VANCOUVER — It may come as scant consolation to fans of the Vancouver Canucks, who have long been conditioned to prepare themselves for his departure.
But chances are pretty good that Roberto Luongo is going be wearing the maple leaf on his chest — maybe on the bench, but in uniform — when the first preliminary-round game of the 2014 Sochi Olympics is played, one year from today.
There, we’ve said it.
Further to Canuck GM Mike Gillis’s trade market stance — that Luongo is an elite goalie and is worth a significant return in any swap — the Vancouver pariah-turned-sentimental-favourite is in almost everyone’s assessment of who ought to be on Canada’s roster for Sochi, and at the moment, he’d be my backup, at worst.
(Well, not mine, naturally. Carey Price’s).
And it’s not even out of the question that the gold-medal netminder from 2010 could be between the pipes before it’s over, age 35 or not. Such is the fickle state of goaltending in Canada: like the weather in Calgary, if you don’t like it, wait five minutes. Or five games. Or a year. Ask Marty Brodeur.
When the Olympic quadrennial hit the halfway mark about the time of the NHL all-star break last year, the TSN panel kicked around its picks for the Sochi roster, two years out. Wednesday night, jumping the gun by a day or two, TSN analyst Ray Ferraro gave us his projections, and once again pundits across the nation joined in the fun.
But in looking back on my own picks from a year ago, it is striking how little has changed on the defence and forward lines. Believe it or not, this isn’t owing to any brilliance or prescience.
Here they were:
Defence — Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook (Chicago), Shea Weber (Nashville), Dan Hamhuis (Vancouver), Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis), Kris Letang (Pittsburgh), Drew Doughty (Los Angeles). First alternate: Tyler Myers (Buffalo).
Forwards — Jonathan Toews (Chicago), Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, James Neal (Pittsburgh), Claude Giroux (Philadelphia), Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay), Logan Couture (San Jose), John Tavares (New York Islanders), Taylor Hall (Edmonton), Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry (Anaheim), Jamie Benn (Dallas), Rick Nash (then Columbus, now NY Rangers). First alternate: Jordan Eberle (Edmonton).
The defence corps, with the exception of Myers, whose sophomore jinx turned out to be more of a career plateau and takes him out of the equation a year later, still projects as the very same first six I’d pick today. Those who say Seabrook is only there as an adjunct to Keith haven’t seen him play enough.
If rosters are expanded to 25, meaning eight defencemen make it, add Philly’s Braydon Coburn and San Jose’s Dan Boyle, who’s a year older but still plenty good.
Up front, where youth was a stated priority a year ago, hardly anyone has played himself into peril of not making it. Other than Eberle moving from alternate into the main group and adding one or two of Marty St. Louis (to play with Stamkos) or Eric Staal or Patrice Bergeron or Patrick Marleau (while dropping who? Nash? Getzlaf? Perry?), the great players have remained great and the promising kids have just gotten better and better. Three changes in the past year, max.
Only in goal have the fluctuations been dramatic.
A year ago, Luongo was on the outs. Martin Brodeur, considered certain to be too old by 2014, would render his best-before-date absurd by ending the season in the Stanley Cup final. Marc-Andre Fleury, the third member of the 2010 goaltending troika, was doing nothing to harm his candidacy for the No. 3 spot again.
Montreal’s Price has his game back on track after a difficult stretch, and is at the top of most lists (he was my No. 2 a year ago), so chances are he’d get the coach’s nod. But I’d have to politely pass on Brodeur and Fleury, both of whom have been plagued by on-again, off-again performances, capable of being amazing one night or awful the next. In a short tournament that becomes a single knockout in a hurry, awful is not an option.
The third spot? Likely Carolina’s Cam Ward, though on the extreme outside of the argument, it’s not impossible that Chicago’s Corey Crawford or even Edmonton’s Devan Dubnyk would get a look — hard to believe, but check what Dubnyk is doing this season (.923 SV%) behind a porous defence, and bear in mind the scarcity of top-flight Canadian ‘keepers.
Phoenix’s Mike Smith: Disqualified on account of that Mohawk-mullet.
And the coaching staff? Mike Babcock is a no-brainer, even if Nashville’s Barry Trotz is in no worse than a dead heat as the best coach out there. He and Ken Hitchcock would be the assistants.
Babcock doesn’t get the tap on the shoulder only because he won in 2010. Pat Quinn’s next Olympic assignment after the gold medal in Salt Lake City was Turin, and that team was a top-to-bottom disaster, less to do with coaching than too many old legs and questionable personnel choices.
(Hitchcock is just Canada’s coaching lucky loonie: he was on both gold-medal staffs, and missed Turin.) But Babcock brings a lot to the table, in addition to his resume: upbeat energy, enthusiasm, attitude and class — kind of the perfect old-school/new-age hybrid who can still talk to the players and lean on them, both.
Only one stipulation, this time: nobody who’s got a lingering injury (Chris Pronger, 2006) or concussion issue (Paul Kariya, 1998) or a speed deficiency, certain to be exposed on the big ice surface, need apply.
As many as 12 changes from the last Olympic team. Old guys, for the most part, out.
Except, perhaps, one in goal.
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