Picking Canada's roster for Sochi
CALGARY, Alberta -- The first three months of the NHL season will ultimately decide the composition of Canada's Olympic hockey team, but just for kicks, here are my picks for the star-studded defending gold medalists after the three-day camp wrapped up this week (25-player roster: three goalies, eight defensemen, 14 forwards):
The skinny: Corey Crawford can definitely play his way into this mix if he picks up where he left off in June. But the consensus seems to be right now that Luongo, Price and Smith are the front-runners. Interestingly, and perhaps it's why there's so much anxiety about Canada's goaltending, all three netminders need to have bounce-back seasons. Luongo was a backup last season and has to prove that he's put the 2012-13 soap opera behind him as he regains the Vancouver net. Price was terrific until the final month of the season, when his game fell apart. Smith never really got it going in Phoenix and said the lockout impacted his preparation. Smith needs to prove he can be the goalie of 2011-12, while Price has to prove the final month of last season wasn't telling and he is nevertheless on track for the ascent most hockey people believe his career will take. And Luongo, well, has to be reborn. What I do like about Price is that he's played goal in Montreal his entire NHL career. That's more pressure than any other job in hockey. The Olympic stage shouldn't be too much for him.
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The skinny: I know I'll get hammered for not including Kris Letang, and there's no question the Pittsburgh Penguins star could easily end up on this team. But the sense around this camp was that Team Canada views Letang and Subban as very similar players and is likely to only pick one of them. So I gave the nod to the reigning Norris Trophy winner, but he's no slam dunk to make it. His defensive game still needs some polishing to convince Team Canada's decision makers to include him. I know a lot of people won't pick Boyle, but I truly believe Team Canada is crazy if it doesn't include the 37-year-old Sharks blueliner on the team. This is a team that's getting younger with the retirements of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, and Boyle's experience and poise will be needed in Sochi. In the Vancouver Games, Boyle played his best games in the medal round as the pressure mounted. He's a gamer and he's on my Team Canada.
My belief is that Keith, Doughty, Weber, Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo are the five guys who have been penciled in by Team Canada's brass right now (although that can change), with the other three spots up in the air. The left-right balance is important here, too. Canada is stronger on the right side. If Marc Staal isn't the Marc Staal of old because of his eye injury, I could see a left-handed D-man such as Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Dan Hamhuis also making this team.
Forwards: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf, Patrice Bergeron, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Rick Nash, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, Martin St. Louis, Patrick Sharp, Eric Staal, Brad Marchand.
The skinny: Man, it is so incredibly difficult to pick 14 forwards on this team without leaving out names that you can't believe you didn't take. I really struggled leaving guys like Corey Perry, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter off this squad, and if you ask me a month from now, I'll probably have those three guys on it. But I went with the 14 I did for a number of reasons. Marchand is my wild-card choice, a name you won't see on most people's lists, but this isn't an All-Star team that Team Canada is picking -- it's a team. You need some sandpaper, some grit, as well as all that all-world skill, and I think Marchand would bring that. I think Thornton may not make this team because of the depth at center and the big-ice factor in Sochi. But I just can't leave him off at this point after his brilliant play again this past spring in the playoffs. The inclusion of Sharp and Couture may also raise some eyebrows. But I love the versatility both players bring. Sharp has played all three forward positions during his NHL career, and Couture has played both wing and center. And they're both big-game performers. If it were up to me, I'd take them both.
I didn't pick Chris Kunitz even though there's a real chance Canada does because of his chemistry with Crosby. But I want to see Kunitz duplicate last season's production before I decide to put him on my roster for Team Canada.
In the end, I'm going to change my mind a thousand times between now and the Dec. 31 deadline for Canada to announce its roster.
These are not easy decisions. I'm glad I'm not Steve Yzerman.