CALGARY – It was a statement of faith, not a statement of fact. It was a challenge.
“One of these goalies will be hot going in,” said coach Mike Babcock. “Everyone will know who’s playing goal for Canada.”
No one knows now. Almost six months before the Sochi Olympics, the goaltending situation is unsettled for the Canadian men’s hockey team.
At forward and on defense, the Canadians have so many great players that they don’t know what do with them all. In goal, they have good players, some who can be great, but it’s more like they don’t know what to do.
There is no dominant man among Canada’s goaltenders, let alone a dominant Canadian among the world’s goaltenders – no Ken Dryden, no Grant Fuhr, no Patrick Roy. Martin Brodeur is 41. He isn’t at orientation camp this week. He wasn’t invited.
Babcock wants someone, anyone, to make his statement come true. Babcock wants someone, anyone, to play so well the first half of the NHL season that the choice becomes obvious and a relative weakness turns into a strength. Could be one of the five invited to Calgary: Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby, Roberto Luongo, Carey Price and Mike Smith. Could be someone else. Three roster spots. One starting spot. It’s up to them.
“I think it’s not anybody’s job to win or lose,” Luongo said. “I think it’s an open competition, and whoever plays best deserves to be the starter.”
There is reason to be concerned. All those superstar skaters are wonderful, but this will be a conservative style of game on a larger ice sheet against elite teams in a single-elimination tournament. If your goaltender coughs up a soft goal or two at the wrong time, you can be done, just like that, and the crisis won’t be about one position anymore. It will be about the team, the program, the country.
But there is no reason to panic. Not yet. The Canadians don’t need a dominant goaltender. They can get by with … well, a Roberto Luongo. They did it in Vancouver in 2010, when Luongo took over for Brodeur and was in net when Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal against the United States. They don’t need their goaltender to win gold for them; they need their goaltender not to lose it.
We like to say things like, if you have five (or more) goaltenders, you have none. There can be truth to that. But if you have five (or more) goaltenders, the odds are better that someone, anyone, will emerge – or, at least, that the pool will be deep enough that whoever ends up in net will be good enough.
Babcock, executive director Steve Yzerman and the rest of the braintrust don’t need to examine the development of goaltenders in the country, the way Hockey Canada and hockey media have. That’s the big picture. They need to worry about one specific tournament this February. They need to find one guy who can do this job and only this job, and this tryout should be pretty clear cut.
For skaters, playing well in the NHL and trying to make the Olympic team can conflict. What is lumbering Milan Lucic going to do? Slim down? Try a speedy, skilled style to prove he can hang on the big ice? The Boston Bruins might not like that. Is a centerman on the bubble going to ask to move to the wing to show what he can do? No.
But for goaltenders, playing well in the NHL and trying to make the Olympic team run parallel. Other than some angle adjustments because of the bigger ice, all they have to worry about is stopping the puck. All they have to worry about is getting hot at the right time.
“They’re going to pick the best guy they feel gives them an opportunity to win hockey games,” Price said. “Whoever is playing the best hockey at that particular time will be the one starting in goal.”
Goaltending was supposed to be the weakness of a stacked team in Chicago. (Sound familiar?) But while Patrick Kane won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player after the Blackhawks won the 2013 Stanley Cup, Crawford easily could have. He has been through this before.
“That’s just one thing that went along with all the experience I’ve gotten, not to listen to anyone and just worry about what I’m doing and what’s going on in the room,” Crawford said.
Holtby has played well in pressure situations. He has recorded a .931 save percentage in 21 playoff games for the Washington Capitals the past two seasons.
Luongo has a gold medal. He has come within a win of the Cup. He has been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender three times. He has every motivation to reclaim his status as a top goaltender after losing his starting job in Vancouver, and now he has the opportunity to do it because the Canucks traded Cory Schneider.
Smith did not play his best for the Phoenix Coyotes last season. Price faltered down the stretch for the Montreal Canadiens. But both have played at a Vezina level at their best, and the lockout-shortened season was not the best evaluation period.
“You look around the league at the top-notch goalies, and it was just a different year,” Smith said. “The practice time we missed … It’s one thing to come to camp and kind of feel your way into the season, but to kind of get thrown to the wolves right off the bat there in January and kind of playing shinny for four months doesn’t really help your fundamental abilities.”
There is no lockout now. Everyone had the summer to train. Everyone will have a fair chance, from these five to Cam Ward and Marc-Andre Fleury and so many others.
If no one seizes the No. 1 job, Babcock can always let a couple of goalies start the round-robin games and let that determine who starts in the medal round. But first, let’s see if he looks smart. Let’s see if someone makes him look smart.
“Let’s watch the first three months of the season,” he said.