51 candidates making a case for Team Canada

Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo joins HC at Noon to discuss his chances of representing Canada at the World Cup and asks the panel about his chances.

In less than one month, Canada will announce its first group of players for September’s World Cup of Hockey.

General manager Doug Armstrong once said that would be relatively easy to do. Wonder if he feels the same today?

Not that a half-season should cause Armstrong and his Team Canada staff to ignore the larger body of work. But when you see Braden Holtby turn into a star this season and watch Ryan Getzlaf become somebody who isn’t playing much like Ryan Getzlaf, it surely gets the wheels turning.

On Mar. 1, Armstrong will name the first 16 selections. Go ahead, make up your list. It’s not as easy as it seems.

But it will be the rest of the 23-member roster than will be a real brain buster, largely because there’s a big group of players who weren’t part of the Sochi Olympic effort in 2014 who are pushing hard to be World Cuppers next year.

Ryan O’Reilly, the splendid Buffalo Sabres centre, would be one of them. Not only is O’Reilly having a terrific season with the struggling young Sabres, but he started the world championships last spring as a fourth liner and ended up on the No. 1 unit as a left-winger alongside Claude Giroux and Tyler Seguin as Canada won gold.

That kind of versatility and talent won’t go unnoticed by Team Canada, and Hockey Canada has a tradition of using the worlds to evaluate talent for bigger events.

“Oh gosh, if I ever got a chance to be part of something like that, wow, there’s nothing better than playing for Canada,” said O’Reilly, who has answered the call for three world championship tournaments.

“I can only focus on my game. I feel I can play with anyone in this league and compete with anyone in this league and be successful. I would love to make it. But the only way to make it is to prove yourself every game.”

O’Reilly isn’t the only young Canadian with World Cup dreams.

Seguin, Steven Stamkos, T.J. Brodie, Mike Hoffman, Jake Muzzin and Brendan Gallagher are among those who will be making Armstrong’s job difficult.

After Wednesday’s slew of intriguing moves, meanwhile, we’ll see if a young player like Ryan Johansen can turn up his game in Nashville and make Team Canada take notice.

Lest we forget, there’s also a lot of proud 2014 Canadian Olympians who have no intention of giving up their spots on this elite squad.

We’ve compiled a “short” list of 51 goalies, defencemen and forwards likely to be in serious consideration for Team Canada.

LOCKS (8):
G: Carey Price; D: Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber; F: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Jamie Benn, Patrice Bergeron.

Not much room for debate here except for, bizarrely, Crosby, arguably the biggest name in the sport right now. There’s a host of competitive and commercial reasons why a marquee player like him has to be part of this NHL/NHLPA event, but he’s also getting his game going. If he’s not in the first 16, as one NHL executive said, he’s not on the team. The rest are slam dunks. Benn may be the best player in the world right now.

G: None; D: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, P.K. Subban; F: Matt Duchene, Corey Perry, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Seguin, Rick Nash, Jeff Carter.

Seguin is the only player in this group who wasn’t named to the Canadian Olympic team that won gold in Sochi. Stamkos, of course, was named, but was injured and ultimately replaced by the now-retired Martin St. Louis.

Nash probably could be in the “Lock” category because he’s been there so many times, but he’s not the star he once was. Perry could be as well, but for much of this season he’s struggled. But it would be a stunner if he wasn’t part of the World Cup squad.

G: Mike Smith, Roberto Luongo. D: Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester. F: Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Marleau, Chris Kunitz.

All nine of these players were on the Sochi team. The most surprising name in this group would be Tavares, but like Crosby, he seems to be getting on a roll now. Getzlaf is in the middle of an awful season, but he was a dominant part of the last two Olympic teams.

It seems almost unfair to include Luongo and Sharp because both are having very strong seasons, but youth must be served. It won’t be easy for either to make it.

St. Louis isn’t playing five-on-five as well this season as last, but both Blues defencemen will be hard to leave off Team Canada ’16.

G: Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford, Jake Allen. D: Tyson Barrie, T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano. F: Taylor Hall, Mike Hoffman, Ryan O’Reilly, Brendan Gallagher.

Holtby’s almost a shoo-in, but there’s a ways to go yet. The two Calgary defencemen will get serious consideration, and Barrie flies a bit under the radar. But it’s those four forwards - Hall, Hoffman, O’Reilly and Gallagher - who could represent the youth movement on this club, along with Seguin. The only people who seem to really understand how good Hoffman is are those who play against him.

G: Marc-Andre Fleury, Devan Dubnyk; D: Jake Muzzin, Brent Burns, Brent Seabrook, Kris Letang, Travis Hamonic, Tyler Myers. F: Claude Giroux, Jeff Skinner, Tyler Toffoli, Brad Marchand, Ryan Johansen, Mark Stone, Bryan Little, Nazem Kadri.

This might be the most fascinating group. Few would be on anyone’s final roster at this point. Letang and Giroux might not be having strong enough seasons to make their case for them. But Toffoli, Muzzin, Stone and Burns are such important players on their teams they demand consideration. Seabrook has three rings. And Marchand? There’s all that skill and grit, but an unpredictability as well. He’d have to have a spotless record for the rest of the season to make this club.