Luongo emerged as the starting goaltender for Canada back in 2010 after Martin Brodeur faltered. Luongo was the man in goal during Canada’s unforgettable victory in the gold medal game over the Americans, and barring any unforeseen circumstances will be the man in goal for Canada to kick off the Sochi Games as well. He has a wealth of big-game experience (both in the NHL and internationally), and he has a lot of fans within the Canadian brain trust (particularly head coach Mike Babcock). Brodeur, Luongo’s former teammate and current Cory Schneider roadblock 2.0, is also a big fan:
“In my book, the No. 1 goaltending spot belongs to Roberto Luongo.”
Canuck fans should expect to see Luongo at his best – he remains one of the most competitive and consistent goaltenders on the planet and you can bet he has February 2014 circled on his calendar for a while now. As long as Canada doesn’t catch Vancouver’s injury bug, Luongo will benefit from playing behind six of the best defensemen in the world.
Defense – Dan Hamhuis
Outside of Vancouver (and Smithers), Hamhuis’ selection to the Canadian roster came as a surprise to many. But having him on the team starts to make a lot of sense when you step back and piece together the defensive pairings. Let’s do that now, shall we?
He shoots left – Canada is overflowing with talent on the back end, but most of their stars (Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, and PK Subban) are right-shooting defensemen. Some defensemen are comfortable playing on their off side (a left shooter playing on the right side, or vice versa), and former Canuck Christian Ehrhoff and Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf are both examples of this. But in a tournament with the very best in the world coming at Canada’s defensemen in waves, having a reliable breakout will be of the utmost importance. Left shooters on the left are able to handle pucks on their forehand and make quick passes to forwards a lot better than right shooters playing on the left side are.
He is an elite skater – Hamhuis is one of the most well rounded skaters in hockey. Backwards, forwards, turning, closing gaps – you name it, and he can do it very, very well. On the big ice, the ability to skate well is extremely important, especially for defensemen.
Chemistry with Shea Weber – in big tournaments, establishing chemistry early on is crucial for success. Canada’s top pairing is likely going to be Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty, while the St. Louis duo of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo will play together as well. In addition to Hamhuis, those four are all phenomenal skaters. Hamhuis and Weber have limited experience playing together in Nashville (but not Vancouver, much to the chagrin of Canuck fans everywhere), and they also spent many years together at practice and off the ice. Don’t discount that relationship when piecing together Canada’s back end.
He’s really, really good – in case you have been living under a rock since the Canucks acquired Hamhuis in the summer of 2010, here is a quick update – he is the club’s most dependable and best defenseman. He controls the pace of the game with his skating, vision, and poise, and he is very capable at shutting down the best forwards on the planet. The advanced stats back up Hamhuis’ selection to Canada – he generates the most goals-for among all of Canada’s defensemen, and he trails only Jay Bouwmeester in shorthanded effectiveness.
Hamhuis will slot in as Canada’s number six or seven defenseman on paper, but don’t be surprised to see him have a strong tournament and move up the depth chart quickly. For reasons outlined above, he has the opportunity to have a strong Sochi showing. I would say he may even have the opportunity to stand out, but generally the less you notice Hamhuis the better he is playing.
“My game is not a game that makes a lot of noise with headlines for the media and fans. But I've always felt that hockey people appreciate the game that I play. My dad has always told me that, too.”
The Yankee Canuck: Playing in Vancouver, but Born in the USA
Center – Ryan Kesler
Fortunately for the Americans, they will be getting Kesler and not an unnamed 67-year-old Canadian (and Vancouverite) on their team.
Kesler has tenaciously played himself into the hearts of most Canucks fans since arriving in the NHL a decade ago, but that relationship was put on hold for two weeks back in 2010. Unsurprisingly, Kesler was one of the best American players at the Vancouver Olympics, backing up his strong words (“I hate them,” referring to Team Canada, comments he later backtracked on) with even stronger play. Kesler was a dominant force at both ends of the ice and was far and away the most effective American center during the medal round.
As ESPN’s Scott Burnside eloquently stated in 2010, Kesler’s “sand and swagger” was a huge part of the American identity. And with teammate (and likely linemate) Zach Parise recently anointed captain you can once again expect the Americans to be equal parts pertinacious, agitating, feisty, and fast. This team won’t bring the gold home unless they outwork and out skate the rest of the world.
A lot of skating, a lot of penalty killing, and a lot of ice time. Kesler is the best center on the American roster, which means he will get to line up with two of Patrick Kane, Parise, or Phil “ping pong grandmaster” Kessel. The Americans are once again underdogs, and will need another heroic performance from one of their goaltenders (it was Ryan Miller in 2010 and it looks like Jonathan Quick will be the starter this year) to surpass Canada, Russia, Sweden, and/or the rest of the field.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series Thursday – a look at Vancouver’s European contingent.