Friday August 8th, 2008

I knew some of you wouldn't take it very well. But honestly, I was surprised by how many of you did.

"It's about time someone recognized that Team Canada should steer clear of Joe Thornton," wrote Ron Godin of Etobicoke, Ontario. "He'd be gangbusters against Latvia and France, but he lacks the heart and the will to compete against the Americans and Russians."

That pretty much mirrors the thought process that went into the decision to leave Thornton off my proposed 2010 Team Canada lineup. There's no denying that Jumbo Joe is one of the game's top stars and, arguably, the finest set-up man in the business. Ten other countries would make his birthday a national holiday for the chance to have him dishing saucer passes as their No. 1 center.

But there's something about the way he works his magic on the perimeters that tells me Canada has better options in a short tournament requiring as many good bounces as it does skill. And you create those bounces by going hard to the net, not noodling around the half-boards where Thornton seems most comfortable.

Still, you can't argue with his production. And that's why dozens of you questioned how long I'd been baking my skull in that Texas sun with emails like this:

There's no way in hell they're leaving Joe Thornton off the team, especially since he will be in his prime and will score 95-110 points each of the next two seasons. After the Rob Zamuner experiment of 1998, Team Canada has learned to take the best available players and not concentrate on the best role players. Thornton is still better than Eric Staal, Martin St. Louis, Mike Richards, Brenden Morrow, Shane Doan and Joe Sakic, so he will be taken before any of them. Besides, Steve Yzerman played on a checking line. Why not Thornton? -- Hersh Borenstein, Toronto

Funny you mention Yzerman, an MVP-caliber player who routinely was cut from Team Canada during his prime -- not because he wasn't world class, but because Canada simply had better options much like the 2010 team will. And while Yzerman was willing to play a checking role for the Canadians, he already was accustomed to that style of play after having his game reshaped in Detroit by Scotty Bowman. Remember, Yzerman won the Selke in 2000, so that was part of his game.

You can't say that for Thornton. And it's not that I think he's incapable of checking. It's just that Canada's depth gives it more appealing options. Guys like Morrow and Richards and Doan aren't the same as Zamuner, a ham-fisted defensive specialist enlisted in reaction to the 1996 World Cup loss who looked woefully out of place in Nagano. Richards and Doan led their teams in scoring, while Morrow finished second on the Stars. These are dangerous men.

But when I look at those three, I don't see numbers -- I see three elite players who will pay whatever price is required to give their team a chance to win. These guys are battle-tested. Look back at Morrow and Richards in last season's playoffs and you saw them emerge as legitimate superstars who could beat you with skill or will. They are warriors.

Say what you want about Thornton's immense gifts, but his reputation speaks for itself. The more important the game, the less prominent his presence. Still, that's not to say he'll be watching the games on TV when 2010 rolls around. As one NHL executive said to me on Thursday, "They'll probably take him, but there are guys I'd rather have if it was up to me."

Thornton's omission wasn't the only Olympic talk the column generated.

Can someone please explain to me why Lindy Ruff is ignored for Olympic consideration? -- Mark Fagin, Cleveland

Ruff hasn't been ignored. In fact, his name has been whispered among those on the short list for the job, along with Mike Babcock, Andy Murray and Randy Carlyle. But there are issues. First, there's depth. Canada has as many great coaches as it has players, and there's not room for all of them behind the bench. Second, there's politics. Not that Ruff has done anything to alienate himself from Hockey Canada, but he's not one of the in-crowd. He's never coached the national team at any level, and while that's not a killer, it makes him a tougher sell, despite an impressive set of credentials earned while with the Sabres.

I think Babcock's a lock, not just because of his success with the Red Wings, but also because Yzerman is likely to be part of the management team. Having a strong advocate in the room gives him a leg up on other worthy candidates. That became obvious when a couple of NHL insiders took me to task for including Dave Tippett as a possible assistant coach, but leaving off Brent Sutter, a man who had coached the national junior team to two gold medals and a win in last summer's series against Russia. Dumb oversight on my part. Consider my list amended.

I'm sure you're getting bombarded by readers wondering why this guy or that was left off your list, so let me give you one more that deserves serious consideration: Patrice Bergeron. He has shown tremendous chemistry with Sidney Crosby in the past, and is one of the best two-way players in the game. If he's healthy, I think he's got a shot. -- R. Heigle, Providence, R.I.

Any time you do a speculative list like this, you work under the assumption of health. No reason to think, for example, that Crosby will be sidelined two weeks before the Games by a massive gunk infection, so you include him, right? But Bergeron's a different cat. Having missed virtually all of last season with a devastating concussion, we really have no idea what kind of shape he'll be in come September, let along February of 2010. If he's healthy and playing like he was pre-injury, Bergeron will be in the mix to play a depth role. But until I see him play, I'm a skeptic. Here's hoping he proves me wrong.

I'm willing to overlook the absence of Thornton if you pick a Team USA. -- Stephen Pompili, Palo Alto, CA

With its program in transition, the American roster is much more difficult to project. They'll have the benefit of their deepest talent pool to date, but they'll be relying heavily on youth as the old guard from the 1996 World Cup era finally is shuffled out. The ability of those youngsters to make the strides expected of them will determine not only whether they make the team, but whether the Americans will be a force at these Games.

Championships are built from the blueline back, and that's where the strength of this team should lie. Brian Rafalski and Mike Komisarek are the surest bets, giving the team a power play ace and a punishing patrolman. Paul Martin and Jordan Leopold could form an effective second pairing, with Ryan Suter, Matt Niskanen and Ryan Whitney likely to round out the group. It's a testament to the strength of the system that Mark Stuart, Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson and Tom Gilbert are likely to be left at home, but any or all of them could earn a spot depending on their development between now and then.

The goaltending will come down to Ryan Miller and Rick DiPietro. DiPietro started four of six games in Torino, with a respectable 2.28 GAA, but he went 1-3. Look to Miller as the likely starter.

With two reliable vets at the front end, the final spot likely will go to a youngster...if one emerges as being worthy of the job. Jimmy Howard and Al Montoya have some promise, but will they be legitimate NHLers by then? Seems unlikely. If no one else steps forward, Tim Thomas could be a well-deserved call.

Depth isn't a problem up front. At issue is who'll be most ready for the task at hand. It's safe to assume a top six of Paul Stastny, Patrick Kane, Dustin Brown, Zach Parise, Scott Gomez and Tim Connolly. They won't be able to match the size or skill of Canada or Russia man for man, but there's plenty of speed and grit.

The difference for the Americans, at least compared to previous squads, will be obvious in a bottom six that will feature far more élan than the usual collection of checkers and bangers. Look for Chris Drury, Chris Higgins, David Booth, Ryan Malone, Peter Mueller, Jason Pominville and R.J. Umberger to fill out the roster. Maybe not the most imposing group in the tournament, but the strength of the back end means they won't have to be. Hustle and opportunism will define their success and this looks like a hungry, talented bunch.

If they take a three-man taxi squad as in 2006, look for Stuart to be joined by Brandon Dubinsky and Kyle Okposo.

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