Friday October 23rd, 2009

If the start of the Olympic hockey tournament on Feb. 16 seems as far off as the glorious day of your retirement, the sight of the torch being lit in Greece on Thursday should bring its proximity into sharp focus.

Like objects in the rearview mirror, the Games are much closer than they appear. And so is the roster deadline. Tournament rules stipulate that all lineups must be finalized by Dec. 31, although it's expected that most countries will settle them earlier to maximize the public relations impact. That means we're two months, give or take, from the big days. And that ticking clock has to be a source of some discomfort for Brian Burke, Steve Yzerman and the rest of the men putting together the American and Canadian sides.

Injuries and slow starts are plaguing hopefuls from both teams, and while there were expected to be plenty of moving parts as the lists were whittled down, what's surprising is the dwindling number of sure things.

Take Canada's Ryan Getzlaf. While he's still featured prominently on most mock lineups as the team's No. 2 center, there's a very real chance that he won't make the trip to Vancouver. Offseason surgery hernia surgery kept him in the stands for summer camp, and while he's played in every game so far for the Anaheim Ducks, he's been a shadow of the player who arguably ranked as the most physically dominant center in the league last season. If the Games started tomorrow, it'd be a mistake to put him on the team. Will he be an afterthought in two months?

What about Phil Kessel? His speed and finishing touch would add a critical dimension to the American squad, but he's yet to play his first game of the season. And while shoulder surgery won't affect his wheels beyond a little rust, it could impact his shot and his willingness to engage in contact.

There are other big gunners who are skating but, as Joe Namath said, strug-ga-ling. Vincent Lecavalier and Simon Gagne, two of Canada's most reliable weapons, have yet to score. David Booth and David Backes, big bodies penciled in for big roles on the American side, have just one goal each. All four have seen their hold on a roster spot loosen.

Of course, it's not all bad news. There've been some players for whom hot starts have been their entree into the conversation. Just one month into his career as a starter, Colorado's Craig Anderson seems like a good bet to be the No. 3 goalie for the Americans. Erik Johnson of the Blues has shown no ill effects from missing all of last season and looks like a legitimate top-six option on the U.S. blueline. Crash 'n' banger Ryan Smyth is not quite past his best-by date and the play of Marc-Andre Fleury has elevated his name into the mix for Canada's top job.

All of these situations can change between now and New Year's Eve, but here's how we see the current status of 81 top Olympic hopefuls.

STITCH HIS NAME ON A SWEATER:

Ryan Miller: His play is removing all doubt as to who should start.

Tim Thomas: Struggling to find his comfort zone in the early going, but how do you leave out the reigning Vezina-winner?

Erik Johnson: Reminding everyone why he was the first overall pick in 2007. His big body and transitional ability should earn him a depth role.

Jack Johnson: Heroic effort at World Championships all but sealed his spot.

Brian Rafalski: He'll play big minutes and QB the power play.

Ryan Suter: After watching him log 32:14 against the Capitals on Saturday, he's ready to be the American workhorse.

Paul Martin: The anchor of New Jersey's blueline brings a steady if unspectacular presence.

Dustin Brown: Lost his first line spot in L.A. to Smyth, but his physical play and leadership are critical to the cause.

Ryan Callahan: Exactly what you want in an Olympian -- smart, fast and gritty. He's trailed only Marian Gaborik as New York's most important forward.

Chris Drury: Veteran leadership and a history of coming through in the clutch ensure he'll be there.

Scott Gomez: The Americans are lacking elite centers. He's one of very few options.

Patrick Kane: Imagine how much more effective he'll be with players who can handle his passes.

Ryan Kesler: He'll anchor a defensive-minded unit that could be Team USA's most effective line.

Zach Parise: Expected to be the engine of the offense.

Paul Stastny: Struggling to put up points but, as one scout noted, "he's committed to playing all 200 feet."

MAKING A CASE:

Craig Anderson: Where would the Avs be without him? The MVP for October.

Zach Bogosian: He's still eligible for the World Juniors, but has his supporters for the bigger tourney. "If he plays like he did down the stretch last season, he could get in as their seventh guy," one scout said.

Ron Hainsey: Surprisingly effective in a shutdown role for the impressive Thrashers.

Brooks Orpik: Big banger could be valuable in a depth role.

Rob Scuderi: Proved his shutdown ability in the playoffs. His comfort level with L.A. partner Jack Johnson improves his chances.

James Wisniewski: Re-established himself as Anaheim's best defender in his first game off the IR on Wednesday. Plays with grit, smarts and emotion.

Brandon Dubinsky: The Rangers' top center can't match Gomez's resume, but he's much more physical. Sounds like a Burke player...plus he'll have assistant coach John Tortorella in his corner.

Tim Connolly: Brutal on the draw, but his offensive creativity hints at a tantalizing pairing with Kane. If he can only stay healthy. . .

Brian Gionta: The most effective of Montreal's fleet of newcomers in the early going. His speed makes him a viable alternative to Kessel.

Jamie Langenbrunner: Veteran can play in any situation, but could be a difference-maker on the penalty kill.

Ryan Malone: Off to a quick start and brings a big body to the fray.

Keith Tkachuk: If Burke wants to add some gravitas to the mix, Tkachuk is the best choice. He's experienced, physical and could make an impact with limited minutes, especially on the power play.

ONE FOOT OUT THE DOOR:

Jonathan Quick: No fault of his own. He's simply being outplayed, like almost everyone else, by Anderson.

Mike Komisarek: His close ties to Burke and Ron Wilson might salvage his spot, but his undisciplined play could hurt the Americans even more than it does the Leafs.

Ryan Whitney: One scout told SI.com that Whitney "drifts in and out of games." Lazy penalties aren't helping his cause, either.

David Backes: He's playing a more disciplined game than last season, but he needs to start finishing his chances.

Jason Blake: With the Leafs struggling, there's talk he and his salary could be buried in the AHL.

David Booth: Just one goal (in the season opener) and a minus-5 rating. He's getting his chances but needs production, not just shots, to earn a job.

Phil Kessel: Should have enough time to prove his readiness with an early November return, but can't take his spot for granted...even if his boss desperately needs him to succeed.

Mike Modano: Burke wants a veteran presence, but injuries and ineffectiveness might take Modano out of the picture.

Kyle Okposo: If he expects the brass to overlook his inexperience, he needs to light the lamp, or at least light up the opposition, more often.

Joe Pavelski: He should be back soon from the broken foot that's sidelined him since the season's first week, but he needs to outplay Dubinsky. He's an underrated defensive presence and could make an impact in the circle.

Bobby Ryan: One goal this season...and that one deflected in off his leg. He's a Burke draft pick though, so the boss might be willing to overlook the slow start.

STITCH HIS NAME ON A SWEATER:

Martin Brodeur: There's no arguing he's in decline, but is there anyone else you'd dress in a must-win game?

Marc-Andre Fleury: Don't assume he's going as the third goalie. He proved he could handle the pressure with a Game 7 road win in the Cup final. His early play says he deserves a start in Vancouver, and don't be surprised if he's the go-to guy in the clutch.

Roberto Luongo: It's almost inconceivable that he'll be left off the squad, and that might be a mistake. He'll make it on reputation, but simply hasn't looked like a world-class goalie to this point of the season.

Jay Bouwmeester: Walked onto a stacked Calgary blueline and asserted himself immediately as the new No. 1. As steady as they come.

Duncan Keith: Considered a long shot before the playoffs, his value as a two-way force is now firmly established.

Scott Niedermayer: The slow start is worrisome, but his absence was one of Canada's fatal flaws in 2006. He's a lock.

Chris Pronger: Age isn't slowing him down a bit. He leads the league in TOI, averaging 28:13 per night.

Shea Weber: Nashville's early struggles can't mute his value. His big shot will be Canada's prime power play weapon.

Sidney Crosby: His production isn't meeting expectations, but he's showing his commitment with improvements to other areas of his game.

Shane Doan: Provides inspirational leadership, smart physical play and some touch around the net.

Dany Heatley: With a gold medal on the line, expect his transgressions to be swept under the rug.

Jarome Iginla: He's being outscored by Gilbert Brule, but his offense will come. He's a lock for the first line.

Brenden Morrow: Looks just like the player he was before knee surgery cost him most of last season.

Rick Nash: Coach Ken Hitchcock has transformed him into a solid two-way player. That helps, but Canada really needs those soft hands.

Mike Richards: Six goals in seven games and still one of the best checkers in the league.

Martin St. Louis: His speed and playmaking ability should keep him in Canada's top six.

MAKING A CASE:

Cam Ward: He's reliable in regulation but has struggled in shootouts.

Dan Boyle: The veteran has had a couple rough games, but he was the one Shark to bring it during last season's playoffs. He'd be a boon to the power play.

Drew Doughty: Strictly on merit, he would be a lock for the sixth or seventh role. Lack of experience, and Canada's veteran depth, could put the kibosh on his bid.

Dion Phaneuf: The offense is back and he's taking fewer of the braindead penalties that stunted his play last season.

Robyn Regehr: Has his game back on track after an extremely shaky start. Could excel in a shutdown role.

Brent Seabrook: Earns raves for a steady, if unspectacular, three-zone game.

Jeff Carter: Scoring 46 goals last season gives him an edge, but he has to prove he can maintain that pace.

Simon Gagne: Doctors say he might not be in top shape until December due to offseason hip surgery...and that may be too late.

Patrick Marleau: With the C off his chest, he's a different player. The speed and finish are still there, but there's more confidence in his game. His versatility is a plus.

James Neal: Tied for 10th in the scoring race and playing a physical, two-way game. He's almost impossible to knock off the puck.

Corey Perry: Leads Anaheim's offense despite limited contribution from Getzlaf.

Brad Richards: Playing through a lingering groin injury is good for the Stars, but might negate his chances to wear the maple leaf.

Patrick Sharp: His do-it-all ability makes the crafty Sharp the go-to choice if anyone on the checking unit (Richards/Doan/Morrow) is injured. Otherwise, he's an excellent option for the 13th forward role.

Ryan Smyth: Captain Canada is fifth in the scoring race and doing what he does best: working the boards and crashing the net to create, and finish, the ugly chances.

Eric Staal: Could step in as the No. 2 center if Getzlaf flames out or he could play the wing on the fourth line, but he needs to show he's healthy. The slow start suggests otherwise.

Steven Stamkos: Meet the forward version of Doughty. His game has matured quickly, but who do you leave out to fit him in?

Joe Thornton: He's the top Canadian-born scorer, but can he be trusted to deliver under pressure? With so many centers struggling, he may be a default choice.

Jonathan Toews: There's so much to like about his game -- especially his shootout ability -- but Canada has better options.

ONE FOOT OUT THE DOOR:

Steve Mason: The early favorite to grab the third spot has yet to recapture the consistent magic of last season. He's twice allowed more than five goals.

Francois Beauchemin: Has looked completely lost since joining the Leafs.

Brent Burns: That league-worst minus-10 rating is impossible to overlook.

Mike Green: No doubt he'd boost the power play and he's shown more diligence in his own end this season, but after his disastrous performance last spring, it's fair to wonder if he can be trusted.

Stephane Robidas: He simply isn't at the level of Canada's 10 best blueliners.

Ryan Getzlaf: If he's fully recovered from off-season hernia surgery, he's sure not playing like it. If he's not healthy, look for Canada to tap into its deep reserve of centers.

Vincent Lecavalier: The assists are nice, but the streak is at 15 games and counting since he last scored a goal. He needs to show some finish to crack this lineup.

Milan Lucic: Surprise camp invitee looked like he was trying too hard to live up to his new contract. Surgery on finger kills whatever chance he had.

Marc Savard: The most glaring omission from summer's camp has Don Cherry trumpeting his viability, but the broken foot that'll sideline him for the next six weeks pretty much ends his chances to impress the brass.

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