SOCHI, Russia — This might be the most Canadian column of all time, but here goes: After Friday night’s 6-0 win over Austria and Thursday night’s 3-1 win over Norway – yes, back-to-back wins by a combined score of 9-1 – Canadian men’s hockey coach Mike Babcock needs to make a change. He needs to sit Chris Kunitz and try someone else with Sidney Crosby.
Kunitz hasn’t been bad. But he hasn’t stood out playing with the best player in the world against B-level Olympic competition, either. The chemistry they have had as teammates with the Pittsburgh Penguins hasn’t translated. Kunitz has zero points. Crosby has one assist.
It’s nitpicking, I know. It might not be fair, either. But these preliminary games are all about nitpicking for Babcock and his staff, and giving everyone a fair shot to adjust his game in the Olympics isn’t a luxury they have.
The Canadians have too many great players and too little time to piece together the puzzle. They have one more prelim, Sunday against Finland. The winner will clinch a spot in the quarterfinals, avoiding a qualification game. More important, it will be the Canadians’ last chance to experiment before single elimination.
They won’t be facing Austria and Norway in the medal round. If and when they face their real competition – Sweden, Russia, the United States – they might need their biggest difference-maker to make the difference, like, say, four years ago in Vancouver, when Crosby called for the puck in overtime and scored that golden goal.
[Related: 5 things we learned from Canada's win over Austria]
“We’re trying to end up with the best team we possibly can,” Babcock said after annihilating Austria. “I’m just looking for details. Who can I trust, and who can you not? And how are we going to win the games as they get harder? This tournament gets harder and harder, as you know. It’s a detail tournament. It’s a one-goal game every single time.”
Full disclosure: I think Kunitz is an excellent NHL player. Not only has he clicked with Crosby in Pittsburgh, he has clicked with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry with the Anaheim Ducks. He has won Stanley Cups on both teams, and he has ranked among the league’s scoring leaders playing with Crosby. It isn’t by accident that he has played with high-end talent. He’s gritty and smart. He’s skilled.
I thought Kunitz should have made Team Canada when many others thought he shouldn’t have. I thought it made sense to put him with Crosby in Sochi, because he was a known quantity, it was a short tournament and it can be hard to gel in a short tournament. I knew that meant Canada would leave more talented players off the roster. Apparently I was not alone, because executive director Steve Yzerman put him on the team.
But he has played six periods now. He has played 41 shifts and 28:54. He has done it knowing that he made the team over players like Claude Giroux, that he’s on Crosby’s left wing over teammates like John Tavares, that Babcock has scratched others and rotated others. Babcock has experimented with the right wing on Crosby’s line. Babcock tried Jeff Carter against Norway, then Martin St-Louis against Austria.
“If you get 40 seconds with each other, you go out and you try to earn it,” Kunitz said. “Go out and work hard. You just want to earn your spot for the next night.”
And these are Kunitz’s numbers: three shots, two penalty minutes. The pace is higher here, and the ice is 15 feet wider. So far, at least, there has been an effect.
“You don’t want to get lost,” Kunitz said. “You don’t want to get pinched off on those walls. That’s something I’ve still got to get better at. Coming out of our zone with speed up the wall, you get really far away from your guys. You’ve got to make sure you come over together, drive with speed, go through the middle of the ice. Hopefully those creative plays open up, we hit guys late and score some goals.”
A big reason Kunitz and Crosby are so good together in the NHL is because of what they do down low. Kunitz digs out pucks along the boards and goes to the net. He knows where Crosby will be and vice-versa. But not only is the ice 15 feet wider, the end boards are two feet farther from the net. The geometry is different.
“There’s areas on the ice that you’ve got to get used to,” Kunitz said. “The end zone and rolling in those corners, it’s quite a bit different. It’s a puck-possession game. You’ve got to make sure you’re hard on the puck, lean on your stick and create the space for yourself. I think chemistry is building every single period, every single day we’re together. Guys are feeling more comfortable together. But still got to go out there and earn it every shift.”
[Photo gallery: Canada cruises to easy victory]
It has only been two games. Maybe with more time, Kunitz would earn it. (Notice how many times he said that?) But the Canadians don’t have much more time to mess around. Tavares is too good to play center on the fourth line, even with the likes of Jamie Benn and Patrice Bergeron. Babcock could move him to the left wing, where he has played on big ice before. Babcock could also try Benn or Matt Duchene or Patrick Marleau or Patrick Sharp. He has lots of options, and he has to have thought of a Plan B. Coaches always have a Plan B.
Asked about adjusting to new linemates at the Olympics, Crosby said: “To be honest, it’s not that difficult. When you’re playing a short-term event like this, you’re learning every game regardless of if you’re switching linemates or you have the same. You have to constantly adjust depending on who you’re playing. I don’t change anything. I think if anything, you just try to make sure you’re in the right spot and worry about your own job and the game will kind of take care of itself. Just read and react.”
This is not personal. This is the Olympics. This isn’t about Kunitz as much as it is about the brutal decisions Babcock has to make.
Four years ago in Vancouver, the rosters were 23 players. Babcock dressed 20 skaters and two goalies. The only odd man out was the third goalie. Now, the rosters are 25 players. He can bring two more players and take more advantage of Canada’s depth, but that means two skaters and a goalie have to sit.
“It’s way harder,” Babcock said. “It’s ridiculous actually. You tell an athlete that he competed hard, that he did things right, that he’s not playing? It’s no fun. No fun.”
This is no fun, but Kunitz has to sit. Babcock has to try something else. He is giving the players the day off Saturday, which gives him a lot of time to think about it.
Asked about the production of Crosby’s linemates, Babcock said: “This tournament in my opinion is about getting better each and every day, and if we do that we’ll have an opportunity. There’s great teams here. It’s a fine, fine line.
“I tell people this all the time. Whether it’s the Stanley Cup or a bantam AAA championship or an Olympic gold medal, you’ve got to line up the moon and stars to win it. It just doesn’t happen. And so all we can do is continue to work on our preparation and our execution and giving everyone the best opportunities to be the best team. That’s what we’re going to do. I’m not worried about Sid.”
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