’s going to go and overthink this thing.
It’s totally going to go and overthink this thing!
No, see I just said … Look, you really need to stop skipping ahead to the next section before the last one ends.
One thing you need to understand about Canadian hockey fans is that we’re still collectively suffering from a condition known as PZSD, or Post-Zamuner Stress Disorder. That would be Rob Zamuner, the marginally effective defensive forward who was named to the 1998 Olympic team over more accomplished players like Mark Messier. It was the classic case of overthinking the roster selection process, with GM Bobby Clarke somehow deciding that it made sense to populate his third and fourth lines with actual third- and fourth-liners (Shayne Corson made the team too).
The 1998 team didn’t win a medal, largely because they couldn’t score. That probably had more to do with this guy than it did with Zamuner, but the scars remain. Ever since, Canadian fans collectively shudder in anticipation of the next off-the-board Olympic choice.
Why everyone should calm down: Subsequent Canadian teams seem to have learned from the 1998 debacle. There are always a handful of surprise choices, and there will be again this year, but we haven’t seen anything close to a Zamuner-level mistake since then. So there’s no reason to think it’ll make one now.
Unless it’s due. Oh god, it’s due, isn’t it? [Runs outside, sets the Zamboni parked on his lawn on fire just to be safe.]