- Paul Grant
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Welcome to the dog days of summer. With free agency pretty much done, there's not much else to talk about until ... Olympics orientation camps, which start in less than a month. Really? Jeepers.
Three of the biggest questions heading into those camps:
Who will be Canada's No. 1 goalie?
Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby, Roberto Luongo, Carey Price and Mike Smith (and not Marc-Andre Fleury or Cam Ward, who have each won a Stanley Cup, by the way) have been invited to orientation camp. The problem is that whereas the U.S. is heading into camp stacked in the blue paint -- with Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider, Ryan Miller, Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard -- each of Canada's invitees is tainted by a shadow of doubt. You can't argue with Crawford's recent Stanley Cup ring run, but is he truly Canada's best over such a short, intense burst? Holtby is good, but hasn't won much. Luongo is good but ... well, let's not pile on to the poor chap. Price has had his ups and downs while playing in perhaps the most pressure-packed city for a goalie but has battled injuries. That leaves Smith, who has had one great season.
Canada has traditionally had a vague sense of who will be its No. 1; doubts surrounded Luongo heading into the Vancouver Games because the Olympics were in his home market, where he wasn't exactly beloved in those days. The previous time Canada won gold, in 2002, Pat Quinn's decision to start Curtis Joseph was seen as NHL-team favoritism and was met with further derision after an opening-game loss to Sweden. Quinn went to golden boy Martin Brodeur, as we all now know, but if that hadn't worked out, Quinn was left with Ed Belfour, who was on the decline.
This time, it's doubtful there will be a Brodeur bedrock to fall back upon. The positive here for Canada is that it's in the weakest division, playing in the same group as Finland, Norway and Austria, so it should have time to figure things out. The negative: Without being able to play on the big sheet ahead of time, the goalies won't have long to figure out the angles. One bad-angle goal could be the difference in the early going ... So actually, on second thought, scratch that positive bit about having time to figure it out. Which brings us to ...
Can the U.S. or Canada win gold on the big surface?
Geez, good question. Neither team has been able to win gold outside of North America since the NHL's players returned to the Games in 1998. So, it's debatable. (The 2002 Salt Lake Games, where Canada won gold, were held on the bigger surface, however.) If Canada can get solid goaltending, it will have to be considered the favorite. But that's a massive if. The U.S. is expected to be stone-cold steady in net, but it has questions elsewhere (Such as: Who is the team's most mobile, experienced defenseman for the big ice?). Weighing just the current factors -- and not including those that might develop between now and February, such as injuries to frequently injured superstars ('ello Sidney Crosby!) -- the North American teams will find it tough to bring home gold. Which brings us to ...
So, who will win it all, smart guy?
You can't discount the awesome talent-laden lineups of Canada and the United States -- OK, I guess I just did -- but Sweden, host Russia and maybe the Czech Republic have to be considered all up in there as well. If the Finns settle on the right superstar netminder to start -- they've got Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen playing the pipes -- and he gets hot, they could very well skate away with this thing in a huge upset.
The odds favor Russia, and there's no debating the awesome firepower the team has up front, but I've got to think the hosts will figure out a way to screw it up. Sergei Bobrovsky and Ilya Bryzgalov (and/or Evgeni Nabokov and/or Anton Khudobin) and an entire defense corp, consider yourself challenged!
3hPierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald