Lethbridge: Looking Ahead to Sochi – Projecting the 2014 Canadian Men’s Olympic Team

Steve Yzerman has been assigned the task of bringing a second consecutive gold medal, and third in four Olympics, to Canada. (s.yume/Flickr)

It was announced on March 5 that Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman would take up the mantle of executive director of Canada’s men’s ice hockey team for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Yzerman previously held the post during the last winter Olympics in Vancouver, which saw the Canadian men’s team win the gold medal over the United States in dramatic fashion. Joining Yzerman in managing the team will be the same three men that helped him build the 2010 squad, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, Blues GM Doug Armstrong and former Oilers GM and current Oilers VP of hockey operations Kevin Lowe. The team that Yzerman and company assembled in 2010 was indeed an all-star squad, among the greatest ever to represent Canada in international play, but given the average age of that team, about 27 years old, we can expect to see a very different group of players hit the ice in Sochi. That is, if NHL players are even allowed to make the trip to Sochi.

Gary Bettman has not yet confirmed whether or not NHL players will be allowed to participate in the 2014 Olympics. NHL players participating in the Olympics is a relatively new invention. The first time it was done was in 1998 at the games in Nagano, Japan. Before the 2010 games in Vancouver, Bettman told the media that he had not given himself any kind of time table to make the decision, and it hasn’t been talked about much since then. Bettman’s concern is with the work stoppage the league undergoes for the Olympic break and the disruption it causes for the season. Since NHL players have been allowed to compete at the Olympics, the league has shut down anywhere from 12-18 days, shutting down for 14 days in 2010.

Ultimately, the decision for Bettman will come down to exposure for the league, as that is the most visible advantage of allowing NHL players to participate, versus the disruption it causes for the NHL mid-season. The Olympics in Vancouver offered solid exposure potential for the league, considering the games generally took place in prime time television viewing hours. This will not be the case for the 2014 games, as Sochi time is nine hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time in North America. Several players have been vocal about their desire to play in the games, most notably Alex Ovechkin, who has previously said that he has no qualms about quitting the NHL and returning to Russia if Bettman and the IOC cannot come to terms. It’s not unreasonable to think that other Russian players would follow suit if Ovie did this, given the recent trend of Russian-born players returning to their home country to play in the KHL. This, compared with the added exposure for the game, albeit at irregular viewing hours, may be enough to tip Bettman’s hand in favour of allowing NHL players to travel to Sochi.

Sidney Crosby will attempt to lead Team Canada to gold once again in 2014. (VancityAllie/Flickr)

But let’s assume NHL players do participate and start up front with the forwards. There are a number of players who are unlikely to return to the team, like Brendan Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Patrick Marleau. One could also expect Dany Heatly and Ryan Getzlaf to be left off the team. The argument can be made that any national team needs some veteran presence, but by the time the 2014 Olympics rolls around, players like Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, Johnathon Toews and Patrice Bergeron will be able to provide this. Joe Thornton may be a bubble pick, given his age, but he is in the midst of a great season currently and if the next couple of seasons treat him well, he should make the team. Despite the troubles their respective teams are currently suffering, Rick Nash and Eric Staal should also make the cut, given how well they’ve performed for Canadian national teams in the past. That leaves Mike Richards as the only other forward from the 2010 team and he very could be left out, if his struggles in LA continue. Assuming Thornton does make the cut, that leaves six potential spots for new forwards on the 2014 team.

There is a plethora of highly skilled Canadian forwards in the NHL right now. The most obvious choice for a new addition to the forward core for team Canada is Steven Stamkos. Stamkos has been perhaps the most consistent Canadian scorer over the past number of seasons. He scored 51 goals in the 2009-10 season, 45 the following year and is currently on pace for 59 goals, a career high. He’s also on pace for 99 points, which would be another career high. At 22 years old, it is highly likely that Stamkos’ game will continue to develop and could be team Canada’s most potent offensive weapon in 2014.

Claude Giroux is another player who should be a shoo-in to make the team. This season, he’s already surpassed his former career highs in assists and points, and looks to be steadily improving with every passing season. Giroux’s playmaking abilities would complement Rick Nash’s goal-scoring prowess on the second line.

John Tavares is in the midst of a break out year with the Islanders, coming off a respectable 2010-11 campaign that saw him score 67 points. Also, Tavares has played well for the Canadian national team in the past two World Championship tournaments, scoring 16 points in 14 games. His solid all-around offensive play would be an asset for the 2014 Olympic team.

Another player who is on pace for a break-out season is Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars. He currently has 52 points in 56 games this season which has included a couple of lengthy layoffs with leg and shoulder injuries and an appendectomy. Benn can also contribute defensively. He currently has 109 hits and 38 blocked shots, which is respectable considering Benn is tied for second on the Stars in points.

At just 23, Jordan Staal is no stranger to big games. (Dan4th/Flickr)

Speaking of defensive prowess, Jordan Staal would provide a definite physical and defensive presence to the team. He’s also able to contribute offensively and, given his experience in the playoffs, he’s no stranger to high pressure situations. Staal would fit in well on the team’s third line, perhaps with Benn and Patrice Bergeron.

There are a number of players Yzerman and company could pick for the team’s last forward. Given his previous Hockey Canada heroics, Jordan Eberle would be an attractive pick. He’s played very well for the Oilers this season, their best offensive player overall. His size and defensive play does leave something to be desired but he would definitely be suitable for some fourth line support scoring. Speaking of the Oilers, Taylor Hall could make the cut. When he’s been healthy, he has been phenomenal and possesses the speed, size and skill to make an impact. Scott Hartnell is another player in the midst of a career year. At 29, he would be one of the older players on the team by the time the 2014 games roll around but he’s a grinder who can score, something the team could use. A risk in picking Hartnell for the team would be trying to keep his attitude/temper in check, as he’s seen to be an instigator at time. Winnipeg Jets stand out Evander Kane is another player, that if his career continues on the trajectory it’s on and if he can stave off injury, could also be a solid support player on the team.

Now, we’ll talk about the defensive corps. There looks to be a diminished return from the 2010 team, with Shea Weber and Drew Doughty being the only players that are thought to be locks to return. Given their lacklustre play in the past couple of seasons, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are more likely to not make the team than make it. The 2010 captain, Scott Neidermayer, has already retired so he’s out. Chris Pronger won’t make the team. In fact, it is unlikely that he will still be active in the league following this season. Dan Boyle will simply be too old by the time the 2014 games run around, as well. So that leaves places for four new defensemen on the team headed to Sochi.

Tyler Myers is one of the stand-outs to be picked to the team. At 6-foot-8, he’s an imposing force on the blue line and would be worth making the team given the intimidation factor he provides. His size also lends itself to effective play in the corners and the front of the night. Myers is capable of contributing offensively as well, although that is less important considering all the fire-power the team will have on the front end.

Kris Letang has flourished in the past couple of seasons as Pittsburgh’s top defensemen. He’s a solid defender that can contribute effectively on both sides of the play. He has always possessed adequate offensive awareness and is able to quarterback a powerplay. In recent seasons, however, he has added depth to his game defensively. In particular, he’s ramped up his hitting game. One apprehension Yzerman may have picking Letang for the team is that he’s been somewhat injury prone in his career. This season, for example, he’s on pace to play just 57 games after suffering a couple of separate concussions. He’s only played a full 82-game season once in his career. Letang’s upside, however, does outweigh this draw back in his game.

Alex Pietrangelo has come of age this season, it is safe to say. He’s currently 10th in scoring among NHL defensemen, with 40 points. He has always been a potent offensive player from the back end. Nearly half his points this season have come on the powerplay so, along with Letang, the team looks to have the defense for their second power-play unit sured up. He has, however, benefitted from the Ken Hitchcock “defense first” system. His all-around defensive game has improved since Hitchcock took over from David Payne early this season, and even before that, Pietrangelo was a willing shot-blocker, with 121 blocked shots last year and 96 so far this season.

There are a few D-men who could fit in at the final spot. Yzerman could choose to make it a hat trick of brothers and select Marc Staal. Staal would bring perhaps the best purely defensive game to the team’s corps of defenders. He’s a big body on the back end that can punish opposing players skating across the blue line. It’s hard to judge his abilities based on this season, considering he missed nearly half of the Rangers games, but looking at his stats in recent, his defensive skill is plain to see. Last year, for example, he had 140 hits and 109 blocked shots.

Another player with size that would be useful to the team is Brent Burns. He’s flown under the radar in San Jose, playing with in a solid defensive core with guys like Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Douglas Murray but his mix of physical play and offensive skill would be a viable asset, although he lacks the pure defensive skill that Staal possesses.

A long shot to make the team but a player that would bolster the team’s offensive attack is Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers. With 35 points, he is fifth on the Rangers in scoring and is plus-26. While his offensive style sometimes gives way to lapses in his defensive game, Del Zotto could be useful to Yzerman if he’s feeling less than confident in his team’s ability to score.

Barring any major lapses in their play, two of Canada’s three goaltenders from the 2010 Olympics will be picked to represent their country again. Marc-Andre Fleury and Roberto Luongo are both essentially locks for the team going to Sochi. That leaves one spot for the team’s other goalie.

Carey Price is the most obvious choice and will likely be the man for the job. He’s been one of the only bright spots for the Montreal Canadiens this year, and his 2.48 goals against and .914 save percentage are not bad, considering how the team around him has played this season. When the 2014 games roll around, Price will be starting to hit his prime as a goaltender and, given his track record, he could steal the starter’s position like Luongo did in 2010.

Cam Ward has shown he can lead a team to glory. (LEIJONAT/Flickr)

The only goalie I can see challenging Price for the position is Cam Ward. Somehow, with the terrible season the Hurricanes have had, Ward has managed to amass a 23-19-11 record. His 2.84 goals against leaves something to be desired, but he set a career high in save percentage last season with .923. If Ward makes the team over Price, I would expect him to firmly be in place as the team’s third goaltender and may not even get a chance to suit up. However, if the Hurricanes manage to have some success in the next couple of years, and if the Habs’ problems continue, there’s every chance that Ward could make the team and Price will be left on the outside looking in.

As far as the team’s head coach is concerned, it would not be unlikely to expect Mike Babcock to take up the helm again. Of course, he was the right man for the job in Vancouver and, given his history with Yzerman, he is a likely candidate. He’s also been perhaps the NHL’s most consistent coach since the NHL lock out and he has a sterling record with Hockey Canada. Adding to his accolades and reputation, Babcock is the only coach in the Triple Gold club, winning a Stanley Cup, and gold in both the Olympics and World Championships.

Ken Hitchcock, a near lock for the Jack Adams trophy this season in the NHL, would be a suitable alternate for Babcock, should he not be selected or decline the position. Not that the Blues were in total disarray when Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne earlier this season, but the turn-around the team has undergone with Hitchcock is breathtaking, from the bottom of the standings in the Western Conference to a tie for first in the NHL with the New York Rangers. The fact that he works for Doug Armstrong, a member of Yzerman’s management team, doesn’t hurt his chances, nor does the Stanley Cup on his resume or that he was an assistant for Babcock at the 2010 Games.

Yes, there is a chance that the 2014 Olympic games will have to go ahead with out the participation of NHL players. However, even though Gary Bettman has not yet addressed this issue, he is a savvy businessman and surely recognizes that the positives for the NHL outweigh the negatives. In the event that NHLers are not allowed to go, Yzerman may have to work with a new coach, perhaps an NHL coach that’s in between jobs like Marc Crawford or Paul Maurice, and a squad composed of junior players and Canadians playing abroad. Until a definitive decision is made, though, we’re allowed to fantasize about the super team that could hit the ice. With the superb young Canadian talent in the NHL today, there is potential for the team in 2014 to be bigger, faster, and score more than any other team in Canadian history. The 2014 Olympics in Sochi are a mere two years away so we won’t have to wait much longer to find out.

-Stephen Lethbridge, Contributing Writer

@stephenleth

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