30 Thoughts: Canada's Olympic squad still has holes to fill | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in Canada30 Thoughts: Canada's Olympic squad still has holes to fill

Posted: Monday, January 6, 2014 | 10:32 PM

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Players like New York Rangers forward Rick Nash and Pittsburgh Penguins winger Chris Kunitz aren't sure bets to make the Canadian Olympic squad. (Getty Images/CBCSports.ca) Players like New York Rangers forward Rick Nash and Pittsburgh Penguins winger Chris Kunitz aren't sure bets to make the Canadian Olympic squad. (Getty Images/CBCSports.ca)

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Team Canada's brain trust convenes today in Toronto, making the final decisions before Tuesday's Olympic announcement. The belief is most of the team is in place, with maybe four or five positions to be cemented.
Team Canada's brain trust convenes today in Toronto, making the final decision before Tuesday's Olympic announcement (11 a.m. ET, CBC, CBCSports.ca).

The belief is most of the team is in place, with maybe four or five positions to be cemented.

Some of the final issues to be dealt with:

Injuries

In some ways, this is the easiest part of the debate. International Ice Hockey Federation rules allow players to be replaced up to 24 hours before a team's first game if injured or in some kind of extreme personal situation. Therefore, it's sound strategy to name Steven Stamkos to the roster.

If he can't go, you see who plays well for another month and take that guy in Stamkos' place.

Same goes for Logan Couture and Roberto Luongo. Both go on the roster and you take your chances. If healthy, great. If not, people are going to kill over the next month to replace them.

If he's healthy, he's there. If not, big-time incentive for someone to prove, "I'm your guy."

4 lefts, right?

My personal belief is seven of the eight defencemen are right-handed shots Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, PK Subban and Shea Weber; left-handed shots Jay Bouwmeester, Duncan Keith and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

That leaves one spot, and Canada believes in equality. Barring a change, that's bad for Dan Boyle and Brent Seabrook. That's good for Dan Hamhuis, coming on strong after a rough start.

Rick Nash and Eric Staal

Before the Winter Classic, CBC aired Defending Gold -- a behind-the-scenes look at the selection process. Both Rick Nash and Eric Staal are having disappointing years and are in danger of losing their spots.

But the comments about the two, who played very well in 2010, were interesting.

In a November meeting, Steve Yzerman is shown talking about Nash.

"Is he the same player he was in 2010? I guess that's debatable. Every event I've taken him to, he's been the best player."

But it is also mentioned that Nash hasn't been at his best and could be pushed off the team. Things haven't really improved for him.

Watching Jeff Carter walk through Vancouver on Saturday night may make this one of Canada's toughest choices.

Staal, who was injured last weekend and won't travel with the Hurricanes to Buffalo, appears out of the mix when the group convenes in December. Again, though, Yzerman comes to his defence.

"Eric Staal, on this team, he's still going to be [a] depth fourth-line left-winger, maybe right-winger," Yzerman said. "He's still going to skate fast, he's still going to work hard."

Remember, there were questions about Staal's selection in 2010 and he delivered in a big way. My guess is he becomes one of the potential injury replacements (assuming he gets healthy), but it's a mistake to completely dismiss him.

Chris Kunitz

You can't question the passion of Pittsburgh's people. Every time Kunitz gets a point, it's a referendum on his readiness. The public debate is whether or not he's a Sidney Crosby creation, but it's clear from the documentary it proves Kunitz fits with elite players.

Yzerman: "So, if God forbid, Sid got hurt between now and then..." (He actually knocks on the table when bringing up the injury scenario. Never knew him to be a superstitious guy).

"Looks like [Kunitz] is making it on his own," Kevin Lowe finishes, and gets agreement from Peter Chiarelli.

Then, there is discussion about playing him with Ryan Getzlaf. There is statistical analysis showing Kunitz's production at 5-on-5 drops significantly without Crosby, but if he is playing with Getzlaf, you can see the sensibility.

Defending Gold isn't as "current" as HBO's 24/7, with most of the taping done well before it aired. But it shows the thinking process on some of these tough calls, which are about to be finalized.


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30 THOUGHTS

1. Another thing discussed in the documentary is the "changing of the guard" and nowhere is that more evidenced than in San Jose. I think Logan Couture and Vlasic will be there, but am nowhere near as certain about Boyle, Patrick Marleau (also among the last decisions) and Joe Thornton, all of whom have represented Canada in the past. It's amazing to see how little discussion there is about Jumbo Joe, who leads the NHL in assists.

2. Okay, Buffalo's GM search. When Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning didn't go to the world juniors, eyebrows went up. It's certainly unusual for a team to be without a major voice at that event. As we mentioned on Hotstove, that created a lot of buzz and belief it meant he was the favourite in Buffalo. Now, the focus shifts to Ottawa's Tim Murray. Should Saturday's speculation turn out to be incorrect, that's on me and I don't hide from it.

3. One thing to know about all this: Bryan Murray is excellent when it comes to returning emails or messages. It's not like I bombard him, but only three times has he not returned one. The first was the day before he acquired Ben Bishop, when I heard he had interest. The second was when I heard Tim was going to interview in Buffalo. The third was Monday, when word came that Tim interviewed a second time (I did not ask specifically if he was getting the job). Lesson learned: when Bryan does not return a message, something's up.

4. Calgary? Seems quiet. Think a lot of people would be surprised if Brian Burke hires anyone before the trade deadline. But maybe I should stop with GM reports for a while.

5. Sam Gagner: He was not eligible for a no-trade clause when he signed his three-year extension last summer (It kicks-in next season). Craig MacTavish graciously promised to honour it this season, but as Edmonton searches for answers, it sounds like both sides believe it is time for a change, not that anyone is commenting. Should a deal happen, no doubt MacTavish will try to make it a soft landing.

6. PJ Stock had an interesting observation after watching Nail Yakupov: he puts his head down when he gets the puck and tries to bull his way forward, which leads to two problems. First, it's hard to use your teammates when you can't see them. Second, it increases the chances you get hit hard. One exec added Yakupov's pet play in junior was to draw the defence to you and then find the open man, but NHLers make it much harder to do that. All of this is correctable, but habits are hard to break.

7. Now that we are into 2014, teams can sign players who inked one-year contracts with them. Sounds like the Flyers were going to wait until after the world juniors to talk with Steve Mason, for example. Other such contracts include Daniel Cleary, Mikhail Grabovski, Dustin Penner and Mason Raymond.

8. Mike Santorelli fits in this class, too, a nice find in Vancouver. Asked him last week in Los Angeles if there had been any conversation, but he said no (Teams and players were allowed to talk, but not sign until New Year's).

9. Vancouver scored two power-play goals Sunday in Anaheim with Tom Sestito set up in front of the net. Ideally, the Canucks want Chris Higgins to be there, but he was injured in Los Angeles. John Tortorella made it very clear he does not think the Canucks score enough goals from "the blue area" and is looking for someone to make an impact in front. "Your mindset is created in front of your net and their net," he said. Until last weekend (almost 100 shots in two games), he was happy in his zone, not so much at the other end.

10. What's also clear about the Canucks' power play is they need Ryan Kesler in a shooting position. He scored on a wrist shot and a one-timer in back-to-back games. They are so much more dangerous when he's lined up shooting spots.

11. As the Michael Del Zotto saga crawls towards its conclusion, wonder if San Jose is a "stealth" team in all of this. Last year, the Sharks scouted him pretty closely as the two teams talked trade (Ryane Clowe was eventually dealt to Manhattan). Couldn't hurt for a young defenceman to learn under Larry Robinson.

12. The Rangers also have a big decision to make on Dan Girardi, who is an unrestricted free agent. Multiple sources believe Anaheim, with legit Stanley Cup aspirations, is interested and he'd be a very nice fit there. Same with Boston, now that Dennis Seidenberg is out. The Bruins want to take a look at internal options, but have a great shot in the weaker East.

13. San Jose, by the way, generally stays away from revealing injury timelines. Tomas Hertl, for example, is out of the Olympics but we don't know for how long afterward. As a replacement, will the Sharks wait for Adam Burish and/or Raffi Torres, or consider someone who was once one of their own? Jamie McGinn is reportedly available in Colorado. He makes $1.85 million US and is up after this season.

14. Randy Carlyle chewed out Nazem Kadri on the bench at the Winter Classic for a bad giveaway. It's clear the Maple Leafs are frustrated with him, but here's a stat they should be aware of. Kadri had 44 points in 48 games last season, an average of .92.  It wasn't a full season, which is important, but, since 2005-06, here is the list of players who averaged .92 points per game playing at least 48 times as a 22-year-old: Malkin, Ovechkin, Crosby, Spezza, Kovalchuk, Backstrom, Stamkos, Stastny, Getzlaf, Mike Richards, Patrick Kane, Kopitar, Tavares, Semin, Toews, Hemsky and Stepan. Do not give up on him easily.

15. One exec on Kadri: "You can tell too often how his night is going to go by the way he plays away from the puck in his first few shifts." I've used this before, but the thing that separates Jonathan Toews from the pack is how he "wills himself into games when he doesn't start well," as one Western Conference coach said. Kadri's going to have to learn that.

16. Daniel Briere: the toughest thing about trading him is not his contract this year, but next year. If he and Montreal have some patience, will this change? Both Subban and Max Pacioretty got into Michel Therrien's doghouse and survived. Both are playing great. Briere is older, yes, but he's still got something to give.

17. A lot of the Team USA fallout centred on Bobby Ryan, partially because, sources say, hockey stuff tends not to get under-reported in a Canadian market. But, it is important to note Keith Yandle's reaction, telling The Arizona Republic's Sarah McLellan he didn't want to be an injury replacement, because it meant someone else would have to miss the tournament. Yandle then played 31 minutes against Columbus, missing five because of a fight.

18. Big compliment for the work John Tavares put into his skating: "When he first got into the league, he couldn't get away from anyone," one opponent said. "Now, he blows you away all over the ice."

19. John Tavares reminds me a lot of Sidney Crosby in the sense that he was very careful about what he said until he became comfortable as a voice in the NHL. He had a great line after Kyle Okposo scored the OT winner to beat Chicago: "I don't know if he thought David Poile's head was in the net and he was aiming for it," the Islanders captain joked.

20. Tavares was similarly good when discussing the effect close friend Matt Moulson's trade had on him: "I understand what Garth [Snow] was trying to do and it's great to have a player with Thomas Vanek's skill," he said before the Islanders played Detroit two weeks ago. "I think everyone looked at how much I did for Matt and not how much he did for me."

21. In discussing the Islanders' rough start to the season, Tavares was asked who he went to for advice on how to handle the disappointment. There isn't a ton of experience on that roster. He named Doug Weight, who stressed how important it is not to dwell on the negative; find ways to move on.

22. Travis Hamonic, asked who impressed him the most at the Olympic camp: Martin St. Louis. "We finished one of those ball hockey sessions after being there all day and he's in his workout gear, going to the gym."

23. St. Louis went through a tough adjustment after the Stamkos injury. He played less than 20 minutes six times in a 10-game stretch, almost unheard-of for him. But he figured it out and is above 20 the last 12 games, higher than 22 in 10 of them.

24. Tampa's loss in Edmonton was just its second in regulation when scoring first and its first loss in regulation when tied after two. When Stamkos went down, coach Jon Cooper, who likes to coach an aggressive game, had to dial it back. But one thing that worked is he used 11 forwards and seven defencemen, a formula he'd had success with. "When we had that streak in [AHL] Norfolk, winning 43 out of 46 games, we dressed 11 and seven," he said. "So the players who won there were comfortable with that." The Admirals won the Calder Cup that season, 2011-12.

25. Five key players who've been with the Lightning during this stretch -- Radko Gudas, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik -- were on that team. "We had to push some of them up the lineup when Stamkos was hurt," Cooper said. "But, you have a better chance of being successful if you've won before. Winning in the AHL really helped because when you win, you believe you can do it."

26. Another move that's helped is an off-season change to the structure of the defence corps. Four Tampa defencemen averaged 20 minutes per game in 2013: Matt Carle (23:44), Victor Hedman (22:39), Sami Salo (20:59) and Eric Brewer (20:13). Cooper asked Salo and Brewer to take a lighter workload. "We felt they would be better if they played 16-18 minutes a night," he said. "They both agreed and have been excellent for us." Salo is at 19:18 and Brewer at 16:53. What's made it possible is Gudas, a breakout player at 20:38.

27. Then there's Ben Bishop. Cooper on his goalie: "We asked him to worry about making the first save. We can coach to worry about the rest." Bishop is making almost all the saves right now.

28. At the first Alumni Game in Detroit, Scotty Bowman sent out 74-year-old Red Berenson, who tied up his man to win a last-second faceoff and preserve victory. At speaking events, Bowman tells a great story about Berenson, who played for him in St. Louis. The player was struggling one season, so the coach called him into his office. After a debate about how things were going, Berenson said he felt he brought a lot of leadership and was a fixture on the team. Bowman replied, "Red, the only fixtures here are the lightbulbs, and when they're broken, we change them."

29. The opportunity to go to an independent arbitrator for suspension appeals is not as big a win as we previously believed for the players. Twice now (Patrick Kaleta and Shawn Thornton) players with opportunities to use this mechanism have passed. The key phrase in the CBA is, does Commissioner Gary Bettman have "substantial evidence" for a suspension's length when he makes his ruling. Hard to argue in either case the answer was no.

30.Small business item: Reebok has the rights to make NHL jerseys. Its parent company, Adidas, apparently is considering putting its own name there instead of Reebok. As part of that, we may see an extension of the current contract, which runs through 2016-17. 

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