Commentary

Sochi storylines still in flux

What will be the fate of Thornton, Kunitz, Nash et al heading into the Olympics?

Updated: December 27, 2013, 4:30 PM ET
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

With the anticipated Olympic roster announcements coming up, Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss the questions still lingering for some of the teams.

Scott Burnside: Greetings and happy holidays to you, my friend. We'll be convening in Detroit for the Winter Classic in less than a week. That will mark the first of the Olympic team announcements with the U.S. set to unveil its roster after the tilt between Detroit and Toronto at The Big House in Ann Arbor. Maybe it's my advancing age, but I don't seem to recall the ebb and flow of debate over players who may, or may not, be on the Canadian or U.S. Olympic radar being as dramatic four years ago heading into the Vancouver Olympic Games. Maybe it's the fact the games will be played in Sochi and the unknown of the big ice surface adding to the drama of who belongs or just as importantly who doesn't belong. For instance, Brent Seabrook is having a terrific season with the defending Stanley Cup champs in Chicago, and I think for the most part he is a bubble player given his foot speed. Likewise, Erik Johnson has revitalized his career in Denver, but I think it would be a long shot to see him named to the U.S. team. What areas of the debate about roster selection have surprised you thus far?

[+] EnlargeChris Kunitz
Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty ImagesTo take or not to take. Chris Kunitz has put Team Canada in quite a conundrum.
Pierre LeBrun: You could say the same for Jumbo Joe Thornton in San Jose, having another consistent, productive season -- and yet, he is a long shot for Team Canada in part because of the foot-speed factor in Sochi but also because of the Canadian team's ridiculous depth at the center position. But easily the most intriguing debate that exists for any of the teams revolves around Chris Kunitz of the Pittsburgh Penguins. I wrote about this unique situation last month, because essentially the Canadian brain trust has to decide before its Jan. 7 roster announcement whether Kunitz makes the team as first-line left winger with Sidney Crosby or whether he doesn't make the team at all. When camp broke last August in Calgary, I would say the Canadian brain trust viewed Kunitz as a long shot at best. But I think he has grown on them. If I had to handicap his chances right now at the Christmas break, I'd say Kunitz is trending positive but yet still no lock to make it.

Don't forget Canada has a long list of options at left wing, including the likes of centers Logan Couture, Matt Duchene and Eric Staal, who is switching over to play left wing, as well as natural wingers such as Jamie Benn, Milan Lucic and Patrick Marleau. Try to pick just four names from that batch. It's not easy. But if I were Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman, I would take Kunitz. Canada struggled so much to find linemates who could play with Crosby in Vancouver 2010. They have instant chemistry here with Kunitz, and he's had a very good season in Pittsburgh.

Burnside: I think Kunitz has earned a spot on that Canadian team, and if Steve Yzerman is watching any tapes from Canada's woeful effort in Turin in 2006 when it could not get anything going offensively, I would think the idea of installing ready-made chemistry into the lineup would be a good thing. For me, one of the most interesting elements of the selection process on both sides of the 49th parallel is trying to balance body of work and current level of play. I'm not talking injuries necessarily, although that's a whole other kettle of fish to address. But rather how guys like Josh Harding and Ben Bishop, statistically two of the top netminders of the first half of the season, and guys I am wagering would be in the top five of Vezina Trophy discussion, are long shots to make the Canadian or U.S. teams, respectively, because neither has playoff nor international experience that makes them attractive. Short-sighted? Guess we'll find out in two months when the gold-medal game is played.

You mentioned the dizzying depth of talent up front for Canada. Well I don't see how Rick Nash makes this team, even though he was a dynamo in Vancouver. Yet my sense is you like Nash to be on the final roster because the Canadian selection group knows what he's capable of and knows what he's done on this stage, even though he's been part of a wildly underachieving group of New York Rangers. To me, it will be a shame if a guy like Jamie Benn, Matt Duchene or Martin St. Louis doesn't make this team in favor of Nash. But that's the balancing act the men in charge of these decisions are having to walk.

LeBrun: Nash is part of the discussion at right wing for Canada, along with the likes of Steven Stamkos (he's a slam dunk to be named; we'll see if he recovers in time to play), Martin St. Louis, Corey Perry, Claude Giroux, James Neal, Patrick Sharp, Jeff Carter and Tyler Seguin. Giroux and Seguin are centers, but I think if they make this team, they play right wing. Sharp can play any of the three forward positions, but I view him as a solid choice at right wing for this team. Stamkos and Perry are locks, which leaves two or three other choices to be had from that group. And you're right: If Nash makes the team, it's because of his amazing performance in Vancouver in 2010, not so much what he's done this season. Regardless of the final decisions, some pretty good names listed above are going to be left off. The real balance here is to weigh both past big-game experience (Stanley Cup, big playoff games, important international games) along with the desire for speed. They don't always coincide in each player.

You mentioned the goaltending. It's interesting how really not much has changed for either Team USA or Team Canada since August. The Carey Price, Roberto Luongo, Mike Smith trio were all seen as the favorites last summer for Canada, and they'll almost surely be the three masked men chosen come Jan. 7. Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller and Jimmy Howard are 99 percent sure Sochi-bound, and at least for Quick and Miller, that's no surprise at all. Perhaps the only departure from August is that Craig Anderson may have seen his stock fall from the No. 3 spot for Team USA in some people's eyes. The fact Quick would see his place is unchanged, despite his long stint on IR, just goes to your point, Scotty, of the body of work overtaking this season's performance in some cases.

[+] EnlargeSergei Bobrovsky
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesSergei Bobrovsky is reportedly healing well, but if he's not 100 percent healthy, the Russians will have tough decisions to make.
Burnside: Speaking of injuries, I don't seem to recall the lead-up to the Vancouver Games as being as marked by so many injuries to players who were expected to play significant roles with their respective countries. The problem is that what may look grim now may look like nothing by the time the NHL shutters its doors after games are completed on Feb. 8. Steven Stamkos is the player whose injury seems to be most likely to derail an Olympic berth, but he has shown a near-miraculous ability to recover from surgery to repair a broken tibia. He'll be named to the squad, but what if he comes back and plays but isn't up to 100 percent? It will be a tough call for Stamkos if he has to withdraw from the competition even though he's back playing.

What about Sergei Bobrovsky, the defending Vezina Trophy winner and a guy who would have likely shared time with Semyon Varlamov in goal for the host Russians? If Bobrovsky can't go, the Russians' chances of securing gold take a hit given Varlamov's limited body of work (there's that term again) playing on this kind of stage and the lack of top-notch goaltending depth available to the Russians. Bobrovsky is among a handful of netminders with Olympic hopes on the sidelines, including Quick, who should return after the Christmas break and has always been penciled in as the U.S. starter, and Howard who has been in the mix for one of the three U.S. jobs since the get-go, even though he's had a miserable six or seven weeks for the Red Wings. And you mentioned Luongo, who left the final game of the pre-Christmas schedule for the Vancouver Canucks. He's listed as day-to-day, but what does that really mean, especially if it's a groin injury that has beset Luongo? In some ways for the folks making the final calls on Olympic rosters, it will almost be better if a player is truly sidelined as opposed to just returned from injury when his level of play may be suspect. Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Ryan Callahan, Henrik Zetterberg and Marian Gaborik are just some of the would-be Olympians on the sidelines right now whose medical reports will be under intense scrutiny in the coming days and weeks.

LeBrun: Then there are some healthy players who are making their respective countries nervous right now. What do you suppose is going through the minds of the Swedish coaching staff? Sweden, my pick to win Olympic gold this year, can only hope veteran star netminder Henrik Lundqvist gets it together in time for Sochi. I've never seen Lundqvist's confidence so shaken as it is right now. Sure there are other choices in goal for Sweden such as Robin Lehner, Jhonas Enroth, Jonas Gustavsson or Viktor Fasth, but those guys don't match up to a top-form Lundqvist. Lehner may one day, but not quite yet. So that's a situation many people are watching closely for sure.

And no question, even after all the Olympic squads are named over the next two weeks, the storylines will continue to fluctuate in the month leading up to Sochi. Once again, we're staring at an Olympic tournament that's going to be off the charts. But before Sochi comes the Winter Classic. See you in Detroit, pal.

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