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Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Is Canada's roster built for gold?

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

BURNSIDE: Greetings, my friend. Like Christmas all over again in Canada, no? From the sounds of it, the entire country shut down in order to follow the unveiling of Canada's men's Olympic hockey team Tuesday morning. No shortage of drama and no shortage of angst for executive director Steve Yzerman in making those final roster decisions. Let's start with goal, where there were no surprises with the selections of Carey Price, Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith, and I expect that is the pecking order with Smith penciled in as the third guy. Luongo's recent injury issues are no doubt troubling, but Price has long been considered "the guy" and I don't expect that will change between now and the start of the tournament. As for the blue line, perhaps one surprise in that Dan Hamhuis was given the nod over veteran Dan Boyle as the eighth defender and defending Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban earned a spot likely as the seventh guy after weeks of speculation as to whether his perceived defensive liabilities and riverboat-gambler reputation would deny him a spot. Before we get to the meat of the debate -- the forwards -- were you surprised by the goaltending/defense selections?

LEBRUN: Not surprised at all by the eight defensemen, those were the eight guys we had chosen at TSN for the past few days, with the knowledge that head coach Mike Babcock really wanted a 4-4 split of left- and right-handed blueliners. That meant the lefty Hamhuis made it over the likes of righties Boyle and Brent Seabrook. The reason for that is that Team Canada was concerned with a 5-3 split (five righties) should one of the three lefties get injured, since none of those five righties had played on left defense before. Whereas with the 4-4 split as is, lefty Jay Bouwmeester has actually played on the right side in his career before so that gives Canada some protection and balance. Subban, after much debate north of the border, makes the team and I'd say deservedly so, but he's very much the No. 7 guy at this point, stuck behind Shea Weber, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo, Team Canada sources confirmed to me after the news conference. I think they view Subban as a guy who can help them more if they're down a goal, and perhaps ride the pine if they're defending a lead. But certainly the right choice all along to have his immense talent on the team.

BURNSIDE: OK, let's get to the heart of the debate that will continue to rage around the hockey world and that was the almost impossible task of whittling down the abundance of talent available to Yzerman to 14 forwards. I think it's fair to say there are a few shockers. For me it was the decision to exclude Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux, who has played so well in the past two months, and Martin St. Louis, who has now been snubbed in two straight Olympics in spite of playing at an elite level. In essence, those two spots on the right side were taken up by Rick Nash, who was terrific in Vancouver but has had a pretty ordinary season for the New York Rangers, and either Jeff Carter or Patrick Sharp. Love Sharp's inclusion and he's been a dynamo playing with Jonathan Toews in Chicago, but I think there's more than a little risk in assuming (hoping?) Nash will rediscover his mojo in Sochi. What were your thoughts on those picks, my friend, and where do you see Nash fitting into that group with Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry slotted into the top two spots on the right side, assuming Stamkos continues his rather extraordinary recovery from a broken tibia.

LEBRUN: From a hockey perspective, no bigger shocker than Giroux's omission, and Yzerman had to phone the Flyers captain to deliver that news to him. But I still think Giroux has a chance to play on the team if there are injuries or if Stamkos can't play. But from an emotional/headline perspective, no bigger story than Martin St. Louis being left off. I just couldn't picture Yzerman phoning St. Louis again and telling his Tampa captain he was off for a second straight Olympics. But that's exactly what transpired Tuesday, and a source told me it was, as you might imagine, an incredibly difficult phone call to make.

"Personally, it was a very difficult decision," Yzerman said. "Honestly, whether I'm with the Tampa Bay organization or not, it was a difficult one, it was a tough one in 2010 as well. He's a tremendous player who has played outstanding for us this year. Our team has a good record, our team is playing well. He's a high character person and for me personally, that's a difficult decision."

Yzerman later added that the two of them would have to sit down and talk about it further.

You can debate Yzerman's choices all you want but what you can't say is that there is any bias or political aspect to the team selection whatsoever. The Team Canada GM, to me, gets high marks for his incredible honesty and courage in putting the team first and not allowing himself to simply put St. Louis on the team because it would have been the easier thing to do. To me, that gives Yzerman cover, big time.

But the bottom line is, St. Louis simply wasn't a choice that the coaching staff was comfortable with. I think they view him as a player who isn't that speedy on the big ice. More on that later but foot speed and pace were major, major, major elements into how this team was constructed.

BURNSIDE: The other guy you have to feel for is Logan Couture, who I know you had penciled into a checking role on the left side but who was left off the roster when it turned out he needs surgery to repair a nagging hand injury. Tough, tough call for Couture and you have to believe if he recovers and there are injuries up front between now and the start of the tournament in a little more than a month, he'll get a good, hard look. It's not quite seamless but I thought that Patrick Marleau was a nice add given his experience, although you wonder how closely tied his successes are to playing with Joe Thornton, who is having another terrific campaign and was a member of the Vancouver team but who was left off the Sochi squad.

You mentioned pace, foot speed and the ability to play the 200-foot game and it may be a bit of a cliche now, but this is clearly the identity Yzerman is going for, a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things, which provides head coach Mike Babcock maximum options once the tournament starts.

LEBRUN: I'm actually told that Couture's omission in the end was not predicated on his injury, that Team Canada would not have taken him even if healthy, although as one source suggested, "he was really close to making it.'' What I'm hearing is that Couture's name was still being debated late Monday night before the final decisions were made, and that it was between Couture and Nash perhaps for a spot. Again, I think what hurt Couture at the end of the day is that he's not seen as being an excellent, speedy skater. Which is exactly why the veteran Marleau made it, because of his dazzling speed on the bigger ice.

Speed and pace were a constant theme as Team Canada debated its selections and it shows in the final roster. A ton of speed here, from Marleau to Matt Duchene to Jeff Carter, for example. And that's just the forwards. There's lots of foot speed on defense, too.

I was told that the Team Canada brass watched as the Canadian junior team struggled to a fourth-place finish at the world juniors last week, looking slow footed in doing so, and it simply reinforced the need for speed on the larger international ice.

"Speed, unbelievable back end that can transport the puck and get it going in a hurry," Babcock said Tuesday when asked about his thoughts on the roster overall. "Lots of goals up front, people with the ability to play both ways. Did I mention speed? Speed.''

Message delivered indeed.

If this tournament were played again in Vancouver on the North American-sized ice, I'm guessing there are four or five different players on the team.

BURNSIDE: We've talked about some of the big disappointments -- Giroux, Couture, Boyle, St. Louis, Eric Staal and so on. But who are you most pleased made the team? We've talked a lot in the past weeks about whether Chris Kunitz was a fit, and I know Yzerman said the decision was made that Kunitz made it on his own merits not just that he fills the net with Sidney Crosby passes. Still, can't imagine Kunitz will line up anywhere but on Crosby's left at least to start the tournament. And he is, in my mind, one of the few guys about whom you can say, this is really the only place for him. And then there's Sharp, who has lived in some ways in the shadow of Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane the past four or five years in Chicago. But given how hot he's been, it's really difficult to imagine a Canadian roster without him on it and, throw in the fact he's a winner, he might be one of those guys at the end of the day that could be one of the most important players on this team.

LEBRUN: I can tell you with certainty after talking to Team Canada brass here Tuesday that Kunitz only made this team after they were comfortable with the fact he could play up and down the lineup and not just with Crosby. In fact, one Team Canada source said he would not be surprised if one or two games into the tournament Kunitz and Crosby were separated. That tells you how much Kunitz has impressed Team Canada, that he made this team on his own merit. It's a great story because he's perhaps -- next to Crosby and Toews -- the hardest-working player on the team and his competitiveness really won over Team Canada brass. And don't forget, Kunitz has a history with playing alongside Getzlaf and Perry in Anaheim, so that's another option for Babcock. I really like the Kunitz inclusion on this team, I think it's a pick that's going to pay dividends.

The other pick I'm really happy with here is Jamie Benn. The Dallas Stars captain remains under the radar nationally but he's the full package and he can beat you nine different ways. His physicality even on the big ice is an important aspect because of his skating ability. Really like his selection.

Actually, overall, I thought Yzerman and his group made some excellent choices here, produced a team that at least on paper should be able to produce the required pace on the big ice while also not betraying the Canadian roots of size and strength. I would have put Giroux on this team and maybe Couture, but I can't quibble overall. It's an impressive makeup to a team trying to defend gold.