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Canes for Canada in 2010?

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes
With Vancouver set to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, the Canadian media has long been speculating about which NHL players will get the call to represent the home team.

Paul Branecky
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The Canadian Press first released its picks about a month ago with no mention of either Eric Staal or Cam WardHowever, in its most recent mock selection, released yesterday, both players have entered the discussion.

The games are still almost a year away, but the selection process will begin quite soon. Players will be invited to a preliminary camp this summer, and it’s certain that what they’re doing right now, either in the playoffs or in the IIHF World Championships, will go a long way in determining their status.

That being said, it’s nice to see the Carolina duo get the recognition that we felt they deserved in the first place given their strong play over the last several months.

On the heels of the CP article and some fresh discussion sparked by members of the media from up north who are in town to cover the Canes/Bruins series, here’s a quick look at why each player has a good chance to represent their home country:

It’s not necessarily an insult to find one’s self on the outside looking in at the Canadian team. In its latest preview, the CP still has Staal as one of the “bubble players,” with fellow centers Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Joe Thornton and Jonathan Toews already on the hypothetical roster, not that they would all necessarily need to play in that position.

That’s not a bad group to be in, and one can see why General Manager Steve Yzerman will have his work cut out for him. In the preview, the CP speculates that Staal could enter the team in place of Thornton, who despite consistently ranking among the league’s top scorers in the regular season has had limited success in the playoffs.

I think that’s a little unfair to Thornton, who still had a respectable five points in the Shark’s disappointing six-game series loss to eighth-seeded Anaheim. Nonetheless, he is a leader on that team, and if that really is his reputation, that’s where Staal could find a window.

Besides having a Stanley Cup and gold medal at the World Championships on his resume (the latter matters more to the Olympic selection process than you might think), Staal now has 37 points in 34 career playoff games - and counting. Other than Crosby, Staal is the only player from the above group to average over a point per game in the postseason, and is one of only two players with a Stanley Cup (Getzlaf being the other).

He’s a proven winner and clutch performer, which should give him a leg up on the competition, in particular a younger player like Toews, current postseason pending.

In his first few years in the league, Ward found himself in the unusual position of proving himself in the playoffs first, with the long grind of the regular season still a work in progress. Although there are a number of established veteran netminders in the league who would love to have it the other way around, that long kept him from consideration as one of the league’s elite.

However, Ward seemed to fully turn the corner this season with his consistently strong efforts, which have carried over into the postseason. That caused the CP to name him as one of Team Canada’s three goaltenders, alongside Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo.

In its initial selection, Columbus rookie Steve Mason was the choice to accompany Brodeur and Luongo, but I think they got it correct this time around. As great as he was this season, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Mason ended up on a similar career path as Ward. Both goaltenders were big-time prospects that were thrust into the spotlight a little earlier than was planned, and the initial results were beyond expectations. As we’ve seen with Ward and other young goaltenders, learning to maintain that success over long periods of time is often the biggest challenge. Ward seems to have achieved that in his third full season, but we’ll still have to wait and see on Mason.

This one may depend on a number of factors. It’s not unusual to see international teams carry younger players in roles they know will be limited, third string goaltender being perhaps the best example. If that’s the case, bringing someone like Mason along for the ride with no intention of actually using him may be the choice.

However, if Ward keeps this up, he should be challenging for a starting spot and not the token third chair role. If that happens, other candidates such as Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Marty Turco fail to have comeback seasons and Marc-Andre Fleury stays on the outside, Ward seems like a good bet.

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