Canadian Olympic Hockey Team in Sochi: Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses
The Canadian men's hockey team that will compete for gold in Sochi was announced on Tuesday.
It is a formidable roster, as it always is, but it is also imperfect (again, as it always is). What are the strengths of the team? Where do its weaknesses lie?
The favourites entering the tournament have both, and the following slideshow is our best effort to answer those questions.
Ryan Getzlaf is the NHL's fourth-leading scorer. He's only Team Canada's third-line centre, and even that requires slotting him ahead of the NHL's third-leading scorer.
Sidney Crosby is clearly at the top of the list. John Tavares is three points ahead of Getzlaf in the scoring race. And there is no question that Jonathan Toews, the NHL's reigning Selke winner and the most important piece of the defending Stanley Cup champions, is going to play key minutes in Sochi.
Canada has ridiculous strength up the middle; no other team can match it.
Weakness: Left Wing
That Chris Kunitz, a winger who has never topped 61 points in a single season and who first emerged as a point-per-game player at the age of 33, is likely to be Canada's first-line left wing says a lot about the team's ability at the position.
To be sure, Kunitz is a special case in that he has familiarity with Sidney Crosby, but the list overall lacks the star power that Canada is carrying at other positions. Patrick Marleau and Sharp and Jamie Benn are all very good players, but every single guy on the roster at this position is a "bubble" player by Hockey Canada standards.
Strength: Right Defence
That the NHL's reigning Norris Trophy winner is fourth with a bullet says almost everything that needs to be said about the strength of Team Canada on the right side.
The Canadians have the luxury of naming four franchise defencemen (Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban) to their Olympic team. Even on a medal contender like the United States, Subban would be a shoo-in for top-pairing work.
This right-side strength is the backbone of Canada's defence corps.
Weakness: Left Defence
It may not be a weakness exactly, and there is certainly nothing wrong with Duncan Keith, but by Team Canada standards, the left side of the defence is decidedly middling.
It isn't that Dan Hamhuis and Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jay Bouwmeester are bad players; all of them are competent NHL defenders and bring a certain element to the team. But none of them are difference-makers in the mold of so many other players on the roster, and especially in comparison to the other side of the blue line.
It's common practice to downplay chemistry as a factor when putting a team together, but in a short tournament, familiarity with one's linemates is certainly a virtue.
Three of Canada's four forward lines have that kind of foundation. Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp and Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf all have spent a pile of games on the same line.
Similarly, two of Canada's defence pairings could be employed to maximize familiarity. Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo are sure to play together; it's also possible that Shea Weber unites with old teammate Dan Hamhuis.
The flip side of chemistry is that sometimes the partnership is decidedly uneven.
Chris Kunitz has been the poster boy for this, and understandably so, because he was mostly a run-of-the-mill second-line player before he started riding shotgun for Sidney Crosby. Steve Yzerman told TSN that Kunitz made the team on his own merit, but a fun exercise is to imagine what Team Canada would look like if Taylor Hall were playing in Pittsburgh and Kunitz were dressing in Edmonton.
Similarly, Jay Bouwmeester went from being a guy at the fringes of the conversation to a definite lock, and it happened when he stopped playing in Calgary and started playing with Alex Pietrangelo. If Bouwmeester doesn't get dealt by the Flames, does he make the Canadian team over Mark Giordano? Does anyone believe the Flames would have been better off keeping the former and moving the latter?
Chemistry has its advantages, and it may help Canada win gold. But it also may have led to putting together a lesser team.
Strength: Top-End Talent
The NHL's leading scorer last season. The guy tied for second in total NHL scoring over the last three seasons. A centre tied for fifth in NHL scoring this year (and a former Hart Trophy winner). Two young emerging franchise forwards scoring at better than a point-per-game pace.
And Martin St. Louis, Claude Giroux, Joe Thornton, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin all missed the team.
Only one other entry in this tournament (Russia, ably represented by players like Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk) can match Canada's firepower up front, and no team has the combination of top talent at all three forward positions that the Canadians do.
Any line on the Canadian roster would be a decent fit as a power-vs.-power line at the NHL level. Even the fourth line, centered by John Tavares and likely to include Patrick Marleau and Rick Nash, would be a reasonable top group for a major league roster.
That depth should give Canada the ability to embarrass the fourth lines of other teams and to be a little less dogmatic about matchups. All of these guys can play against anybody.
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