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Analysis: What helped shape Canada's Olympic roster

by Dan Rosen

No one ever hid from the fact Canada would be leaving a number of star players off its 25-man roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, so now that the roster is out it's simply inaccurate to say Claude Giroux, Martin St. Louis, Joe Thornton, Brent Seabrook and Dan Boyle and others were snubbed.

These players and many more that didn't make the roster announced Tuesday were not ignored, rebuffed or spurned disdainfully. They didn't make it because Canada has a lot of star power and was only allowed to select three goalies, eight defensemen and 14 forwards.

In the Olympics, depth is all about the players you bring, not the players who are worthy of being there. That's why these decisions were so hard for Canada executive director Steve Yzerman, who admitted he was trying to slot 17 forwards into 14 spots and, well, that's just not allowed.

To come up with the final roster, factoring in all of the proverbial bubble players, Yzerman had to ask himself and his staff of executives and coaches a series of questions. The answers they came up with would go a long way toward determining the makeup of the roster that they announced Tuesday.

Based off of the comments made by Yzerman and coach Mike Babcock on Tuesday, here are five questions likely asked at some point in the selection process:

Is Chris Kunitz good enough to make this team on merit and not because he plays with Sidney Crosby?

Yzerman admitted Canada's staff actually did ask this question. The answer was yes. It's the right answer.

"We went back to last season, and when Sid was out of the lineup he played well," Yzerman said.

Kunitz had eight points on two goals and six assists with Crosby out of the lineup for the final 12 games of the 2012-13 regular season. Perhaps a better sampling is how Kunitz played in the 2011-12 season, when Crosby was limited to 22 games because of concussion issues. Kunitz still set personal career highs with 26 goals and 61 points.

How about going all the way back to when Kunitz played for the Anaheim Ducks? He was a two-time 20-goal scorer and was on his way to a third 20-goal season before he was traded to the Penguins late in the 2008-09 season. His linemates in Anaheim included Canadian Olympic teammates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

Canada will hope Kunitz and Crosby can continue the magic they've had in Pittsburgh on the bigger ice in Sochi. That'll be the goal and it should be how Babcock starts the tournament. If Steven Stamkos is healthy, put him on the right side of that line and just like that Canada has itself a first line with all the attributes it believes are necessary to win in Sochi: skating, hockey sense, puck possession and defensive acumen.

How important is it to have balance on the blue line with four lefties and four righties?

Babcock said it wasn't the end-all, be-all, but it certainly looks like balance drove the decision on the blue line and, in turn, drove Seabrook and Boyle off this team.

Canada's right-handed defensemen are Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Weber and P.K. Subban. Seabrook is a righty and it's hard to argue for his inclusion in the place of any of those four fellow righties.

Canada's left-handed defensemen are Duncan Keith, Jay Bouwmeester, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Dan Hamhuis. If Seabrook was going to make it he would have likely had to make it instead of Hamhuis, but Babcock said Canada likes the safe, defensive, cerebral aspects of Hamhuis' game. He also noted Bouwmeester is the lefty who can move to the right side if a righty gets hurt.

"When you see the National [Hockey] League and look around it, there's a whole bunch of guys that are left-handed that play on the right side, there isn't a whole bunch of right-handers that play on the left side," Babcock said. "On our team if someone on the right gets hurt, Bouwmeester can switch over. We didn't see there was a whole bunch going the other direction. Suddenly you put a guy on the biggest stage and he's playing where he doesn't play, we didn't know if that was the best thing."

There's an argument to be made Babcock and Canada are over-thinking the right-left balance. For example, USA general manager David Poile recently said that defenseman Brian Rafalski told him balance is less of a factor in tournaments played overseas because there is more space to turn and make plays on the wider international ice sheet.

There's also an argument to be made for Seabrook since he is Keith's normal defense partner and they obviously play well together. Canada is going to do some experimenting with lines and defense pairings early in the tournament, but bringing Seabrook and pairing him with Keith would have given the coaches one less experiment to try.

How many is too many centers?

Canada is deepest down the middle and could have probably taken at least a dozen centers without hearing an argument from most people. Yzerman took seven Crosby, Stamkos, Getzlaf, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, John Tavares and Matt Duchene.

Giroux, Thornton, Logan Couture, Eric Staal and Tyler Seguin did not make it. The backlash, particularly in regards to Giroux and Thornton, has been loud and focused.

However, seven centers seems like the right number because it reduces the amount of players forced to play out of position in Sochi while giving Canada seven natural wingers who are more comfortable playing along the wall. Having too many players out of position would not be good for the chemistry and balance Canada has to find early in the tournament.

Crosby, Getzlaf, Toews and Bergeron will play center. Tavares, Duchene and Stamkos have experience playing wing in international tournaments and Babcock will likely ask one or all of them to switch positions in Sochi.

Canada will have to scratch at least one forward, so it's a distinct possibility all seven centers end up in the lineup. At the very least, expect Canada to dress at least five centerseach game.

Jeff Carter, Rick Nash and Perry are Canada's natural right wings, but Stamkos could move to the right side. Kunitz, Jamie Benn, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Marleau are Canada's left wings, but Tavares or Duchene could switch to the left side. Benn can slide into the middle in a pinch too.

Stamkos is the wild card with his injury, but having the luxury of replacing him with a playmaker as good as Giroux is something only Canada is afforded. Like Stamkos, Giroux is a right-handed shot who is versatile enough to switch positions and not be affected by moving to the wing.

Is it possible to forget about the fact Rick Nash is having a sub-par season because he has been good in international tournaments?

The answer, according to Yzerman, is a resounding yes. And it makes sense considering Nash's ability to play on either wing and his statistics in international tournaments.

Nash has 50 points in 47 career international games as a professional, including five points in seven games in the 2010 Olympics, where he was one of Canada's top forwards by the end of the tournament and was playing on its best line with Toews and Mike Richards.

He also has experience on the big ice playing for HC Davos of the Swiss National League A during the lockout of 2004-05 and in 2012. Nash had a combined 64 points in 61 games for Davos.

Yzerman and company had to consider the season Nash is having (18 points in 27 games), but also had to factor in that he missed 17 games with a concussion and had been short on production until he scored two goals Monday against his old team, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"We continue to watch him and we're still expecting Rick Nash's play to elevate from today, to get back to playing the way we expect and we've seen him in the past," Yzerman said. "He's going in the right direction with his play."

It's a gamble, but Nash has 15 games before the Olympic break to fulfill Yzerman's expectations.

Is the risk in P.K. Subban's game worth the reward and can he be effective in limited minutes?

Yes. It has always been yes. That's why it wouldn't make any sense if Subban wasn't on this team. The risk in his game can be tempered by limiting his ice time to offensive situations, particularly on the power play.

"He can make a big play to win you a game," said Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, a member of Yzerman's managerial staff. "He can be a gamebreaker."

Exactly, and that's why it was preposterous that there was even a debate about Subban, who joins Duncan Keith as the two Norris Trophy winners on Canada's roster.

Subban can run a power play and his shot rivals that of Shea Weber for how heavy and hard it is. Weber may have a bit of shot velocity on Subban, but that's about it. Subban can move the puck up the ice quickly.

The knock is that Subban is prone to making risky plays in the defensive zone, leading to turnovers, but it's on the coaches to protect him from potentially compromising positions in the defensive zone.

The Americans didn't select Keith Yandle because they were worried about the risk in his game. It could go down as a glaring omission if they struggle to score in Sochi.

At least Canada can say it brought arguably its most dangerous, albeit risky, offensive defenseman to the Olympics.


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