By Allan Muir
When it comes to Canada’s national hockey teams, the story is never who makes the cut, but who gets snubbed. Second-guessing the roster has become the country’s other official sport.
Such scrutiny is the price that comes with having the world’s most enviable talent pool, one so deep that a solid case can be built for literally dozens of choices. But it also points out the challenge facing Steve Yzerman and the rest of Canada’s management heading into Sochi. It’s not just a matter of picking the best players or the ones with the flashiest statistics, but the men capable of playing multiple roles…and meshing well with one another.
And it’s about picking players who will be ready when Feb. 12, 2014 rolls around, not just those who’ve answered the call in the past. Experience is important, but the team can’t live in the past.
So maybe that means no Rick Nash, who has underperformed at his last couple international events. Maybe Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton and Ryan Getzlaf don’t have the versatility to find footing among Canada’s deep group of centers. Maybe some youngsters are ready but others, like Tyler Seguin, Logan Couture and Jeff Skinner aren’t quite there yet.
Or maybe they’ll all be obvious choices next December when the rosters are announced. A lot can change in a year’s time. Injuries, comebacks and breakthroughs will play a significant role in how this team eventually comes together.
No matter who wears the colors, Canada looks to have the deepest forward corps and the best top-four in the tournament. But behind them will be a group of goaltenders guaranteed to triple antacid sales from Cornerbrook to Victoria.
Here’s how I see the roster playing out.
• Carey Price (Canadiens): He’s a fine goaltender whose game is improving, but it speaks volumes about the state of Canada’s netminders that Price is the clear No. 1 choice.
• Roberto Luongo (Canucks): Clearly the trick with Luongo is to name him the backup and then slip him in without the pressure that comes with being the starter.
• Mike Smith (Coyotes): He’s big, technically sound and the proved in last year’s playoffs that he can be brilliant under pressure. As a No. 3, he has more upside than Marc-Andre Fleury or Cam Ward.
• Shea Weber (Predators):: The perennial Norris Trophy finalist will be Canada’s workhorse on the back end.
• Alex Pietrangelo (Blues):: Studying under Sergei Zubov has Pietrangelo on the verge of breaking through to elite status.
• Drew Doughty (Kings): Canada’s best defenseman for long stretches in Vancouver, he’s bigger, smarter and more experienced after the Kings’ 2012 Cup win.
• Duncan Keith (Blackhawks): Back on top of his game after two middling (by his standards) seasons.
• Kris Letang (Penguins): Skating and offensive creativity make him a natural for the power play.
• Dan Girardi (Rangers): If Canada is protecting a late, one-goal lead, he’s the guy you want on the ice.
• Brent Seabrook (Blackhawks): His 2010 experience and chemistry with Keith give him a slight edge over Marc Staal.
• Sidney Crosby (Penguins): The best player in the world wasn’t all that special in Vancouver until he scored the Golden Goal. Expect him to make a more consistent impact this time around.
• Claude Giroux (Flyers): He could play center or wing on any line and make a significant contribution.
• Steven Stamkos (Lightning): The world’s most dangerous goal scorer will be a difference-maker in his first big international event.
• Jonathan Toews (Blackhawks): Put him wherever you want. He’ll be Canada’s MVP.
• Corey Perry (Ducks): He might prove to be more valuable as a checker and agitator than a goal scorer this time around.
• Taylor Hall (Oilers): He’s not there yet, but by this time next year he’ll be ready. Big, fast and willing to drive the net.
• Jordan Eberle (Oilers): This kid is magic whenever he puts on the maple leaf, but he’ll have to be used as a top-six forward to be effective. This could be Nash’s spot.
• John Tavares (Islanders): He looked good on the big ice in Switzerland during the lockout and at the past two World Championships. He’s ready for a starring role.
• Eric Staal (Hurricanes): Big, quick and off to a great start. Versatility helps his cause. Proved he could excel on the wing in Vancouver.
• Jamie Benn (Stars): A fierce competitor and he can play center or wing. Goes hard to the net and is developing a nice scoring touch.
• Martin St. Louis (Lightning): The trend is to go younger, but that’s for the fast legs. Yzerman knows St. Louis is still plenty quick and has great chemistry with Stamkos.
• Patrice Bergeron (Bruins): The defending Selke Trophy winner will key Canada’s checking line and take all the big face-offs.
• Jarome Iginla (Flames): The toughest choice. This natural winger is clearly nearing the end of his career, but Yzerman always finds a place for a savvy veteran presence who has seen it all. Iggy can fill that role.