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Monday, August 26, 2013
Canada goalie race has no clear pick

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

CALGARY, Alberta -- Well this is just unfair, right?

Canada's goaltending is already under enough scrutiny headed into Sochi that seeing those five guys in track shorts Monday with just their gloves and sticks seemed, well, odd.

The goalies definitely got the raw end of what otherwise was an interesting idea by head coach Mike Babcock: a football-style, walk-through practice that resembled a ball hockey game.

"I know there's been a lot of goalie controversy with the Canadian team, but I don't know if you guys were watching out here today, I thought we were the best players out there today," Mike Smith joked afterward.

Which is also Smith's way of acknowledging what the hockey world is talking about: A stacked Team Canada has one glaring question mark: goaltending.

From Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito to Grant Fuhr and Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, Team Canada has enjoyed four decades of a no-brainer decision in goal.

This is indeed a new era. And it began, really, in Vancouver in 2010 when Roberto Luongo was called upon to relieve Brodeur midway through a gold medal-winning tournament. But Luongo has since failed to convince all his critics that he's the surefire solution at the top of the Canadian goalie heap. Heck, he was a backup in the NHL last season.

"Obviously, the last couple of years have been hard on Roberto, but I think our goaltending is as good as anybody else's," veteran defenseman Dan Boyle said Monday. "The difference between the top goalies on other [international] teams is so minimal. ... I think the media's talking about this because we've been so used to having Brodeur for all those years and Patrick before that and all of a sudden we don't have one of those Hall of Fame stud guys."

Well, yeah, that's exactly why we're talking about it.

So all bets are off now between Luongo, Smith, Carey Price, Corey Crawford and Braden Holtby, and for that matter any other goalie who wasn't invited to camp who happens to get hot over the next four months, including the likes of Cam Ward or Marc-Andre Fleury.

"It's wide-open like everybody's been saying," Price said Monday in handicapping the goalie battle. "Everybody has an equal opportunity to earn their spot. ... They're going to pick the guy who's playing the best. They're going to take the guy that's on top of his game and who they feel gives them the best chance of winning."

A little poll of five NHL people, three GMs and two head coaches, by ESPN.com showed Luongo is still the front-runner, although far from a lock, getting picked by three of them to be the starter at this point, while Price got one vote and Smith the other.

"To me, it has to be Luongo's net until someone takes it from him," one of the NHL GMs told ESPN.com. "I'm curious to see how Price bounces back. He and Smith could challenge Luongo. Crawford is fourth for me. Obviously, the first few months of the season will be huge."

No other players will be more under the spotlight than these Canadian goalies from Oct. 1 through December. Their performance will seal their fate.

"I think it's not anybody's job to win or lose, I think it's an open competition and whoever plays best deserves to be the starter," said Luongo. "That's how I see it, you work hard and you want to be rewarded for your efforts, and if I'm going to be there, I want to have deserved it."

Luongo is still the choice for many.

"Price had a tough finish [last year],'' said one NHL GM. "I still believe Luongo is the most prepared for this pressure."

Added an NHL head coach: "Luongo is my pick. I think he has a great year. New coach, defensive shot block system and he knows he's No. 1 again."

But just to show how crazy this competition is, another NHL GM was adamant Price should be the starter, while another head coach texted: "I like Mike Smith and a healthy Cam Ward."

Yeesh. This thing is all over the place.

Let's start with Price. About two-thirds through last season, he was probably the consensus pick. TSN's Bob McKenzie polled the NHL's 30 GMs in March last season and, with a month to go in the regular season, Price was the Eastern Conference pick for top goalie from the GMs.

Then his performance plummeted late in the season, just like his team's, and suddenly you were wondering again about Team Canada's goaltending.

"I got to stay positive, you can't look at it as a negative year,'' Price said Monday. "Personally I felt like I played well throughout the whole season, we just had a lapse towards the end of the year that left a bitter mouth going into the summertime. But we have to keep in mind we did have a successful year.''

If one were to get into the heads of Team Canada's management and coaching staff, they're hoping dearly that Price bounces back and shows that he's ready for the job. He's the guy I think they feel can really grab this.

Part of the reason I think that is because of the pressure the team will be under in Sochi. Price has been living in a frying pan in Montreal for his entire career. Next to being the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys or the shortstop for the New York Yankees, I'm not sure there's a more scrutinized job in sports than goalie for the Montreal Canadiens.

"This is a daily occurrence where I play," said Price. "It's nothing new to me, being in front of everybody here, it's just another day on the job. I think that's definitely beneficial to me. At the end of the day, your performance is on the ice and it'll take whoever is playing the best at that time. That's the way I choose to look at it."

Luongo, at this point, is the safer pick because of his overall experience, including being in net for the gold-medal team in 2010.

If he re-establishes himself in Vancouver this fall, he's got an excellent shot of starting in Sochi.

But he has a lot of prove. Last season's tortuous year awaiting a trade that never materialized was tough on him mentally, although he handled himself with tremendous class and professionalism.

"I was a backup last year, so you know, you start to wonder certain things, but I obviously knew the first half of this season was going to be really important, so that's what I kept telling myself in the back of my mind, and not to think too much about it, and that things will sort themselves out and I'd have another opportunity to re-establish myself,'' said Luongo.

Then there's Smith, who two years ago in Phoenix may have been the best goalie on the planet. But he came back with a so-so season during the lockout year and his status for Team Canada has led to mixed opinions.

"It was just a different year," said Smith of the lockout-shortened season. "You look around the league at the top-notch goalies, it was just a different year. It was a lot harder for the goalies to adjust coming back after being off for four months.

"I didn't have the start I wanted to, I thought I finished on a better note, but obviously as condensed as the schedule was you needed to play well all season long. I don't doubt I can bounce back from that."

If Smith returns to his 2011-12 form, he could definitely challenge Luongo and Price for the No. 1 job.

What about the guy who won the Stanley Cup this past June?

Not a lot of love for Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, but if he picks up where he left off last spring, it's hard not to think he'll get a good look as well.

"A lot has gone on the last two months, it's pretty crazy when you think that I was in the minors four years ago and wondering if I was going to make it or not to the NHL, and now to be standing here and part of this -- it's pretty crazy,'' Crawford said Monday.

"It's exciting to have a chance at this. It's obviously some tough competition: Luongo, Price, Smith, even Holtby's been playing a lot of great hockey, too.''

Ah yes, Holtby. Raise your hand if you had any clue the Washington Capitals netminder would get invited to Canada's camp.

For starters, Holtby's hand would have stayed in his pocket.

"I was pretty shocked actually," Holtby said on Monday. "It kind of came out of nowhere. Obviously a huge honor, I was at a loss for words. Hopefully I can prove I can contribute.''

Call it Steve Yzerman's wild card. The soon-to-be 24-year-old Holtby came on strong for the Caps last season and opened some eyes. But I also think it underlines Canada's situation in goal that a relative unknown like Holtby was invited here.

At this point, I'd rank Luongo, Price and Smith in that order, but this goalie battle is just beginning.

What is otherwise the deepest team in the Olympic tournament has a very important question to answer in goal. And that answer is not obvious right now.