Thanks to the powers that be, hockey fans from all around the world will once again be treated to 2 weeks of best-on-best hockey. There really isn’t any thing else like it. As a kid, you often think of the All-Star game as THE event where all the game’s stars come together for some friendly hockey. Well, the Olympics are just basically the All-Star game on stero… immune-boosting vitamins.
As national training camps announce their respective invitees, there has been considerable debate surrounding their compositions. Although regular season performance will play a big role in determining the team, we are already getting our first glimpses into what Yzerman & Co. are thinking. Apart from the returnees from 2010′s gold medal squad, new invitees include newly-minted superstars in Stamkos, Giroux, and Tavares, along with emerging elite defensemen like Letang and Subban. On the other hand, goaltending is going to be an intriguing, albeit nervous, story-line for the Canadians. I expect this topic to get beaten to death by the MSM so we’ll move along.
Speaking of goaltending, Finland and Sweden are boasting potential pairings of Lundqvist-Fasth and Rask-Rinne. That’s frightening, especially when you consider that Finland possesses, what is essentially, two of the world’s top-three goaltenders. Fans will also have the benefit of witnessing (hopefully) a healthy Erik Karlsson on international sized ice, and possibly the Sedin twins, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Selanne’s final Olympic performances. There is tons to look forward to and it just increases the anticipation for the beginning of the season.
In this week’s Round Table, I thought we’d pick our writers’ brains on what they thought about some of the Leafs‘ invitees and their prospects for making the cut. A lot has changed since 2010 and of note is Burke’s dismissal from his prior role as the GM of the Free World. The boys will also touch on this and explore what the change in managerial philosophy might mean for our American Leafs.
What do you make of Dion Phaneuf’s invitation to camp?
“If Toronto was going to have one player represent them at the Canada camp it probably should have been Reimer, but it’s hard not making a case for Phaneuf being there too when you look at who else is on the invite list. I won’t go into too much detail here because a later question sums up what I think Canada’s blueline will look like, but I can realistically see Phaneuf being near the top of the list for injury replacements once the NHL season takes its toll. Phaneuf’s versatility will also give him an advantage as he can play on either side and Canada doesn’t have the same depth on the left as they do on the right. In short, good for Dion and he deserves to get recognized for being as good as he is.” -Jon Steitzer (@YakovMironov)
“It’s good that Phaneuf is getting and invitation, but don’t read too much into it. While I believe that Phaneuf is a top-20 defenseman league-wide, a lot of the players who are better than him just happen to be Canadian. Add to that the fact that Phaneuf plays the right side (where the Canadians could already have any of Weber, Seabrook, Letang and Subban), and this looks like more of a courtesy by Hockey Canada than anything else. For the record, I think he’d be an option as the eighth defenseman, should the team carry eight. But the only way Phaneuf makes the team ahead of the games is if a couple of his betters sustain injuries that will keep them out of Sochi.” -Michael Stephens (@MLHS_Mike)
USA GM Poile: “(In 2010) you heard Brian Burke talking about words like truculence…I’m not trying to say that’s not important, but maybe it’s less important in 2014.” What does this change in philosophy hold for USA hopefuls like Kessel, van Riemsdyk, and Gardiner?
“The Americans rode timely scoring and piping hot goaltending towards a terrific overtime finish in the gold medal game in Vancouver. But they won’t have Tim Thomas to save them this time around. If Poile is to be believed, he’s trying to assemble a team that can compete skill-on-skill on the wider European ice surface. If true, you’ve got to like the chances for all three of the Leafs hopefuls to make the team. But I think it’ll only be two out of three, which ain’t bad.Phil Kessel is a sure thing. The past 2-3 seasons, Kessel has been the most dynamic offensive threat in the Americans’ arsenal (or second-most after Patrick Kane if you’re a fan of not the Maple Leafs). He’ll rock the stars and bars as he did in 2010, but he’ll be playing a bigger role and face tougher scrutiny. He’ll be the prime scoring threat for the yanks, and he’ll need to improve upon his meagre 2-point showing from Vancouver.I also like James van Riemsdyk’s chances of cracking the Olympic squad, especially should he have a hot start to the 2013-2014 season. He’s represented the United States countless times before and really grew his offensive game in Toronto this year. He’s got a rare blend of size and skill, and wouldn’t look out of place on the second or third line and in front of the net on the power play. The US can ill-afford to leave a 30-goal scorer off their roster, and JvR could become just that.
Through no fault of his own, Jake Gardiner isn’t ready for the Olympics. While I’d rather have Gardiner on my NHL roster over most of the defensemen invited to the US camp, he’s still not a proven commodity at the NHL-level and is still a couple years away from reaching the peak of his career. Not to mention the fact that defense stands to be the States’ greatest strength, with the likes of Suter, Yandle, Byfuglien, McDonagh, Bogosian and Johnson and Johnson. Unless he plays as he did in the first round against Boston through the first half of the season, there’s no way Gardiner supplants all of them.” -Michael
Only good things are in store for the Leafs three American camp invitees. Kessel is a lock despite not being a huge factor in Vancouver. He’s the second best American winger after Kane, and possibly the third best American skater after Kane and Suter. Jake Gardiner’s skating on an international sized rink seems like he should be able to move ahead of more experienced defenders like Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, but Gardiner is still probably more of a taxi squad player as Yandle, Shattenkirk, McDonagh, Suter, Byfuglien, and the Johnsons are probably ahead of him. While van Riemsdyk also has a good shot at making the team he’s up against a lot of depth on the wing for Team USA, though his penalty killing experience could get him a nod for a third or fourth line role working with Kesler or Callahan. America ridding itself of the idiotic “truculence” mantra as the tournament moves to international ice only makes sense, but that being said someone needs to explain to me why they invited Trevor Lewis.” -Jon
Is there a player, from any country, who you felt should have gotten an invite, but didn’t?
“The list is long and plentiful for this question so I’ll do my best to limit my answer. For Canada there were a few obvious names absent (Benn, Spezza, Kane, Beauchemin, Reimer), but the player I would considered is Brent Burns. I think he brings a lot of useful elements and I wonder if his recent use as a forward hurt him in this consideration. For Sweden I was certainly disappointed that Gunnarsson didn’t get a mention, and there are several names on Sweden’s list that I consider Gunnarsson to be far superior to and I wonder if his name will creep back into consideration once the season starts. Also in the interest of reaching for an interesting name I’ll acknowledge the snub of Matt Moulson for Canada. Dude is a three time thirty goal guy and just off a point a game pace last year. If Crosby gets to bring Kunitz to camp then I think Tavares should get to bring Moulson.” -Jon
“Staying with the Americans, if they were trying to avoid truculence in favour of skill, then leaving Jason Pominville off their camp list is quite surprising. On an American squad that could be hard-pressed to repeat their sterling performance in 2010, why on earth does Team USA not want Pominville? Here’s a guy who has recorded an 80-point season, a 70-point season, and three 60-point seasons through his career and will be just 31 years old at Sochi. Real head scratcher.” -Michael
Who is your tournament dark horse?
“When looking at a dark horse, you’re looking at a team that probably has no right medalling, so I’ve got to go with Finland. For years now, Finnish hockey has produced a bevy of top-level goaltenders. Ahead of Sochi, the Finns will have five quality NHL starters (Backstrom, Rinne, Niemi, Rask and Lehtonen) battling for top spot in nets. The Finns are incredibly shallow at forward save for the brothers Koivu; and hardly a fortress on the back end. But if Rask or Rinne should catch fire during the short tournament, the Finns could finish on the podium under a heavy bombardment and some shocking upsets.” -Michael
“It seems like every time there’s an international tournament I start up with the “don’t count out Finland” talk. I’m going to do the same thing again here despite their blueline. Rask and Rinne splitting the net isn’t a bad place to start. The forwards are a collection of strong two-way hockey players who are familiar with international ice and rules, and there is also a part of me that wants to see Selanne do well in what will be his last Olympic appearance. If possible it would be nice to see Finland top Sweden on a Selanne goal with an immediate camera cut to a heartbroken Daniel Alfredsson. That’s good TV.” -Jon
Your projections for Canada’s line-up?
“The biggest problems I see with my roster below is that Duncan Keith seems to be my only left handed defenseman. I’d argue that this doesn’t matter that much, but it means that two very young defensemen will be playing on a side that they aren’t familiar with. In regards to the forwards I’d like to see two all out scoring lines with two shutdown lines. There is no need to carry an agitator like Marchand or a heavy hitter like Lucic when you can roll up their abilities into a more talented player like Corey Perry. I’d hope for a lineup that’s chosen for overall skill and not for trying to fit in unnecessary roles. While Sharp and Nash might not be the next best players the fact that they can both lineup on either wing gives options if some of the centres are struggling in adjusting to the side. Staal and Phaneuf provide left handed shot options if the higher skill right handed shooting players can’t figure out the otherside of the ice.” -Jon
“Gotta admit, this was a pretty agonizing task to complete. Canada is so deep with talent, at forward especially, that there’s no possible ‘best roster’ that can’t be scrutinized up and down. I apparently only care about faceoffs, because about 90% of the team is made up of centremen. Oh well, enjoy.” -Michael