CALGARY - At 26, and coming off a strong playoff run last spring, Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith is one of the players who will be most under scrutiny at the Canadian men's Olympic team orientation camp this week.
Players here essentially fall into three broad categories. There are the ones who, barring injury, are mortal locks to make the team (Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Scott Niedermayer). There are those who are part of Generation Next who face long odds to qualify for the 2010 team, but will be a big part of the future (Drew Doughty, Milan Lucic, Steve Mason).
Then there are the bubble players, such as Keith, who are in the mix, along with a number of his emerging peers, for the final few places on the 23-player roster. Keith's stock, along with that of his Blackhawks defence partner, Brent Seabrook, rose immeasurably in the playoffs last season.
Coincidentally, Chicago's third-round series was played against the Detroit Red Wings, the team that happens to include three of the key decision makers for Canada - executive director Steve Yzerman, associate director Ken Holland and head coach Mike Babcock.
Considering Keith was in the stands in Kelowna, B.C., four years ago, watching Canada's orientation camp before the 2006 Olympics in Turin, he has come a long way in a short time.
"Now, to be playing here is pretty cool," Keith said here yesterday, recalling the fast pace of the on-ice sessions four years ago. "I remember seeing Marty St. Louis, thinking it took him two seconds to get down to the other end of the ice. It was a packed building in Kelowna, with ... [2006 executive director] Wayne Gretzky up in the stands. To be a part of it, to be one of the guys actually on the ice, for me is a thrill and I want to keep it going."
There will be a changing of the guard on the blueline, with five of the seven players who made the Turin team not returning for an encore.
Niedermayer, the much decorated veteran from the Anaheim Ducks, is the closest thing to a sure thing on the defence, assuming good health.
Sadly, injuries are a part of NHL life that Niedermayer understands only too well - after being chosen for the team in 2006, he was forced to withdraw at the last minute because of a lingering leg problem.
Niedermayer's place was taken by Jay Bouwmeester and his absence was acutely felt, when Canada couldn't muster much of a scoring attack.
Niedermayer's skating and passing ability - and capacity for timely offence - might have made a difference to a team that could never get on track. Canada placed seventh, losing in the quarter-finals to Russia.
"It was really difficult having to make a decision like that because wanting to play for your country is a huge thrill and honour," Niedermayer said. "I was playing with something I'd played with. I just felt that if I continued on for a couple of months, after that, I don't know if I could really have been at my best. Also, you feel some responsibility to your NHL club. So I felt I was in a tough spot. It's not a decision I want to have to make again."
Niedermayer's teammate with the Ducks, Ryan Getzlaf, is the only player selected for the camp who is scheduled to stay off skates the entire week. Getzlaf underwent surgery on July 29 to correct a sports hernia.
He had the ailment during the second half of the season and playoffs, and figured it would correct itself with some off-season rest. But once he began workouts again, he found the hernia hadn't gone away, so doctors opted for surgery. Still, he expects to be ready for the NHL season's opening night.
"It's a weird situation," Getzlaf said of the lateness of his off-season surgery. "Every time you wait and it works, nobody says anything. It's a situation where we waited as long as we could and then we decided to do it. I'll still be ready for the start of the season and that's the most important thing."
Depending upon how Babcock deploys Crosby - either at centre or left wing - Getzlaf could be Canada's No..1 centre, based on his strong finish last season. Getzlaf was the second-leading scorer in the NHL among Canadian-born players, seventh overall. Crosby led the Canadians in third overall and Iginla was eighth.
Ten of the top 20 scorers in the league last year were born in Canadian, but just eight of those received invitations to the camp (Marc Savard and Michael Cammalleri were passed over).
Joe Thornton, 11th overall with 88 points in 82 games and three times the NHL's assist leader, is no longer considered a sure thing to make the team, in part because of Canada's depth down the middle and the team's reluctance to load up strictly on centres. Thornton volunteered (jokingly) to line up on defence, if that's what it took to make the team, but said he was prepared to shift to the wing if necessary.
"Everybody has to be confident," Thornton said. "Everybody going to this camp has a legitimate shot at making the team. You just want to be playing well in December, January and early February."
A closer look at Finland
While the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin proved to be nightmarish for traditional hockey powers such as Canada, Russia and the United States, it marked a rare moment of glory for Finland.
The Finns, World Cup finalists in 2004 and world champions in 1995, unexpectedly qualified for the final in Turin and came home with the silver medal after losing to Sweden in the championship game.
The result was unexpected because the Finns went into the tournament without their No..1 player, goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who skipped the Olympics to rest an ailing hip injury.
But Finland's traditional depth in goal came through. Kiprusoff's replacement, Antero Nittymaki of the Philadelphia Flyers, provided the country with exceptional play between the pipes, helping the Finns advance to the final.
Nittymaki switched NHL teams this summer - he'll be Mike Smith's backup on the Tampa Bay Lightning - but he has shown the capability of raising his game in a two-week tournament.
However, the battle for a starting job will likely be between Kiprusoff, if he decides to play, and Niklas Backstrom, the Vézina Trophy finalist last season who plays for the Minnesota Wild.
Pekka Rinne, who has a solid rookie season in the NHL last season with the Nashville Predators, is also considered part of the mix, while Kari Lehtonen of the Atlanta Thrashers, once a promising youngster who has yet to find his stride at the NHL level, is something of a long shot at the moment.
Finland is No..4 in the International Ice Hockey Federation's men's world rankings.
Because Teemu Selanne postponed his retirement for another year - and also coaxed long-time international linemate Saku Koivu to join him with the Anaheim Ducks - the Finns will have two-thirds of a strong No..1 line, and are expected to be joined there by the Dallas Stars' perennial Selke Trophy candidate Jere Lehtinen.
Koivu's younger brother, Mikko, might be the best Finnish forward in the world right now, after leading the Wild in scoring last season with 67 points in 79 games, while the Kimmo Timonen of the Flyers was the only Finnish-born defenceman to crack the top 30 in scoring by an NHL defenceman last year. Timonen was also second overall in power-play assists by a blueliner last year with 26, behind only Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens.
In Matt Niskanen, the Stars also boast one of the best young Finnish rearguards in the game. Other ex-Stars that will be candidates to play for Finland include Niklas Hagman (Toronto Maple Leafs), Antti Miettinen (Minnesota).
Additionally, a number of Finnish players have made the move to Russia to play in the Continental Hockey League, including Niko Kapanen who played for Ak Bars Kazan last year. Long-time NHLer Sami Kapanen is still playing at 36 at home and is a candidate as well.
Marleau on hot seat as camp opens
It was a tough first day for the San Jose Sharks centre Patrick Marleau at the Canadian men's Olympic team orientation camp in Calgary: Not only did he have to discuss losing the captaincy of his NHL team, he was also asked to address a report circulating that he had scuttled a possible three-way deal with the Ottawa Senators involving Dany Heatley by refusing to waive his no-trade clause.
"That's the first I've heard of it, so no truth to it, I guess," Marleau said of the report in the Orange Country Register. "I haven't heard of it."
However, when asked specifically if the Sharks had asked him to waive his no-trade clause, Marleau said he "preferred" to keep that information to himself.
In short, he didn't completely rule it out.
One NHL source indicated yesterday the Sharks and Senators did discuss a possible deal for Heatley, but San Jose's preference was to move former 50-goal scorer Jonathan Cheechoo in any trade, another player who looks as if he needs a fresh start.
It appears as though Marleau is safe for at least another year. Not his captaincy.
The Sharks, upset by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the playoffs after winning the Presidents' Trophy, recently took the C from Marleau and the assistant captaincy from Joe Thornton. They will go into training camp with all the leadership letters up for grabs.
The likeliest scenario is that Dan Boyle, a former Stanley Cup champion, will eventually inherit the captaincy, although fellow veteran defenceman Rob Blake could also be a candidate.
For his part, Marleau said he was "okay" with the decision to step down as the Sharks' captain. "We had discussions and we're all on the same page. We want to win the Stanley Cup ... and the organization thinks this is one of the things that can improve our chances. It's all about us winning as a club. Hopefully, it plays out the way everybody wants it to."
Mason not intimidated by idol, other goalies
Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Steve Mason, the reigning Calder Trophy candidate as the NHL's rookie of the year, is a long-time fan of New Jersey Devils counterpart Martin Brodeur.
And while Mason is in camp, hoping to earn one of three available spots on the Olympic team, he also plans to ask Brodeur for an autograph at some point over the next three days.
"That's something I have to do, aside from everything else," said Mason, blushing only slightly. "I talked to my buddies back home and I can't come home [without it]. I don't know how I'm going to approach it. I'll probably be star struck when I see him. Obviously, growing up, he was my favourite guy. Now that I've got a chance to be on the same team as him, it is pretty cool."
That said, 21-year-old Mason believes he has a chance of cracking the roster, despite his youth. Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Marc-André Fleury and Cam Ward are also in Calgary.
"Obviously, my goal is to make this team," Mason said. "Whether that's realistic, given the goalies that are here, I don't know, but I'm going to give myself every chance. You have to have that [confidence]. You have to give them respect for what they've done, but at the same time, there are five goalies here and they're only taking three, so two guys are going to be left out. I definitely don't want to be one of those two."
Doughty's phone drowns but not his confidence
Drew Doughty, one of the runners-up to Mason in last season's rookie balloting, learned he was invited to the orientation camp when executive director Steve Yzerman left a voice-mail message on his cellphone.
Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings planned to save the recording indefinitely - Yzerman was one of his favourite players growing up - but he dropped his cellphone in the water, killing it.
"I dropped it in water," Doughty explained. "It's done. I'm done. I don't have a phone until I go back to the States. I'm going to be phoneless for a while."
Doughty, 20, is the youngest player at the camp and one of 16 invitees on defence. He earned an invitation partly because of his strong play for Canada at the world championship last season, and partly because of previous world junior experience. This week's experience, however, represents a giant step up in class.
"Right now, I'm not nervous, but I'm sure going into the first practice and that scrimmage, I will be. But I usually deal pretty well with those kinds of things. I just don't think about it. I play my game and enjoy the game of hockey."
Morrow tests knee after almost a year away
Nobody at the camp played fewer games in the NHL last season than Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow, who blew out his knee 18 games into the 2008-09 campaign and didn't return before the end of the regular season.The Stars missed the playoffs after qualifying for the Western Conference final the year before.
Based on his exceptional performance in the 2007-08 playoffs, in which he practically willed his team past two heavily favoured opponents (the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks), Morrow has a good chance of making the final 2010 roster. However, much depends upon how quickly he rounds into form in the early season, after almost a full year away from the game.
Morrow is interested in knowing the answer to that question himself."I'm excited," he said. "Based on last year, I never really expected an invitation, so I have a lot to prove. It was a disappointing season for me and my team, so I want to go out and have a good camp and a good start and try to make them have to make a tough decision.
"I haven't competed with people at this level. I've been playing shinny hockey in Dallas, with some teenagers, but this is something I haven't done in eight months - to have this kind of competition. I feel healthy. I feel good. I'm looking forward to it."
A projection of how the Canadian men's 2010 Olympic team could line up:
FORWARDS (LW-C-RW)Sidney Crosby-Ryan Getzlaf-Jarome IginlaPatrick Marleau-Joe Thornton-Rick NashShane Doan-Mike Richards-Jeff CarterEric Staal-Vincent Lecavalier-Martin St. LouisJonathan Toews
DEFENCEChris Pronger-Scott NiedermayerDuncan Keith-Brent SeabrookShea Weber-Dan BoyleJay Bouwmeester
GOALTENDERSMartin BrodeurRoberto LuongoCam Ward