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No easy choices for Canadian Olympic roster

Wednesday, 02.18.2009 / 1:00 AM / All-Access Vancouver

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

There's really no argument -- the toughest job in hockey now belongs to Steve Yzerman.

The executive director for Canada's national team, all Yzerman has to do is find the best 23 hockey players in a hockey-mad country and guide them to an Olympic gold on home soil that the entire country has been fixated on since the games were awarded to Vancouver on July 2, 2003.

Sounds easy, right?

Unlike every other country, Canada likely could field two full teams and both would be gold-medal favorites. The players who don't make the main team will include All-Stars, award winners and fan favorites.

The rewards for winning are golden. Wayne Gretzky, already an icon for being the greatest player in NHL history, will forever be remembered for building the team that won gold at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

That 2002 win ended 50 years of Olympic hockey ignominy for Canada. Yzerman doesn't have to deal with that burden, but as the architect of the host country's team, there will be a huge amount of pressure on him.

So how will he go about picking the team?

"For us it's really just watching players right now," Yzerman told NHL.com. "We've kind of identified a group of potential guys that have a good opportunity to make it, and then there's a couple guys that will play their way on it or through injuries or whatnot drop off of it."

There will be an orientation camp Aug. 24-28 in Calgary, where the management team -- which also includes Red Wings GM Ken Holland, Oilers President Kevin Lowe, Blues Vice President of Player Personnel Doug Armstrong and Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson -- will have its first chance to see the players on the ice together. Yzerman told NHL.com the plan is to release the list of players invited to the camp prior to the end of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and announce the team sometime in December.

Between now and then, it's certain he'll hear millions of opinions from his peers, his friends and the guy fetching his doughnuts and coffee at every Tim Horton's he walks into. NHL.com also feels the need to offer our virtual 2 cents.

Here's a look, a year out, at what Canada's roster -- three goalies, seven defensemen, 13 forwards -- for the Vancouver Games could look like.

If anyone knows Stevie Y's e-mail address, feel free to pass this along to him. I'm sure he's waiting to read what we think.

Goaltenders: Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Marty Turco -- We're going to avoid naming starters (or defense pairings, or line combinations) because there are some hills that are just too steep to climb.

The first two on the list are as close to no-brainers as you're going to get. Sometime in the 2009-10 season, Brodeur is going to do what he would have done this season had he not gotten hurt, which is add his name to the top of the all-time NHL goalie list for wins and games played, among other marks. His resume -- three Stanley Cups, four Vezina trophies, four Jennings awards, nine-time All-Star -- is unquestioned.

Brodeur, though, will be 37 in May, and with the games being played in his home city, Luongo could be the opening-game starter. Not that that would be a bad thing.

Playing on notoriously weak teams early in his career, Luongo still has a career 2.59 goals-against average and .916 save percentage, and his size and athleticism give him the ability to steal a game at any time.

So there's one more roster spot for a player who likely won't see a second of game time. But in a stressful tournament played in a condensed time frame, a third goalie is a necessity. The player will be little more than a cheerleader, and has to willingly accept the job. For that reason, NHL.com gives the nod to Turco.

The Stars' goalie is renowned for his likability and easy-going locker room presence. The guess is he'll easily slide into that role of flag waver and practice-time shooting target. He also has the skills and big-game experience to play if pressed into action.

Left off the list are a pair of Stanley Cup champions (Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Cam Ward), a starter on one of last season's Cup finalists (Marc-Andre Fleury) and some burgeoning young talent that will play a major role in upcoming international events (Carey Price, Steve Mason, Mike Smith).

See why this is a hard job?

Defensemen: Jay Bouwmeester, Rob Blake, Mike Green, Scott Niedermayer, Dion Phaneuf, Chris Pronger, Shea Weber -- NHL.com attempted to find the most well-rounded blueliners available -- no specialists who do one thing well, but might be lacking in other areas. The seven chosen here all can move the puck, jump up in the rush and shut down the other teams' top players. All can quarterback a power play and anchor a penalty-killing unit.

 
Bouwmeester is regarded as one of the smoothest skaters in the League and has grown into his offensive abilities over the last few seasons, and just 25 now, there's no reason to think those numbers won't continue to climb.

Phaneuf, along with Pronger, supply the offense and snarl a good team needs. While he hasn't reached the 20-goal mark of his rookie season, Phaneuf still had 60 points last season and is on pace to reach 50 for the third straight season. At the advanced age of 34, Pronger is within reach of his career high of 14 goals, and he certainly isn't afraid of the rough stuff.

Green, just 23, leads the League's defensemen in goals and points despite missing 13 games with injuries, and has gone from a minus-10 in 2006-07 to a plus-19 this season.

There is some age in this seven-pack of players. Pronger will be 35 when the Games start, Niedermayer will be 36 and Blake will be 40. But Niedermayer will be a consideration for captain, and what some might consider old, others look at as necessary veteran experience. There's a reason the Ducks and Sharks are among the elite teams in the Western Conference.

So who misses the cut? Brian Campbell, Dan Boyle, Sheldon Souray and Dennis Wideman are elite offensive talents, but their defensive-zone play doesn't rank with our group. Marc Staal and Drew Doughty will be locks for the 2014 Games if the NHL participates.

Forwards: Jeff Carter, Sidney Crosby, Shane Doan, Simon Gagne, Ryan Getzlaf, Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, Brenden Morrow, Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Mike Richards, Joe Thornton -- So how do you parse the list of Canadian forwards down to 13? Well, it's not easy, but we think this is a pretty good roster. There are top-end scorers, elite playmakers and hard-nosed checkers.

Heck, when the extra forward could be the League's leading playmaker four seasons running or the League's No. 2 goal scorer, you know you've got good depth.

"We've kind of identified a group of potential guys that have a good opportunity to make it, and then there's a couple guys that will play their way on it or through injuries or whatnot drop off of it."
-- Steve Yzerman

We said we weren't going to guess line combinations, but c'mon -- how does a first unit of Crosby, Iginla and Gagne sound? What about a reunion of the top trio from the 2008 World Championships -- Getzlaf centering Heatley and Nash? And for a checking line, how does Richards between Morrow and Doan strike you?

And you can pretty much pull the fourth line out of a hat between Lecavalier, Perry, Thornton and Carter. Maybe it could be a Three Towers line of Lecavalier (6-foot-4), Carter (6-3) and Thornton (6-4). Who wants to match up with that trio?

So where do the arguments start? OK, six centers might be one too many, but who would you drop? Carter is on pace for 50 goals and seems to get better each season. He's playing in all situations in Philadelphia, and on this team, he could adjust to a fourth-line/penalty-killer role.

So who's out? The most painful omission is local boy Joe Sakic. Burnaby Joe will be 40 when the Games start, but injuries have limited him to just 59 games since the start of the 2007-08 season, and it's questionable if he'll even want to play next season.

Others who fall short include Jason Spezza, Jonathan Toews, Marc Savard, Martin St. Louis and Eric Staal. Also up for consideration were Derek Roy, Jordan Staal, Justin Williams, Patrick Marleau, Patrick Sharp and 2009 top prospect John Tavares.

So how will our Team Canada choices stack up against what Yzerman and his team will come up with? We'll have to wait until December to find out.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.