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Cullen: A look at Team Canada, and those that missed

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Scott Cullen
1/7/2014 9:13:11 PM
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As Canadians waited anxiously for the Team Canada Men's Hockey roster announcement Tuesday, there was constant debate. Who should be picked? Who is going to get left behind? This had been building for years.

Then, when they finally got around to making the announcement, there were naturally some selections that caused some debate. Nothing off the rails -- it's not like they took Petr Nedved or Henrik Tallinder -- but there were decisions made that will come under the microscope if Canada doesn't repeat with a gold medal. If they do repeat, never mind any questions, winning cures all.

So, the roster has been picked, time to take stock.

In goal, Roberto Luongo was automatic. He won gold in the last Olympics and has been very strong for the Vancouver Canucks -- his .922 save percentage is his second-best over the past decade. Luongo has been dealing with a few injuries lately, though it doesn't appear to be an issue for a month from now. He also has the highest save percentage among Canadian goaltenders since 2010 (minimum 100 games).

Carey Price, who fits second on that list, is having the best season of his career, with a .928 save percentage. Price is 26-years-old, and if the NHL is going to send players to future Olympics (or even future World Cups), Price is at the head of the class to be Canada's goaltender of the future, if not the present. To be clear, he may already be the goaltender of the present.

That leaves us with Mike Smith for the third spot. He does rank third among Canadian goaltenders in save percentage since 2010, but Smith is basically riding off his exceptional 2011-2012 season, during which he posted a .930 save percentage. If the average starting goaltender is putting up a save percentage of about .915 or so, Smith has been below average in every other season of his career, including a .911 save percentage in 69 games with the Phoenix Coyotes this year and last.

Smith is also 31-years-old, so may not have future Olympic value. So who might have challenged for that spot? If we take down the minimum of games played to 50 for the link above, then we get Josh Harding, Jonathan Bernier and Braden Holtby coming in ahead of Smith.

The way Harding has played this season, I would have been inclined to include him, but recent uneasiness over his MS medication, combined with a limited track record, make it easy enough to exclude him.

Holtby has been pretty solid since joining the Capitals, but even he has acknowledged recently that he's lost his confidence (allowing 15 goals in his past three starts, on 83 shots, will do that) and rookie Philipp Grubauer is taking more starts for Washington.

Which brings us to Bernier, who also has a limited track record, but he's posted a .928 save percentage in 30 games this year, and that includes Saturday night, when he had his worst start of the season (in terms of save percentage), allowing five goals on 32 shots (in about 37 minutes) against the Rangers. A 25-year-old who is just coming into a starting role, Bernier made more sense in the number three hole for me. If he ever did have to play, you'd have to figure Bernier would appreciate a team that might be able to hold opponents under 40 shots per game.

On defence, there are some automatic picks. Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo were pretty straight-forward. The lightning rod was Montreal's P.K. Subban, last year's Norris Trophy winner who seemed hard-pressed to get into the top six with Weber, Doughty and Pietrangelo ahead of him on the right side, and apparently Team Canada is extremely committed to left-right balance on their blueline.

Subban made the squad, though projections seem to have him fitting as a seventh defenceman. Where you are are the outset isn't necessarily where you end up in an Olympic tournament, however. In 2010, Jonathan Toews was considered the 13th forward for Team Canada then, by tournament's end, he was Canada's leading scorer with eight points in seven games. So it could be with Subban, who can step into a role on the power play and move up the depth chart if Canada needs an offensive jolt.

The Subban issue wasn't the only one to consider, however. On the left side -- remember, they have to shoot left! -- Jay Bouwmeester, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Dan Hamhuis are very good NHL defencemen, but are they Olympic team good?

There are some that will argue Bouwmeester is a product of playing alongside Pietrangelo. Bouwmeester has size and can skate, but if he's coming along because he's Pietrangelo's partner, then he's getting that treatment ahead of Brent Seabrook, who is paired with Duncan Keith in Chicago. Seabrook can't skate like Bouwmeester, but he's a physical, two-time Cup-winner, who may be having the best season of his career.

Vlasic is steady, safe and reliable. He's played a defensive role from the moment he came into the league and that's fine. Dan Hamhuis isn't a dramatically different player. He offers more offence but, like Vlasic, has handled tough matchups throughout his career, particularly this year, and has done well. Since 2010, Hamhuis is the easy leader in plus-minus among Canadian NHL defencemen. Seabrook ranks third, among those with at least 4000 minutes played.

Back to Subban for a moment. Given the resumes of Bouwmeester, Vlasic and Hamhuis, it's hard to imagine that there isn't an opportunity for Subban to move up the projected depth chart, unless he really is incapable of playing -- or the coaching staff if unwilling to try him on -- the left side.

Aside from Seabrook, there aren't any huge omissions. Dion Phaneuf is probably worthy of discussion because he faces the opposition's best night-in and night-out, while Mark Giordano and Kris Letang have been productive enough when they've been healthy this year, but the story of Canada's defence, may be more one of how the minutes are allocated and that will keep Subban, and his usage, in the spotlight.

Canada has an abundance of great forward options and yet there was still a tier of guys above the rest, who were locks from the get-go. Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Patrice Bergeron and John Tavares would fall under that banner, while Steven Stamkos' only question is health as he recovers from a broken leg. That meant Stamkos had to be named now, leaving open the option of replacing him if he's not ready to play, as opposed to trying to replace someone later once it's known Stamkos is healthy.

Then some young guys, Jamie Benn and Matt Duchene, jumped up and grabbed spots and they are reasonable enough for a team that wants some of the speed that comes from young legs. They're having productive seasons and should have some versatility to move around the lineup, if need be. They held the edge over other young candidates, like Taylor Hall and Logan Couture.

Patrick Sharp forced his way onto the team, on pace for the best season of his career. With Stanley Cups, a solid performance in the 2012 World Championships and versatility that allows him to move about the lineup, Sharp couldn't be overlooked.

Which brings us to the bubble. Veteran forwards Jeff Carter, Patrick Marleau and Rick Nash are among the more contentious inclusions, though a separate category could be left for Penguins left winger Chris Kunitz.

Kunitz has 99 points in 92 games over the past two seasons and those numbers draw attention, but critics are quick to point out how Kunitz's production tails off dramatically when he's not skating on a line with the Best Player in the World. Now, maybe that's not an issue, because Kunitz will presumably get a shot at playing on Crosby's wing in the Olympics, but if Team Canada decides to split them up for whatever reason, where then would Kunitz fit in the equation? Alongside former Anaheim linemates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry would be an option but the point is that if Kunitz isn't with Crosby, it becomes more difficult to include him on the Team Canada roster at all.

In a short tournament, there is some justification for having ready-made chemistry. If not for scoring the Golden Goal in Vancouver in 2010, Crosby's Olympic experience would be remembered far less favourably. He struggled to create offence against quality opposition, so there is some credence to the idea that giving Crosby his regular linemate could help him be more comfortable and putting your best player in the best position to succeed is a worthwhile endeavour.

At the same time, if a decent player like Kunitz can go from scoring 50-60 points to scoring better than a point-per-game this year, then what might a player with a higher ceiling do with Crosby? It would seem the potential would be even greater if, say, Taylor Hall was put on Crosby's wing, but there is also the chance that it wouldn't work out and that makes the selection of Kunitz more appealing because, playing with Crosby, he's a known commodity.

There are some common threads that run through the selections of Jeff Carter, Patrick Marleau and Rick Nash. They all have good size and they are all strong skaters. They're also three of 11 Canadian forwards to have scored at least .40 goals per game since the 2010-2011 season (or a 33-goal pace in an 82-game season). Of those 11, only two -- Pittsburgh's James Neal and Boston's Jarome Iginla -- weren't included on the Canadian roster.

Iginla's in the twilight of his career and Neal, while amazing when healthy this year, has missed a lot of time and an argument can be made that he, too, has been propped up by his centre in Pittsburgh -- usually Evgeni Malkin, but also Crosby recently -- and if a Penguin is going to come to ride shotgun with Crosby, Kunitz is the choice.

But, including these players comes at a price and that is in the form of the players that are excluded from the roster as a result.

The two most notable are Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis and Philadelphia's Claude Giroux.

St. Louis, whose GM for the Lightning is Steve Yzerman, the GM for Team Canada, led the league in scoring last season but, with Stamkos sidelined, St. Louis has been held to his lowest points per game (0.90) since 2005-2006. Even if he's a freak of nature, it's easy to look at the numbers for an undersized 38-year-old and find perceived better alternatives. Bet it was a tough phone call for Yzerman to make.

Giroux got a bad rap early in the year for his lack of production, but it's never accompanied with the note that he had to undergo finger surgery late in the summer. Since being held off the scoresheet in the first five games of the season, Giroux has 38 points in 37 games, re-establishing his credentials as a point-per-game scorer and it would be really easy to see Giroux on this Canadian roster, but he's currently on the outside looking in, needing either an injury or Stamkos's recovery to stall before getting a chance.

Carolina's Eric Staal got off to a slow start, which may well have been due to a knee injury suffered playing for Canada at the World Championships last spring, but does have 26 points in his past 24 games, so he's rounding into form and has lots of experience at an elite level, but his name wasn't as prominently involved in speculation throughout the process, possibly due to his scoring nine points in 18 games to start the season. 

Beyond those veteran options, the most notable exclusions are rising young stars, players that have the talent, but not the experience of playing at such an elite level. San Jose's Logan Couture might be the most notable exclusion among the young guns, but if the team was ever inclined to bypass experience and go with pure skill, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner -- three of the top seven picks in the 2010 Draft, are enjoying very productive seasons. Even so, Hockey Canada does not have a track record of going especially young in best-on-best tournaments so, right or wrong, it seemed like a reach for any of the three to get serious consideration.

There is nearly a month before the Winter Olympics kick off in Sochi, Russia, so there will be more time to debate Canada's roster and talk about the calibre of the mythical second Canadian team, and it won't much matter who is on the roster if Canada wins gold. If they don't, and the left-side defence is shaky or the bubble guys don't produce, then the debate will rage.

Each country has its share of quality players left home for the Olympics. Team USA had no room for Bobby Ryan and Keith Yandle; Sweden bypassed Victor Hedman, Russia said nyet to Alexander Semin and the Czech Republic wanted no part of Radim Vrbata, but was cool with 42-year-old Petr Nedved. Such is the depth of the talent in the pool, Canada is drawing a finer line between those selected and those that just miss, but it's the number of quality options available that makes the task of selecting so difficult and leaves management open to be second-guessed.

And winning gold will be the only way to quiet the naysayers. No pressure, eh?

Sidney Crosby Chris Kunitz (Photo: Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
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