SOCHI, Russia – Mike Babcock has to hope the constant tinkering is just about done.
The Canadian head coach has been shuffling his deck of impressive cards from the moment his team touched down here in Russia, searching for the right mixture that will yield a second consecutive gold medal. Babcock will employ his fourth different set of forward combinations at Wednesday's quarterfinal against Latvia.
Only one line gained any kind of traction during the preliminary round, a trio that includes Jonathan Toews, Jeff Carter and Patrick Marleau.
"We've changed our lines, in my opinion – same at last Olympics – too much," said Babcock.
Stingy in their defensive game in wins over Norway, Austria and Finland, the Canadian squad has not been the potent offensive machine one might expect with such an overwhelming talent base. In fact, the defence, led by the polished Drew Doughty with four goals, actually outscored the forwards – only three of whom have scored – in the preliminary round.
All of which explains the continued juggling.
And unlike say the American team, who has thrived behind the work of Toronto linemates, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, Canada has not yet benefited from any of the NHL pairs it brought to Sochi.
Though reunited once more, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz have failed to establish their Pittsburgh connectivity. Toews and Patrick Sharp landed together for one largely quiet game. And the scary Anaheim duo of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf has just a single goal and will try its third left winger in Jamie Benn against the Latvians.
"We're just trying to find some ways to have better execution and generate some more chances," said John Tavares, likely to be paired with a mix that includes Sharp, Rick Nash and perhaps Martin St. Louis. "When we get our chances, we've got to put them in. We're not giving up a whole lot and we are controlling the game so I think those are good signs. I think that will lead to good things, especially with all the talent we have and the ability to create chances that we have."
As promised – and perhaps to the recent chagrin of Babcock, based on the above remarks – Canada has not remained patient with any of the combinations it blended up. Carter, for instance, played one subpar game with Crosby and was promptly the 13th forward at the outset of game two. With talent bursting at the seams of the roster, the rationale behind shuffling what doesn't appear to work is understandable.
"I think the one thing we've learned over time is if it's not there, chemistry-wise, move," assistant coach Ken Hitchcock said before the tournament began. "Don't sit there and wait on it because [if] it's not there early it ain't there later."
The challenge, of course, is that chemistry can take time to develop, but in a tournament that numbers two weeks, waiting really isn't an attractive option, though in some cases may be warranted.
Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin, as fearsome a twosome as imaginable, remained together for each of Russia's four games despite combining for just two goals. They did, however, see a new left wing in their qualification round match against Norway with Alex Semin replaced by Alex Popov. Whether that patience will be rewarded remains to be seen.
In the case of Crosby, who has just two assists with a rotating cast of linemates, part of the fallout would seem to stem from the absence of Steven Stamkos, projected to be Ovechkin to Crosby's Malkin here in Sochi. The Canadian captain has played with eight different line combinations in 11 Olympic games dating back to Vancouver in 2010.
"I think you're always aware of who you're playing with and what their strengths are," said Crosby, "but I don't think it changes what you do out there. I don't think you really have a chance to over-think too much. As far as what you're doing individually, it's more your game plan as a team is what's going through your mind, rather than who you're necessarily playing with. All the guys here are so good, I think you can just read off each other, no matter who you're playing with."
Babcock is betting on that being Kunitz, who rejoins Crosby and Patrice Bergeron against the Latvians.
"Obviously I love playing with him," said Kunitz. "I have the tendencies and the chemistries when we play together in the NHL. We still have to go out and execute better … We have to make sure we go out and produce offensively. We have to make sure we go out and produce offensively, but make sure we're working every shift, getting that momentum going forward every time somebody else gets on the ice."
Outside of re-adjusting various combinations, Babcock is also pushing his group to attack the front of the net and middle of the ice with more regularity. They were largely held to the perimeter by a savvy Finnish squad in the final game of the preliminary round – all part of the ongoing adjustment to the international ice surface. An emphasis among players also centered around more puck possession and less of the dump-and-chase game preferred in much of the NHL.
"It hasn't been easy to get to the front of the net, but we've controlled the play," said Tavares. "There's been some times where teams are trying to slow us down and make it tough for us to get there."
Handed just four power plays in three games, the Canadians are also hunting for more opportunity with the man advantage.
Unlike the forward combinations, the defence pairings have remained rock-solid thus far and considering how well Canada has played overall defensively, with almost no chances against in the 2-1 overtime win against the Finns, a huge injection of offence might not be necessary to repeat with gold. But with potent obstacles from the U.S. and Russia potentially down the line, an improvement from the present is likely needed.