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Making The Team Canada Cut

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Hockey Canada will host an Olympic orientation camp in Calgary next month, featuring 47 of the country’s best NHL players — who may or may not take the ice — in preparation for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Personally, with insurance costing roughly $1 million for the weekend gathering — or $21,276 each — I would hope the players pony up to increase their chances at gold with additional on-ice chemistry. Surely, if they don’t and other nations do, Canada will be a step behind and critics will hold them accountable for any shortcomings in February — such as silver, bronze or, heaven forbid, no medal at all.

There’s still plenty of time to figure that out, and even more time to finalize the 25-man Olympic roster ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline. The latter decisions lie in the hands of Steve Yzerman and company, and the first three months of the NHL season will largely influence who makes the cut.

That said, there are already the proverbial locks — at least a half-dozen, maybe even a dozen players who are assured spots in Sochi, barring injury between now and then. But it’s often said Canada could ice two medal teams and these Olympics are no exception, though the Americans, host Russians, Swedes, Finns and lesser lights such as the Swiss, Slovaks and Czechs would all beg to differ.

On paper, though, Canada will certainly enter the tournament as the odds-on favourite, not to mention the defending champions from the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Yzerman has indicated there will be a changing of the guard this time around, and the invitation list to orientation camp echoes that sentiment with 2010 veterans Martin Brodeur and Jarome Iginla not attending and key defencemen Scott Niedermayer (retired) and Chris Pronger (injured) no longer in the picture.

There has also been little to no fanfare for Dan Boyle or Joe Thornton in terms of making the 2014 edition, while fellow 2010 holdovers Brenden Morrow, Dany Heatley and Marc-Andre Fleury have also become afterthoughts for arm-chair GMs trying to assemble their golden lineup.

Instead, a new wave of talent is likely to take the torch and replace their roles, led by a trio of first overall draft picks in Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and, potentially, Taylor Hall.

Just how much turnover will there be? I’m honestly thinking 45 per cent — yes, essentially half the roster, or nine of the 20 players in Canada’s starting lineup on Feb. 13 against Norway. In that estimation, I have five new forwards, three new blue-liners and one new netminder — plus a few more fresh faces among the five ‘taxi squad’ reserves.

Without further a do, here’s my Canadian roster for the 2014 Olympics, with reasoning to follow:

Forwards

Eric Staal-Sidney Crosby-Steven Stamkos

Rich Nash-Jonathan Toews-Claude Giroux

John Tavares-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry

Logan Couture-Patrice Bergeron-Jamie Benn

Taxi Squad = Taylor Hall, Andrew Ladd and James Neal/Patrick Sharp

Defence

Shea Weber-Drew Doughty

Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook

Kris Letang-Alex Pietrangelo

Taxi Squad = P.K. Subban/Marc Staal/Mike Green

Goaltenders

Carey Price

Roberto Luongo

Taxi Squad = Cam Ward/Corey Crawford

Starting from the top, with the forwards, I think Stamkos, Giroux and Tavares are already penciled in among the top 12 providing they are healthy and productive, as expected, at Christmastime. I’m also fairly confident that centre depth will be reflected on the final roster. If I had to label three forwards as “on the bubble”, it would Perry, Couture and Benn. Perry has been a staple with Hockey Canada and always seems to deliver, but he’s not the best skater and these Olympics are being played on the bigger ice surface again. Couture and Benn would be newcomers and could easily be upstaged by Hall, Ladd, Neal or Sharp. Benn wasn’t even invited to the orientation camp — albeit shockingly — so I’m going out on a limb by listing him among the top 12 and he’ll be hard-pressed to achieve that. But those six are pretty interchangeable in my opinion, and I wouldn’t go as far as to call Perry’s spot safe, either, although his chemistry with Getzlaf should also work in his favour.

Defensively, I think the top four are set in stone and will remain the same as in Vancouver. The bottom pairing could go a few different directions, but I think Letang and Pietrangelo would complement each other nicely. If Letang struggles or gets hurt again early in the NHL season, then Subban could be paired with Pietrangelo or they may prefer more of a shutdown replacement in Marc Staal. The other wild card would be Mike Green, arguably Canada’s best offensive defenceman, and he looked like his old self for Washington down the stretch and into the playoffs last season. If Green picks up where he left off and stays healthy until Christmas, he may very well enter the conversation.

Last but by no means least, goaltending is Canada’s biggest question mark. Luongo is the incumbent starter, but he’s not even the incumbent starter on his own NHL team these days, having been supplanted by Cory Schneider in Vancouver. He is, however, the default starter now that Schneider has been shipped to New Jersey to compete with Brodeur, another former Canadian Olympic goaltender nearing retirement. Luongo is still in his prime years, but he hasn’t been that spectacular in recent seasons since the 2010 Games. But nor has any other Canadian between the pipes, at least not with any alarming consistency. Price is often thought to be the heir apparent to Canada’s goaltending throne and he’s shone on the big stage before at the world juniors and in winning the AHL’s Calder Cup. But Price hasn’t fully lived up to expectations, or his potential, in Montreal where he was also outplayed by former Hab Jaroslav Halak a couple years back and wasn’t at his best in a first-round playoff upset loss to Ottawa this spring. Fleury has been worse, much worse, the past two playoffs — ultimately losing his starting job to Tomas Vokoun. Ward wasn’t invited to the orientation camp, perhaps still recovering from a knee injury that prematurely ended his season, but if healthy, he has the ability to be in the mix and has played well at world championships over the years. Ward is my dark horse, but he would also have to outperform reigning Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford of Chicago, Mike Smith of Phoenix and Braden Holtby of Washington, all of whom are slated to join Luongo and Price at the summer camp.

Taking everything into account at all three positions, it’s evident that competition will once again be steep for those hoping to crack Canada’s Olympic roster. Crosby, if his health holds up — and that’s a fair-sized IF — will likely captain this team, having scored the gold-medal-winning goal in overtime against the rival United States in 2010. Leadership won’t be an issue, with several of Canada’s prospective players wearing captaincy letters on their NHL teams. If the goaltending dilemma solves itself and the appointed starter is anything above average, then I like Canada’s chances to repeat as Olympic champions and top the podium in Sochi. If the goaltending falters, as has been the case at recent world juniors, then Canada will have its work cut out and may need to outscore the opposition to accomplish the same feat, which will be no easy task. Time will tell, but I would agree with the odds-makers that Canada is still the team to beat at the outset of the Games.

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