In about two and a half months, NHL players are expected to land in China and return to the Olympics for the first time since 2014. It would be the first best-on-best tournament since the 2016 World Cup, but even that included two non-national teams (Europe and under-23 North America), so it might not qualify in the same way for some that the Olympics do in this regard.
Of course, questions remain whether this will happen at all. The COVID-19 situation around the NHL is not trending better, and two teams (Ottawa and the Islanders) have had to postpone games. The league has a deadline of Jan. 10 to pull out of Olympic participation without penalty and that decision may rest entirely on what happens with the virus in the coming weeks.
But as of today they’re going, and so this week we’ll build a Team Canada roster and one for the USA (dropping Friday).
When building a Team Canada, you can’t really go wrong. Whatever choices you make are going to look fantastic on paper. But, boy, is this a difficult exercise every single time. More players are worthy of being on this team than there are spots to fill, so inevitably some people will take exception to any choice.
As one colleague told me: “Your team and my team will be 10 per cent different 90 per cent of the time.”
Take Andrew Mangiapane, for example. He was Team Canada’s World Championship hero last summer and is one away from the league’s 5-on-5 goal-scoring lead and tied for third in overall goals. But finding a way for him to be on this roster proved difficult – not that he wouldn’t be a worthy and understandable choice if he does end up here.
The hardest part, though, came on defence. Depending on your perspective, four or even five of those players could be considered locks, and the final spot or two could go to a wide variety of players.
In net, we still think that if Carey Price returns to game action in time, he’ll be the favourite to backstop Canada again – but with that uncertainty, he’s off this roster for now. In that wake is a lack of clarity as to who the next No. 1 is. How that ultimately shakes out depends entirely on who gets hot here in the next two months or so.
So, yes, take to the comments to debate or tear down these lineup choices – it’s all part of the process. But remember, Team Canada roster builds are like snowflakes: no two will be the same. As long as the rationale is sound and considered, that’s all we can do with this many options.
Without further ado, a look at a Team Canada roster build with lines and pairings:
Love the thought of getting the band back together. This trio meshed quite nicely and was a force at the 2016 World Cup. They’re the vets now and all of them (Marchand 33, Crosby 34, Bergeron 36) perhaps could be looking at their last Olympic shot (though we’ll leave open the possibility a 38-year-old Crosby could return). These three players finished 1-2-3 in Team Canada scoring in that World Cup and will again threaten on offence, but don’t need to be the leaders anymore. They will give you responsible minutes at both ends, though, and could be entrusted in key situations in close games.
This would be your de facto first line and, really, just about anyone could fit with McDavid. The rationale for this trio: First, you want someone who can keep pace with Edmonton’s star, and MacKinnon can certainly do that. Between the two of them, the line has a couple of rush threats – McDavid to dipsy-doodle his way in and MacKinnon to just bull through the opposition. Sometimes it’s helpful to put these lines together by starting with a duo and going from there – and I’d love to see MacKinnon with McDavid in any setup. Stamkos doesn’t need to have the puck as much and would be an intriguing complement as a right shot on the left side, placing him in a great spot to launch one-timers off passes from either of his linemates. The left winger on the next line could be a nice fit here, too …
If it’s possible for Canada to have a sneaky good line, this is it. Point’s rise as an elite forward has been quick and he’s a proven big-game performer, with 28 goals in 46 playoff games the past two seasons. To complement him, you have Huberdeau on the left side and Marner on the right. Since 2018-19, a breakout season for both wingers, Huberdeau and Marner rank seventh and eighth in NHL point totals and are still inside the top 15 in the context of points per game during that time. Marner, too, is a solid defensive presence here and a PK option as well.
Well, here is your “checking” line. The fourth-line centre spot came down to Couturier vs. Ryan O’Reilly, and I sided with the Flyers pivot who won the Selke Trophy in 2020. On his right is Selke finalist Stone, who has to find his way on to this roster and, honestly, could even slot higher in the lineup. Both of those players would be on the PK. Tavares slid to the left side on Canada’s 2016 World Cup team and could do the same here. He’s having a point-per-game start for the Leafs, could play in any situation, and even move in to take a faceoff when needed. It feels like he’d have to play his way off this team, and that’s not happening so far.
Extra: Mark Scheifele
It hasn’t been the strongest start for Scheifele and he’s a true bubble player right now, but I still have a hard time not including him as an extra. He could play up and down the lineup, on the wing or down the middle, and that kind of flexibility is what you’d like to have in an extra.
I mean, this would be a heck of a lot of fun. Makar is going to be a huge part of this defence at both ends of the ice and a PP quarterback. Theodore can play on either side, but is a left shot, and since Canada has so many quality righties, this seems like the right fit. This could be the top PP pair, too.
With Mike Babcock no longer the head coach of this team, there could be more flexibility to break away from a need for a neat L-R split on these pairings. Both Hamilton and Pietrangelo are right shots but deserving of a spot on Team Canada. Pietrangelo could be more of a defensive anchor here, with Hamilton leaning more on the offensive side.
Ekblad was on his way to Norris contention last season until an injury cut his year short, but he’s back leading one of the NHL’s top teams in 2021-22. He is tied with Makar for the most points among Canadian NHL defencemen this season (tied for third overall) and logs a lot of minutes in every situation for the Panthers. As for the other spot – the third left-side defenceman was honestly the hardest call of any of these lineup choices. There are so many quality candidates. Darnell Nurse? He’s a left shot and could play on your PK. Bowen Byram? He’s also a left shot, but is only 20 years old and brings an offensive lean this lineup has in ample supply. Devon Toews and even MacKenzie Weegar are under-the-radar types who fit in theory to improve defence (and Weegar is familiar playing with Ekblad), but are probably long shots given the choices. And don’t sleep on Drew Doughty either – he started the season strong before getting injured, but is back and playing massive minutes for the Kings. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if he plays his way back on. For now, though, Rielly is the left-handed choice and he narrowly got the nod here over Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot.
Extra: Drew Doughty
Experience, ability to complement any of the above defencemen and a player with a clear chip on his shoulder given how many of these rosters he’s been left off, Doughty just feels like a guy who’s going to play his way on.
Starter: Carter Hart
We got into a full goalie breakdown on Team Canada recently and the picture remains more or less the same. It’ll be a tight race for the No. 1 job as long as Carey Price isn’t playing, but Hart – who has excelled at every level – is rebounding nicely from a terrible 2021 season. This could turn on a dime, though, with a few other quality candidates.
Backup: Marc-Andre Fleury
Here is a great example of how quickly this picture can change. Fleury plays behind one of the more leaky defences in Chicago and started this season rather slowly, so he was at the bottom of our Team Canada goalie power rankings just a couple weeks ago. But since then he’s come back in a big way, with a .935 save percentage in November. He just won the Vezina, has a proven track record, and you don’t have to worry about a leaky defence on Team Canada.
Extra: Jordan Binnington
Some folks will want to make Binnington the starter, and that reflects how close all these candidates are. Heck, MacKenzie Blackwood could play his way on here (note that Tristan Jarry, who is also playing better lately, was not on Canada’s initial long list). Binnington just hasn’t stood out enough yet for me. He’s allowed three goals or more in seven of his past 10 games and has the lowest goals saved above average (minus-0.45, per Hockey Reference) among these choices.