By Allan Muir
It’s not Las Vegas that’s on Matt Duchene’s mind as Colorado’s season comes to a disappointing conclusion. It’s Stockholm. Or, more to the point, Sochi.
The fleet-footed center is ready and willing to extend his season if Team Canada wants him for the upcoming World Championship.
“Absolutely, I’d play,” he said after the Avs were beaten by the Oilers on Friday night. While many players have begged off from the tournament in the past, Duchene would welcome “another chance to put on the [Canadian] jersey and perform and have all the eyes on you that are making the decision for next season.”
“Next season,” of course, is code for the 2014 Olympics. Making that squad is clearly on Duchene’s agenda. “[That would be] an absolute dream come true,” he said.
Duchene, who’s played at the worlds twice before, will be part of a larger-than-usual contingent that’s willing to suit up for Canada next month. Although the late start of the playoffs (April 30) and the early start of the tournament (May 3) mean Hockey Canada won’t be able to count on first-round knockouts to supplement its lineup, it shouldn’t have any trouble icing a stout roster this time around.
As always, lingering injuries may lead to a couple of names being scratched off the wish list, but GM Steve Yzerman and Hockey Canada have a couple of factors working in their favor as they look to build a gold medal-winning squad at the worlds for the first time since 2007.
The shortened schedule means they won’t hear the “I’m exhausted after an 82-game regular season” or “I need to spend time with the family” excuses.
But the big draw will be the chance to make an impression ahead of Sochi. “We haven’t talked yet,” one agent told SI.com last week, “but I won’t be discouraging [my clients] from attending, that’s for sure.”
One player who won’t need encouragement is Steven Stamkos. “Any time you get a chance to represent your country, you want to go,” he told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday.
But the call may not be his to make. After scoring 10 goals in February and 11 more in March, the Lightning sniper has just two in April. What initially was thought to be a slump has since been attributed to a shoulder injury — the same problem that kept him out of last year’s event. “It’s tough for me to say right now. If I’m feeling healthy to go play, then I’m going to,” he said.
Stamkos and Duchene would give Canada a solid one-two punch at center, but if the Lightning star can’t make it, Claude Giroux could fill a top-six role. The Philly pivot failed to live up to the promise of his breakthrough 2011-12 season, so he’ll leap at he chance to keep himself in the mix for the Olympic squad.
The rest of the forward corps should feature a nice blend of speed and grit, with an emphasis on younger players (so no Martin St. Louis). Look for invites to go out to Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle (Oilers), Eric and Jordan Staal (Hurricanes), Wayne Simmonds (Flyers), Jamie Benn, (Stars), P-A Parenteau (Avalanche), David Clarkson (Devils), and Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane (Jets).
Others who could get the call: Sam Gagner (Oilers), Adam Henrique (Devils), Antoine Vermette (Coyotes), Cody Hodgson and Steve Ott (Sabres), and Jonathan Huberdeau (Panthers).
Hockey Canada would love Shea Weber (Predators) to lead the defense, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him turn down an offer. His spot in Sochi is locked up, so he’s under no pressure to attend.
Weber’s absence, though, would be felt on a blueline that can only aspire to steady, unspectacular play. Brian Campbell (Panthers), Stephane Robidas (Stars), Justin Schultz (Oilers), Luke Schenn (Flyers), and Dennis Wideman and Mark Giordano (Flames) are the best bets. Grant Clitsome (Jets), Trevor Daley (Stars), Nick Schultz (Oilers) and impressive Stars rookie Brenden Dillon also deserve consideration, as does Nashville farmhand Ryan Ellis. The all-time leading scorer among defensemen at the World Juniors would be an intriguing add. His vision and puck skills suggest he’d be a difference-maker on the big ice, especially on the power play. Canada scored just six times with the extra man in the 2012 tournament. Evgeni Malkin had five for the Russians, so that’s clearly an issue.
Yzerman’s greatest challenge will be between the pipes. Martin Brodeur has already said that he’s not interested in playing. (He may have said that to spare himself the embarrassment of not being selected). Devan Dubnyk (Oilers), who posted a GAA of 1.00 and a save percentage of .956 in a backup role last spring, is a lock for one of the jobs. Mike Smith of the Coyotes, who has never played internationally and needs to make a statement ahead of Sochi, should get another. That leaves Steve Mason (Flyers) and Joey McDonald (Flames) as possible thirds.