Team Canada: It's a pick 'em
I decided to select simply from the group that were at the camp. It's very possible that someone not part of it will be selected (which I intend to touch on tomorrow), but I'm going off who we know they're looking at. In 2002, every player that went to Salt Lake City was at the "orientation camp" that summer, so it does have some merit I suppose.
So allow me to get my Wayne Gretzky (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Lowe and Bob Nicholson) on.
As if there was any doubt. Even though people often contend he's a product of a great system, I'll say it: the best goalie of the last 10 years. You can have your Dominik Hasek's and your Patrick Roy's. They're both fantastic. But if I had to win one game tomorrow, I put Brodeur between my pipes. Three Stanley Cups, one Olympic gold, one World Cup. He knows big games better than any other active netminder. He's never let Canada down when called upon, and there is no reason to think he'll start now. With the big ice and no red line, his puckhandling abilities will come in especially handily.
The next one. They've been grooming him for a while now, and even though he's not my first choice, I wouldn't be uncomfortable with Luongo stepping in to be the starter. He's been terrific when put into that spot, both in the '03 World Championships when Sean Burke got hurt and last year at the World Cup, when a hand injury kept Brodeur from playing the Czechs in the semis. Despite not playing a game all tournament, he got in there and carried the team to victory. Anyone who tells you Canada wasn't outplayed that night is lying to both you and themselves, yet they won because of #1.
This is more insurance than anything, as rarely do these guys play. I went with Theodore over Turco simply because he knows the role, having served it in the World Cup. Goalies are different animals, and you never quite know how a guy who's used to playing a lot will react to sitting in the press box and having a role exclusive to practice. With Theodore, we know. Either one would be fine though.
Probably Canada's consistently best defenceman in both Salt Lake City and the '04 World Cup, Niedermayer is about as much of a given as this team has. Though most always talk about his skating and strong outlet pass abilities, as a defender, he's severely underrated. He won't crush the opposition the way larger blueliners will, but Niedermayer's excellent at reading plays and closing passing lanes. His PP acumen takes him over the top.
A locker room leader who can log big minutes, Blake has to be there. He's been part of many Team Canada's, including World Hockey Championships in Europe, so his familiarity with the bigger ice will be an asset. With Al MacInnis not part of this Olympic team, his big shot will come in handy on the powerplay as well.
When he's healthy and on his game, Chris Pronger is, for my money, the most dominant defenceman in the world. He can shut anyone down physically, has superb stamina, and deceptive foot speed. Like Blake, the fact he sports a hard shot from the point will come in handy. Kevin Lowe will see a lot of him so he'll know whether we have the Chris Pronger who won the Hart Trophy or the Chris Pronger who plays well in spurts only.
The last of the "big four" defenceman who most assume are already penciled in as being on the team. Foote's been a part of almost every big tournament, from the '96 World Cup to Nagano in '98 to Salt Lake City in '02 to the World Cup a year ago. He's played in a lot of big games during his time in Colorado. Of the four, he's the one I'm least sold on as being a given member of the team. Though we've seen many defenceman play well into their late 30's at a top level, it's at the very least a legitimate question with Foote. There is a school of thought that Foote, away from the Colorado system, will be exposed in Columbus as a good defenceman who has played on a great team. If so, maybe his roster spot will be up for grabs. But I suspect his tenure makes him difficult to unseat.
As far as shut down men go, Regehr's emerged as one of the best in the game. Both in the '03-'04 season during Calgary's magical run and the World Cup that summer, he consistently neutralized the opposition's best players. However, like Foote, there are some who think that if they start calling obstruction in the NHL, his game will be diminished. It's certainly a fair question, but as it stands now, I can't see this team without him.
While most of the other back enders are defence minded first, Redden gives them someone who can create offense with ease. Most considered him the best defenceman in the World Championships this past spring. His overall game has developed significantly over the last couple years in Ottawa, and there's no reason to think said growth will be disrupted this year. When it comes to long passes, he may be the best in the league. Whatever defensive gaps his game has - and compared to where he was four years ago, when he was being considered for the Salt Lake City team, he's a regular Rod Langway - can be helped by paring him with someone like a Foote or Regehr.
This last d-man spot could go to a handful of people (Ed Jovanovski, Scott Hannan, Eric Brewer, Chris Phillips) and you wouldn't be in a bad position, but I've grown to be quite the Dan Boyle fan. Though he's on the smallish (for a defenceman) side, what he brings to the table makes up for it. He's very similar to Niedermayer in that he can put a lot of points up, is underrated defensively, can skate like the wind, and has good passing skills. He's not as spectacular as Niedermayer, but their games are very comparable. Because of that, he'd be my alternative, but I'd feel confident that he can step in.
A no-brainer to say the least, right? Well, sort of. At 39, and having not played in 18 months, it wouldn't be unfair to suggest that perhaps the combination of rust and age will overwhelm "Super Mario". Having said that, it's a risk worth taking. The leadership and experience he brings to the team is enough reason to bring 66. Oh, and the fact that when he's healthy, Mario's often the best hockey player in the world.
The same reasons to not bring Mario can be applied to Sakic. He's getting older, and eventually, the game will pass him by. You don't want it to be the year you depend on him to be a big contributor. Eventually, that day will come. I'd prepare for it by using his less than they have in the past, but he still has to be there in some form. His chemistry with Mario in both Salt Lake and at the World Cup was strong, so I'd think they'll pair them together again. Likely with...
Expect Iggy to carry much of the load. Salt Lake was his coming out party of sorts, as the whole hockey world finally saw what a great player he is. He only solidified it with his play during the '04 playoffs. He can score, hit, has a strong defensive game, and is a leader. What else needs to be said?
In the World Cup, he played on the "fourth line" and served mostly in a checking role, and did it with a smile. For a guy who Boston fans often claim is selfish and not a team player, that was a welcome surprise. He tore it up in Europe last year, and (along with Rick Nash) was Canada's most dominant forward in the World Championships. I'd like to see Thornton be given a more prominent role this time around though. I expect him to have a huge year this NHL season, as the Bruins have built a strong team around him, so he should have a lot of momentum going into Torino.
There's a lot of controversy surrounding this one, I know, but he's too good, too dominant to not be included. Bertuzzi has the ability to take over a game, both with his physical play as well as his offense, and that is the kind of player Team Canada can't have enough of. Assuming amends have been made with all the players, and he's able to control himself and not do dumb things on the ice (something he has a knack for), Bertuzzi's a given.
Much of the reason for picking Nash is his chemistry with Thornton. The two ripped it up in Europe and at the Worlds, so it's only logical to go back to it for Turino. I'm still not convinced he's the phenom everyone else seems to think he is (his game is still very raw to me), but I'd be willing to take him along and put him to the test against the world's best. That said, if he's struggling by December or January, I wouldn't be too upset if they decide not to, instead going with a safer pick.
Assuming his contract situation gets resolved in Atlanta (how can he AND Kovalchuk both still be unsigned?!?), Heatley deserves this spot. Easily one of the more explosive players in the game, there isn't a chink in the armor. He can skate, hit, score, pass, and his defensive game was much better the last time I saw him play than I remember it being previously. He played with Thornton in the World Cup, with some success, so I wouldn't think it's a bad idea to pair him with Nash and Jumbo Joe.
I suspect this one will raise some eyebrows. Like Lemieux, the question of whether or not he's still able to play at an elite level is more than fair. But I bring him anyway. He's a proven leader, can elevate his game when it's time, and scores timely goals. He might not crack the top 12 forward spots, thus getting no ice time, but even as someone who's role is to strictly be inspiration, it makes sense, as Yzerman is among the most respected players in the game.
Richards was fantastic in the World Cup, on both ends of the ice, and proved himself with his play in the playoffs last year. Though the buzz is usually around Lecavalier, and last season St. Louis, Richards has quietly, in my mind anyway, become the best player on the team.
Should've been there for the World Cup, I thought. His play down the stretch in the playoffs was superb. He's managed to make the transition from an expected superstar to a terrific defensive forward who can score as well as anyone I can ever remember. His nasty side would come in handy on a team who's forwards lack it somewhat. It seems like Primeau would welcome being included, and be more than happy to play the role of the third or fourth line checking forward, which might not be the case if you put someone there who's used to a whole lot more ice time in a completely different role. I expect him to play terrific if given the chance to be on the team.
We've seen what he can do in big games after all those years in Detroit, but during the last NHL season, he emerged as a bonafied goal scorer, on pace for 30 before his injury. Even still, many saw him as the team's MVP. And on that team, full of Hall Of Famers, that's quite the compliment. Like Richards, he stepped up huge in the World Cup, and like Primeau, has no issue with taking a diminished but still important role. Not at all a prima donna, and in fact, probably the epitome of a team player. His penalty killing abilities, as well as his face off skills, make Draper a lock in my book.
At this point, it sort of becomes a pick'em. Like with those last couple defenceman spots, there are no wrong picks, as you know that whoever does go will do well if given the shot. It just comes down, I assume, to what feels right. I've been a big Marleau fan for years, and seen his game mature and evolve into a complete player. Not only can he score, but he's a crunch time player. During the Sharks last two playoff years, he's amassed 24 points in 29 games, and been their best all around player on both occasions. Call it a personal preference pick if you must.
I suspect he'll be there regardless, because of the Gretzky connection, but it's not because he also doesn't deserve to be. Like with Marleau, he's someone who's game has finally developed to the level everyone expected when the Jets drafted him in the first round 10 years ago. Often the lone bright spot on a team lacking them, Doan has become one of the league's best captains, and if there is any doubt who the heart and soul of the Coyotes is, that person hasn't been paying attention. He can score if necessary, but as we saw with the World Cup, can also play a checking role if asked. Very versatile and reliable.
Now, let me play Pat Quinn for a moment:
I'm sure someone somewhere is outraged at this list, angered that a certain player was omitted. I hope so. It's far from perfect, and you could easily make a case for a handful of people I didn't include. That, I guess, is what's great about Canadian hockey. So much talent, so few roster spots. Not a bad predicament to be in for the suits and ties of this team.
The truth is, while I await the NHL season eagerly, I'm just as excited about the NHL going back into the Olympics. Save me the tired "professionals don't belong there!" spiel. I've heard it. Is it right? I don't know. What I do know is that I love seeing the best players in the world all involved in one tournament, playing for their countries so less. It never fails to excite me, and even when Canada comes up with the short end of the stick, I'm entertained regardless.
So who's your team?