- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Imagine you're at a science fair. On one table are two tin cans and a piece of string. On the next table is a satellite videophone.
That's an idea of what it's like to compare the U.S. and Canadian Olympic hockey teams.
It is a given that the options available to the big brains at Hockey Canada when it comes to naming their Olympic team Wednesday are vast. The options available to the USA Hockey collective, which will name its squad Monday, are, well, not so vast.
But the two longtime international and geographic rivals share core concerns as they work through their final selections before next week's roster announcements.
Both will struggle with finding the right balance of youth and veteran experience, the so-called turning of the generational page. Both will struggle to settle on a goaltending lineup that will give them the best chance at a medal. Both hope to select players that will provide dressing room chemistry, that instant karma imperative in a short tournament.
And in spite of the wide disparity in talent available to both teams, both American and Canadian officials believe that if the selection process is done well, success is theirs for the taking.
"You're not trying to win one game. It's not an All-Star game," explained team USA general manager Don Waddell, whose day job is GM of the Atlanta Thrashers.
Instead, it's a team, with all the needs and nuances of a real team: penalty killers, power-play specialists, character guys, scorers, goaltenders who are clutch.
Here are the various components and issues facing these hockey neighbors as they prepare for an Olympic tournament that will begin in less than two months.
This will be the third straight best-on-best tournament for the high-powered Canadian hockey decision makers, led by executive director Wayne Gretzky and including Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe, Vancouver assistant GM Steve Tambellini, head coach Pat Quinn and assistants Ken Hitchcock, Jacques Martin and Wayne Fleming. Marc Habscheid and Blair Mackasey also have been thrown into the mix to help with scouting and pre-tournament preparation.
Although the dynamic is slightly different this time with Gretzky behind the bench of the Phoenix Coyotes instead of actively scouting hopefuls as he did for Salt Lake City, the consistency in management clears away any dispute on game plan and philosophy.
That's not to say there aren't and won't be disagreements right up until Wednesday's final meeting in Vancouver.
"That's why I've been so impressed with this group of individuals," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said. "They battle and they bring a lot of different concepts to the table, different perspectives."
Who has the final say? Gretzky, obviously, but in spite of reports to the contrary, Quinn carries significant weight.
"When push comes to shove, Wayne looks down the table to Pat," Nicholson said.
Which makes sense. Quinn is the guy that's got to send out the players who will bring home the only acceptable result, a gold medal.
This management team is smaller and the decision making more linear with Waddell handling the bulk of the scouting this fall with input from Jim Johansson of USA Hockey and assistant GM Paul Holmgren, who serves the same post in Philadelphia.
Waddell has seen every potential U.S. Olympian play live this season.
"That was my goal," he said.
Although this is Waddell's first turn as an Olympic team builder, there is a surprising level of consistency within the U.S. group and that should be a plus. Coach Peter Laviolette was an assistant coach with the 2004 World Cup of Hockey squad after leading the U.S. to a surprise bronze medal at the 2004 World Championships. He reprised that role last spring, when the Americans lost in a shootout in the quarterfinal to the eventual champions from the Czech Republic.
Waddell will make the final call, but he said Laviolette will have significant input, especially on the final roster additions.
If the Canadians were asked to play with rubber mallets and a whiffle ball, they'd still be odds-on favorites to win the gold medal. That said, from the moment Gretzky took over prior to the Salt Lake City Olympics, there was a dramatic shift in philosophy. While the 1998 Olympic team was built as a normal team might be with role players and penalty killers (anyone remember that Rob Zamuner was an Olympian?), Gretzky looks first and foremost to skill, and then to experience, and then to the roles they might play.
"Wayne wants those talented players, players that have won," Nicholson said.
Sometimes when a player's name comes up in discussion during the management team's frequent conference calls, Gretzky will ask the Hockey Canada staff to research what that player has won: Stanley Cups, World Championships, Memorial Cups. Those are important considerations for him.
The 2006 team looks to be faster and more talented than the gold-medal team from 2002 with the emergence of young stars like Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis and Jarome Iginla. Of that group, only Iginla was in Salt Lake City. All but two or three players (Jason Spezza, Todd Bertuzzi, and possibly Sidney Crosby) will have played in either the Olympics or World Cup of Hockey.
Not surprisingly, the Americans will try and replicate the style of hockey that has made Laviolette's Carolina Hurricanes one of the pleasant surprises of the NHL season.
Using a ferocious forecheck, the Southeast Division-leading Canes have pressured opponents into mistakes from the start of the season, while a quick-strike transition game has allowed them to capitalize on neutral-zone turnovers.
"They play a great transition game and they jam it right down your throat," Toronto Maple Leafs senior scout Craig Button said. "Peter Laviolette deserves a great deal of credit for their transition game. It's 2-on-1, 3-on-1, they're coming."
The U.S. team will try and do likewise.
Although Waddell estimates 12-13 players will be playing in their first Olympic games, all but one or two (Mathieu Schneider) will have played for Laviolette at the World Championships the past two years.
For both countries, the goaltending picture will remain muddled until the end. It's also a picture that will have definite repercussions on the teams' ultimate success in Turin.
With a compressed schedule (teams will play five games in seven nights through the preliminary round), teams must count on using their backup at least once, and likely twice. Their performances will say much about whether they advance to the elimination round (a given for both teams) and their seeding heading into those games.
Canada's strength, on paper, should be between the pipes with three-time Cup winner Martin Brodeur (who backstopped the Canadians to gold in 2002), followed by Roberto Luongo and Jose Theodore. At least, that was the pecking order coming out of August's orientation camp.
Brodeur remains the man in spite of an up-and-down season marked by injury and inconsistent play with the Devils. One has to imagine he will have a very short leash in Italy. Remember, it was Brodeur in 2002 that replaced starter Curtis Joseph, who lasted just one game after a soft outing against Sweden.
The dilemma will be the final two goaltending spots. History suggests Luongo will remain on the Canadian team in spite of a woeful season with the Florida Panthers (he is 10-14 with a 3.30 goals-against average through play Tuesday). Luongo's clutch performance off the bench to steal a semifinal win in overtime over the Czech Republic in the World Cup is a powerful reminder of his abilities. Luongo likewise helped Canada to a gold medal in relief of Sean Burke at the 2003 worlds and was the top netminder when Canada successfully defended its gold in 2004.
Whether Luongo goes as Brodeur's backup or as the third netminder is another question. Give Joseph a slight edge over Marty Turco in terms of international experience (this would be Joseph's third Olympics and he was also the top goaltender in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey). Fair or not, neither Joseph nor Turco have a history of coming up big in the big games.
South of the border, Rick DiPietro appears to have a lock on the No. 1 job for the Americans. Brash and cocky, he has the mental toughness to carry the U.S. where it might not otherwise go.
Who's next? Based on recent play, John Grahame of the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning would be the man, but he is mercurial at best and a loose cannon at worst. Philadelphia netminder Robert Esche has more international experience and will likely get the nod as the second man. Ryan Miller, the Sabres goaltender of the future, will have to wait until 2010 given his thumb injury.
The U.S. team enjoys its greatest depth along the blue line, and it is here that the decisions will be most difficult and may play the biggest role in whether the team earns a medal or not.
The Americans have terrific puck-moving youngsters in the form of John-Michael Liles, Jordan Leopold and Paul Martin. Martin has struggled along with many of his teammates in New Jersey, but given his inclusion on the World Cup and World Championship teams the past couple of years, he is still a strong candidate to make the team.
Add veterans Aaron Miller (think of him as the U.S. version of Canada's Adam Foote), Schneider, who leads all American-born defensemen with 28 points, and speedy Brian Rafalski, and there is a solid nucleus.
Assuming the U.S. will take seven defensemen, the dilemma is whether to go with veteran size (Hal Gill appears to have played himself off the team, while Derian Hatcher has played himself back into the mix) or up-and-comers like Paul Mara, who has 20 points and has played a more solid game for the Coyotes, for the final spot. There's also Brian Leetch to consider -- the perennial U.S. blueliner impressed with his play early in the season and has continued to log serious minutes for the Bruins.
USA Hockey types are lukewarm on Mara, although Waddell said he's been impressed by Dustin Brown of the L.A. Kings. Keith Ballard, a stud in waiting in Phoenix, is still a little too green for Waddell.
It appears experience will trump current levels of play for a number of blueliners, including Rob Blake (he is a minus-11 in Colorado) and Chris Pronger, who has been up and down in his new home in Edmonton.
Nonetheless, the two will join Scott Niedermayer, Ed Jovanovski, Foote (especially now that veteran leaders Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux are out of the mix), Wade Redden and Robyn Regehr as locks. Barring injury (Redden, for instance, is still nursing a sore knee), that means the top-scoring defenseman in the NHL, Bryan McCabe, will be left out of the loop, as will smooth-skating Dan Boyle from Tampa.
Look down the NHL's scoring list and you go all the way to 28th before you hit the first American-born forward, Brian Gionta of the New Jersey Devils. You'll go to 36th and 47th before you hit the next two American forwards, Craig Conroy and Mike Modano, respectively.
Still, Waddell claims he's not worried about the U.S. team's ability to score. The dilemma, though, will be in deciding whether players should be brought on board because they have a history of being able to score (Jeremy Roenick and Bill Guerin for instance) or because they've revealed that talent more recently (Gionta or Conroy).
Waddell has said his primary focus will be on what players are doing this season, which means Conroy and Gionta will be on the team as will Gionta's part-time linemate Scott Gomez. Roenick will not, in spite of his claims that it would be a "travesty" if he's left out.
Look for Conroy, Modano and Gomez to center the top three lines, although Doug Weight will also see some time in the middle and will be critical to the U.S. power play.
The Islanders' Jason Blake is the prime candidate to center a fourth energy line, although he suffered a concussion following a horrendous into-the-boards crash in a game earlier this week.
Other forwards will include Mike Knuble, Erik Cole, Brian Rolston and Chris Drury, while Mike York, Mark Parrish, Tony Amonte and Guerin will be in the mix to round out the crew. Amonte has played better of late and is a veteran of international play, while Guerin will likely find a place even though he's well off his usual pace with just six goals in 27 games.
Matt Cullen, who had a strong start in Carolina and played well at the World Championships last year, appears to be outside the bubble.
One of the dilemmas will be what to do with Keith Tkachuk, who reported to the Blues overweight and was suspended by the team before suffering a series of injuries upon his return. Now that the power forward is healthy, he's registered 15 points in nine games. On a team that figures to struggle mightily to keep up with offensive juggernauts like the Russians, Canadians, Swedes and Czechs, Tkachuk may be hard to ignore even, though he may not be what Laviolette wants in terms of chemistry.
As for young blood, many would have penciled in Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and perhaps Ryan Malone or Ryan Whitney at the beginning of the season, but none of those players has progressed to the point where they can be expected to play at the Olympic level.
As of Wednesday, 15 of the top 30 scorers in the NHL are Canadian, and seven out of that group will likely not make the Canadian team. In spite of putting up terrific numbers, Eric Staal, Marc Savard, Patrick Marleau, McCabe, Alex Tanguay, Brendan Shanahan and Jason Williams are long shots.
With the withdrawal of Yzerman and Lemieux from the Canadian mix, much of the debate has centered around the possibility of whether the three young studs, Spezza, Crosby and Staal, could make the team. But Gretzky has said it's highly unlikely all three could go.
"Let me tell you something, there's a difference between playing the first 40 games of a National Hockey League season and playing for a gold medal in the Olympic Games and playing in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup finals or playing in a world championship. It's a whole different level," Gretzky said. "Every step along the way, the hockey becomes harder, better, stronger, faster. And so yeah, it's a huge part of our decision of who's going to be on this team. But I've never swayed away from that."
Canada is deep at center and will go with Thornton, Lecavalier, and Joe Sakic as the three main pivots. If you throw in Spezza because of his dynamic with winger Heatley and move Kris Draper from his natural position at center to a checking winger, suddenly the roster spots become scarce.
Iginla, Simon Gagne, Richards, St. Louis, Ryan Smyth and Shane Doan are virtual locks, which leaves one roster spot open for a winger. Gretzky pretty much guaranteed Bertuzzi a spot on the team in August and said he's loath to move anymore natural centers to wing, which would seem to eliminate Staal.
Crosby has played both center and wing in Pittsburgh and is the most likely addition if you eliminate one of either Smyth, Doan or Bertuzzi, whose tepid play suggests he's not worthy of a spot. Everyone assumes defensive specialist Draper is assured a spot given his tenacious play, but the Red Wings forward has but one goal all season and one imagines Smyth and/or Doan could fill such a role if Gretzky wanted to make room for both Crosby and Bertuzzi.
Then there's the added dilemma of Rick Nash, the best player at the World Championships last year and the most impressive performer at August's orientation camp. The big winger has played in only three games, thanks to an ankle injury that was followed by a knee injury. He's due back this week, and if he shows he's healthy, he'll be on the team given that he'll have almost two months to work himself into game shape.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
While different factors play a part in Olympic decisions for the U.S. and Canada, both face the same dilemma of picking the final 23.