Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Debate: Let's talk about the other snubs
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun
BURNSIDE: OK, has everyone in Canada exhaled yet after Tuesday’s Olympic roster announcement? What was easy to ignore amid the drama that surrounded the Canadian announcement, at least a little bit, was that the rest of the field for the Sochi Olympics hockey tournament had also unveiled their respective 25-man rosters by the end of the day. No other team -- not even Sweden and Russia, two of the favorites to take home gold -- had the kinds of decisions Canada and the United States faced in making their roster decisions vis-à-vis excluding elite NHL players. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some curious decisions made along the way for the other hockey nations.
For instance, I remain more than a little perplexed at the Czech national team's opting to leave top NHL point producers Jiri Hudler, Radim Vrbata and Tomas Fleischmann off the roster. Hudler is tied with Jaromir Jagr with the second-most points among Czech NHLers, and Vrbata is fourth. Instead, the Czechs will ice a lineup that includes 42-year-old Petr Nedved. Seriously. I thought I saw him at one of the alumni games in Detroit during the lead-up to the Winter Classic.
Another interesting decision saw the Czechs leave Michal Neuvirth off the roster, leaving them with just one NHL netminder in Ondrej Pavelec, whose work can most charitably be described as up-and-down for the middle-of-the-road Jets. If there is a certain oddness to the Czech roster, let’s not forget that it managed to snag a bronze medal the last time the Olympics were held outside North America, in 2006 in Torino, Italy. Nedved won’t be the only graybeard plying his trade in Sochi, of course; Teemu Selanne is back for a record sixth Olympics, while Jagr is back for his fifth. Pretty cool, although you have to wonder about the effectiveness of 40-something players on the big ice in Sochi. Or do you?
LEBRUN: Well, in terms of having a legend such as Selanne in the Finnish dressing room, that speaks for itself; it’s all about his presence for the younger players in that room, where he is a godlike figure. I have no problem with that. Another Finnish legend, Saku Koivu, took himself out of the running for the team, feeling that he was still trying to find his game after missing so much time with a concussion. I respect that about Koivu because you know how much it would have meant to lace them up one last time for Suomi.
Where I disagree with you is that opting for a non-NHLer over an NHLer is necessarily a bad call. That’s just North American bias, my friend. So the Czechs took two KHL netminders over Neuvirth. So what? Neuvirth has hardly played this season. In fact, Alexander Salak has a .935 save percentage for SKA St. Petersburg with a 15-8 record this season. There are some very good players in the KHL, which is why so many are spread on different Olympic rosters. I have no issue with that.
I also think what you’re seeing is the odd player selected out of respect for playing in a domestic league, a nod to players returning home to play. Case in point, Tomas Kaberle on the Czech Olympic roster. Again, got no issue with that.
The only issue I have with the Czech roster is, like you, I cannot believe Vrbata and Hudler were left off. The word on the street is that both players don’t get along well with Czech head coach Alois Hadamczik, and that might have played a part in his roster decisions. If that’s the case, shame on the coach. If Steve Yzerman can make the ultra-difficult personal decision to leave Martin St. Louis off his roster, the Czech coach should put his country ahead of his personal feelings as well. It’s absolutely ridiculous that Vrbata and Hudler aren’t on the team.
BURNSIDE: Whoa, whoa, there, partner. Didn't say that not taking NHL players over players from other leagues was a mistake. Merely noted that leaving off Neuvirth, who has significant NHL experience, including a couple of turns through the playoffs, was noteworthy, especially given that Pavelec has been inconsistent. So calm down, my friend.
One of the great things about the Olympic tournament is not just the guys who get snubbed -- although that’s always the immediate focus -- but also the decisions of various hockey bodies in forming their teams. No other nation reflects this split between relying exclusively on NHL talent and opening the door to players who are playing at a high level at home than Russia. You knew the Kontinental Hockey League would be well-represented on the Russian team in Sochi, and to our earlier discussion of older players, the fact that a guy such as Sergei Gonchar wasn’t named isn’t all that surprising, but it does make it harder to handicap the Russian squad, especially given that young Edmonton defender Anton Belov was named along with KHLers Evgeny Medvedev and Ilya Nikulin. Up front, there are seven KHLers, including familiar names Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov. (Wonder if the Russians will impose a curfew in Sochi?)
LEBRUN: I’m sure the Russian team will remind Radulov he’s in Sochi, not Scottsdale, so the curfew won’t be needed. As for the Russian roster, which doesn’t include that many surprises, I did raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Dallas Stars rookie winger Valeri Nichushkin. Not because I don’t think he’s going to be a great player -- he sure is -- but because he's a teenager, it just seems like such a huge stage with the added pressure of being the host team. I mean, as much as Canada had incredible pressure to win on home soil in 2010, I think it’s even more magnified in Russia with the political intrigue of the KHL influence on the roster (10 KHL players). Just seems like a powder keg waiting to happen, and I just wonder how an 18-year-old can handle that environment.
I totally agree with you that Gonchar should have been named to the Russian team, if for no other reason than the pressure noted above. He is a veteran who could have helped ease the tension that’s invariably going to find that dressing room, just as it did midway through the 2010 tournament for host Canada.
BURNSIDE: So, now that you’ve seen all the rosters, does your impression of how things might shake down in Sochi change at all? I know folks were surprised that defenseman Victor Hedman wasn’t named to Team Sweden, but that’s a stocked team assuming the vintage Henrik Lundqvist shows up for work. I have to say the team that continues to make me wonder is Switzerland. We know that it's had success on a relative scale in these tournaments, knocking off Canada in Torino 2-0 in 2006 and pushing Canada to a shootout in Vancouver. Its defense includes NHLers Raphael Diaz, Mark Streit and Roman Josi, and one of the NHL’s hottest netminders in Jonas Hiller. Is it time to move the Swiss into what would be the Group of 8 with Canada, Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia, the United States and Finland as a team that shouldn’t surprise anyone if it comes home with a medal? In some ways, given the uncertain health of Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky, I might even slot the Swiss ahead of the Slovaks heading into what should be a terrific tournament.
LEBRUN: Not only did the Swedes not pick Hedman, but they also passed on Jonas Brodin from the Wild, which surprised me. It speaks to their depth of choices as well. You’re talking about an Olympic blue line consisting of Alexander Edler, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Erik Karlsson, Niklas Kronwall, Johnny Oduya and Henrik Tallinder. Um, yeah, there’s a little talent here.
As you know, I picked Sweden to win gold in Sochi in part because of the tournament is played overseas, and that always makes me nervous about the two North American teams. The wild card right now for Sweden, the Olympic champs the last time the tournament was played overseas, in 2006, has to be Lundqvist. Let’s be blunt: Jhonas Enroth and Jonas Gustavsson are not real options if we’re talking gold-medal run. The King in New York needs to have his A-game straightened out for the Swedes to contend.
Man, we could go on forever. What a tournament it’s going to be. Can't wait to be there with you covering it, my friend.