Winter Olympics 2014: Predicting Team Canada's Hockey Roster
The 2014 Winter Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi, Russia, is now roughly 18 months away, but preparation for the event is well underway.
Realistically, there are seven teams with legitimate shots at earning a medal, but no nation will face a greater challenge in selecting a roster than Team Canada. There are at least 60 to 70 players who will earn consideration for one of the 23 spots on the squad.
As the team's executive director and general manager for the second consecutive games, Steve Yzerman will undoubtedly take the heat for the choices he makes unless his group can take home another gold medal. But he knew that when he agreed to remain in the position for another four years.
Though there's a full NHL season to be played before Hockey Canada holds its pre-tournament evaluation camp, there are clearly some players who already have all but locked up spots on the team.
Here's an early look at what the 2014 Olympic team will look like.
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As of now, the Canadian squad faces more uncertainty between the pipes than anywhere else in its lineup, as the top two goaltenders from the 2010 team will almost assuredly be gone this time around.
That's because Martin Brodeur, though just two months removed from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, will be 41 when the puck drops in Sochi, and Roberto Luongo has essentially played his way out of Vancouver over the course of the last 12 months.
With those two gone, Yzerman will likely be looking to Canada's third stringer from 2010, Marc Andre Fleury, or another emerging young Canadian stopper to provide stability in net.
At first glance, Fleury would be the de facto starter. But with Carey Price and 2006 Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward still improving, if Fleury doesn't bounce back from his dreadful 2012 playoff showing, he could be relegated to a backup role.
Another dark-horse candidate could be Phoenix's Mike Smith, who is coming off an impressive breakout campaign, but he'll have to put up Vezina-caliber numbers to unseat Fleury, Price or Ward.
Prediction: The order won't be determined until the team arrives in Russia, but the team will ice an impressive trio of Price, Fleury and Ward.
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Fortunately, the Canadian blue line will feature many more familiar faces than in net, as the team figures to have at least four returners on the back end.
Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber and Brent Seabrook all would appear to be locks to be back, which gives Yzerman a formidable top four. But beyond them, there will be some interesting choices.
Though Dan Boyle shouldn't be ruled out, he's certainly not the standout offensive rearguard he was in 2010. And with Doughty and Keith both capable of rushing the puck, a more conservative stay-at-home defenseman may be Yzerman's preference.
Assuming Boyle's gone, Marc Staal and Kris Letang will undoubtedly be there in his absence. There are a number of candidates who could challenge for the seventh spot, including Brent Burns, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban, Mike Green, Dan Girardi and Tyler Myers.
Green and Subban may be too high risk, high reward for Yzerman's liking, but they'll have the opportunity to make their respective cases in 2012-13.
Prediction: Keith, Letang, Doughty, Weber and Seabrook are almost certain to be on the team, and Staal and Pietrangelo will round out what may be the deepest Canadian defensive corps in years.
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Canada boasts an embarrassment of riches at center, which will make things difficult for Yzerman come selection time.
Returning from the 2010 team will be Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Getzlaf. But whether they all play down the middle come tournament time remains to be seen.
On paper, it seems likely that Crosby and Getzlaf would figure to anchor two of the top three lines. But Toews is more versatile and could be a nice fit as either a third-line center or a winger on any of the team's four lines.
Beyond those three, Claude Giroux is a lock to make the team, but like Toews, he may best serve the team on the wing. The same goes for Steven Stamkos.
As far as fourth-line centers go, Jordan Staal may be the best in the game. He could be in a tight race with Boston's Patrice Bergeron for the team's final spot down the middle.
Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may be judged to be too young this time around. But he could play his way onto the team if he's able to stay healthy and if he forms a lethal partnership with Taylor Hall or Jordan Eberle, who could both be on the team in Sochi.
Ultimately, who makes the team at center could depend on how versatile they are as players, as lines are shifted frequently during these sorts of tournaments, especially if things don't go according to plan.
Prediction: Crosby, Toews, Getzlaf, Giroux and Stamkos will all be on the team. But Stamkos and possibly Giroux will be playing on the wings, which may create an opening for Staal to earn a spot as well.
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With either Stamkos or Giroux playing on the wing, that leaves eight spots up front for pure wingers.
Guaranteed to be on the team are Corey Perry, Eric Staal and Rick Nash, who were all key cogs on the 2010 squad.
On the left side, it seems that Taylor Hall will be competing with fellow youngsters Jeff Skinner, Matt Duchene and Logan Couture. But if Hall can stay healthy for a full season, he may be able to secure a spot on the top three lines because his explosiveness will be a valuable asset for Team Canada on the larger international ice surface.
If Hall's on the team, it would make sense that Jordan Eberle would be there as well, because of their chemistry together and because their similar skill-sets are suited to the international style of play.
Assuming all the players listed above are skating on Canada's top three lines, that would leave three spots (two vacancies on the fourth line, in addition to the 13th-man slot) available.
Among all the players in contention, Mike Richards may be the forward most capable of transitioning into a fourth-line role when required. However, Richards will need to have a better year in 2012-13 if he wants to once again be considered an elite forward in the NHL.
On the other side, though many will be shocked by the absences of John Tavares, James Neal and Tyler Seguin, Patrick Sharp may be the most capable in a bottom-six role. He's a tireless two-way player who would look good alongside Toews on one of the team's bottom two lines.
Prediction: Perry, Staal, Nash, Hall, Eberle, Richards and Sharp (assuming Stamkos is playing on the wing and Jordan Staal is tabbed as the team's 13th forward).
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If he wants to be back, Mike Babcock will reprise his role as the team's head coach, as he was critical to Canada's success at the 2010 Olympics.
As Detroit's bench boss, Babcock has managed the expectations of a storied franchise. He has coaxed a number of star players into playing a gritty yet skilled style, while placing an emphasis on puck possession.
On the international ice surface, Babcock would be the ideal coach for the job. Unless he turns Yzerman down, he'll be back behind the bench for Canada in Sochi.