When Steve Yzerman and the rest of the Hockey Canada management group announced the roster for that nation’s entry at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, they answered the question of who would represent that country. But a host of other questions remain unanswered and ultimately won’t be until the tournament is over.
The biggest one right now is whether Canada will miss the offensive talent it left behind. It is impossible to avoid controversy entirely because of how many options are at the disposal of the national team. Right now, the spotlight is on players like Claude Giroux, Martin St. Louis and Joe Thornton, all exceptional scorers whose names will certainly be brought up if the Canadian entry has any struggles scoring early on. Younger players like Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall will also get play in hindsight if they have strong second halves, much like Steven Stamkos did in 2010.
Of the players who are going, it is the team’s top two goalies facing the most pressure. Canada has some history of goaltending trouble in international play, and there is no Patrick Roy on this roster, no undisputed master of the position to calm the nerves of anxious fans.
Roberto Luongo has a sterling resume that includes a gold-medal win in 2010 (when he stepped in for a faltering Martin Brodeur), but at some point in his career, he was branded as a player who chokes under pressure, and it’s a label he can’t seem to slip. Carey Price is coming off a bad 2012-13 season and is an unknown internationally at the senior level.
Among the skaters, the big question is one less about talent and more of whether Team Canada has built a team that can successfully manage the transition to the big ice. It’s not hard to spot the pattern in Canada’s Olympic performances since the NHL started sending talent off to the tournament; when the Olympics have been held in North America, the Canadians have won gold, and when held overseas, the team hasn’t medaled.
A sample size of four isn’t nearly big enough to come to any firm conclusions, and judging by the interviews given by the coaching staff, Canada has leaned heavily on ex-Edmonton Oilers bench boss Ralph Krueger, a veteran of high-level European hockey, in preparing for the transition. Even so, the fear is that players used to playing in NHL rinks will hit a learning curve in Sochi, a learning curve that may be disastrous for the team’s fortunes.
Another related factor is officiating. For the most part, Yzerman and Co. (smartly) didn’t build a roster heavily influenced by "crash and bang" North American-style hockey, but even so, the referees that Canada sees at the tournament will primarily be drawn from top European leagues, where the standard for what is and is not a penalty can differ sharply from what NHL players are familiar with.
The questions facing Canada, then, are less about the calibre of player being produced by the country and more about the specific fears of NHLers successfully transitioning to a different style of game in a short time period. Given that the other teams in the tournament (save the Americans) will be playing in a system that, for the most part, they grew up playing, those concerns are understandable.
They are also unavoidable.
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