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Canada's defense leans heavily to right-hand side

Wednesday, 07.24.2013 / 7:05 PM / 2014 Olympics

By Arpon Basu - Managing Editor LNH.com

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Canada's defense leans heavily to right-hand side
When it comes to Canada's potential defensemen for the 2014 Winter Olympics, there is a logjam of elite players who shoot from the right side. With the team planning to bring eight defensemen to Sochi, that could be a problem.

Steve Yzerman wants to build a hockey team.

The executive director of the Canadian Olympic men's team said that repeatedly earlier this week after officially announcing his coaching staff and 47-man roster for its orientation camp to be held in late August in Calgary.

"We're not putting together a team for an NHL All-Star Game, we're putting together the best possible team we can to compete against the best players in the world and try and win a gold medal," Yzerman said Monday. "Part of that comes with picking players who can do specific things for us."

Another part of building a hockey team, in an ideal world, is having three right-handed and three left-handed defensemen in the lineup. However, for one of the only times since the NHL has sent its players to the Olympics, the Canadian team may be heavily weighted to one side of the ice, and it's not the side most would assume.

For many teams, it can be a struggle to find enough right-handed defensemen to fill a lineup. Of the 290 defensemen who played at least one NHL game during the 2012-13 season, 180 shot from the left side (62 percent).

But when it comes to Canada's potential blue line for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, there is a logjam of elite defensemen who shoot from the right side. Drew Doughty, Kris Letang, Alex Pietrangelo, Brent Seabrook, P.K. Subban and Shea Weber shoot from the right side, and with Yzerman planning on bringing eight defensemen to Sochi, that could be a problem.

About the only lock on defense for Canada who shoots from the left side is Duncan Keith.

"I do like the idea of having a right and a left together, but I don't think it's the end all," Yzerman said. "Ultimately, the two guys who are playing the best will go out there."

Historically, Canada has managed to find a balance of righties and lefties on defense with NHL players participating at the Olympics.

In 1998 in Nagano there were four righties (Rob Blake, Eric Desjardins, Adam Foote and Al MacInnis) to go with three lefties (Ray Bourque, Chris Pronger and Scott Stevens). Four years later in Salt Lake City there were four lefties (Eric Brewer, Ed Jovanovski, Scott Niedermayer and Pronger) with three righties (Blake, Foote and MacInnis). In 2010 in Vancouver it was back to four righties (Dan Boyle, Doughty, Seabrook and Weber) and three lefties (Keith, Niedermayer and Pronger).

The exception was in 2006 in Turin, Italy, when Canada sent five lefties (Jay Bouwmeester, Bryan McCabe, Pronger, Wade Redden and Robyn Regehr) with two righties (Blake and Foote). Though it likely is pure coincidence, Turin happened to be where Canada had its worst finish with NHL players when it came seventh.

"Of the eight defensemen we have, I can't guarantee there will be four rights and four lefts," Yzerman said. "But I do believe there are advantages of having rights play with lefts in a game. On the bigger [international] ice maybe a little bit less; there's more time for them to get a pass off.

"It won't be the final factor but it does come into our decision-making."

Despite Yzerman's stated preference, he did cite a case when the distinction between left-handed and right-handed shooters on defense was completely ignored.

"The Russian national team for a long time in the '80s and early '90s had a defensive corps of all left shots," he said, "and they were successful."

"We're not putting together a team for an NHL All-Star Game, we're putting together the best possible team we can to compete against the best players in the world and try and win a gold medal. Part of that comes with picking players who can do specific things for us."
-- Steve Yzerman, executive director of the Canadian Olympic men's team

Canada invited 17 defensemen to its orientation camp to be held Aug. 25-28 in Calgary; eight of them shoot from the left side: Karl Alzner, Bouwmeester, Dan Hamhuis, Keith, Marc Methot, Dion Phaneuf, Marc Staal and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

"The best eight will be in the group for sure and then we'll decide who plays with whom," Canada coach Mike Babcock said. "But when I look at the group and I look at the veterans from last time and good young players coming, it looks to me like there's a good chance to be a balance."

In order for there to be some semblance of balance, at least one of the six top right-handed shooting candidates -- Doughty, Letang, Pietrangelo, Seabrook, Subban or Weber -- would need to stay home in order to leave room for three lefties.

It could be argued one of Subban or Letang be chosen because of the similarities in their styles, but considering Subban won the Norris Trophy in 2012-13 and Letang finished third in the voting, it would be difficult to cut either one. Doughty, Seabrook and Weber fall under the category of returning veterans from 2010 whom Babcock spoke of, and Pietrangelo would easily fall under the category of "good young players coming."

Then there's the matter of choosing two left-handed defensemen besides Keith to make the team, and though an argument could be made in favor of any of the invitees to the camp, one could just as easily be made against each one.

The decision for Yzerman and his management team will be played out over the first half of the 2013-14 NHL season, so this is not something that needs to be settled immediately.

But one thing appears apparent: There has never been a better time to be a Canadian defenseman who shoots from the left side.

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