And now comes the fun part.
In the wake of today’s announcement of Team Canada’s roster for Sochi (and the Frenglish filibuster that proceeded it), a hockey-crazed nation and some interested outsiders have descended into second-guessing, name-calling, despair and recrimination over the players who did, or didn’t, make the cut.
But allow me to offer a bit of advice.
Steve Yzerman didn’t make a single mistake in naming his team today. Not one. That opinion, of course, is subject to change if O Canada isn’t the final anthem played in Sochi, but, now, at this moment, this squad looks fully capable of defending the gold medal an Yzerman-built team won in Vancouver four years ago.
So what if your favorite guy didn’t make the cut? Let it go. This isn’t about favorites. None of these players were the sentimental choices of one man. The best hockey minds in the country (the protestations of Oilers’ fans are duly noted here) spent months vetting these players and with upwards of 60 legitimate options, and just 25 roster spots, there were bound to be a few choices that raised the ire of a nation of armchair GMs.
So take a deep breath and consider the guys you’re complaining about.
Chris Kunitz? Sidney Crosby may be the best player in the world, but that doesn’t make him the easiest with whom to skate. If anything, the 2010 Games illustrated just how tricky it can be to mesh with Sid. The value of Kunitz then goes beyond what he brings as Canada’s second-leading goal scorer. If he offers a comfort level that ratchets Crosby’s game up even slightly, he’s a smart choice.
Dan Hamhuis? Not sure what people were looking for in an eighth defenseman, but he plays the sort of calm, mistake-free game that could be critical in the clutch. He makes good decisions with the puck, and is a terrific positional defender who almost never takes a penalty. That kind of discipline makes him a smart choice for this role and a potential safety net for P.K. Subban . Plus, he gives the defense a left/right balance that Brent Seabrook couldn’t.
Patrick Marleau? He has tremendous speed, he’s comfortable on the wing–making him an easier fit–he’s dangerous on both special teams, and he knows how to finish, having scored 19 goals in 43 games this season. Given a bottom-six role, he can thrive for Team Canada.
Jeff Carter? Same as Marleau. Great skater, can play center or wing, has a lethal shot and is red hot with eight goals and 14 points in his last 12 games. He’s decent in the clutch, too. Remember, he had three game winners for the Kings when they won the Stanley Cup in 2012.
Of course, those were minor irritants compared to the one selection that really got under people’s skin: Rick Nash.
Fair enough. You can argue that Claude Giroux or Martin St Louis or Jeff Skinner or pretty much anyone who is skating in the NHL with a Canadian passport would have been a smarter choice than the oft-injured Ranger. But what none of those players have is a track record–a quality that Yzerman stressed the importance of right from the start of the selection process.
Nash has worn the Canadian sweater 54 times over the course of several international tournaments. What’s he have to show for it? 26 goals and 53 points, including two goals and five points at the 2010 Games. That’s pretty salty production.
Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and going by Nash’s tepid season to this point–just nine goals and 18 points through 27 games–the present doesn’t offer much reassurance, either.
But he’s clearly the type of player this group was looking for. He’s quick on his feet, is as strong as an ox, and has game-breaking hands. And if he fails to produce the way they clearly believe he can, coach Mike Babcock can bury him. Simple as that. Remember, they’re taking 14 forwards to Sochi and they only need 12 to roll out four lines. And with the talent they have on hand, they’ll be OK with a short bench.
This is a team, after all, that’s built on the ashes of history. Lessons were learned in victory, but also in defeat.
The 2006 disaster in Torino highlighted the need for speed on the wings and the skill to create and finish scoring chances. But more to the point, it emphasized how critical it was to have defensemen capable of making things happen in transition. That team couldn’t cope with the absence of the injured Scott Niedermayer, and while this group doesn’t have a guy quite like that, it boasts a group of highly skilled puck movers led by P.K. Subban (who received the loudest applause of any player at the ceremony), Duncan Keith, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo.
And then there were the lessons reinforced at the recently concluded World Juniors, where Canada lacked finishing touch on the wings and failed to dominate the middle of the ice. That won’t be a problem with this group. It’s not Gretzky/Lemieux/Hawerchuk/Gilmour, but Crosby/Getzlaf/Toews/Tavares comes pretty close. Add in Patrice Bergeron and it’s by far the best group of centers in the tournament and Canada’s clearest advantage.
But hardly the only one. On paper, Yzerman has built the best team headed to Sochi. All he has to do now is get it there healthy.
Now that’s something you can worry about.