Monday, January 06, 2014

Oh ... Canada

 I spent some of my weekend watching the World Juniors and once Canada was eliminated I was quite happy to see the Finns take it all. As I explained to the boy even when (if? have they ever been?) the Finns are favoured they are underdogs, they are always underdogs and it is always right to cheer for them. He was disappointed when they won though as they had beaten Canada and he always cheers against the team that knocks his team out.

 I don't know enough about junior hockey to be able to say that THIS IS WHAT IS WRONG but one guy I follow on Twitter, Victor Carneiro (@vcarneiro), is in the business and he and @67Sound both had good points last night as to part of the problem. Victor especially 'spoke' at length on the juniors and its worth going back and checking out.

 The funny thing about these one and done tournaments is that they are just that, one and done, and international hockey has so much parity now that reading into a long winning or losing streak is to be done at its own peril. Even when Canada won five golds in a row there were times they got a little bit lucky and for that matter at the beginning of this latest streak they could have easily won it all with a break or two here or there. To me the question is 'were they in the mix'? I remember in 1998 when we lost at Nagano the hand wringing that resulted. At that point Canada's senior men really were lacking in terms of pure offensive skill and when Suter knocked Kariya out and then Joe Sakic got hurt our chances for a gold medal really took a hit. Yet even with those casualties it took probably the greatest goaltender run of all time to knock Canada off in the semis. (I'm not talking about the tournament itself but those three or four years where Hasek was unreal.)

 Building an international team is exactly like building an NHL team. I mean obviously its different in that you are not drafting and developing kids or making trades or signing free agents but the reality is that you want to put the best roster together that you can and then hopefully the chips fall where they may. You would take a Stanley Cup over years of excellence without a Cup obviously but if you were to choose a GM to build your team would you take Jim Rutherford because he won a Cup or would you take Doug Wilson who has built a team that hasn't won it all but has been in the mix to win it all for nearly ten years now?

 I'm not saying Rutherford is a bad GM don't get me wrong. He deserves credit for getting the Canes to the promised land, he built a good team that year, they were in the mix and they got some luck and they won.

 That's the key though. Build a team that is in the mix and then hope that the hockey gods smile on you. And the key is building a team that is talented enough that the chances of that are tilted as far in your favour as you can make them.

 The problem for Canada (or what would worry me if I was at Hockey Canada) is that the last three years they have not even been in the ballpark and, if anything, are getting worse. They cut Kevin Prendergast out of the mix and believe me that will help buddy is the worst but something at this point is broken.

 I read a few interesting points, one that stood out was that nearly half of the Canadian forwards brought nothing (literally) to the table offensively. In a couple of cases (Bo Horvat comes to mind) its hard to argue against the player selection, the question in that case is did he underperform or was it the system? Don't know but in other cases ... why bring a fourth line that barely plays? Why not Max Domi? Why bring a Dman who barely plays (Bigras) and not Darnell Nurse and what sort of scouting bases a guy's selection (or not) on two games rather than his body of work this season, which by all accounts has been excellent.

 I don't get it. I don't pretend to have all of the answers but when you have the deepest talent pool in the world then you should take advantage of it. In 1987 Dale Hawerchuk was the 'checking' centre. He was one of the best players in the world. They didn't take Craig MacTavish or Troy Murray to the Canada Cup. They took the best player they could and told him to figure it out. It was Dale Hawerchuk. He figured it out pretty easily.

 There is an odd Canadian obsession with intangibles - heart, grit, being a winner, as if a) they were particularly Canadian qualities, which they are not and b) that sort of thing makes up for talent

 Now I am not saying that there is such a thing as talent without heart, remember Sather's famous quote about Jimmy Carson (paraphrasing - you can have all the talent in the world but its no good if you don't have the ticker). But its this attitude, the Mark Spector attitude, that the bottom of your roster needs to be grinders and goons, that Euros can't make the grade, that leads to fourth liners who are nailed to the bench when it matters (HELLO COLTON ORR) instead of fourth liners who are on the ice in the last minute and scoring Cup winning goals (Bolland, Kruger, Frolik).

 It also leads to goalies who know how to win who have worse numbers than other goalies and who let in wrist shots from the blueline.

 And I'm not hacking on Fucale here. He's just a kid and he did his best. But maybe he shouldn't have been there. Nobody questioned that choice though and mainly because he won the Memorial Cup.

 Oh well.

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 Tomorrow Team Canada will be named and there will be much wailing and rending of garments and gnashing of teeth regardless, I guarantee it, regardless of the final roster.

 The truth is Steve Yzerman's job is easy and I really believe that. Canada's talent pool is so deep that he could run out about six or seven different rosters and they would be fine. Seriously. The only possible way he can screw it up is if he overthinks things. That's how you end up with guys like Rob Zamuner and Kris Draper on your team.

 (Kris Draper was a wonderful player and the 2004 World Cup team included him AND Kirk Maltby lol and won it pretty easily, probably the easiest best on best win I ever saw, except maybe 1991 or maybe 1976. But he didn't belong on a best on best team. Full stop.)

 I think there are two possible pitfalls that face him.

 One is excluding Subban. It sounds like he's on the team thank goodness. Subban is so good that he, like Keith and Doughty in Vancouver, could be a standout. He may be an extra part to start but I would not be surprised at all if he ends up playing a major role for Canada in a positive way.

 The second pitfall is naming Chris Kunitz to the team. I like Chris Kunitz, I really do. He's a heck of a player and I would take him on the Oilers in a second. He's not a difference maker though. I hate comparing him to Bozak because Bozak couldn't carry Kunitz's jock but without Crosby Kunitz doesn't do much and in my mind I picture Brent Seabrook in Vancouver. I have all the time in the world for Seabrook as an NHL top pairing defenceman but he couldn't handle the Olympics and I could see the same for Kunitz. He's not a world class player.

 I think he makes it due to the Crosby factor and to be honest I believe in that idea slightly. In Vancouver Crosby didn't do a lot and I think a lot of that was due to his linemates, Staal and Iginla. He needs better linemates this time around, he's going to be facing the other team's best and I would prefer that they have better options than Chris Kunitz. That said I can see the thought process here though I don't necessarily agree with it.

 Best on best reduces the best to just another cog in the machine. A guy like Seabrook (or Bergeron in Vancouver as another example) gets exposed. A guy like Toews or Thornton does well but he doesn't stand out because his opponent is a star as well.

 So if you're picking Chris Kunitz you need to know that he can do this. I don't know that he can.

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 The latest list on TSN (a mish mash of picks from MacKenzie and Dreger I guess?) is as follows:

G: Price Luongo Smith

D: Keith Doughty Bouwmeester Pietrangelo Vlasic Weber Boyle Subban

F Couture Crosby Stamkos Benn Toews Perry Duchene Getzlaf Giroux Sharp Tavares Nash Bergeron St. Louis

On the bubble: Staal Kunitz Marleau Carter Giordano Hamhuis Staal Seabrook

Not even mentioned (!) Thornton Hall Seguin Kane Letang Ryan Smyth (!!!!!) Any other goalie.

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I'm not going to pretend to have all the answers, in a lot of cases I haven't seen these guys play too much and only know them by reputation, similar to Team Canada management. (Try the veal and tip your hard working servers, I'm here all week.)

Injuries are going to change some of this of course, there is already an issue with Luongo. I'm not a big fan of Mike Smith mostly because he's a big baby and I think he's a product of the Coyotes' system. I think its Carey Price's job to run with, I don't really see anyone else who inspires confidence other than Luongo so ... GET WELL SOON ROBERTO!

 On the blue my musts are Keith, Doughty, Pietrangelo, Weber, Subban. After that I think its six of one mostly. I have no issues with Bouwmeester, he doesn't drive the bus but he's a minute muncher, a big body and he can skate miles. I think he's a good pick. After that I would run with two of Vlasic, Boyle and Hamhuis. Take your pick. I don't think Seabrook can handle it. I like Giordano a lot but I have no idea if he could handle it, I doubt it. And Staal I love but not after the injuries.

 Up front my musts are Crosby, Stamkos, Toews, Perry, Duchene, Tavares and then I'd take Benn, Getzlaf, Sharp and Giroux. All of these guys are terrific players. Getzlaf did just fine in 2010 despite coming off an injury. Sharp is a shoo in, he has the skill, he has the pedigree (this doesn't matter to me but two Cup wins will matter to Yzerman) and he has 25 goals. And I think Benn is really good. (Analysis!!)

 After that I do believe many of these guys are interchangeable. I'm fine with TSN's list and I also think you wouldn't lose anything putting Carter or Marleau (or Seguin) on the team over Nash or Couture.

 Two final thoughts on Joe Thornton and Taylor Hall.

 Joe Thornton will never get the respect he deserves. He's just one of those guys. His playoff numbers are quite good despite his reputation, he's played through injuries that would lay you or I out for weeks, he's one of the greats of his generation. He hasn't won the Cup and he suffers from big man's disease like Frank Mahovolich and Mario Lemieux and Dustin Penner and I suspect he doesn't suffer stupid reporters at all and so he doesn't get that benefit of the doubt.

 He could be on this team and it would be fine, he's having another great year but I think the thing that is going to kill him is his lack of speed. He's never been a burner and while speed isn't the end all and be all it will matter in Sochi. Its not a big ice thing its the fact that nearly everyone on the ice is going to be able to skate like the wind.

 Meanwhile Taylor Hall has the numbers, playing on a junk team he is one of the top left wingers in the game and I have no doubt in my mind that he could contribute to Team Canada.

 I also think that he has himself to blame for what looks like a probable snub. When asked to play centre early in the year he took to the task with less than one hundred percent enthusiasm and his play on his half of centre has been spotty at times all season.

 I love Taylor Hall, if anyone leads the Oilers out of the desert it will be him but he's not put his best foot forward here and while I'm not a big 'intangibles' guy I think he's made Yzerman and company question him. Based on skill he should be going but in this specific case I can see why they'd not include him on the roster. His run of late may change their minds but I suspect not and its too bad, like Iginla in Salt Lake City this should have been his coming out party.

1 comment:

bradr98 said...

Pat, as I was reading this the other evening, I was interrupted by a call from Mr. Babcock who assured me that they have "watched a lot of hockey!" over the past year.
I don't know how you can say that...sorry, email just came in from Stevie Y, oh, yes, he also has watched a lot of hockey this past year.
Now, I don't know your strong to the net from your weak backcheck, but as Mr. Chiarelli, Mr. Holland and (ok, this one I actually do doubt) Mr. Lowe pointed out yesterday, they have all watched a LOT of hockey in the past year or so.
I'm just not sure that those of us commenting from the sidelines have watched enough hockey to really understand any of this.
-Brad