Canada living on edge with Kunitz, Bouwmeester

Photo: Jamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty

If Canada doesn’t win in Sochi, a long discussion will ensue about why. This happens whenever Canada hits a bump in the road, and is pretty tiresome.

First, Canada’s actually been very successful internationally. In the past 30 years, Canada has won the 1984, ’87 and ’91 Canada Cups, the 2004 World Cup and two Olympic gold medals. The only best-on-best events  Canada has lost are the 1996 World Cup, the ’98 Olympics and the 2006 Olympics. Canada’s loss in Nagano could have gone the other way pretty easily. When you step back and take the long view, the moments of national navel gazing along the way seem a little silly.

Second, despite the fact that Canada produces the most hockey talent in the world, we produce far more than you need for an elite team. If you can churn out six elite forwards and two or three elite defencemen over a 15-year window, you’ve got the bones of a team that can win. In short tournaments, anything can happen. There are five or six countries that produce enough talent to win a short tournament.

At any given tournament, two or three of those countries might have a great group of players in the prime of their careers. So it was with the Americans in 1996, with the echo generation from the 1980 Olympics. The same was true in ’98, with the Czechs having a pretty solid group that surrounded Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr, two of the top 10 or 15 players ever. The Swedes in 2006 also had a special group of players—Henrik Lundqvist, Nicklas Lidstrom, Peter Forsberg, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Mats Sundin and Henrik Zetterberg are all Hall of Fame-level players.

If one other country has a bubble of talent, Canada’s advantage in terms of volume of talent is negated. It doesn’t matter if a Team Canada “B” or Team Canada “C” would be much, much stronger than similar teams from around the world. There’s no gain from depth.

There’s a third issue that comes into play as well. Historically, Canada’s also had a tendency towards risk aversion. Other countries haven’t had the depth of talent that permits this. Management of Canadian teams has, from time to time, tended towards a roster of players who were clearly the elite that was then sprinkled with picks that were perceived to be safe, for whatever reason. It used to be that Canada wanted elite checkers, whatever those might be. This time, it’s taking skaters who play with elite NHLers and might look elite themselves, if you don’t look too closely. Two such players stand out: Chris Kunitz and Jay Bouwmeester.

It’s not entirely clear that Hockey Canada’s management group realizes that they’re doing this. CBC aired, for lack of a better word, a documentary entitled Defending Gold on the selection process. There was an interesting exchange about Kunitz.

Ken Holland: “If Kunitz wasn’t with Crosby, how good is he?”

Unseen Speaker: “I just keep going back to last year when Kunitz finished in the top 10 in scoring and Crosby missed a portion of the year.”

Steve Yzerman: “So if, God forbid, Sid got hurt between now and then, like after January 7th…”

Kevin Lowe: “I think he still makes it on his own… looks like he’s making it on his own.”

It’s the comments from the unseen respondent and Kevin Lowe that are most interesting. Chris Kunitz did indeed finish in the top 10 in scoring last season. This was in part because he played all 48 games. Other players—Taylor Hall, for example—finished ahead of him in points per game.

Crosby essentially played 35 regular seasons during the 2013 season—he played 50 seconds of his 36th game. In the 35 games in which Crosby was healthy, Kunitz scored 20 goals and 44 points. In the 13 games in which Crosby was injured, Kunitz scored two goals and eight points. This is not an unusual phenomenon with Sidney Crosby—players tend to see their point totals explode when they play with him. Does a forward who scores at a 50-point pace without Crosby as a linemate make Team Canada on his own?

Usually, if you have a player who manages to finish in the top 10 in scoring despite losing a regular linemate for a quarter of the season, you can feel comfortable that the player is something special on his own. But Crosby is so good that he renders these rules of thumb unsafe.

The other selection that looks like circumstance is Jay Bouwmeester. Hockey people love Bouwmeester.  It’s easy to see why—he is an unbelievable skater and he can play half the game. He looks like a great defenceman. The problem with Bouwmeester is that the results have never been there. He famously didn’t take part in a playoff game until last year, despite being drafted in 2003 and spending the majority of his career in the Southeast Division. It’s unfair to hang any of that on a single player, although it’s unusual to see that with someone who is good enough to play for Team Canada.

The really unusual thing with Bouwmeester is that he hasn’t appeared to make his teams better in terms of Corsi% when he’s on the ice until he joined the St. Louis Blues.

It’s very unusual to see a blueliner with an elite reputation whose team does not do better in terms of Corsi% when he is on the ice than when he isn’t. A great defenceman should keep the puck out of his own end and move it towards the other end, and this should show up in the numbers. In Bouwmeester’s case, it doesn’t show up in his numbers until he moves to St. Louis and starts playing with Alex Pietrangelo—whose career numbers are more in keeping with being a great defenceman; the Blues always get better when he’s on the ice. The Bouwmeester-Pietrangelo pairing has been fantastic though—a 55.1 percent Corsi% together over 875.53 minutes.

So what’s the problem with declaring them a great pairing and moving on? Well, Alex Pietrangelo played 1208.88 minutes with Carlo Colaiacovo before this year. Their Corsi% together? 55.1 percent. Maybe Colaiacovo was great when he played with Pietrangelo and maybe Bouwmeester got a lot better on that flight from Calgary to St. Louis. Or maybe Alex Pietrangelo is a great defenceman and other guys go along for the ride.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking safe picks, guys like Kunitz and Bouwmeester, who you can plop into a spot beside someone like Crosby or Pietrangelo. It is, however, important to recognize that you’re making a tradeoff and that, absent a favourable NHL context, these players probably would not be on the Olympic team. Crosby playing with Hall or Pietrangelo playing with a Pietrangelo-class left-handed shot would almost certainly be better combinations than Crosby-Kunitz and Pietrangelo-Bouwmeester.

It might take time though.  Maybe one period, maybe 40 games. Canada’s so deep that it can win even if Kunitz and Bouwmeester aren’t truly elite players because they’re surrounded by those who are. It does, however, kind of cut at Canada’s advantage of having more world class players than any other country. That’s the trade-off: a team with a lower ceiling for a team with a higher degree of certainty. If Canada doesn’t win gold, the post-Olympic discussion should include the tendency of Canadian management to do this.

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