Commentary

Yzerman's 2010 approach is a familiar one

Updated: February 12, 2009, 1:29 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Steve YzermanAP Photo/Larry MacDougal/CPTeam Canada GM Steve Yzerman played on the country's gold-medal squad in 2002.
Listen to Steve Yzerman talk about the 2010 Canadian Olympic team he will help build, and it reminds you of something you've heard or seen before.

He talks about a blend of skill and commitment to defense, players who can play in all situations and under pressure, and suddenly it hits you: He's describing, for the most part, his Detroit Red Wings.

And while he would never suggest it was so, he's also describing players who played as he did in leading the Wings to three Stanley Cups before he retired to a certain place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Funny how the on-ice personality of a player begets his off-ice personality.

Yzerman, soon to become the most-talked about man in Canada (if he's not already), talks in measured tones about the need for diligence in sifting through what is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to selecting Canada's Olympic team.

The man who put together the past two Canadian squads for the World Championships is spending this season trying to put his eyes on as many hopefuls as he can. He is asking the same of his 2010 management team -- St. Louis Blues soon-to-be GM Doug Armstrong, who will build this year's worlds team with Yzerman's input, Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe and Detroit GM Ken Holland. He points out that while the calendar says it's a year before the start of the Olympics, the time to build the team is significantly shorter -- given the balance of the NHL regular season and playoffs, the World Championships for those who don't make it to the postseason or are eliminated early, and the less than two months of play next fall before Canada is set to announce its lineup.

It is one thing to look at stats and see whether a player is having a good season, but Yzerman is interested in the details, in what situations a player is succeeding or not succeeding. Can he kill penalties? How is he on faceoffs?

"It's really important to watch them and to really know what they can and can't do," Yzerman told ESPN.com in a recent interview.

Yzerman and the management group met in December and came up with a group of 40-some guys, a "watch list," and they'll meet again in March to talk about the feelings about the players on that list.

"I'm just really excited with Steve Yzerman and how engaged he is in the process," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson told ESPN.com this week. "It's going to be an incredible challenge to pick this team."

Although he could certainly build a team that can play run and gun, that's not what Yzerman believes will bring success to a country hungry -- nay, desperate -- for Olympic redemption. He's looking for players who can perform all sorts of roles and who will accept those roles, whatever they may be in a year's time.

"It's not going to be a free-for-all," Yzerman said of the style of game he expects his team to employ in Vancouver. "I think all the top coaches feel that way. It's the way championship teams play. I don't think it's any great revelation."

One of the offshoots of looking at as many players as possible and discussing those players with the management team will be in coming up with not just a plan, but also a Plan B, Plan C and Plan D, if needed.

The goaltending situation is a perfect example. If the Olympics were this year, Canada would have had a significant dilemma, with the injuries to Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo. Brenden Morrow, a gritty, skilled forward who seems to be the model of the kind of player Yzerman is looking for, has been out most of the season with a knee injury.

Yzerman said they are working under the assumption that, by the time the roster is finalized in late November or early December, there will be injuries to players who might otherwise be on the roster.

"All of a sudden, you have to start looking a little bit further down the depth chart," Yzerman said. "It reinforces how important it is to get to know the guys."

There will be inevitable comparisons between how Yzerman approaches this job and how Wayne Gretzky did in putting together the 2002 and 2006 Canadian teams and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey team.

Nicholson said they are trying to get back to the process that led up to the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, where Canada ended a 50-year gold-medal drought. "In '02, we turned over a lot more rocks than we did in '06," Nicholson said.

While every move Gretzky made leading up to the previous Olympics was front-page news, Yzerman is more understated, which may be a benefit in the long run. "Steve does things with a lot less fanfare," Nicholson said.

One thing Yzerman is adamant about is that whoever ends up wearing the white and red in Vancouver, it won't be as a result of this summer's orientation camp in Calgary.

"Everybody wants to read into what the line combinations are in camp," Yzerman said. "People are going to want to read into everything that happens there."

[+] EnlargeCanada
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesThe men's Canadian Olympic hockey team last won gold at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Who scores, who doesn't, who makes stops, who doesn't … it won't matter, he said.

"I'm not going to judge players in August," Yzerman insisted. "The tryouts are happening now and through the playoffs and the World Championships."

From a practicality point, you can't run practices and scrimmages with just 23 or 24 players, so Yzerman will want enough players on hand in August to run two groups that are large enough to have proper practices.

"We can't just invite 23 guys to Calgary for the camp for a whole bunch of reasons," Yzerman said.

The camp is important on a number of fronts, just not for picking the team. When the team lands in Vancouver next February, it's possible, depending on individual schedules, that players will have less than 48 hours to prepare for their first round-robin game. The orientation camp is designed to help players prepare for what will await them at the Olympics. Everything -- including the athletes' village, tickets for families and friends, drug-testing protocol, and how the Canadian Olympic Association works and what it will need from the players in terms of promotional or advertising campaigns -- will be addressed in some form in Calgary. Beyond that, Yzerman said it's important for the young players to have met with and bonded with the veteran players on the team in some way.

"I don't want them walking into the locker room in Vancouver meeting guys for the first time," Yzerman said. "I want them to have a comfort level. I think that is very important."

There is also the issue of introducing the players to the Olympic coaching staff and getting an insight into what kind of system they will be asked to play.

Speaking of the coaching staff, there is bound to be as much debate surrounding the selection of the coaches as the selection of the players. Unlike scouting players, whose wares are perhaps more readily on view, Yzerman said it's more difficult to go to a game and try to figure out whether someone has what it takes to coach at the Olympics. So there will be lots of discussion among the management group and other people Yzerman trusts in the hockey community.

Picking the right head coach and matching his personality with the personalities of the rest of the staff will be "vital," Yzerman said. The head coach simply can't do it all, he explained. He has to be able to delegate and feel comfortable that the job's going to get done. "He's going to have to rely on everybody," he said.

And it has to be a coach who can make decisions about lineups and roles, and make them swiftly. "There are a lot of hard decisions that have to be made in a short period of time," Yzerman said.

Nicholson thinks Yzerman's experience in putting together the World Championship teams and seeing how different coaching staffs came together will help in making this crucial decision.

"I can't emphasize how important it is. When you get to Vancouver, you have one practice and then you play," Nicholson said.

Three years ago, Canada went to Torino as defending gold-medal champions with high hopes of building on the country's magical win in Salt Lake City. They came away shocked and disappointed at their failure to survive even the quarterfinal round.

This time around, the expectations, and the pressure on the home side to prevail, will be as high as they've ever been for a Canadian team since the lead-up to the 1972 Summit Series.

"We just had seven million people watch a World Junior final. The numbers [for the Olympics] are going to be over the top," Nicholson said. "We've felt excitement for hockey in our country in the past, but this is going to be a whole new level."

Yzerman not only gets that, he also embraces it. "I try and keep it in perspective," Yzerman said. "I know what's in store for us."

He said he's excited, and that wherever he goes, he asks people to tell him what they think Team Canada should look like.

"I'm always asking people, 'Give me your top three goaltenders' or whatever," he said. "I'm just trying to be prepared."

Like Canadians would expect anything less from Yzerman.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.