Wednesday December 30th, 2009

Thanks a lot, Steve Yzerman. You made my kid cry.

To be fair, there weren't actual tears running down his face. But as Team Canada's major domo read off the names of the 23 players who'll represent the country at next year's Winter Olympics, my Texas-born, Ol' Glory-wavin' nine-year-old was on the verge.

"Come on!," he groused before storming out of the room where we were watching the announcement. "Thornton, Heatley and Marleau? That's your fourth line???"

Tough to say which players will form which line at this juncture, but the point was well made. After more than a year of scouting, polling, thoughtful discussions and heated debate, Yzerman and his staff put together one scary good team to represent the home side in Vancouver.

Canadians who've spent just as much time scribbling down phantom rosters of their own will inevitably disagree with a few of his choices, but as they make their arguments for a personal favorite, they'll have to ask themselves this question: to add someone, who from this squad gets cut?

Good luck finding a guy who doesn't belong.

The trio of goalies was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Martin Brodeur mined Olympic gold in 2002. Marc-Andre Fleury led the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup. Roberto Luongo has been a reliable international solder. Any of the three could carry the mail, but the smart money is on Luongo getting more use out of his suit than his jersey, and Fleury getting a taste against the Swiss with Brodeur between the pipes when it counts.

The blueline is anchored by five givens: captain Scott Niedermayer, alternate captain Chris Pronger, Dan Boyle, Shea Weber and Duncan Keith, whose partner in Chicago, Brent Seabrook, and the freakishly mature sophomore Drew Doughty round out a unit that is big, strong and multi-faceted. They're positionally sound, they're physical, they're good in transition and they can all join the rush. Most important, they're the sort of players who can be relied upon not to make mistakes.

The makeup of the forward corps will generate the most second-guessing, but that speaks more to the depth of options than the quality of Yzerman's selections. Impossible to argue with the bulk of the group: Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla, Patrick Marleau, Brenden Morrow, Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Joe Thornton and Jonathan Toews are a salty bunch. Patrice Bergeron -- the only non-invitee to the summer camp to make the cut -- can play anywhere up front, is a great right-handed option on the draw and would make an ideal defensive conscience for the top unit alongside Nash and Crosby.

Eric Staal isn't having his best year, but he scored 40 goals last season, has a Cup on his resume and is a handful physically. Mike Richards reportedly earned the last spot over teammate Jeff Carter thanks to his penalty killing skills and whatever-it-takes mentality. Together, it's a versatile group that's loaded up the middle, strong on the draw, physical along the boards and willing to engage in the greasy areas. And deep. I mean, a coach's sweetest dream deep.

And that's the point my son recognized. Other teams will rely heavily on their top six forwards to carry their chances. Canada will, too. When they won in 2002, it was because their best players were the best players on the ice. Joe Sakic, Mario Lemieux and Iginla offered up superlative performances and set a standard that Crosby and Nash and whoever else mans the top lines will have to match in Vancouver if they hope to live up to the gold-or-bust expectations.

But this Canadian squad also offers up the potential of tremendous mismatches with its depth. Imagine trying to defend against the strength, skill and determination of a third line featuring Toews, Morrow and Iginla or a fourth line that includes three of the NHL's top 15 scorers?

Good luck with that.

Not that this is just a fantasy hockey team loaded with snipers. With so little time from the moment the team assembles in Vancouver until the puck drops on Feb. 16 against Norway, the ability to mesh with teammates and slide into clearly defined roles will be critical, so Yzerman has assembled a squad that boasts some well-established chemistry. There are obvious connections, like the Sharks' first line, Getzlaf and Perry, Pronger and Niedermayer, Keith and Seabrook. Then there are others that might be rekindled. Crosby, Bergeron and Perry excelled together at the World Juniors in 2005. Nash, Getzlaf and Heatley were unstoppable at the World Championships. It's a group capable of hitting the ground running.

In the end, what Yzerman has given Mike Babcock are options. With this team, he has redundancies for any possible scenario. So now the onus is on the coach to put the pieces of the puzzle together. He'll have fun.

Of course, there's going to be plenty of discussion about those who didn't make the cut -- guys like Mike Green, Jay Bouwmeester and Vincent Lecavalier. As Yzerman noted, there were going to be some good players left off the team no matter who was taken, but there were good reasons for each name crossed off the list. For the defenders, it came down to reliability. Green, Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr, Dion Phaneuf, they bring a lot to the rink, but each has displayed a troubling tendency to make an unforced error. Up front, it was a question of versatility. Players like Bergeron and Richards earned invites because they could do more comfortably.

Tough for those players left off, but it's possible one or more may yet get the call. Injuries culled Paul Kariya (1998) and Niedermayer (2006) from previous rosters, so late cuts like Stephane Robidas, Mike Fisher, Ryan Smyth and Carter could still earn a spot.

For now, though, this is Steve Yzerman's team. He owes no apologies.

Well, except maybe to my son.

In a perfect world -- at least, Canada's view of a perfect world -- Olympic hockey would be set up like the bobsled competition to allow countries to qualify multiple teams. Yzerman announced Canada 1 today. Given the chance, here's how a Canada 2 might have been constructed:

FORWARDS Mike Cammalleri Jeff Carter Shane Doan Mike Fisher Nathan Horton Vincent Lecavalier Dustin Penner Brad Richards Marc Savard Patrick Sharp Jordan Staal Steve Stamkos Martin St. Louis Ryan Smyth

DEFENSE Jay Bouwmeester Francois Beauchemin Mike Green Tyler Myers Robyn Regehr Stephane Robidas Marc Staal

GOALTENDERS J-S Giguere Chris Osgood Cam Ward

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