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Canada returns 11 players from 2010 gold-medal team

by Arpon Basu

TORONTO – At 4 p.m. Monday afternoon, Canada national team executive director Steve Yzerman and his managerial staff gathered for one final meeting to hammer out the 25-man roster which would represent the country at 2014 Sochi Olympics, hoping to defend the gold medal won four years earlier in Vancouver.

By the estimation of St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, when the management staff arrived Monday afternoon, 21 of the 25 players were already on the team. It might have even been 22.

That would leave three or four spots to fill, with some of the brightest hockey minds in the NHL debating the final decisions.

No problem, right?

About nine hours later, after having examined with the precision of a surgeon the strengths and weaknesses of each player in consideration for those final few spots, the group emerged with a list of 25 players which were presented to Canadians across the country and the rest of the hockey world on Tuesday morning at the Mastercard Centre for Hockey Excellence.

In a nutshell, that grueling final session is a perfect example of what made this task so difficult for Yzerman and his management team made up of Armstrong, Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland and Edmonton Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe.

The depth of talent Canada has to offer is so great and no decision could really be considered wrong; unless Canada doesn't win gold.

"Our goal is gold and no question we're going to be disappointed [if we don't win], everyone in Canada will be disappointed," Yzerman said following the announcement. "But we can't go in there thinking, 'Hey, it's our god-given right to win gold.' We're going to have to play our best and, honestly, get a little bit lucky."

When you have so many of the NHL's top players on your side, manufacturing a bit of luck becomes a bit easier.

Prior to games Tuesday, the Canadian roster included seven of the top 10 scorers in the NHL. An eighth Canadian, San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, was fifth in League scoring, but still didn't make the team.

"We talked about four or five guys at the end," Chiarelli said. "You have second thoughts and you just have to be firm in what you believe and the fit. For me, it was the most difficult exercise. It was very revealing, it was fun, it was hard work, but [Monday] night was difficult. These are hard, hard decisions on really good players."

There will be 11 players from Canada's Olympic gold-medal winning team in Vancouver four years ago who will be looking to repeat in Sochi next month: goalie Roberto Luongo (Vancouver Canucks); defensemen Duncan Keith (Chicago Blackhawks), Shea Weber (Nashville Predators) and Drew Doughty (Los Angeles Kings); and forwards Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins), Rick Nash (New York Rangers), Jonathan Toews (Blackhawks), Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks), Corey Perry (Ducks) and Patrick Marleau (San Jose Sharks).

The first-time Olympians picked to play for Canada in Sochi are goalies Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens) and Mike Smith (Phoenix Coyotes); forwards John Tavares (New York Islanders), Matt Duchene (Colorado Avalanche), Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning), Chris Kunitz (Penguins), Jeff Carter (Los Angeles Kings), Patrick Sharp (Blackhawks) and Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars); and defensemen Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues), Dan Hamhuis (Vancouver Canucks), P.K. Subban (Montreal Canadiens) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (San Jose Sharks).

Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is returning to the Olympics after failing to make the roster in 2010. He played on Canada's 2006 Olympic team with Nash and Luongo.

Players with pre-existing chemistry appeared to have an advantage in the selection process, with one established defense pair (Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo) named to the team plus three pairs of forwards who play together in the NHL (Crosby-Kunitz, Getzlaf-Perry and Sharp-Toews).

In a short tournament like the Olympics, taking advantage of teammates already knowing each other's tendencies makes perfect sense, especially since no other country has as much familiarity embedded in the lineup as Canada.

However, coach Mike Babcock warns not to read too much into that aspect and that he will be setting his lines based on who he feels are the best fits.

"This is what I'd say to you," Babcock said, "last time we brought Keith and [Blackhawks teammate Brent] Seabrook because of that and they didn't play together. So I wouldn't spend…we're playing the best with the best."

Many of the philosophical criteria set forth early on in the process by both Yzerman and Babcock is reflected in the Canadian roster.

While both said it wasn't a necessity to have a perfect balance of left-handed and right-handed shooting defensemen, that is ultimately what happened. Bouwmeester, Keith, Hamhuis and Vlasic shoot from the left side, while Doughty, Pietrangelo, Subban and Weber shoot from the right.

Among the forwards, speed, smarts and an ability to play without the puck were the driving forces behind the choices. Each of the 14 forwards are able to play in multiple situations and also play what Babcock loves to call "a 200-foot game."

"[It's] not necessarily the best 14," Yzerman said, "but the right 14."

Babcock was quick to disagree with his boss on that point.

"I think it's the best and the right," he said.

Most of the roster named Tuesday was not a surprise, but there were a few players who were the subject of great debate. Perhap no player polarized the debate more than Subban.

Determining whether the risk-reward factor of Subban's game made Canada a better team was one of those decisions that did come down to the wire. But, in the end, the group decided his ability to create offensively and make a power play hum with his one-timer from the point tipped the scales in his favor.

"He was part of that so-called bottom group we've been looking at and debating about the past couple of months," said Chiarelli, the member of the management most familiar with Subban's game. "The bottom line is that he can be a difference-maker. When you are down to one game, that is a key factor. In a one-game elimination, he can be a key asset."

"[It's] not necessarily the best 14, but the right 14."
-- Canada national team executive director Steve Yzerman

Among the forwards, the biggest debate probably surrounded Kunitz, and what made it strange was that his biggest strength was also seen by his detractors as his biggest weakness: his ability to play with Crosby.

Ultimately, only six NHL players have scored more goals than Kunitz since the start of the 2011-12 season, and his track record won over Yzerman and his staff.

"A lot of people have asked me, is Kunitz being helped by Sidney Crosby?" Yzerman said. "They help each other. He's a tremendous player and, ultimately, we asked ourselves, does he belong on this team? The answer is yes."

The fact is, there were millions of people across Canada and throughout the NHL who were doing exactly what Yzerman and his management team were trying to do throughout the first three months of the season. And while practically all of those lists will differ from the one Yzerman and his team presented Tuesday, there is only one that matters.

"Every one of us in Canada has an opinion on who should be on this team and nobody's wrong," Yzerman said. "Nobody's wrong because they're all really good players. Ultimately, this group is in charge of deciding who the 14 (forwards), eight (defencemen) and three (goalies) are."

But that doesn't mean those choices will not be examined, analyzed and second-guessed by a nation of people if it doesn't result in another gold medal for Canada.

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