Johnston: Yzerman not building an all-star team

Steve Yzerman will lead Team Canada into the Sochi 2014 Olympics like he did en route to a gold medal in 2010. (CP/Nathan Denette)

The objective for Steve Yzerman and his Team Canada management group remains exactly the same as it was a few years ago in Vancouver.

But the road to get there will be significantly different.

You need only look at the 47-man orientation camp roster released Monday afternoon to get a sense of that. A number of veterans from the last Olympic experience failed to even garner a camp invite — Jarome Iginla, Martin Brodeur, Patrick Marleau, Brenden Morrow, Dany Heatley — and while it wasn’t a surprise in every case, it was a clear sign that Yzerman won’t be resting on nostalgia.

It should even serve notice to the 15 gold medallists that were asked to attend the sessions in Calgary next month.

Nothing is guaranteed. Far from it.

The truth of the matter is that Yzerman will be building a different team for Sochi and it goes beyond a few new faces here and there. With the tournament being held on the larger international ice surface — something that has not been kind to Canadian national teams in recent years — the executive director is placing a heavy premium on speed and skill.

“Ultimately, we’re going to simply pick the best players available to us,” Yzerman explained. “Playing with a bigger ice surface, I believe there is a priority and an importance in being able to get around the ice, to skate. That weighed into our decision (for camp invites) and will weigh into our final decisions on putting this team together.

“There will be more of a premium placed on skating.”

With Team Canada having won the gold medal at two of the last three Olympic Games, it’s easy for the average hockey fan to overlook what happened in the third one.

Well Yzerman is no casual fan and he certainly hasn’t forgotten.

Canada never really got off the ground at the Turin Games in 2006. The roster was littered with big players who had limited opportunity to make use of their size on the larger ice surface and didn’t create much offence. A forgettable tournament ended in disappointment with a 2-0 loss to Russia in the quarterfinals.

Prior to Vancouver, Yzerman went back and studied those games and he plans to apply the lessons learned when assembling the squad that heads to Russia in February.

“I just felt that (the Turin) team needed more speed, both on the back end and up front,” he said. “We’ll have a more mobile group this year.”

One of the added benefits Yzerman will enjoy this time around is a 25-man roster — up from 23 in 2010. The final group is expected to consist of 14 forwards, eight defencemen and three goaltenders, which should allow for plenty of depth and give head coach Mike Babcock some flexibility to mix and match his pairings if things aren’t going well.

Like Yzerman, Babcock is back for a chance at his second straight gold and already has a strong idea of what he’s looking for from this team.

“We expect players to be 200-footers — they have to play with and without the puck,” Babcock said.

“It comes back to playing for Canada,” he added. “It’s not going to be about any of the individuals; it’s going to be about Canada and it’s going to be about executing our plan. So they have to find their game within our game.”

The message already seems to be out.

All but one of the orientation camp invites — Stanley Cup-winning goalie Corey Crawford — has previously represented Canada in an international event. Thirty-eight of them have participated in the Olympics or IIHF World Hockey Championship.

According to speedy centre Matt Duchene, who at age 22 has already participated in three world championships and a Spengler Cup, the veterans of past senior international tournaments will arrive at the orientation camp already knowing what is expected of them.

There will be no mystery about what it takes to get the call to Sochi.

“The biggest thing is that you’ve got to bring your game to the highest level you possibly can to start the season and show that you can play a two-way game,” Duchene said Monday night on Prime Time Sports. “That’s the way Hockey Canada goes. It’s not one-way selfish hockey; it’s got to be a complete game.”

There has already been plenty of healthy debate among Yzerman and his management team, which consists of Ken Holland, Kevin Lowe, Doug Armstrong and Peter Chiarelli.

They got together during the recent NHL draft to hammer out the final list of invites to the summer camp. With all of the talent available to them, that wasn’t even an easy task.

With so much discussion already about the need for speed, it’s logical to conclude that this will be a young Canadian team.

However, the other important lesson from Turin was the need for veteran leadership. Yzerman was near the end of his playing career in 2006 and missed the tournament in Italy with an injury. Mario Lemieux and Scott Niedermayer did as well — leaving a gaping hole that was never completely filled.

You can be sure that will play into some of the Sochi decision-making as well.

“You can debate whether you want the young legs or you want the veteran experience,” Yzerman said. “Generally I’ve found over the course of my time — whether it’s Stanley Cup playoffs or international events — in these big games a lot of those veteran guys are the guys you rely on.

“When you look back to Vancouver, when it came time for the guys to step up, those (Chris) Prongers and Niedermayers really were important.”

So it won’t entirely be an “out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new” philosophy.

However, Yzerman did speak of targeting players to fill specific roles, which creates the distinct possibility that there could be a few surprise selections. The team won’t simply mirror a list of the NHL’s top Canadian-born scorers come December.

“We’re not putting together a team for a NHL all-star game,” Yzerman said. “We’re putting together the best possible team we can to compete against the best players in the world and try and win a gold medal.”

The journey begins anew.

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