Can Canada win with “safe”?
That’s what Sean Burke, Scott Salmond, Willie Desjardins and the rest of Hockey Canada’s braintrust are counting on as evidenced by the 25 players chosen to the senior team tasked with defending back-to-back titles at the Olympic Games.
Unveiled Thursday, the very best professionals that Hockey Canada could unearth from outside the NHL were selected to the diminished Olympic outfit, and arrive with little variance from player to player. Each serviceable and experienced but unspectacular, these are the sort of assets that could be plopped into an NHL game, not immediately look out of place, but have trouble consistently impacting the game, at its highest level, with sustained regularity.
Instead, a team built to frustrate talent, not outshine it, Canada looks intent to grind out decisions with depth against individuals with the NHL in their futures, not their pasts. It’s a stark contrast from Vancouver and Sochi, of course, where the Canadians blew the competition out of the water with an unmatched level of skill.
“A lot of it came down to wanting to be a very hard team to play against,” Burke, the team’s general manager, explained on a conference call.
“The Olympics are going to have very talented teams there. There’s obviously the pressure of the big stage, but we did want to have what we’ve always considered the Canadian Way to be a big part of the flavour of our team.”
Perhaps this will prove to be key in a tournament where every country has been stripped of its top one percent. With the best players absent as the NHL operates in its own silo back in North America, does it underscore the importance of the weakest links on each roster?
This is something that proved true as recently earlier this month when Canada’s largely nameless world junior team broke a two-year title medal drought with a dominant performance in Buffalo.
Still, Hockey Canada isn’t normally this rigid. It has routinely used their final few roster slots as free rolls and an opportunity to have another element at its disposal, risk-free.
Whether it’s a one dimensional volume scorer in major junior or a power-play specialist for the top of the umbrella for a senior team, carrying potential game breakers (that can sit on the bench or in the press box if proven ineffective) has been a strategy that’s paid major dividends for the organization in the past.
While the selections indicate they eschewed this strategy entirely, instead identifying and including predominantly reliable plug-and-play performers from Europe’s top leagues (which carry a mean age of 31), they did toy with the idea of adding unproven punch.
Hockey Canada canvassed talent at the world juniors, scouted the developmental systems in North America and even dressed Division I standouts in pre-Olympic tune-ups and competition, ostensibly looking for pop.
Ultimately, an uber-skilled forward prospect like Ontario Hockey League standout Jordan Kyrou or Northeastern star Dylan Sikura wasn’t deemed polished enough to take a flier on — even if between stints on the power play it meant being stapled to the end of the bench.
“It’s a man’s game,” Salmond explained. “That’s not to say some of these kids aren’t at the development stage where they can play with men, but what it does say is that it takes some time to make that adjustment, whether it’s from the NCAA or the Canadian Hockey League, to get up to speed to playing at that level with that size and strength factor.
“We don’t have that time.”
It appears Hockey Canada was willing to spend the time on one project, however.
Cale Makar, who came with the most pedigree on Canada’s entire roster and dominated when he was on the ice, wasn’t trusted with regular minutes at the world juniors earlier this month, and fell into that specialty role for head coach Dominique Ducharme.
However, Hockey Canada recognized his talent and x-factor potential and reportedly offered him a spot on the Olympic team, which the 19-year-old defenseman from UMass-Amherst (almost inexplicably) rejected.
Hockey Canada would not confirm the offer Thursday, nor did it work to replace the sort of skillset Makar possesses with a similar weapon on the back end or one up front instead.
As expected when the NHL finally put the conversation surrounding its involvement to bed, it will be a selection of players that have largely drifted from our consciousness tasked with extending Canada’s Olympic reign by four more years. For that reason, we still don’t know exactly what to expect.
But after Thursday’s announcement, and based on the team’s conservative composition, it shouldn’t look much different from shift to shift.
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