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Monday, December 28, 2009
The final countdown for United States, Canada


Some of the final decisions were made Monday for Team USA's 2010 Olympic squad, while Team Canada's management group will take a run at it Tuesday.

Both teams are making the final and painstaking decisions with so much riding on the line.

The Team USA brain trust was huddled on a conference call Monday, and it appears the team is essentially picked.

"More or less, there's still a couple of open issues, but more or less, yes," Team USA GM Brian Burke told ESPN.com late Monday afternoon after his call was over.

The U.S. squad won't be announced until after the Winter Classic on Friday. The call on Monday went on for an hour, Burke said.

"We also had the full coaching staff on the call today," Burke said. "We figured for the last couple of spots we wanted their input."

Burke, of course, would not discuss any players. Had I officially asked, I'm sure he would have responded with a profanity-laced tirade. But I'm going to guess one of Monday's debates revolved around the No. 2 center job, with Scott Gomez and Joe Pavelski the leading candidates as far as I can see. (I think Paul Stastny is the safe bet at the No. 1 spot.) Burke scouted Pavelski firsthand Dec. 17 in San Jose, but he also got a live look at Gomez on Saturday night in Montreal's 3-2 win over Burke's Maple Leafs.

On one hand, Gomez has much more experience, but Pavelski is having the better season. Like all of these Olympic roster decisions at this point, it's a tough call. The safer pick is Gomez; the gutsier pick is the younger Pavelski. If I were deciding, I'd take the San Jose Sharks pivot.

For what it's worth, I also believe the Americans will go with 13 forwards and seven defensemen instead of the 12-8 split that was originally favored this past summer.

Meanwhile, the job won't be any easier for Team Canada boss Steve Yzerman and his staff when they meet at the world junior tournament in Saskatchewan on Tuesday. So many good NHL players will be left off this team. One of the intriguing battles is at the bottom of the forward group, where Canada will be looking for some grit and two-way play. To me, the bubble guys in this group are Mike Richards, Patrice Bergeron, Shane Doan, Ryan Smyth, Brenden Morrow, Mike Fisher and Jordan Staal. All these guys deserve to make the team, but only a few of them will.

I didn't mention Jonathan Toews in this group because I'm not sure you can pigeonhole him in the bottom group of forwards. He should make this team, but he can just as easily be part of the top-nine forward group or the checking group. He can play anywhere, wing or center. Among the Canadian NHL forwards being considered for the Olympic team, Toews also has the best faceoff win percentage. Not the kind of skill that a guy like Yzerman would overlook, in my mind.

But back to my checkers. Who should be on the fourth line?

Richards was seen as a lock by most of us before this season. Whether it's fair or not, his stock has taken a bit of a hit because of the overall play of his Philadelphia Flyers team. He may very well still make it -- and I'd have no issue with that -- but Staal has been a rising force and is making a serious challenge for that job. Some people like both of them on the team with Staal moving to the wing. That's another option.

If Yzerman sees Staal as a left-wing fit instead, that poses a serious challenge to Smyth and Morrow. Smyth was one of Canada's better forwards in Torino at the 2006 Olympics and is one of the country's most decorated international players. He also was having a heck of a season before getting hurt in mid-November. He's back in the Los Angeles Kings' lineup, but you wonder how much his absence hurt his chances. I admit I'm biased here, having given him his "Captain Canada" nickname eight years ago at the world championships because of his long international résumé. But I have a hard time putting together an Olympic team without his name on it.

"This is deserving for so many great players," Smyth told me Monday. "The competition is tough."

Smyth returned to action Saturday in Phoenix and said he felt good.

"Not bad, I think more so the timing and getting my hands up to speed," Smyth said. "But conditioning-wise, I felt pretty good. I was training pretty hard."

Morrow is a monster along the boards. That the Olympics in Vancouver will be played on the smaller NHL surface certainly plays in his favor. Like all the players dreaming of getting the nod, Morrow said he was pretty excited.

"Most of my family is here for the holidays, and they're pretty fired up about it," Morrow told ESPN.com on Monday.

Morrow, also a tremendous leader, has tried to avoid what I just did above, analyzing his competition for the 2010 team.

"No, I think I'd be driving myself crazy if I got that much into it," the Dallas Stars' captain said. "[Yzerman] is going to have some tough decisions. There's going to be guys that are disappointed, but I think don't anyone can blame anyone either way. You could probably have two teams that are real good. There's so much talent to choose from."

On defense, I easily could be reading the tea leaves wrong, but here's what I think the Canadian management team is thinking: Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Dan Boyle, Duncan Keith and Shea Weber are in, leaving two spots up for grabs. The bubble group for those spots should be Brent Seabrook, Mike Green, Drew Doughty, Jay Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf and Stephane Robidas.

For my money, I like the idea of Seabrook partnering with Chicago Blackhawks teammate Keith -- instant chemistry. Seabrook also brings a physical element; you're not looking to name seven offensive defensemen.

Then, I have serious difficulty picking between Green, Bouwmeester and Doughty for the last spot. I change my mind every 30 seconds. I love all three players. What a headache.

I wouldn't want to be in Yzerman's shoes.