SOCHI, Russia – For months, the discussion centred around Steve Yzerman and who he was going to invite to the best hockey tournament in the world. But a little more than a week out from the gold-medal game at the Sochi Olympics, it is Mike Babcock who has the toughest choices of them all.
What was clear during Friday’s 6-0 victory against the over-matched Austrians is that the head coach of Team Canada still hasn’t found exactly what he’s looking for from this lineup. He is both spoiled for choice and burdened by the second-guessing that those choices bring on.
And really, it can be no other way.
Babcock has surely realized that eventually – likely by the end of Sunday’s game against Finland – he is going to have to settle on the lines that either deliver on the country’s golden expectations or fall short. He went through this in Vancouver as well, but the process has been complicated this time around.
With rosters being expanded from 23 to 25 players because this event is being played so far from North America, Babcock has to scratch two skaters every night. That’s an awfully tough thing to do at this point in time.
“It’s way harder,” said Babcock. “It’s ridiculous actually.”
We saw why that was the case during the romp over Austria. Jeff Carter had been bumped off Sidney Crosby’s right wing and was being sent to the penalty box on the first shift of the second period. He was Team Canada’s 13th forward at that moment in time and the leading candidate to sit out when Patrick Sharp returns.
Everything changed in 10 seconds. Not only did Carter score right out of the penalty box – thanks to a nice pass from Crosby – he finished off a natural hat trick soon after. There’s no way he’s sitting now.
“I didn’t really have to shoot many of them,” said Carter. “Or any of them.”
So there is the crux of the problem for Team Canada: All of these players are fantastic and they are playing fairly well. You can go from Crosby’s winger to the 13th forward to a guy scoring a hat trick in 24 hours.
This is why it is hard for a collection of NHL stars to instantly be transformed into a red and white (or black) machine in best-on-best competition. Babcock is essentially going to have make a call and stick with it and it’s not going to be fair.
To the coach’s credit, he’s tried to involve everyone here. He gave seventh defencemen P.K. Subban a spot on the power play against Austria, but there was only one on Friday night. And now we might not see Subban on the ice again for the rest of the tournament.
Even the impact of the defenceman’s inclusion in the lineup was unexpected. Sharp, who had played well in the 3-1 win over Norway on Thursday, basically had to sit because the coaching staff wanted to give Subban a good look on special teams.
“You tell an athlete who competed hard and did things right that he’s not playing,” Babcock said of Sharp. “That’s no fun. If you’re him for example, you’re a high, high-end player. I grab him when he’s walking in today to tell him that he’s not playing and he doesn’t ask me why. It’s good he doesn’t ask me why because I’ve got no reason why.
“That’s not something I look forward to at all. These are good men, good people that are giving their time to represent Canada. It’s got to be hard on them.”
It’s hard on the coaching staff as well. And do you know what another issue is? Crosby and Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Chris Kunitz haven’t exactly lit the world on fire. Same for Anaheim Ducks teammates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry – both of whom have played well, but not necessarily together on Team Canada.
When you’re trying to work with pairs, it gets complicated. Especially if those pairs don’t produce immediate results. With a day or two to think things over, you’d have to think the biggest issue facing Babcock is whether he breaks up Crosby and Kunitz against Finland.
“That’s the challenge right now in this tournament is finding the right combinations,” said Canadian winger Matt Duchene. “I think when you win 6-0, don’t give up too much and hem teams in their end like we did tonight, it’s a positive thing.
“We’ll see how it goes from here on out but each guy is leaving it all out there trying to stay in the lineup.”
That is where we’re at right now – Canada is playing well and NHL stars are fight for a place in the lineup. It is both insane and awesome. Sharp and Dan Hamhuis are coming back into the lineup against the Finns on Sunday and two others have to come out.
Now it’s up to Babcock to make the right choices. It will be the difference between success or failure.