Team Canada candidates: Six players off to a fast start

Former NHL goalie Martin Brodeur joined the Jeff Blair Show to discuss the process of choosing an Olympic team without diving into the NHL pool and even without the NHL taking part, that Canada will still get behind the Olympic team.

For the first time since 1994, Team Canada will send a team of non-NHLers to the Olympics — barring some shocking late agreement with the IOC that the NHL insists is not coming. The biggest difference between picking the 2018 team to the ones prior to NHL involvement is that Canada no longer has a full-time national program to prepare for the event.

Instead of playing together year-round, this Olympic team will come together relatively late, but Canada GM Sean Burke is making sure there’s enough prep time ahead of the February Games, saying this week that he aims to have most of the roster selected by November.

Where will those players come from? Canada has already played in two August tournaments, the Sochi Hockey Open and the Nikolai Puchkov Tournament, represented by a total of 42 skaters and three goalies across the two events. Each of these players is either playing in Europe this season, or doesn’t have a contract with a team yet. None of them, of course, have an NHL deal.

Burke said this week that we should expect the bulk of the 2018 Canadian Olympic roster to be made up from this collection of players. He intends to have most of those players selected in time for November’s Karjala Cup in Finland, the next major tournament on the team’s schedule. Some roster changes could be made after that, but we should have a pretty good idea of what the Olympic make-up will be.

There are still evaluations to be done, but we can look at some of the top performances from the two August tournaments and other notable events to determine which players may have an inside track on an Olympic roster spot already. Here are some of the best early performers:

FORWARDS

Mason Raymond
While he opened eyes at the Sochi Hockey Open, Raymond’s bid for a spot on the Olympic roster really began last December at the Spengler Cup. He was picked by Burke to represent Canada at that event as well and finished the annual December Swiss tournament second in scoring with seven points in five games, behind only teammate Andrew Ebbett (more on him later).

In August’s tournament in Russia, Raymond again played a lead role with two goals and three points in three contests — both of those goals coming in the bronze medal game win. In case you haven’t seen it yet, Raymond turned heads with his highlight-reel lacrosse-style goal.

Burke and Canada head coach Willie Desjardins both spoke about the surprising speed at which the two tournaments were played for a late-summer event, and that skill in particular is a strength of Raymond’s. On the big international ice, defence and positioning are imperative, but given the game’s overall turn towards emphasizing quickness in the past few years, Raymond is an intriguing option for that reason alone.

Raymond played just four pointless games for Anaheim in the NHL last season before being waived, and he’s just three years removed from a 19-goal, 45-point season in Toronto. Injuries have slowed Raymond’s career, but the 31-year-old still has some offensive pop and would be one of the better skaters on the team.

Andrew Ebbett
Here’s another player whose bid for an Olympic spot really started last December, when he led Canada’s Spengler Cup team in scoring.

Ebbett scored two points, both assists, in the last two games of the Sochi Hockey Open. When considering Ebbett’s fit on this roster, note the chemistry that could be there with Raymond (and vice-versa). The two not only played together at the Spengler and Sochi Open, but Raymond is joining HC Bern in Switzerland this year where he’ll play alongside Ebbett all season.

For this Canadian Olympic team that will come together fairly quickly as more of an underdog than they’ve been in 20 years, having a couple players who are familiar with each other could be of interest to Burke. Not that he’d go out of his way to put teammates on the Canadian roster, but it sure helps that both Ebbett and Raymond have had strong showings in two recent tournaments.

Brandon Kozun
Also a part of the Sochi Hockey Open team, Kozun logged two assists in the three games. But given his past year in hockey and the group of players Burke is choosing from, Kozun may have to do more to play his way off this team than on it.

The 27-year-old former Maple Leaf found his comfort zone in the KHL last season, finishing ninth in league scoring with 56 points in 59 games and led his Lokomotiv team in offence. Should he pick up that production this season — and the KHL year has already begun — Kozun would be hard to turn down for a spot by November/December. Don’t let his California birthplace trick you, as Kozun is indeed a Canadian on the international stage since representing the nation in the 2010 WJC.

DEFENCE

Maxim Noreau
The captain of Canada’s Spengler Cup team last December, the never-drafted 30-year-old Noreau scored three goals there to lead all blueliners and scored another goal at the Sochi Hockey Open earlier this month. We don’t want to load up too much on one team, but Noreau is another player from Bern in Switzerland.

He scored 18 points in 35 games for Bern a season ago to finish as the highest-scoring Canadian rearguard in the top Swiss league.

Noreau is a right-handed shot, which comes with its own value, and is labeled as an offensive defenceman. It’s been a while, but Noreau did get a taste of the NHL in six games with the Minnesota Wild from 2009 to 2011. He was always a productive player in the AHL, too, finishing with as many as 18 goals in 2009-10, a year in which he earned second team all-star honours. In his last North American season, Noreau notched 12 goals and 45 points in 64 games with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage.

Mat Robinson
Robinson didn’t play at the Spengler Cup, but he was part of Canada’s Deutschland Cup entry last November, which really was the first opportunity players had to showcase their potential selection for an Olympic spot.

At the time of that tournament, NHL participation was still up in the air, but the roster was put together by Burke and coached by Dave King, who will serve as an assistant for Canada at the Olympics. In front of that audience, Robinson scored a point in all three games and went on to have an all-star season in the KHL. King was reportedly impressed by the play of his defencemen in the event, and Robinson led them all in scoring.

Robinson manned the blue line again for Canada at the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov and scored two points in three games. The Calgary native is 31, was never drafted, but has been a consistent producer in Russia’s top league for the past four years.

GOALIE

Ben Scrivens
Canada had three goalies participate in the two August tournaments, Kevin Poulin, Justin Peters and Ben Scrivens. Burke gave positive reviews for all of them, but the feedback on Scrivens stuck out a little above the others.

“All three goalies played very well,” Burke told Andrew Podnieks. “They all played two games. Poulin is not currently on a team, but stepped right in and played against a tough Russian team in Sochi. Early he was nervous and then settled in and performed really well. Justin Peters was very solid and Ben Scrivens, I thought, was outstanding. It’s a long way to February, but as of today I think we have three quality goaltenders. They’re all capable.”

It’s hard to give any one of these goalies an inside edge based on two games, but Scrivens has the most and best NHL experience which, all else being equal, would likely make him a favourite. Scrivens posted a .918 save percentage in the KHL with Dynamo Minsk last season and has joined Salavat Yulayev this season. He’s certainly a player to watch this season for those interested in Canada’s goalie candidates.