MANNHEIM – There are so many aspects of this Team Canada worth watching that one hardly knows where to begin. For starters, the Olympic champions are trying to duplicate Sweden’s feat of winning the double (Olympic/World Championship) in the same year, as Tre Kronor did in 2006.
Second, this is Mark Messier’s first job as general manager, a position he has made clear he would love in the NHL. How will he do?
Third, the team has so many great young players it will be fascinating to see if their skill can outdo their inexperience on such a stage.
Fourth, there are many hockey fans, who would love to see this young and fast lineup play the favoured Russians in a third straight gold-medal game.
And lastly, can Jordan Eberele, who has single-handedly scored three of the most dramatic goals in U20 history, sneak into the lineup for an early peak at what his senior career might offer?
Even a few years ago no one could dispute the fact that Canada had a plethora of the world’s best goalies. Now, as both the Vancouver Olympics and World Championships show, the blue ice is where Canada has a decided weakness. Yes, this is a tournament that comes at the end of a long, Olympic year, and, yes, there are more than the usual number of players declining to play. But Canada has always been known for incredible depth at every position, and here is the team with Chad Johnson and Chris Mason as the best in the country. No disrespect to these two, but they have not won a whole lot of championships between them. This is the only weakness in an otherwise impressive lineup.
Anchoring the blueline are several of the NHL’s best young defencemen, starting with Tyler Myers, the 6’7” giant who is a Calder Trophy nominee after his outstanding rookie season in Buffalo. Joining him are Michael del Zotto, a 19-year-old who was so impressive at training camp with the Rangers last September that the teenager made the team and was also mentioned in Calder voting right til the end of the season. His teammate, Marc Staal, is the youngest of the three NHL Staals, while Brent Burns was named Best Defenceman at the 2008 World Championship. François Beauchemin, Kyle Cumiskey, Marc Giordano, and Kris Russell round out the corps.
The forwards can be clearly divided into groups. First, there are the leaders. Ryan Smyth, who played in three Olympics and seven World Championships between 1999 and 2006, is back with Team Canada and of course has been named captain. Corey Perry, the only member of Canada’s Olympic gold team from Vancouver, is the other experienced player. He has also won the Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007, so if Canada wins gold in Germany, he will be the next member of the Triple Gold Club. Then there is the incredible Steve Stamkos, who just finished his second NHL season by leading the league in goals with 51 and winning the Rocket Richard Trophy (along with Sidney Crosby). Matt Duchene, another Calder Trophy finalist, is also here, and last year’s first overall draft choice, John Tavares, is also in the lineup. Steve Downie, an NHL “bad boy” since coming to the league, matured alongside Stamkos in Tampa Bay and had 22 goals with the Lightning in his break-out season. And what about Eberle? He scored the tying goal at the 2009 U20 in the dying seconds to help Canada to gold, and this past year he scored not one but two goals in the final two minutes to tie the gold game with the United States 5-5. His entrance into the top level of hockey is highly anticipated. Will he play in Germany?
Craig MacTavish is taking on the head coaching position for Canada for the first time at a top-level event. He coached Canada’s Spengler Cup team this past Christmas and has been an assistant at two previous World Championships (in 2005 and ’08). He also coached the Edmonton Oilers for eight years before jumping into the analyst’s chair with TSN this past season. He has plenty of experience as player and coach, so as usual with a Canadian team it will be his job to come up with a simple game plan and get the players to execute it.
This team can skate at full speed and make plays on the fly. It has youth and skill, energy and emotion. But does it have goaltending? Anything short of a medal would be a disappointment and surprise, but the real test will come in an elimination game against the other big boys – Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic. Think medal. Colour to be determined.