Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Team Canada World Hockey Championships 2008 - Looking ahead to the 2010 Olympics

I know I've pounded on this point quite a bit lately, but this tournament is truly an audition of sorts for the 2010 games, this year more than others; it's in Canada, it's an Olympic qualifier, etc. We know that players understand the significance because we're seeing a lot more 'A' guys attend the tournament (although the numbers are growing every year).

To me, this presents an interesting philosophical problem which is going to crop up when naming the Canadian Olympic team:

Does Hockey Canada
a) Go with the formula that has brought a lot of success in the World Championships (and Juniors), defined by 'limited' talent and lines that have roles, with set 1-4 lines.

b) Go with the formula that worked in Salt Lake 2002 and 2004, that is, tremendous players with clearly defined roles

b) Go with the formula that failed miserably in Turin 2006, as defined by essentially putting together an all star team and rolling all four lines fairly evenly.

In 2002, with Gretzky on board, the philosophy was 'go with the best players at the time, regardless of role.' The idea was that 'the best' players can play any role. Lemieux was the undisputed leader, but the Kariya/Lemieux/Yzerman line didn't get significantly more ice time than the Gagne/Sakic/Iginla line. Niewendyk/Peca/Fleury was the closest thing Canada had to an energy line, and Smyth/Lindros/Nolan were the checking line. Notice the two centers per line on the Lindros and Peca lines. Also notice in 2006 though, Canada at least partitioned skill players, placing the Lemieuxs with Yzermans and the Pecas with Niewendyk. As much as I love Niewendyk, there is a clear pure skill distinction between him and Yzerman.

(Similar setups were generated in 2004, with Lemieux playing the lead and everyone else given at least an outline of what was expected, for instance, the DDT (Draper, Doan, Thornton) line was Canada's shutdown line).

In 2006 Canada put together a pure all-star team, but at least partially abandoned the 'best players at the time' philosophy. Despite having average at best seasons, guys like Todd Bertuzzi, Kris Draper, Bryan McCabe were named to the team. Each had a separate subtext; Todd Bertuzzi had/has undeniable talent, but got suspended, sat through a lockout without playing, and then was having an average year. Draper was named partially because of success with Team Canada both in the World Championships (2003, gold) and the World Cup (2004). But Draper simply wasn't having a good year (by comparison he had 24 goals in 67 games in 03-04 but only 10 in 82 games in 05-06). Bryan McCabe, as we all know, was scoring goals like a madman that year, but if anyone cared to watch him play they would've realized he was a PP specialist AT BEST and his defensive coverage and decision making was extremely poor most of the time. Chaos defenceman wouldn't even begin to describe what McCabe brought to the table, yet the Toronto media was simply clamoring for him to be included on the team.

Without a clear skill leader though, Canada seemed to have a lot of trouble identifying it's top line. Sure, Joe Sakic was the captain, and he's obviously a truly great player who's destined for the hall, and one of a very select group. But he's not supernatural the way Lemieux or Gretzky was. He didn't change the pace of the game by stepping on the ice. So this creates an undisputed number 1 line vacuum.

Here are the lines as best I remember them, I believe them to be pretty accurate though:

Iginla - Sakic - Draper
Nash - Thornton - Bertuzzi/Doan
Smyth - Lecavalier - St. Louis
Gagne - Richards - Heatley

Doan/Nash rotated variously on lines.

Can someone tell me who the number one line is? The checking line? What is the logic of these lines? Why is Draper grouped with Sakic etc? When Canada needed an emotional boost, who was sent on? (The answer is that it was usually Doan on the Lecavalier line or something like that). It's not hard to see why Canada had trouble with flow. Most of these guys were switched from playing 20+ minutes a night, to everyone playing about 15, give or take some special team time. There wasn't a whole lot of intensity generated, and nobody really got the ice time to step up and take control.

In the Worlds (both World Juniors and Men's) Canada has truly made an art of defining roles. I explain it in more detail here, but in general the formula tends to be pretty static.

Judging from HF, fans still tend to take the 'All-Star Team' approach, one I believe was a spectacular failure.

Judging by this Men's World roster, team Canada still tends to take the 'All-Star Team' approach, at least, as much as is possible in the World Championships.

Of course we still have Chimera and Meyers, (and as of the exhibition games Patrick Sharp is on that line), but we also have Staal, Spezza, and Gagner, Toews, and Roy and Kunitz. Staal and Spezza play a nearly identical game, Gagner and Toews are both skilled guys, and although Toews is superior defensively, he's not good enough to be a shutdown guy and he's not good enough to be in the top two lines. Roy could play on any line, while Kunitz is probably going to be limited to a 3rd or 4th line role.

Who is the number 1 center? Who is the shutdown?

With that in mind, here is my proposed (2 years out) Canadian Olympic team, along with my explanations of inclusions and exclusions.

Iginla - Crosby - Nash

This is my first line, and they will get 20+ minutes a night. Back in 1987, Canada had a very well defined role team in the Canada Cup, but even the lesser players were stars in their own right. Keenan took the team aside and got out a board, setting out the total number of icetime minutes that could be given out in a single game. Gretzky will get the most playing time Keenan declared, 20+ minutes. That means that everyone else will get less. And he went down the list of players, Lemieux, Messier. Gartner, Hawerchuk. Everyone understood who would be the horses.

This is my number one scoring line, all three possess above average individual skill in every facet of the game (board work, outside speed, incredible vision, ace level shot etc.), and each has played key roles and succeeded for Canada before.

Getzlaf - Lecavalier - St. Louis

This is my second scoring line. Lecavalier is arguably Canada's best center at the moment, and he's paired with a two way scoring threat in St. Louis (great on the PK or PP as well), in addition to the supremely skilled and also physical Ryan Getzlaf. Lecavalier was MVP for Canada in the World Cup, Getzlaf scored a huge one for Canada in the 2004 World Juniors. All three were huge for their team during their respective cup runs, and Lecavalier and St. Louis combined for 2/3 of Canada's most effective line in Turin 06 (the 3rd player was Ryan Smyth). According to Desjardins, Lecavalier and St. Louis play the highest quality of competition of all the forwards in this group.

Richards - Horcoff - Toews

This line is the two way specialty. Sean Horcoff is arguably the best two way player in the NHL, he's a master 5-5 and he is also pretty special on the PK. His shot has turned particularly devastating to goalies and his speed is brilliant. Jonathan Toews is already playing a very high level of competition (2nd highest forward with >40 games on his team behind Patrick Sharp) and I suspect after his rookie season that will increase. He's been asked to play a two way role for Canada before and his success with Canada and experience will serve him well on the biggest international stage. Brad Richards is probably the biggest question mark on this line, and it was between him and Eric Staal. I went with Richards due to his experience on the international level, but both players would be suitable for this role.

Morrow - Richards - Doan

This is my second utility line that can take on a variety of roles - need a emotional boost from physical play? Need a line to go out there, get it deep and grind? Want some crash and bang goals? Want some pretty goals? Want leadership? Want to shut down the other team's top line? This line can and will do it all. This is not Canada's most skilled line, but there is plenty of skill to be had, two of the players are captains of their respective teams (and Richards is on his way IMO), and the talent level is still exceptional.

13th forward: Joe Sakic/Ryan Smyth

Joe Sakic has expressed interest in attending this competition, and even if his best years have passed him by I would still support his inclusion on the team as long as he's playing hockey. 2002 proved to me the importance of great veterans on the team, because even if 2002 Lemieux wasn't as good as 1987 Lemieux, he still provided invaluable support to the younger players (and I'm sure some of the vets). He's been there before and won, which is more than can be said for the rest of this lineup (save Iginla).

If Joe Sakic isn't available I would fully support Ryan Smyth's inclusion. He is not the most talented available by any extent, but he is a very well respected veteran and maybe Canada's most experienced player on the international stage. His years and years of winning on team Canada have given him a credibility that most players can only dream of.

Neither of these 13th forwards needs to take a regular shift but can be slotted in any of the lines when needed.

Notable exclusions:
Jason Spezza - Spezza, in my opinion, has proven himself useful in only one role, that's as a setup man on a scoring line, and even then his playoff record the last two years has been less than stellar. I don't think there's enough ice time available for Spezza to be effective.

Dany Heatley - Everything said about Spezza, ditto for Heatley. He's also been pretty ineffective in best on best tournaments (2004, 2006).
Eric Staal - Staal is a great hockey player, but I think there are better players available for a scoring role. Brad Richards edged him out, but just barely, and I think if he can prove his defensive abilities he has a strong chance of making the team.

Daniel Briere - Briere is great and has been great for Canada, and I have a lot of hesitation about not finding a place for him, but there you go, simply too much depth for Briere's inclusion.

Joe Thornton - I considered Thornton's inclusion for a very long time, and keeping him off this team was more a matter of taste than anything. I think his playoffs this year has been at times great and at times very mediocre; he certainly doesn't look like Morrow, Richards/Richards, Iginla etc out there, he doesn't control the flow the same way those guys do. If he does make the team I would slot him in there as a third or fourth line guy with a very simply role: own the boards. Calgary fans saw his boardwork in the first round, and it was very effective. If he makes the team, reduce his role, simplify his game and he could be a real weapon.

Patrick Marleau - He's having a much better playoff than I ever expected him to and he went goal less for what, 4 straight games? As I've mentioned before, he's never been great for Canada. Simply too much depth to include him on the team.

Derek Roy - As much as I like him, I think he needs to carve out a niche to be placed on a team with as much skill as this team.

So there you have it, 2 years in advance I've thrown down the gauntlet. This tournament will be an interesting first step (test) for Vancouver 2010.



walkinvisible said...

that is a lot to digest, my friend, and (of course) this is all WAY premature, as you mentioned.

my lingering memories of 06 were simply that it was a pat quinn type roster: an ol' boys club. if i remember correctly, eric staal and his exuberance for goal-scoring and play-making were left in the pressbox with another player of his ilk (spezza), and a solid first pairing defenseman with the ability to put pucks in the net (boyle).

i will never forgive ol' quinner for dressing pronger with a broken foot while leaving boyle to watch from the rafters... ESPECIALLY when canada was having some serious trouble scoring goals.

in saying so, i think your projected roster is ever slightly too old, just as it was in 06. the game of today is propelled by the spark and speed of the youth movement (crosby, malkin, kane, toews, gagner to name a few) and i think your roster is too reminiscent of the last time out.... and yet, it's hard to argue any single player you've selected....

i'd be curious to see your D.
then we'll talk more.

therealdeal said...

When we talk about a general sweeping issue with a team, whether it be age, speed, skill etc. I agree with Matt @ BoA when he says what we're really talking about is effectiveness. I believe this roster has a nice mix of veteran leadership and youngsters, although it IS two years out and it's hard to predict breakout years etc., and I do believe in the idea of going with the best at the time.

The defence is even a bigger conundrum as we can really only name 7, while I would love to name about 25, as well, it's hard to defend a philosophy of gameplay regarding defenceman.

A couple guys I can tell you I will put on the team for sure are Brewer and Bouwmeester, the rest of the 5 I'm still debating.

walkinvisible said...

wouldn't it be easier if our team was slovenia ? ;) they have a singular philosophy, it seems: if the guy owns pads (no matter how vintage) then he plays... sign'im up.

our difficulties lie in the fact that there are enough good canadians to ice TWO hockey teams, so selecting who gets to play in vancouver is a tough one.

i agree with your call on bouwmeester, but i'm not 100% convinced about brewer. i'll get pretty ticked, when the time comes, if pretty much ALL of the same cast of 2006 losers gets named to the team: foote, pronger, jovo, blake. i think these guys are all slowly going the way of warrener (average age in 2010: over 36), and will be well down that path two years from now. let's take ONE of 'em: pronger.

i'd definitely like to see regehr, and dan boyle (presuming nothing else bad happens to him between now and then, touch wood). and i figure hamhuis and weber have probably solidified their tandem in international play by then....

so then i'd think you fill out the D with a guy like mike green, marc staal, vlasic or maybe dion.... who knows ?