Will P.K. Subban crack Canada's roster?
The Montreal Canadiens have a chance to be very well represented at the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The Habs have five players who are a lock to represent their native countries, assuming they stay healthy, and another three who will be given a long look by their respective management groups.
Read on for a prediction of which Montreal Canadiens will play in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Peter Budaj has quietly been one of, if not the best backup goaltender in the NHL this season. He doesn't play often, but when he does, he sure makes it count.
The Slovak is 5-1-1 on the season with a stingy 1.80 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage. He has provided stellar play between the pipes while allowing Carey Price some much-needed rest.
Being one of only two Slovakian goaltenders currently in the NHL, Budaj will surely get the call for Sochi. He'll likely serve as a backup to Jaroslav Halak.
Raphael Diaz is having a solid, if unspectacular, season on the Montreal Canadiens blue line.
In 29 games this season, Diaz is goalless but does have nine assists while averaging 19:57 of ice time. He has a plus/minus rating of even.
Diaz is one of only three Swiss defensemen who get a regular shift in the NHL, with the others being Mark Streit and Roman Josi. Luca Sbisa and Yannick Weber are also Swiss defensemen in the league, but both spend more time in the press box than they do on the ice.
Diaz is a lock to play in Sochi and will be counted on to log heavy minutes for a Swiss team looking to build off last year's second-place finish at the World Championships.
After last year's breakout season, it was obvious that Alexei Emelin had the talent level to play in Sochi. The only question was whether his reconstructed knee would heal in time, and it appears that it has.
Emelin returned to Montreal's lineup November 16 and has played in every game since, which has included two sets of back-to-back games (with Montreal's game against Boston November 5 being the third). His knee looks as strong as ever as he rounds back into game shape.
For the year, Emelin has three assists and is a plus-three in nine games. He has already dished out 31 hits and is getting just over 18 minutes of ice per night.
Emelin is only going to get stronger as we inch closer to February. Assuming his knee holds up, expect to see him suit up for the host country at the 2014 Olympic Games.
Andrei Markov is an absolute lock for Team Russia, as he is hands down the best Russian defenseman in the world.
The 34-year-old, who almost saw his career derailed due to three knee surgeries, is playing the best hockey of his life this season. He has 18 points (2 G, 16 A) in 29 games and leads the team with a plus-13 rating.
Markov, paired with P.K. Subban, has excelled on the power play this year with 10 points. He will be counted on to quarterback a Russian man advantage that has the talent to be as dangerous as any in Sochi come February.
It also wouldn't be a surprise to see Markov in a leadership role for his country, sporting an "A" alongside Alex Ovechkin's "C."
Tomas Plekanec is another Canadiens player who is a lock to represent his country in Sochi.
The native of the Czech Republic was a member of the Vancouver 2010 squad and will bring some veteran leadership and skill in 2014.
Plekanec is having a fine season with the Habs. He is used by Michel Therrien in a variety of ways, which include shutdown center, top penalty-killer and second power-play center. His versatility will be coveted by the Czech coaching staff.
Goals are usually a bonus for Plekanec, as he is usually asked to think defense first, yet he has still managed to pot nine while adding 10 assists in 2013-14.
Team Czech Republic do have a fairly deep group of centers to choose from, but you can bet Tomas Plekanec will be one of them. He'll lead a team looking to improve on their quarterfinal loss from 2010.
If this article had been written prior to November 19, Max Pacioretty would've probably been left off the list of predicted players for Team USA. But November 19 was the night that Pacioretty scored three goals and seemed to turn his season around in the process.
Since that night, when he was reunited with last year's linemates, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher, the 25-year-old Michigan native has scored nine goals in nine games. He has rocketed up the Canadiens' stat sheet to lead the team in goals scored.
More importantly, he has looked like Montreal's best offensive player each and every night during the streak. He has used his size and speed to create shots and scoring chances. He has fired a whopping 42 shots on goal during the nine-game streak.
After leading the Habs in goals for each of the past two seasons, Pacioretty seemed to have earned himself a penciled-in roster spot for Team USA this past summer. His play over the first six weeks of the season probably had David Poile and company pondering other options, but he got hot at the right time.
Pacioretty should be named to Team USA in a top-nine role. He'll likely be joined on the left wing by Zach Parise and James Van Riemsdyk.
When Team Canada's Orientation Camp roster was announced last summer, there was a noticeable lack top-notch goalies.
Carey Price was coming off his worst-ever season. Roberto Luongo's 2013 was a circus show in Vancouver. Mike Smith had fallen back to earth after his incredible 2011-12 campaign. And as for Corey Crawford and Braden Holtby...well, did anyone ever really think that either would be starting in goal for Team Canada?
For the first time ever, it seemed as though goaltending would be Canada's weakness (at least on paper) at the Olympics.
The hockey-mad country is breathing a little easier recently, however, as both Price and Luongo have stepped up their games this season.
Price has been spectacular, with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage. Goalie coach Stephane Waite has Price playing calmer in the net. This has greatly improved his positioning and helped with his rebound control.
The 26-year-old is well on his way to a career-best season and has surely played his way onto Team Canada.
But has his play been good enough to unseat incumbent starter Roberto Luongo? The numbers say that it has.
For his part, Luongo is having a great season as well, but his 2.35 goals-against average and .914 save percentage fall well short of Price's. Team Canada management will look at more than just numbers, however, and the fact that Luongo was in goal for Team Canada when they won gold in 2010 will certainly count for a lot.
One thing is for certain, though: Assuming both stay healthy, it will be Price and Luongo who dress for Canada's first game against Norway February 13.
Whether or not P.K. Subban gets named to Team Canada will be the hottest topic of conversation at Canadian holiday gatherings this season. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion as to why the reigning Norris Trophy winner should or shouldn't be going to Sochi.
Well, here's a prediction that Montreal Canadiens fans will love: P.K. Subban will indeed be named to Team Canada January 7.
Steve Yzerman and his team would be making a major mistake by not bringing Subban to Russia. Leaving him at home would mean leaving the most dynamic offensive skill set by a defenseman off of the world stage.
If named to the squad, Subban will bring elite skating to a team that is going to be built around skating for on the larger ice surface. He will bring the best one-timer in hockey to a tournament that will feature the best goalies in the world. He'll also bring the ability to run the power play alongside the most talented players Canada has to offer.
If, however, Team Canada management brass chooses to not include Subban, it will be because he was deemed untrustworthy defensively. Here's what Mike Babcock had to say about defense, via ESPN.com:
We want skaters, the most we can possibly have, We want high hockey IQ. But the most important thing is trust. No sense taking somebody you don't trust, because they're all going to be one-goal games, and in the end you have to defend.
People think the big ice is about offense. No, it’s about defending. So you got to be able to play without the puck. Can you do that or can you not do that? To me, it's really simple. But the longer we get to watch, the better opportunity we have to make the right decision.
Subban's defensive play has been under the microscope all season. And after losing the trust of his own coach a few weeks ago, Subban has been much better of late and is being used in all situations.
Michel Therrien has even decided to finally endorse Subban for a spot on the team, as reported by TSN.ca. "The way he's playing right now, Subban is making a great case for the Olympic team. We want him to go there," Therrien told reporters November 27.
And so the debate will rage on until Canada names its team January 7. Will Subban be named to Team Canada? Judging by his play over the past year, he certainly deserves to be there. Let's hope Steve Yzerman sees it the same way.