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Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Olympic teams face injury dilemma

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

There is healthy, there is hurt and then there is the shadowy world of the in-between, a potentially disastrous trap into which Olympic team-builders must avoid or risk seeing their medal dreams go up in smoke.

Within a matter of days, hockey nations will begin to unveil their 23-man rosters. For those medal-hopeful countries whose rosters will be made up mostly of NHLers, the deadline looms as a kind of Rubicon, a river that once crossed cannot be uncrossed. Or at least not uncrossed without a doctor's note.

One agreement involving the NHL Players' Association, the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation is that once an NHLer is named to a team, he cannot be dropped from the roster unless he is injured. That means an NHL player whose club has not cleared him to play could be dropped from his Olympic roster and replaced until Feb. 15, the day before the Olympic tournament begins in Vancouver.

Once the tournament starts on Feb. 16, rosters will be frozen regardless of any injuries incurred during Olympic play.

Beyond the hockey agreement, some national Olympic bodies, including the United States Olympic Committee, have a pan-sport policy that says athletes named to compete cannot be dropped unless they are injured.

The minefield confronting team-builders including Team USA GM Brian Burke, Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman and Mats Naslund, who will select the team that will defend Sweden's gold medal from 2006, is what to do with the player who has been hurt or is currently hurt but is expected to return to action before Feb. 15.

The question facing Burke, for instance, isn't so much whether a player such as Paul Martin, penciled in to be one of Team USA's top defensemen, or David Booth, expected to be a top scoring threat, will be healthy for the tournament; it's whether he will be ready to compete at the level the Americans need him to be in order to give them a shot at a medal.

"Cleared to play and competing in the NHL doesn't mean he's 100 percent or anywhere near his pre-injury level of play," Burke told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "That's what we're wrestling with."

Four years ago, Team USA GM Don Waddell opted not to name Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller to the U.S. team because he was out of action with a thumb injury at the time the rosters were named. Miller, as it turned out, could have played and almost certainly would have been better than Rick DiPietro, Robert Esche and John Grahame, as the U.S. finished eighth.

On the other side of the injury coin was Canada's 2006 entry, which finished a disappointing seventh. Assistant coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters at the team's orientation camp in Calgary in August he believed that too many Canadians were banged up in Torino and their level of play declined as the tournament went on.

This season, Booth and Martin represent major quandaries for Burke. Booth, who led the Florida Panthers with 31 goals last season, was being counted on to provide scoring depth. He has played just nine games this season after taking a blindside shot to the head from Philadelphia captain Mike Richards. Booth resumed skating only recently, and a return to the lineup may come in early 2010.

But the problem for Burke isn't naming Booth to the U.S. team and then having him go back on the disabled list; he can live with that by naming an injury replacement. The problem will be if Booth returns to the lineup but isn't himself. If that's the case, the Americans will have essentially wasted one of 20 roster spots open to skaters. (There are three goalies on each Olympic roster.)

The same issues are at play for Martin, who suffered a setback in recovering from a fractured forearm and had to have a minor, secondary surgery for the injury. He will be out a minimum of four more weeks, which puts him into that Olympic gray area.

For Yzerman, the biggest dilemma appears to be whether to name Ryan Smyth to his roster. Smyth, dubbed "Captain Canada" by our own Pierre LeBrun for his perpetual appearance in international tournaments, was off to a strong start with the Los Angeles Kings before suffering what was believed to be a rib injury more than a month ago. Smyth is expected to be in the Kings' lineup on Saturday, but it may be too late. Yzerman will unveil the Canadian team on Dec. 30.

Yzerman's dilemma is different from the one faced by Burke; he has a plethora of players to choose from. If not Smyth, then, in theory, Patrice Bergeron, Shane Doan, Mike Fisher, Jordan Staal or Brenden Morrow could provide a similar skill set up front. But Smyth's experience and his pre-injury production are enticing; Yzerman could go to Smyth and simply hope he gets back to his former level of play.

And then there's poor Naslund, who has to wonder about yet another potential Olympian going down to injury.

Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Sedin and Victor Hedman are just some of the top Swedish NHL talent that has been, or remains, injured. Franzen, like Booth, represents a dilemma for Naslund. Franzen's timetable to return from knee surgery puts him on the ice just before the start of the Olympics, which means naming Franzen to the Swedish roster would be the ultimate gamble. Don't expect it to happen, though, even though the bull-like Franzen will be difficult to replace.

"Better safe than sorry," Naslund told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "That's obviously tough, to see players get hurt, and it's tough for their teams and for us. But that's the fact of the game. Hopefully, our key players can stay healthy."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.