Critical time for star players on Team Canada's Sochi Olympics bubble
Outside of a clean bill of health for Steven Stamkos, Team Canada's GM Steve Yzerman got the gift he needed most last week: an extra week to assess players before naming his roster for Sochi.
Yzerman and his staff were already facing the challenge of whittling the deepest talent base in the world down to only 25 players who are ready and able to defend the Olympic gold that Canada won in 2010. But with injuries, slumps and late challenges complicating the situation, moving the deadline from Dec. 31 to Jan. 7 was a godsend.
But the picture is much less clear up front, where there are presumed to be just seven locks -- Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry -- with seven open spots and 16 candidates. The battle to make the blueline corps is even tighter.
Here's a look at who's on the bubble and what their chances look like as the deadline approaches:
Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars
He's become a press darling during the last few weeks, with his summer camp snub and terrific early numbers (7 goals, 26 points, +7 in 29 games) driving the narrative. But do his numbers say more about him or his chemistry with the dynamic Tyler Seguin? And what about his tendency to try to do too much, which leads to turnovers in the neutral zone? And while his feet may be hot, his hands are ice cold. Over the past 10 games, he's taken 42 shots … and has zero goals to show for them. Unless they're blanket covering him on the road, the absence of Canadian scouts at the American Airlines Center speaks volumes about his chances.
Jeff Carter, Los Angeles Kings
He spent nearly a month on IR and hasn't done much since his return, scoring twice in seven games. His body of work will keep him in the mix, but he has to finish December strong to knock someone else off the list.
Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks
A bubble player only by virtue of his relative inexperience. His gritty, 200-foot performance in last spring's playoffs, and his consistent efforts this season, all but guarantee him a spot.
Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche
A month ago, he looked like a lock, all blazing wheels and a GPS set for the crease. He's been a shell of that player since coming back from a mid-November oblique injury, totaling just one assist in seven games. He may have returned too soon in an effort to keep himself in the mix. These next couple of weeks will be critical.
Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
A lock heading into the season despite his freak golfing injury, he may have lost his job with a brutal opening stretch that saw him go 15 games without a goal. He's back to scoring at a point-per-game pace, but he needs to be better than the occasional assist. He needs to be special, really special, during the next three weeks to convince Canada's staff that he can be a difference maker.
Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers
His size, speed and willingness to drive the net are appealing, but he has looked … distracted, for lack of a better word, at times this season. Fair or not, he's gained a rep for having mental lapses on the defensive side of the puck. That'll be hard for him to overcome.
Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins
Kunitz is perhaps the most intriguing player in the bunch because he's essentially attached at the hip to Sidney Crosby. If he makes it, it will be to play on the first line because we know what he can do with Sid … and we know how much trouble Canada's coach Mike Babcock had finding players to fit with Crosby in Vancouver. But is that chemistry enough to reward Kunitz with a spot on the team's most important line? He's been heavily, almost obsessively, scouted by Canadian staffers this season, and that attention makes me think they just aren't fully sold just yet.
Milan Lucic, Boston Bruins
He had a terrific playoff run for Boston last spring, and would provide Canada with an impact presence on the boards and down low. But his north-south game is better suited for NHL rinks than it is for the big ice, and his lack of international experience has to be considered a strike against him.
Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks
He's a natural left wing with loads of international experience, quick feet and a rep for being a consistent point producer. He seems to fit the profile that Team Canada wants.
Has he been great this season? No, and there are lingering concussion concerns to deal with as well. But he is a proven international player and when his feet are moving, he's a bear to handle. His reputation could carry the day.
James Neal, Pittsburgh Penguins
One league source, who is not affiliated with Canada's program, put it this way: "He's a real talent, but can they take the risk of him going mental in a medal game? You need to be able to control your emotions and I'm not sure they can trust him to do that."
Mike Richards, Los Angeles Kings
A fierce competitor and a proven veteran, it's easy to project him on the fourth line/penalty kill, but his lack of finishing touch makes him a hard sell, especially when someone like the next guy is competing for the same spot.
Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks
His versatility is thrilling. He can play the top line, like he does with the Hawks, or slide easily into a bottom six role. He can man the point on the power play and work the penalty kill. And he's a truly dangerous offensive player, as he proved in Dallas on Tuesday night with a couple of nice finishes. He also has chemistry with Jonathan Toews (a lock), which could help his chances.
Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes
He hasn't been nearly as effective as he was during the lockout-shortened season, but his production has picked up of late. His size, experience and unflagging willingness to represent his country puts him with Couture in that near-lock category.
Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning
Both Yzerman and Babcock have stressed their preference for players who have an appreciable body of work, which would seem to weigh in the favor of St. Louis, as would his demonstrated chemistry with Steven Stamkos. He's scoring at a point-per-game pace, his wheels look as good as ever, and he'll play anywhere you ask him.
Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks
The big veteran is having another solid year in San Jose and his experience on the Olympic stage would be valuable, but there are just too many high-end choices ahead of him this time around. If injuries become a factor, though, he'll be in the mix.
There are fewer spots up for grabs on a blueline that sets up as the best in the tournament. The locks: Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and Alex Pietrangelo. The final spots will come down to four of these players:
Jay Bouwmeester, St. Louis Blues
The smooth-skating vet has stepped up his game with the Blues. He won't dazzle anyone, but his grace under pressure, chemistry with Pietrangelo and left-handed shot make him a near-lock.
Dan Boyle, San Jose Sharks
Another steady defender who can provide a veteran presence and chip in at both ends of the ice. He'd likely be used in a limited role as the eighth defender, but he has the personality to assume it graciously.
Dan Hamhuis, Vancouver Canucks
He hasn't done enough to force his way onto the roster, but if injuries become a factor, you know you can slot him in and rely on a relatively safe game.
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins
Suffering through a down year, he's all but played himself out of consideration.
Marc Methot, Ottawa Senators
There's no buzz around this guy at all, but he's performed well on the big ice in the past, and his workmanlike steadiness is appealing. Plus he's a lefty, something Canada could use on the back end.
Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks
He has experience and chemistry with Keith, so no one would be surprised if he earns a spot … but he hasn't elevated his game to a level that would make him really difficult to cut, either.
P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens
He's only in this part of the list as a nod to the controversy over his selection. Yes, his coverage breaks down occasionally. Yes, his discipline wavers. Yes, he'll turn the puck over. But he has a skill for driving the play forward in a way that few others can match, and there's simply no way to come up with a list of eight Canadian defensemen who are better than him.