Storylines, scrutiny at Canada camp
CALGARY, Alberta -- Last week, the prevailing theme at the U.S. Olympic orientation camp in Chicago was: Who is that guy?
Among people who make their living covering the game, the question was quietly, embarrassingly, repeated over and over in the interview room: "Do you know who that is?"
It was a humbling experience and reflected the dramatic changes in the selection process for USA Hockey.
The dynamics will be dramatically different this week in Calgary, where 25 forwards, 16 defensemen and five goalies will assemble for four days of highly scrutinized drills and scrimmages at the Canadian orientation camp.
Exactly half of those in attendance, assuming no one jumps up from beyond the camp's invitation list during the first three months of the NHL regular season, will be named to a team that will try to do something no Canadian Olympic team has ever done -- win gold on its home soil.
Not surprisingly, the camp is rife with storylines that will be pursued doggedly by the dozens of reporters who will descend upon Calgary in the coming hours. Here's a look at a few:
The goalie situationMost observers have pretty much anointed Martin Brodeur, who has won more NHL games than any other netminder, or Roberto Luongo as heir apparent to the starting job in Vancouver. That leaves the third leftover spot to be decided between Marc-Andre Fleury, Steve Mason and Cam Ward.
Is that really fair? No, it's not.
Brodeur has failed to deliver his Devils beyond the second round of the playoffs since the team last won a Cup in 2003 and has looked decidedly ordinary at times, including his inexplicable swoon this past spring against Carolina during the final two minutes of Game 7 in the first round.
Luongo has never made it past the second round and was humiliated in Game 6 in the second round when the Chicago Blackhawks lit him up for seven goals on 30 shots. Fleury, on the other hand, was monstrous in leading the Penguins to victories in four of the last five games of the Stanley Cup finals as well as leading the team to the finals in 2008.
Ward, by the way, has won a Cup (in 2006) and was solid in leading the Hurricanes back to the Eastern Conference finals this past season. If you're looking for clutch -- and isn't that the name of the game in Vancouver? -- this competition should be anything but a two-man race.
Oh, Dany boyYes, we heard Dany Heatley explain Friday that he loves Canada even if he would rather not play in two of the six NHL Canadian cities (Edmonton and Ottawa) and his desire to be traded from Ottawa really comes down to philosophical differences between him and the Sens' coaching staff. (They are concerned about winning, while Heatley is concerned about, well, Heatley.)
Although Heatley poked his head out of his rabbit hole for the first time since his trade demand surfaced in June, he still will face questions about his decisions from the media here, and it will be interesting to see what kind of role the coaching staff puts Heatley in during scrimmages. (Hint: If 2010 Winter Games coach Mike Babcock hands Heatley a set of goalie pads, it's probably not a good sign.)
Oh, say can you 'C'?For the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Mario Lemieux was named captain by executive director Wayne Gretzky, and it turned out to be one of the most important roles Lemieux would play, as he led the Canadians through a series of ups and downs en route to the country's first gold in 50 years.
Joe Sakic took on the "C" in the 2006 Games in Torino and dutifully answered for the Canadians' inexplicable failure there. Sakic, soft-spoken and reserved, has since retired, so there will be great debate about who will take on the captain's role in what will be a highly charged atmosphere in February.
Many believe it will be Scott Niedermayer; he has all the credentials, even if he, too, is understated to the max. What about Calgary captain Jarome Iginla? He's highly respected and comfortable with the attendant media/public responsibilities. And then there's Sidney Crosby, who became the youngest captain to win a Stanley Cup less than three months ago. Hard to imagine going wrong on any front, but it will be interesting to watch.
Speaking of captains ...The captaincy subject may be a little touchy for San Jose center Patrick Marleau, who until recently was the Sharks' longtime captain. No more, as coach Todd McLellan announced last week the team has no captain or any assistant captains. Decisions on those roles will be determined during training camp, but you can bet Marleau will find himself discussing the topic often this week.
The 'lots to prove' group, Part IOK, everyone has a lot to prove at a camp like this. But a handful of players coming off serious injuries will have to prove themselves not just here in Calgary but also through Dec. 31, the day the Olympic roster will be finalized.
One example is Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow. He showed during the Stars' run to the 2008 Western Conference finals that he is exactly what Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman et al will be looking for in terms of leadership, grit and skill. He's as Canuck as you get but is trying to bounce back from a serious knee injury that cost him all but 18 games last season.
Vincent Lecavalier was never fully healthy after offseason shoulder surgery before the 2008-09 season, then underwent wrist surgery at the conclusion of a disappointing campaign. The Lightning star is a lock to make this team if he's healthy. But the depth is so great in Canada that guys on the limp are likely to be passed over.
Francois Beauchemin, a long shot to make this team, missed most of last season after tearing up his knee but returned just before the playoffs and helped the Anaheim Ducks upend San Jose in the first round and push Detroit to seven games in the second round. A strong start to the season with Toronto, where he will be highly visible, may enhance his standing for the Canadian Olympic squad.
The 'lots to prove' group, Part IISome guys wish they had injuries to explain away off performances last season. Such as Jeff Carter, whose 46 goals were second only to Alex Ovechkin's 56 during the regular season before he went invisible during the Philadelphia Flyers' first-round loss to Pittsburgh in the playoffs. He'll have to prove that was a blip on the radar if he wants to make this Canadian team, especially given the team's lack of offensive jump during the '06 Games.
Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green has everyone thinking he's like Paul Coffey, but questions about his conditioning and a miserable playoff series against Pittsburgh also have led his stock to drop in terms of making the 2010 squad.
Dion Phaneuf looked like a lock a year ago, but an off season in Calgary has seen him drop down the depth chart. He will have to work hard to claw his way back into the top seven given the options available to the Canadian management team.
And speaking of falling down the depth chart, there is the curious case of Joe Thornton. All the big center has done is average more than 94 points a season and win a Hart Trophy since the end of the 2004-05 lockout, yet Thornton's inability to help San Jose shake its "playoff choker" label has many wondering whether there's a place for him on the Olympic team.
Center of attentionOne of the reasons there is some consideration about whether a player of Thornton's pedigree might be a bubble player is the position he plays: center. Canada doesn't have just a wealth of talented centers, it has a glut. Consider this lineup of potential pivots: Crosby, Lecavalier, Marleau, Carter, Thornton, Jonathan Toews, Mike Richards, Jordan Staal, Eric Staal, Jason Spezza and Derek Roy.
Wow. Now think about how you pick your top four. Sure, some can play the wing (and some will have to), but the dilemma for the Canadian Olympic brain trust is, how many players do you want playing out of position? Tough, tough, tough.
It's Staal hereAll the Staals are here; at least, all three of the Staals currently playing in the NHL: Marc, Jordan and Eric. Hard to imagine that Marc, a defenseman, would make this team, but both Jordan and Eric will get serious consideration, especially with Jordan's virtuoso performance late in the Stanley Cup finals against Detroit. Eric not only has won a Cup but also was on the taxi squad for the 2006 Olympics and has a sense of the routine.
The kidsGiven the Canadians' disastrous seventh-place performance in 2006, you can expect a dramatic turnover in personnel, but just how young will Yzerman go?
Toews, Crosby and Richards are pretty much locks given their experience and maturity. But what about some of the younger pups who will be on the ice this week, such as Marc and Jordan Staal (ages 22 and 20, respectively); Drew Doughty, the terrific young Kings defenseman who is just 19; or Milan Lucic, who is from Vancouver and has become a cult figure in Boston with his engaging blend of skill and snarl at the tender age of 21? Or maybe 21-year-old rookie of the year Steve Mason, who led Columbus to its first playoff berth almost single-handedly? You can bet Yzerman will be bold enough to bring the right people, regardless of what their birth certificates say.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.