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Goal Tending: Canada's Sochi Weak Link

Martin Brodeur stares down a seemingly magical puck at the 2010 Olympics

Within hours of the NHL's formal announcement that the NHL players would be permitted to play in the Olympic games, the internet ran rampant with predictions and analysis, TSN's Hockey Tonight aired a segment  and all the usual suspects weighed in. As is customary, the predictions run the full gamut and I have read opinion pieces that claim Canada, the USA, Russia, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Finland will win gold. Five of those teams and their supporters will be disappointed, of course and, truthfully, it's anyone's guess who they will be.

I'm not fond of predictions and don't like to make them for larger events. I might be happy to predict that Canada will proceed to the semi-finals, at least, or that Sidney Crosby, John Tavares and Steven Stamkos will all have multi-goal performances in the tournament but the gold Canada eked out from under the Americans in 2010 should tell us all that until the final whistle blows, the thing is not over.

If I were to make a prediction, it would be wish-based. Perhaps not altogether ridiculous, but still wish-based. Would I like to see a Russia - Canada gold medal game? You bet I would. Is that likely? About as likely as any other gold medal pairing, to be frank.

And The Best Team Is ...

We're going to have to wait until February to find out, I am afraid. Until we see the teams on the ice with at least one game under their belts, all we have is paper tigers built on probabilities and statistics. The 2012-2013 Pittsburgh Penguins are giving a clinic in that right now, down the hall. 

It's the intangibles, things like chemistry and in-season injuries, the larger ice surface, waxing and waning performances, experience and enthusiasm that keep the art of prediction from being a science.

If one goes into the analysis with the basic notion that at least five teams (Canada, Russia, USA, Sweden and Finland) have the requisite scoring power, it makes the analysis easier. If we further postulate that each of these hopefuls boasts a roughly equivalent ability to ice elite defenders (although Russia's defense is its weakest link, by far) then the tournament is going to come down to the goal tenders. 

Who has the "better" scorers and who has the "better" defensemen is academic. None of them will be playing on the teams on which the rating is based, none of them will be playing in the same systems, for the same coach, under the same rules or, in most cases, on the same sized ice surface. Assembling a national team for a once-every-four-years event is not like building an NHL team or tweaking a team that plays together all the time. Most of these players are more used to playing against each other than with each other, particularly the Canadians and Americans.

Canada has the Sequins and the Glitter

While there is little doubt that the Canadians can ice a dream team of forwards that is a literal embarrassment of riches; some players who would be a shoe-in for the top line of many other national teams won't even make the cut. Only Russia and the United States have comparable depth on the front end.

The defensive corps are similarly loaded and will boast another list of players not selected who most other teams would take in a flash, no questions asked.

There will be sentimental disappointments; fan favourite Jarome Iginla is likely to be a casualty of his age and declining speed, especially on the larger surface. Marc Staal is dealing with an eye injury that will likely prevent his consideration and Marc Andre Fleury does not track like a candidate, even in the third spot.

And, of course, there will be new faces. P.K Subban and Kris Letang are potential candidates as are John Tavares, Patrick Sharp, Taylor Hall and Logan Couture. While Martin St. Louis is not a new face, he last found a spot on the Olympic team that went to Turin in 2006, it would not surprise me that he is added as the significant veteran presence vacated by Niedermayer's retirement after the last Olympics. 

We could debate until the cows come home who has the better stars, the more shiny baubles, the better statistical advantage with forwards and defensemen, but the race is such a close one and the teams limited to 23 players that the debate is more for fun than effect. The playing field might be slightly tilted, but it is more level than it has been for years.

Behind the Bench and Between the Pipes

In my mind there are two areas in which Olympic teams become make or break. One is coaching and the other is goal tending. Barring injury or meltdown, the coach and the goalie are in for the entire game. They cannot be mixed and matched and adjusted in-game to determine the best combinations. They cannot be asked to go to the other side or the other wing or play more defensively or offensively. They cannot be tweaked once the games have begun. They are the set pieces.

Until the final games, when it does not usually come down to a single player or position, single player performances can make a difference. In the big game, for the gold, the team works as a unit and there are rarely breakout stars, names or numbers you can pinpoint as being make or break to the end result. The guy who scores the winning goal gets the lion's share of the glory, but he will be the first to tell you that it was a team win. Leading up to that, history proves that stunning individual efforts, one-for-the-ages goals and one-for-the-ages saves can, indeed, make the difference and propel teams onward towards that final, ultimate contest.

The final game is more the coach's domain - where sound management of resources in critical scenarios, an ability to adjust to opposition tactics and a winning strategy will prevail over all the superstars in the world. Claude Julien is giving a clinic in that down the other hall. I hope Dan Bylsma is attending for the sake of the American team.

In Canada's case, Mike Babcock is a no-brainer. He's a truly brilliant coach who has nothing to prove. There are no niggly feelings of disquiet surrounding him. He's solid and proven and we don't have to discuss him further other than to say that Canada is lucky to have him. But while Canada's team might well be described as an embarrassment of riches, it could also be called top heavy. Front-end loaded. All bang and no puck-stop.

Where O Where Have All the Goalies Gone

The Canadian goaltending situation has been an ongoing discussion that threatens to become the political equivalent of fisticuffs. From Don Cherry's perspective, it's a proper imbroglio. In short, Canada suffers a lack of homegrown talent between the pipes, from the junior system, once a reliable source of renewable talent, to the big leagues. Canadian bred and trained goalies are a rarer commodity at the elite level than has been historically true and it is seen as the cracked cornerstone of Canada's international performance, primarily at the junior level.  So much so that the fact is bolstering a growing movement to take such drastic steps as eliminating goalies from the annual CHL import draft. Even 17 year old homegrown talent Zachary Fucale who backstopped the Halifax Moosehead to the Memorial Cup and was selected by the Canadiens in the second round of the 2013 draft has done nothing to silence the furor. 

As the 2014 Olympics approach, the discussion has reached a boiling point and is spilling over from the rarefied air of the hockey powers to the mainstream. "Who will play goal?" is the question you hear at the supermarket checkout and from the lady at the dry cleaners. No one wonders who we will dredge up to play offense or defense, no one even wonders who will coach the team.  But everyone wonders who will play goal.

Let's take a look at the prospect class.

Roberto Luongo backstopped the Canadian team to a gold medal in 2010 but his detractors remain convinced that it is better described as "Luongo nearly won us the silver and Crosby pulled his ass out of the fire". At 34 Luongo is not too old although his reflexes may be slightly diminished and his recently posted season save percentage of .907 is good but not outstanding although his career high of .928 is impressive. How much of last year's stats can be attributed to the off-ice issues with the Canucks, the shortened season and sharing the job with Cory Schneider is anyone's guess. There are those who think he's a choker, those who think he's a big game guy and those who just aren't sure. I'm one of the last. I am just not sure about Luongo. 

Corey Crawford just won a President's Trophy and a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks so his ability to perform under pressure is proven. He posted a save percentage of .926 this year, a very impressive number and his career high, but his stats in previous years show a trend of inconsistency that is a little troubling. A lot of people seem to feel that he is not as steady on his feet as he will need to be and, if popular opinion means anything he does have that weak right glove that Boston exploited in the Finals.

Carey Price was the front runner favourite until the Canadiens play off performance and the weeks leading up to it where Price was, to put it kindly, not playing well at all. Whether that was a defensive failure in front of him, just one of those things, or a pressure inspired meltdown, is hard to say. When he's playing well, he's probably better than the rest of the field but being intermittently great is not sufficient and he may be considered unreliable by the powers that be. With a .905 save percentage this year against a career high of .923, Price is likely to be on the team but may not get the start. His legendary performance at the 2007 World Juniors makes him a fan favourite.

Marc Andre Fleury who was the third goalie at the 2010 Games, cannot be considered at all, in my opinion. His annual meltdowns in the playoffs make him too unreliable and his regular season performances and statistics tend to be misleading as he drops drastically in pressure moments. The Olympics are all about the pressure. He has never cracked .920 in the big league and his .916 last season didn't stop him from losing his job to Tomas Vokoun in the first play off series. Stanley Cup win aside, I think he's too unreliable.

Mike Smith backstopped the Coyotes with a .910 (.930 last year) save percentage which puts him in the top tier of candidates. He gave a very good performance at the IIHF World Championships this year including a shutout against Sweden. Notably he posted three playoff game shutouts in 2011-2012. He can deal with the pressure, it seems. He's noted for his ability to puck handle and without the trapezoid rule at the Olympics this would be an advantage.

Cam Ward would have been a contender as his stats prove he's got the talent and the Conn Smythe on his mantle and the Stanley Cup ring he wears don't hurt, but a knee injury suffered last season makes his status unknown at present. A career high of .923 against 2011's .915  means he's in the running and if he's healthy he will get due consideration.

James Reimer is an interesting case. Year before last his stats were sub-par at .900 but in the 2012-2013 season he upgraded his play and ended the year at .924. He's young and reasonably inexperienced and the stunning loss to the Bruins in the semi-finals this year left a bad taste for many fans and, possibly, the powers that be. I don't think he'll be on the team this year but I see a strong future for this young goalie.

Devan Dubynk plays for Edmonton who has not done well in the past several years and is, thus, often overlooked. But he is a very good goaltender who posted a career-high .921 last year against a career low (five seasons ago) of a dismal .889. Dubnyk's credentials are a little hidden. He boasts a very respectable .920 save percentage at even strength over the past three seasons and has a lot of international wins (10) under his belt. He's not likely to get a nod, but he's not ridiculous to consider.

Martin Brodeur maybe the greatest goalie who ever played the game, is, sadly, not longer a candidate. Simply, he is too old and well past his prime years. 

My picks would be Price, Crawford and either Smith or Ward, depending upon next season's performance leading to the Games.

I am sure many other countries would like to have so many choices, but with Brodeur past the time for such contests, we no longer have that goalie who is the obvious choice, the clear-cut number one, the one everyone will approve. There are a lot of good goalies in the mix but there are none who are so far above the rest as to be an uncontested and popular decision. We no longer have a an active Canadian goalie who is ranked very highly in international, universal terms.

It marks the first time in the modern era that Canada has gone into an international contest with our best skaters and not had a similarly classed goaltending tandem or trio. Although Luongo played in the gold medal game, it was Brodeur who was our starting goalie and, as it turns out, we tried to rely on him one too many times.

The Americans will certainly put Quick and Howard on the team and likely Anderson as well. The Swedes have Lundqvist, the Fins can pick from Niemi, Rinne, Rask or Backstrom, the Czechs seem poised to start Pavelec with Vokoun riding shotgun and the Russians will surely start Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina winner, but they also have Bryzgalov, Nabokov, Khabibulin, Varlamov and Galimov to choose from, so no lack of depth there.

It will be interesting to see what Team Canada does and then it will be interesting to see if whomever they select is up to the task of backstopping the reigning champions and, as some would have it, the team to beat.