There are a lot of ways to take Wednesday's announcement that Steven Stamkos will not represent Team Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics, and most of them are negative. It is important to realize, however, that this decision might be the best-case scenario for the Canadian entry.
Naturally, we mean "best-case scenario given the terrible injury he suffered." Fully healthy, there is not a team going to Sochi that could turn down a player like Stamkos. Even at less than 100 percent, many teams would leap at the chance to include a forward with his formidable talent.
Canada is not one of those teams. Stamkos' participation in the Olympics came with an extremely difficult role: primary goal scorer on the team's top line, centered by Sidney Crosby. It's easy to imagine how imposing the combination of arguably the world's best goal scorer and the consensus choice as the world's best player would have been. But it would also come with incredible pressure to produce against the very best forwards and defencemen every other team in the tournament could muster.
Fully healthy, it is a challenge Stamkos would have relished. Still injured, it had the potential to be disastrous. So Stamkos has made the best choice, not only for his own health but also for the team by bowing out gracefully and not clinging to a spot that would represent perhaps the greatest challenge of his career.
Instead, the right wing position on Crosby's line will go to one of the extremely capable internal or external options available to Team Canada.
Internally, the team has a wealth of options, as a quick scan of the full roster amply demonstrates. Assuming that Canada wants a goal-scoring right winger for the role, and that Corey Perry will stay with NHL linemate Ryan Getzlaf, two candidates stand out: Jeff Carter and Rick Nash.
Carter would add size, speed and a shooter's mentality to a line that could use all three. It's been a while since he was a 40-goal scorer in the NHL, but he regularly hits 30 goals, and his skill set is a nice fit for the line. Nash brings many of the same qualities, even in what has been a difficult season for him, and after scoring 11 goals in January, there is a better chance that Canada's coaches seriously consider him for those minutes.
The possibility also exists that someone from outside the current team could be planted on that first line. We broke down a long list of potential replacements a few days ago, and three names out of that group should be apart from the pack: Martin St. Louis, Claude Giroux and James Neal.
Neal's name typically gets less play than the other two, but he's big, physical and comes with both a shoot-first mentality and at least some familiarity with Crosby (the two don't regularly play on the same line, but they have spent time together in Pittsburgh). Canada could conceivably ice an all-Penguins top line.
Giroux is a fit by position, but given that his primary strengths are as a playmaker, he might not be a great addition to the Crosby line; it's more likely he would replace somebody already on the team who had been promoted up a line. St. Louis has the reputation of a passer, but he's also on a 36-goal pace currently and has hit that mark six times in this NHL career, topping out at 43 goals in 2006-07. He's also played very well since being left off the Canadian team.
Whomever Canada's brass picks to replace Stamkos, the team should get by. It's actually a smaller blow to Canada than it would be to any other country; only the Canadian side has multiple first-line wingers who can step in for Stamkos on a moment's notice. Only Canada has four scorers with 40-goal histories that can be promoted to the top line.
Stamkos' absence will make the Canadian offence a little less imposing, and he will be especially missed on the power play. He also makes the team's top line weaker; where before it was two great players and Chris Kunitz, it will now depend more than ever on Crosby to drive its offence. Consequently, the offensive burden falling to the lines centered by Jonathan Toews and Ryan Getzlaf is likely to increase.
This is an unfortunate blow for Team Canada and a particularly tough one for Stamkos, but it should not dramatically alter Canada's medal hopes.