SOCHI, Russia – Team Canada is a case study for the paradox of choice, the idea that people are happier with fewer choices, not more. If the country had fewer elite men’s hockey players, there would be less angst. The Canadians would bring their best to the Olympics. They would slot them in their roles. They would play, and whatever the result, they would feel they did as well as they could.
But Canada has so many elite men’s hockey players, there is always a feeling the roster or the lineup could be even better, no matter the results. So-and-so should be in Sochi instead. This combination would work better than that one. If only they did this, 6-0 would have been 9-0. There are myriad valid opinions – from the execs to the coaches to Twitter to taverns.
With rosters limited to 25, stars like Claude Giroux were left home – and Martin St. Louis, the NHL’s scoring leader last season, made it only because of an injury to Steven Stamkos. With lineups limited to 22, Matt Duchene, Dan Hamhuis, Carey Price, Patrick Sharp, Mike Smith and P.K. Subban all have had to sit through one of the first two prelim games. All are key players for their NHL teams. Subban won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman last season. And with games still 60 minutes, there is the same amount of ice time to go around. Many who do dress play less and in lesser roles than they’re used to.
“Believe me, these decisions aren’t easy,” said Canada coach Mike Babcock. “They’re personal because it’s about a player. When you have an interaction with a player, that’s personal. But it’s not about them. It’s about our country and making the right decisions, and that’s all we’re going to do. We’re going to keep trying to make the right decisions.”
Listen to Babcock describe the layers of the process: “Specialty teams. Roles. How we get the best people on the ice. How we help the best people be the best. Who really is the best – not who we thought, but who is?”
It’s a nice problem to have. But it’s still a problem, and it has to be solved quickly in less than ideal circumstances under tremendous pressure. The management group spent months scouting and debating and building the roster, with input from the coaches. Now, as Babcock said, “you’ve got to turn them into a team.” And Babcock has only three games to do it before the tournament becomes single elimination.
The Canadians opened with back-to-back games against relatively weak countries. They beat Norway, 3-1, and Austria, 6-0. They took Saturday off. They will play a stronger country on Sunday, Finland, with the winner avoiding a qualification game and clinching a berth in the quarterfinals. Babcock said he would dress the lineup he felt gave Canada the best chance to beat Finland, but left open the possibility of making more changes before the medal round.
“If it’s not broke, why fix it?” Babcock said. “After Game 1, you could have said the lineup’s fine. But we had that opportunity [to experiment]. Let’s face it: Right away it’s Game 7 [in the medal round]. But we have one more game that isn’t.”
Babcock tried a number of different things against Norway and Austria. The question is how much those games really showed and how much he will weigh them when he sets his lineup for Finland and beyond. It’s hard to read the tea leaves. It’s silly to even try. But go position by position, and you get a sense of the situation.
In goal, the Canadians came in with a planned rotation. They started Carey Price in Game 1. He wasn’t tested much and made a mistake playing a puck behind the net, leading to a goal. They started Roberto Luongo in Game 2. He was tested more, but not much, and let one puck past him that struck iron. What do the Canadians take from that? Babcock said nothing had changed their minds, though he would not reveal who would start against Finland.
On defense, the pairings seem set: Duncan Keith and Shea Weber; Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo; Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Drew Doughty. Hamhuis rotated in as the seventh defenseman in Game 1; Subban did so in Game 2. Subban rotated in on the right side of all three pairs, but Babcock really wanted to see him on the power play and the Canadians got only one power play. So how much evaluation did they get? Did Subban – a high-risk, high-reward player – show Babcock enough to earn his trust defensively?
“Subban can pass the puck,” Babcock said. “It’s unbelievable some of the things he can do. In saying all that, when we look at our group today, we’ll be looking at what you can do with the puck and what you can do without the puck.”
The real dilemmas are up front. Babcock said the best line in Game 1 was the so-called fourth line of Jamie Benn, John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron. He raved about Benn. He said the best line in Game 2 was what could be called the third line: Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Toews and Rick Nash. “So one and two are due,” he said.
Marleau played with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in Game 1; Matt Duchene did in Game 2. Chris Kunitz stayed with Sidney Crosby for both games, but Jeff Carter played the right wing in Game 1 and St. Louis did in Game 2, for the most part. Here’s how nuts it is: Carter went from the first line to being the 13th forward in Game 2, and he played only 8:46 according to the scoresheet, and he coughed up a puck, took a penalty and scored three garbage goals for a natural hat trick. How do you read that?
The juiciest issue is who will play with Crosby. Kunitz has great chemistry with Crosby with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it hasn’t shown in the Olympics through two games. Will Babcock stay patient and trust they will produce? Does he want to keep left wing stable because he hasn’t settled on a right wing? Will he scratch Kunitz and try something else – maybe Tavares on the left with St. Louis on the right? Hard to tell.
“The first line in the last two games has generated a ton of scoring chances – point-blankers,” Babcock said. “They haven’t gone in. So do we worry that much about that, or do we just know good players score in the end?”
Asked if he was seeing the benefit of Kunitz and Crosby’s NHL chemistry, Babcock said: “Well, I guess, from a purely statistical point of view, you’d say no. From the way they play, I think so. I think they do a lot of good things together.”
Babcock also wondered about breaking up a good line to help another.
But all that said, he kept coming back to the idea of building the best team, and he teased reporters when asked about Benn, Tavares and Bergeron. “They were good and we didn’t want to break them up, but that’s probably why I’ll break them up tomorrow,” he said with a wink.
Who knows what Babcock will do? Who knows what the right lineup is – or if there is one right lineup? His advantage and the agony is this. “No one’s done anything wrong,” he said. “Everyone’s played hard. They’re all very good players. Every guy would like to play more.” Yet he has to decide who plays and how much, and he has to do it fast, and all that rides on it is the passion of a nation.