Big ice at Sochi defines Canadian men's hockey team - Macleans.ca

Big ice at Sochi defines Canadian men’s hockey team

Who they picked, who they left on the shelf and why it will matter

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Canada's Men's Olympic Ice Hockey Team head coach Mike Babcock. (Aaron Harris/Reuters)

There’s a difference, this time—a 15-foot one, to be precise. That’s how much wider an international hockey rink is than the NHL ones where Canada’s men have won their last two Olympic golds, and in hockey, space equals time. Time to create scoring chances; time for the opponent to exploit you if he beats you to the puck.

So, while you sometimes needed dental pliers during Tuesday’s unveiling of the Olympic men’s hockey team to extract answers from the managers about why they left player X at home, or stuck by player Y, it eventually became clear that those three hockey-stick lengths mattered.

“Bigger ice,” selection committee member Peter Chiarelli said when asked what led them to pass on 2010 gold medalists Joe Thornton and Brent Seabrook. “It’s a different set of dynamics, going into the bigger ice. You have place a little more weight on some things and little less on others.”

A little more on speed, you can assume, and a little less on brawn: where Seabrook’s name once sat on this roster, you can now slot in P.K. Subban, the explosive rearguard with the Montreal Canadiens, and a fellow right-handed shot. For Thornton, pencil in John Tavares of the New York Islanders—four inches shorter, 30 pounds lighter but more fleet of foot, and blessed with dazzling puck skills.

But we’re talking here about barely measurable gaps in performance, so the choices can’t have been fun. Seabrook, for one, is having a career season with the Chicago Blackhawks, leading NHL defencemen in plus-minus and racking up 31 points. Thornton has been customarily formidable in San Jose, averaging more than a point a game. Eric Staal was a key figure in Canada’s win four years ago, and is hardly a slouch on skates, but he started slow this season in Carolina. So early this morning, he got the dreaded pity call.

You can see, then, why general manager Steve Yzerman and his lieutenants were at pains to say their discussion went late into the night, wrapping up around 1 a.m. with handshakes and thanks for performing a thankless chore. “Everybody in Canada has an opinion on who should be on this team,” insisted Yzerman. “Nobody’s wrong. Nobody’s wrong because they’re all great players.”

Maybe, but the second-guessing of these decisions won’t end unless the Canadian men win their third hockey gold in four Olympiads, and Tuesday’s announcement—a dog-and-pony show featuring a sprawling cast of sports bureaucrats, Olympic honchos and brush-cut NHL execs—pointed up a few storylines worth watching when the puck drops in Sochi.

WHITHER P.K. SUBBAN

Apparently, choosing him was a much less troubling decision for Yzerman et al than hockey’s punditocracy made it seem. Subban, 24, has taken heat from critics who confuse extroversion with arrogance, and claim he’s all sizzle with no steak.

But his numbers don’t lie. Last year’s Norris Trophy winner ranks third this season in points among NHL defencemen. Subban’s a plus-14, which puts paid to concerns about his defensive responsibility. Advanced statistical analyses suggest he’s of greater benefit to his team—at both ends of the ice—than any of the candidates for Canada’s eight berths on the blue line.

Ken Holland, a member of the management team, and GM of the Detroit Red Wings, acknowledged there was considerable debate around Subban. “But there were 15 players where we had lots of debate. We thought P.K. is a guy who provides the dimension of being able to transport the puck, run a power play. He can make the big play. He can win you a game. We thought that P.K. gave us the game breaking dimension.”

Yzerman told TSN: “P.K. shoots the puck, obviously, his greatest strengths are his shot and his puck-handling. We’ve watched very closely and ultimately it came down to the players we were looking at, he’s the right fit for that spot right now.”

That said, Subban’s flamboyant play draws attention, and when things go wrong, he becomes an easy target. If he makes a costly mistake, as he does from time to time, he’ll take more heat than would Seabrook or, say, Dan Boyle.

But not more than Yzerman for picking him.

SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS

He’s on the downhill side of a brilliant career, but Martin St. Louis can still bring it. The 38-year-old is averaging close to a point per game with the Tampa Bay Lightning, which he has done for the past eight seasons. The short but speedy winger also has a bit of je ne sais quoi. When a game’s on the line, he can be counted on to move the puck up safely ice and give his team a chance to score. Somehow, he makes things happen.

Yzerman, who is St. Louis’s boss in Tampa Bay, cut the winger at the last moment from the 2010 Olympic team, and if verbiage is any measure of misgiving, he had a lot more trouble doing so this time around. The GM spent long minutes describing to reporters his excruciating call he made to a player he values, and hopes will retire a member of the Lightning.

“He was right in the mix, right up to the end,” sighed Yzerman. “Being that’s he’s a member of our organization [in Tampa Bay]. We want Tampa to win. All I can say is Marty’s been a tremendous player for us. This was not a decision that I enjoy making. It’s a tough one.”

To say the least, St. Louis’s blend of determination and offensive creativity might have come in handy should Canada finds itself in need of a goal. For a guy who stands five-foot-eight, St. Louis could cast one hell of a long shadow.

WALKING WOUNDED

It’s a little early to sweat players’ health, but Yzerman and company showed few qualms about adding players to key positions who are nursing injuries. Front and centre is Steven Stamkos, who is attempting to recover from a snapped tibia in record time. Goaltender Roberto Luongo, who backstopped Canada to gold in 2010, has been out of action since Saturday with an ankle injury, after only one game back from a groin pull. Habs netminder Carey Price, meanwhile, missed practice Tuesday after tweaking a nagging groin injury.

None of this qualifies as crisis, as under Olympic rules, teams can substitute one player due to injury right up until the tournament starts Feb. 12. And naming Stamkos to Canada’s 25-man roster was a no-brainer:  he’s among to the world’s top three hockey talents, and if he can’t play, Canada could quickly find a replacement (St. Louis?).

Still, these are pivotal players—the presumptive No. 1 and 2 netminders and the best pure goal-scorer in the game.

And while no team will enter this tournament without a few banged-up skaters, this is Canada: where hockey is concerned, we demand perfection.

with Jonathon Gatehouse