Which players, countries will dominate in the 2010 Vancouver Games?
Editor's note: Our weekly "Faceoff" features ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto), who duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: The 2010 Vancouver Games are a year away. Who will win it all and which players should lead their teams to Olympic glory?
Ovechkin, Malkin, Crosby, Backstrom (two of them, if you will, in Nicklas and Niklas), Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Kane, Toews. Hard to believe Canada will be the host country and not necessarily be the favorite as many believe the Russians are the ones to beat. And until Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo both show they are physically able to compete, I think the Swedes are the second-best team -- on paper, at least.
Pierre LeBrun: Well, I think you picked Team USA to win gold in Torino, so I'll take that with a grain of salt. However, like you, I really like the Russians, not so much because they have more talent than Canada; no one can ever claim that. But I think the monumental pressure of hosting this thing in the country that invented and still loves the sport more than anyone else will take its toll on Steve Yzerman's boys. So that's why I like the second-best-looking roster to win it all. Although, I will say this, despite the public demonstrations of affection at All-Star weekend, I still have my doubts that Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin really like each other. I guess if the Oilers and Islanders players in the 1984 Canada Cup were able to put their differences aside for their country, the two Russian stars can, too.
Burnside: Once again, you show your talent for revising history. I did pick the Americans to steal a bronze medal, but that was before I realized they were going to ice an old-timers' reunion tour from 1996. My bad. I think if there's one thing that may trip up the Russians, it's their leadership, the ability to ride out the tough spots when the pressure is on. Let's put it this way: If they get the kind of leadership Alex Kovalev is showing with the good ship Montreal Canadiens (er, did anyone say Titanic?), the Russians will be in trouble.
When we produced our one-year-out rosters, you and I both went with veterans in net for Canada. As you know, the goaltending issue promises to be a hot topic pending Roberto Luongo's health (he's back, just not back in top form, for Vancouver) and Martin Brodeur's ability to recover from his first long-term injury. If one or both falter, where do you see Yzerman et al, turning?
LeBrun: Great point on Kovalev. He can forget getting a new contract in Montreal. Don't forget your heart on your way out, Alexei. Oh wait, you don't have one. Back to Team Canada's goaltending, Scotty. You and I both picked Marty Turco to back up Brodeur and Luongo, but I know Yzerman & Co. started the process of looking more toward a younger guy like Carey Price or Steve Mason. Maybe those plans have changed now with Luongo's interesting season. In a tournament that means so much, I would bring on Turco.
Speaking of goaltending, I was interested to hear from Swedish Olympic GM Mats Naslund this week when he suggested former Tampa goalie Johan Holmqvist would have a good chance at backing up Henrik Lundqvist. He said Holmqvist was having a good year in the Swedish league and he wouldn't be surprised if he was back in the NHL next season. Naslund also doubted Peter Forsberg's presence on the team in Vancouver (no surprise there), but raised my eyebrows as well when he said he wasn't sure about Mats Sundin.
Burnside: Apparently, Naslund has been watching Sundin's early returns in Vancouver on satellite. Sundin is starting to roll now and it looks like the Canucks may sneak into the wishy-washy bottom end of the Western Conference playoff bracket just in time to get their lunch handed to them by Detroit or San Jose.
But the Olympics. Wonder what will happen if Jose Theodore leads the Caps to the Eastern Conference finals or beyond? He's a former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner. Hmmm. And with all due respect to Mason, he's got a pretty small body of work to assess when it comes to naming him to an Olympic team. As for Price, sorry. I know the Habs are playing like junk in front of him, but he's done little, in my book, to earn a spot on that Olympic roster.
I was interested in your picks for the American roster. Mike Modano? Did you lose your calendar? It's not 1996, my friend. You ignored Paul Stastny, who shined for the U.S. at the World Championships two years ago. And if you want veteran leadership, I'd take Mike Knuble in a heartbeat over Modano, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight or any of the other holdovers from the fabled past. You also gave Rick DiPietro a spot on the roster. Maybe the third spot won't mean anything behind Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller, but until DiPietro can stay healthy for more than an hour at a time, I think GM Brian Burke has to go farther down the depth chart to someone who has actually earned a shot, like Scott Clemmensen or Ty Conklin (imagine if Conklin ends up doing a Chris Osgood and leading the Wings to another Cup or even to the Western Conference finals?).
LeBrun: Well, I gave Rick DiPietro the third spot because Burke himself names those three goalies as the likely guys to get picked. Tough to go against the GM, right? But if you are looking for a different name, forget Conklin and Clemmensen, how about Jonathan Quick? Oh yeah, I forgot: Team USA leaves great young goalies behind (Miller in 2006). As for Stastny, in the name of full disclosure and setting myself up for full ridicule, I forgot he was a fake American and didn't have him on my pool of U.S. players when I was making my selections. I'll put him back on next time around. So leave me alone, you bully.
I put Modano on because Burke told me "maybe" one of those old-guard guys would get on for experience. Modano is my favorite of that group. Maybe he can play on one leg like Yzerman did for Canada in 2002. I'm surprised you didn't go after me for my Paul Gaustad or David Backes picks. But I guess you know where that comes from too.
Burnside: Pierre, unlike you, I would never try to publicly embarrass you. Or hardly ever. The Americans are going to be an interesting team to watch if Burke is going to build the team the way we think he is -- with a strong measure of sand, especially up front. With smallish skilled forwards like Brian Gionta, Phil Kessel, Scott Gomez and Patrick Kane in the mix, a couple of players you might have thought were automatics for the team are going to get left behind in favor of players like Gaustad, Backes or a guy I have on my list, Ryan Malone, who is starting to come alive in Tampa after a slow start.
Right now, it's hard to imagine Gomez being on the team given his play, although a strong playoff may change that. It's going to be interesting to see what Burke does when he names his coaching staff, given that his coach in Toronto, Ron Wilson, would like the job. But it's not much different than the dilemma Yzerman is going to have when he sits down to name the Canadian staff. Mike Babcock is at the top of a lot of people's lists (mine included), but the playoffs may put guys like Brent Sutter, Claude Julien and Lindy Ruff in a more favorable light.
LeBrun: I don't think it's too complicated on the American coaching end. It's Wilson, Peter Laviolette or John Tortorella, or a combination of the two or three. And Burke told me he doesn't care if Laviolette and Tortorella aren't back coaching in the NHL -- it doesn't hurt their chances.
Canada, just like its player pool, has a longer list to pick from, which makes it that much more difficult, of course. You mentioned the main contenders, although I would add Ken Hitchcock, as well. I like the idea of having one holdover from 2002 and 2006. It's a short, pressure-packed tournament, and I think it would help to have a guy who has been there for both winning and losing efforts.
Another guy you didn't mention is Wayne Gretzky. The reason I like his being involved is he can absorb so much of the media spotlight and protect everyone else. But it's hard to argue with Babcock as head coach. He's one of the best in the world and has a Stanley Cup ring, plus World Championship and World Junior golds to prove it. In the end, Yzerman's toughest choices will be on the player side. For example, does Dany Heatley make it?
Burnside: Sorry. After watching Heatley in the 2007 Stanley Cup finals, in the first round of last season's playoffs when the Senators went down without a whimper to Pittsburgh and in his tepid performance in Italy in 2006, I simply don't think there's room for him on this Canadian team, not with the options that are available, like Jeff Carter and Corey Perry (and I don't even have Perry on my squad right now). I'd rather have Martin St. Louis or Derek Roy than Heatley right now.
It'll be interesting to see what veteran Canadian players ante up for the World Championships in the hopes of currying favor with the Canadian Olympic brass. Is he on your squad? I notice you had Marc Savard on your roster. I agree he's having a wonderful year in Boston, but given Canada's incredible depth down the middle, I think he's still a long shot, given the lingering question marks about his complete game. He'll be at the orientation camp in Calgary for sure, but that's as far as Savard's Olympic journey will take him, barring injury to other top centers.
LeBrun: Well, I don't think I can show up to the "Hockey Night in Canada" studios Saturday and face Don Cherry if I didn't have Savard on my team. Grapes has been a huge Savard booster for Team Canada all year long. And I think he's right -- Savard deserves this chance. Heatley is a tough call; I mean, his team has been terrible all year. Heatley also has deep ties to Hockey Canada, both with World Juniors and World Championships. But if he's not scoring come selection time next fall, he won't make it. Right now I didn't have him on my squad.
My favorite possible line combination is Mike Richards centering Shane Doan and Brenden Morrow. Pity anyone who has to play against the line in Vancouver? They'll go back to the bench with a broken nose and a minus-1 rating. Can't wait for Vancouver, my friend. I hear you and I are sharing a room?
Burnside: Yikes. Sure readers will be mildly revolted at the thought. One final query: Every tournament, there's a player that isn't playing in the NHL that jumps up and makes an impact. Kenny Jonsson was named defenseman of the tournament in Torino and Ville Peltonen played himself back into the NHL with a great tournament for Finland. Obviously, Jaromir Jagr looms for the Czech Republic and there's Alexander Radulov, the erstwhile Nashville Predator. Anyone else jump out for you?
LeBrun: Yes -- Alexei Morozov. He has been a Russian league scoring ace for a few years now. Right now, he has 64 points (29-35) in 43 games with Ak-Bars Kazan in the KHL (I love saying Ak-Bars Kazan out loud; you should try it.) He's the former Pittsburgh Penguin who went back home and never returned. But he's a big-time producer and I suspect he'll make this team. So keep an eye on him. We could go on forever, my friend. I can't wait for 12 months from now. Should be a tournament for the ages. Until next week.
Burnside: Indeed. Already having nightmares about the housing. Until next week.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com. Both writers promise not to lock the other out of their room in Vancouver.
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