KOSICE – It’s a familiar dilemma at every World Championship: Do you take advantage of a generous roster size of 25 and add a player, or players, to your team after the tournament has started, or do you go with what you have?
Putting a team together is difficult enough – you go through an initial round of acceptances and rejections and compromises and roster cuts. But you finally get a team picked and the party starts. But, before you know it, teams start to get knocked out of the playoffs in the North American leagues. And the questions start – from fans, the media and, in some cases, your own players.
It’s a delicate dance – one fraught with peril, with toes that could be stamped upon and, possibly, a delicate rhythm that you’re getting into, thrown out of whack, and never recovered.
To date, 23 players have been added after the end of the preliminary round by 13 of the participating teams – the most prominent being Russia’s addition of Alexander Ovechkin. Adding a player of Ovechkin’s calibre isn’t a difficult decision. He ticks the important boxes: He’s well liked by his teammates, he loves to play in the World Championship and he’ll make the team better.
However, most additions aren’t that simple or straightforward and you will find a wide range of opinion when you talk to players, coaches and general managers about whether or not making roster changes at this stage of the tournament is a help or a hindrance. It’s toughest for the big hockey powers that have more players to choose from when NHL playoff series end.
“Every team will look at it differently,” says Team Canada general manager Dave Nonis. “But I think you get to a time where you don’t want to upset what’s been done to date. Unless you have an injury or something drastic, it’s something you have to take a hard look at.”
Canada, Finland and Sweden haven’t made any late additions from the NHL. All three teams content to go with what they have.
Technically, Canada did add Antoine Vermette after the start of the tournament. However, the reality is that he was actually already with the team in Kosice. He was on the team that left Canada a few weeks ago, but had been injured during Canada’s last exhibition game prior to the tournament. Team officials didn’t want to chance taking up a roster spot from the start of play, just in case he didn’t heal completely.
“We asked guys to commit and to come over here,” says Nonis. “We’re comfortable with who we brought. Moving a player out who has made the commitment isn’t the right thing to do.”
USA Hockey national team advisor Brian Burke comes at it from a slightly different tack. He has no problem adding a player, none at all, if the player actually adds something and, secondly, if you’ve been up front with players who could be impacted.
“You absolutely have to be fair with the other guys that you invited on the basis that they might not play,” says Burke. “They have to have been told, with fairness and honesty, in advance. And you also have to make sure that the other guys on the team know that as well.”
For a team like Norway, the situation is slightly different. The vast majority of candidates are playing in European leagues and are finished their season and available. However, even Norway was waiting to see whether Jonas Holøs or Mats Zuccarello would be able to come after playoff commitments in North America finished (Zuccarello had to decline because of a hand injury – Holøs is here).
“We are in the position that we have younger guys with the team who know their position, says Norway general manager Petter Salsten. “They know who we’re waiting for. It’s usually one or two players, and we tell them before what the situation is.”
“If we can get a Zuccarello or a Holøs, I think everyone wants to add that to the team,” continues Salsten. “But it’s a lot of energy and a lot of frustration, putting your team together and waiting to see if they will be available. We feel that, at some point, you have to just stop and use your energy on the team you have.”
There was one team at this year’s tournament that ran into a situation whereby the player who was asked to come wanted to dictate the terms of his role. Where was he going to fit in? Would he be used in certain situations and not in others? In the end, the team decided not to bring the player in. That kind of situation isn’t uncommon.
“If you add a guy, he’d better get off the plane with a great attitude and he’d better perform,” says Burke emphatically. “Otherwise guys will resent that. If it’s a loyal soldier that gets it and some guy brings in a bad attitude, that’s not good.”
In the end, it always comes down to wanting to win. There are always considerations and extenuating circumstances, but it’s about winning. And every general manager has his own strategy for getting there.
“The Russians are adding Ovechkin,” says Burke, “you think anyone on the Russian team is going to object to that? I don’t think so.”