Game Canada? Reigning gold medalists look to defend title

Is Roberto Luongo the answer at goalie for Team Canada?

Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

With the Winter Olympics one month away, a nation held its collective breath as Canada announced its men’s hockey team Tuesday.

Four years ago, the “Golden Goal” defined the Olympics for Canada. Sidney Crosby scored the overtime game winner against the United States, which confirmed what everyone in the Great White North assumed: Hockey is Canada’s game.

With 34 million Canadians comprising – and tweeting – their personal team selections prior to Tuesday morning’s roster announcement in Toronto, there was a general consensus amongst hockey pundits that the depth of talent available for the Canadian Olympic team could extend to two, or even three teams.

But, it doesn’t matter how many teams you can make, only one can go for the gold.

Based on the plethora of skill available, choosing 25 names to wear red and white in Sochi would now be the challenge facing General Manager Steve Yzerman.

No Canada

One of the most notable omissions from the 2014 Canadian national team is forward Martin St. Louis – captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning – who was snubbed by Yzerman in 2010 as well. What is almost even more confusing is the fact that Yzerman, who is also General Manager of the Lightning, left the captain of his NHL squad off his final Canadian roster.

“For a guy like St. Louis, [Steve Yzerman] has to refer to his staff moreso for this decision. If he was pushing for him it wouldn’t be perceived well by the group,” said an NHLPA agent who asked not to be identified.

“Most likely, others had a big, objective say in the final roster of whether or not Martin St. Louis was on it or not,” the agent said.

The thing is, more than half of the people in the hockey world I talked to (agents, scouts, players) were shocked that St. Louis was once again left off the roster. He has gone above and beyond what others expected of him with his role in Tampa (with 17 goals and 38 points in 41 games this year), playing in over 1,000 NHL games, and captaining the Lightning to a strong start to the season.

St. Louis is a guy that Yzerman sees play every single day, and knows him better than anyone else building Team Canada. If he truly believes St. Louis is not good enough to represent his country, it raises questions about why he was selected as captain of Yzerman’s club team.

Also missing the cut was forward Logan Couture, who  is considered one of the NHL’s best young talents and was projected by many to be included on the Olympic team. A hand injury requiring surgery Wednesday likely played a larger role in his exclusion from the roster. Couture’s San Jose Sharks teammates Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle were also not included on Team Canada.

On the flip side, forward Steven Stamkos, who is still recovering from a broken leg, was included on the roster. The team has until Feb. 12, 24 hours before the first Olympic game, to bring in another player if Stamkos is not ready to play. St. Louis would be considered as a possible replacement, alongside Claude Giroux, also left off the final roster. Giroux, like Stamkos, fills the role of a pure goal scorer, and has steadily increased his production since the start of the 2013-14 season.

But what might be most ideal, if a replacement is necessary, is to wait until the last possible moment to make a decision and take the hottest forward in the NHL at that point.

Big Ice Dictates

Sochi 2014 – like Turin (2006) and Nagano (1998) – will be won by the team that can control the big ice surface.

“When faced with a decision between one guy or another, [Team Canada management] likely looked at the younger guy, and the guy with the better wheels, because of the ice surface,” said the NHLPA agent.

Defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic (San Jose Sharks) and Jay Bouwmeester (St. Louis Blues) are two examples of this theory.

“With Vlasic on defense, he’s younger, faster, and has good offensive numbers. They’ve got a little bit of intention to make sure they have a mix of ages so that in four years there will be guys who already have an Olympic Games under their belt,” said the NHLPA agent.

“With the big ice surfaces, you have to be able to pass the puck. Puck moving defensemen are very important. That’s why Jay Bouwmeester was likely chosen.

“He’s the best skating defenseman in the world,” said Rick Valette, a Canadian-based hockey agent.

"When you talk about puck retrieval – on the bigger ice surface – that’s a good reason why (Bouwmeester) made the team. You have to be able to pass the puck. If you watch Team Canada world juniors play, they weren’t able to pass the puck, they weren’t effective on the big ice surface,” said Valette.

By adding some youngsters to the mix, Team Canada ensures that four years down the road, the younger players will have experience to lead their team in South Korea.

Uncertainty Between the Pipes

While goaltender Roberto Luongo won gold in 2010 for Canada (on Vancouver’s home ice, nonetheless), none of the goaltenders named to the Canadian Olympic roster — (Luongo, Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens), and Mike Smith (Phoenix Coyotes) — has ever won anything in the National Hockey League.

To add insult to injury, Luongo is currently dealing with a groin injury he sustained against the Los Angeles Kings on January 4. The veteran netminder will likely be healthy for playing in Russia, but a starting position looks all but guaranteed.

Of course, none of the goaltenders have had a good enough first half to slam the door and take the starting job.

Changing of the Guard

While the Canadians are defending champions on ice, the game will be much different in Russia than it was in Vancouver. Not only will the big, European ice surface dictate the play of game, but other nations are developing – and winning – on the international stage. Sweden, Russia and the United States are all nations with depth at each position, and a desire to watch the perceived Hockey Gods tumble.

Canada’s own worst enemy for once might not be themselves, but everyone else.