Canada can’t get complacent

New tests loom for golden Olympic nation

08.04.2014
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Despite its depth, Canada has not won World Championship gold since 2007, and hasn't medaled since 2009. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

If you relied solely on North American media reports, you might think the Canadian men’s gold medal in Sochi has ended the need for international competition. Sports Illustrated called the 25-man all-star team under GM Steve Yzerman “the greatest Olympic squad ever assembled.”

The tone in The Hockey News was even more buoyant. In its “Champions” Olympic commemorative issue, editor Jason Kay said: “For now, hockey remains Canada’s game.” Writer Ken Campbell said: “Canada won games and played as perfectly as you’re going to see.” And a closing editorial opined: “This is the most dominant team Canada has ever produced in the modern era in any tournament at any level.”

Is Canada really that far ahead of its rivals now? Or have back-to-back Olympic gold medals induced a little too much euphoria?

First, let’s be clear: Canada’s Sochi victory was well-deserved. The Canadians never lost a game or even trailed in the 12-day tournament. No other nation objectively merited gold more.

Starting netminder Carey Price exuded cool professionalism en route to a 0.71 GAA, 97.1 save percentage and Best Goalie Honours.

Head coach Mike Babcock and his staff masterminded a stifling, puck possession-based approach that gave opponents little time and space to counter.

Even second-guessed roster selections like Chris Kunitz and Jeff Carter made valuable contributions, and NHL trophy winners like P.K. Subban and Martin St. Louis accepted secondary roles uncomplainingly. And the defence may indeed wind up being viewed as the greatest Olympic blue line corps ever, as Canada allowed just three goals.

Still, Canadian fans should avoid unthinking triumphalism. Why? Because Sochi could have turned out very differently, and there’s more work ahead if Canada’s future is to remain golden.

Here are five key reasons why Canada can’t get complacent.

1. Low scoring left Canada no margin for error in Sochi

This is the biggest caveat.

After the tournament, Babcock put an upbeat spin on the fact that his Sochi squad became the lowest-scoring team ever to win Olympic gold. He told CBC: “One of the things that turned out to be a positive was that we had trouble scoring. It was our adversity that we needed to overcome, just like the loss to the United States [in the final game of the preliminary round] was our adversity in Vancouver. This time, it was not scoring easily and it made our guys dig in.”

All of this may be true. But winning three games by just one goal – 2-1 over Finland to end the round-robin, 2-1 over Latvia in the quarter-final, and 1-0 over the U.S. in the semi-final – left Canada vulnerable to what you might call a “Tommy Salo scenario.”

At the 2002 Olympics, the Swedish goalie surrendered the 4-3 winning goal against underdog Belarus on a mid-ice slapper by defenceman Vladimir Kopat. Unbeaten till then, the powerhouse Swedes went home empty-handed, despite outshooting Belarus 47-19.

A similar fate could have befallen Canada in any of the aforementioned 2014 games. Strange things happen in a short tournament.

In Sochi, Canada proved it can win on the big ice. But its scoring outside North America remained as anemic as it’s been since full NHL participation in the Winter Games began in Nagano. Canada scored 17 goals in six games in 2014 (2.83 GPG), compared to 15 goals in six games in Turin 2006 (2.5 GPG), and 19 goals in six games in Nagano 1998 (3.16 GPG).

In contrast, Canada had 22 goals in six games in Salt Lake City 2002 (3.66 GPG), and 35 goals in seven games in Vancouver 2010 (5.00 GPG), the only “NHL Olympics” on NHL-sized ice.

Even when you concede that Sochi was a remarkably defensive Olympics overall, Canada was still outgunned by the third-place Finns (24 goals) and fourth-place Americans (20 goals).

According to one estimate, the Canadians outchanced their opponents 152-52 in the tournament.

But would anyone in Canada have cared about a statistic like that if, say, Shea Weber hadn't scored the winner against Latvia’s Kristers Gudlevskis with 6:54 left, and Lauris Darzins had gotten loose to tally his second of the night on Price? Or if Canada had allowed an own goal? (It happens. Ask Olympic teammates Roberto Luongo and Dan Hamhuis.)

Heading into Canada-Latvia, 11 Canadian forwards had zero goals. Talk about playing with fire.

Remember, Canada outshot Switzerland 49-16 in Turin 2006 (24-1 in the third period alone), but still lost 2-0. Nobody cut Pat Quinn’s team any slack for that result, which derailed Canada and put it on course for a seventh-place finish.

(Or, to put another slant on it, nobody praised Alexander Semin’s ability to put pucks on net when the Russian winger scored zero goals on 44 shots for Washington against the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 NHL playoffs.)

Coaches like to focus on the process, but ultimately, it’s about results. Canada got the right result in the end. Yet its lack of scoring could have turned Sochi into another Nagano or Turin. That needs to be addressed, with the next two Olympics taking place outside North America.

2. Steve Yzerman and Bob Nicholson are out

Leadership matters, and Yzerman and Nicholson brought it in spades.

However, the three-time Stanley Cup champion with Detroit and current Tampa Bay GM announced shortly after February’s gold medal victory that he wouldn’t lead Canada into PyeongChang 2018 as the Olympic team’s general manager. Nicholson, an IIHF Vice President, will relinquish his duties as Hockey Canada’s president and CEO on June 1.

So where does Hockey Canada go from here?

Yzerman earned gold at two Olympics (2010, 2014) as a GM, and added World Championship gold (2007) and silver (2008). Nicholson has headed up the organization since 1998, but he was also a senior vice-president with the Canadian Hockey Association – Hockey Canada’s previous incarnation – from 1992 to 1998. In other words, the 60-year-old British Columbia native has been in charge for every major Canadian hockey victory in the post-Cold War era.

It’s hard to replace the smart, progressive, winning mentality both men brought. It’s possible, but there’s no room for riding on past glories.

3. Canada has big gaps in its World Championship resume

The Canadians haven’t won Worlds gold since 2007 and haven’t medaled since 2009’s silver. Every other top nation – Russia, Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, U.S., and the Czech Republic – has won at least one medal from 2010 onward. Should that be acceptable to Canada?

The oft-repeated canard that “all of Canada’s best players are in the NHL playoffs” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For instance, seven members of the 2012 World Championship team that placed fifth in Helsinki would also suit up in Sochi: Duncan Keith, Jay Bouwmeester, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares, Jamie Benn, and Patrick Sharp.

And if Canada could indeed ice two or three teams that could win Olympic gold, there should certainly be enough players available to win a World Championship. Four straight quarter-final exits at the Worlds is why Canada currently sits third in the IIHF World Ranking.

4. Canada’s recent World Junior problems don’t bode well

Look at the core of Yzerman’s 2014 Olympic squad. Thirteen of his players suited up for the World Junior teams that won five straight golds (2005-09): one goalie, four defencemen, and eight forwards. These were also the key players on the Sochi team: Price, Weber, Drew Doughty, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and so on.

Those 13 players had formative, big-stage experience beating the Swedes, Americans, and Russians as U20 stars. Many will still be in their prime when it’s time to go to South Korea.

But increasingly, Canada will have to look to players who settled for World Junior silver (2010, 2011), bronze (2012), and nothing (2013, 2014). Can those newcomers deliver the goods?

5. Canada has never won an Olympic medal on Asian ice

Granted, this has not been due to the stiff calibre of the host teams. But it is still a gap that needs to be rectified.

Canada boycotted IIHF competition from 1970 to 1976 due to a dispute over amateur eligibility requirements. Therefore, it skipped the 1972 Sapporo Olympics. And of course, in Nagano, Canada came fourth.

In the big picture, seeking a third straight Olympic crown in PyeongChang is the right thing to do. Not only for national pride, or because it would give young stars like Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux their first shot at gold.

There is tremendous potential for hockey in the world’s largest continent. So far, we’ve only seen a small glimmer in the prowess of players of Asian descent like Paul Kariya, Richard Park, and Devon Setoguchi. Canada has a great opportunity to grow the game by showcasing its top talent again in 2018 on the world’s biggest stage.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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