Olympic hopefuls making impressions
PHOENIX -- Saturday night in the desert, there was a brief intersection of young Olympic dreamers and Olympic decision-makers who are on the clock.
Eric Staal, Paul Mara and Keith Ballard -- all bright lights hoping to burn just a little brighter on this night -- show a little bit more given a rare opportunity to impress opposing coaches who just happen to be the head coach of the U.S. Olympic team (Peter Laviolette) and the executive director of Canada's Olympic squad (Wayne Gretzky).
"I don't think one game is going to make or break you," insisted Staal, the 21-year-old sensation who entered Saturday's game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Phoenix Coyotes tied for eighth in NHL scoring. "But obviously you want to leave a good impression."
As the clock ticks down to the announcement of the 23-man Olympic rosters before the Dec. 22 deadline, impressions are the currency of all players hoping to realize the Olympic dream.
Like the impression left by Staal after his highlight-reel power-play goal midway through the second when he carried the puck the length of the ice, beating all four Coyotes defenders before scoring while falling to his back.
Speaking of impressions, there was the thunderous hit Ballard delivered on Carolina rookie Andrew Ladd early in the second period and the subsequent defensive play to thwart a scoring chance as the Coyotes rolled to an 8-4 win.
"It wasn't my best night," said Ballard, who also registered an assist. "It happens. We won 8-4 so you can't complain too much."
Look hard enough and you can find an Olympic subplot to every game involving a member of either the Canadian or American Olympic teams. What made Saturday's Olympic subplot unique is that all three players in question began the season as long shots to make their respective Olympic squads and all three have now played their way onto the Olympic radar screen.
Staal wasn't invited to Canada's orientation camp in August but his meteoric rise to prominence has earned him strong consideration, Gretzky said after Staal notched his 19th goal and added an assist.
"He's earned his way onto he front page of the controversy. He's earned his way to the top of the list in terms of the [Canadian] staff talking about him," Gretzky said.
Likewise, neither Ballard, 23, nor Mara, 26, was invited to a U.S. pre-Olympic camp in Colorado Springs in late summer but they have rapidly become key members of a rejuvenated Coyotes team whose strength has been defense and goaltending.
"They haven't surprised us at all. Paul is an excellent defenseman. We asked him to be a little bit more responsible defensively and he's done that. He's answered the bell really nicely," said Gretzky, who is in his first year as coach of the Coyotes. "We know his capabilities offensively but he's been really battling hard and killing penalties and that's the part of the game we're really impressed by and we're really happy with him."
A native of Ridgewood, N.J., Mara entered Saturday's game with 19 points in 27 games, 11th among all NHL defenders. Only Detroit's Mathieu Schneider had more points, 23, among U.S.-born defenders. Although he did not score in Saturday's win, Mara did jump into the play and was rewarded with a breakaway that was thwarted by netminder Martin Gerber.
"I'm definitely happy with the way things have worked out," the seventh pick overall in the 1997 draft said. "Am I satisfied? I think there's always room for more."
As for a place on the U.S. Olympic team?
"Every now and then you think about the Olympic team and you wonder where you fit in," Mara acknowledged.
A native of Baudette, Minn., Ballard wasn't even expected to make the Phoenix roster but played so well during the preseason that the Coyotes ended up trading Cale Hulse and later David Tanabe to make room for Ballard and fellow rookie Zbynek Michalek.
"Ballard from the first day of training camp said he was going to be on this team. He's just a tremendous young man. He's going to have a great future in this game," Gretzky said. "Our defense has played hard every night and they've played well and Ballard and Mara have been really good."
Laviolette has said he hasn't noticed potential U.S. Olympians on other teams Carolina has faced unless they've been especially good or especially bad.
Gretzky said he notices Canadian players as a by-product of his own coaching routine.
"My sort of mindset is I coach my team and I try to get the matchups that I want, try to get the players on the ice that I need at certain times," Gretzky said. "You know the other players as far as who's on the ice because you're trying to match up. But to get a read on a player and talk about all the great things in a game or what he did poorly, it's much easier if you're scouting the game and sitting up top and watching.
"But in saying all that it doesn't mean I won't notice [Staal]. Obviously he's had a fabulous year and the accolades and the attention he's getting right now are well-deserved," he said.
The U.S. team will be announced on national television on Dec. 19 and the Canadian team will be announced two days later. The decisions facing Laviolette and the U.S. management team are dramatically different than those facing Gretzky and his Canadian colleagues, but they are no less daunting.
The Americans will be a long shot to earn a medal but the team's strength is in its bumper crop of fine young defensemen. Given the play of Ballard and Mara, the question that must be answered in short order is how young they're prepared to go. Paul Martin, John-Michael Liles and Jordan Leopold would appear to have locks on roster spots, but with Hal Gill struggling in Boston and questions about Brian Leetch's durability, the door might open the door for Mara, if not Ballard.
"I honestly haven't thought about it," Ballard said of the Olympics. "It's big for Paul because definitely with the season he's having he's a top candidate."
Both Ballard and Mara played for Laviolette during the 2004 World Championships when the U.S. won a surprise bronze medal. Ballard was straight out of college but Mara impressed Laviolette even then.
"I know right now he puts up points, he has put up points since he's been here, he didn't have a lot of points over there [at the World Championships] and he played real well defensively, which, I think when you're paying against the Czech Republic and Slovakia, you have to play real well defensively and he did a real good job," Laviolette said before Saturday's game.
The dynamics are slightly different for Gretzky when it comes to Staal, the second overall pick in the 2003 draft.
After playing well in a limited roll as an 18-year-old rookie in 2003-04, Staal blossomed during the lockout playing with Carolina's AHL affiliate. This year, having added almost 20 pounds since his rookie season, the big center has been one of the NHL's most dynamic players.
"He's getting it done for us right now. And he's tough to stop and every time he's on the ice he's a threat and that's why he's out there, and when you're looking for points you've got to go with the guys that are going well," Laviolette said.
Canada enjoys an embarrassment of riches in terms of its offensive depth, especially at center, which is problematic for Staal. Joe Thornton, Joe Sakic and Vincent Lecavalier own roster spots, but if Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux both opt out of the Olympics as expected there will be openings. But in spite of his terrific play, Staal will have to battle with Jason Spezza and Sidney Crosby for consideration.
Gretzky said Saturday it's unlikely all three young stars will make the Canadian roster. But one or two? Maybe. It depends, perhaps, on the impressions made and left.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.