Players can't shake Olympic fever
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The Olympic feel was hard to ignore Thursday night at HP Pavilion.
On more than a few shifts, forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau and defensemen Dan Boyle of the San Jose Sharks were on the ice against forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and defenseman Scott Niedermayer. Two weeks from now, they could all be Olympic teammates for Team Canada.
Thornton scored twice and added two assists, while Getzlaf and Marleau had single tallies on the night. No fewer than 16 players that took the ice Thursday night have a shot at Olympic duty in February.
An interested observer at the game was Team USA GM Brian Burke, along with assistants David Poile and Dean Lombardi. They were keeping a close eye on American hopefuls Bobby Ryan, Ryan Whitney and Joe Pavelski.
Word had quickly spread at the morning skate that Burke was in the building.
"It's nice to have him here, but they're watching no matter where they are," Pavelski, who had an assist Thursday night, told ESPN.com.
"I bumped into Burke this morning and said hello," Ryan said. "You think about it during the day and about your chances, but then you come to the rink and just focus on the game."
Our bet is the American brain trust is giving serious thought to having Pavelski as the team's No. 2 center behind Paul Stastny, with Ryan Kesler being the third-line center. Our guess? It's between Pavelski and Scott Gomez for that No. 2 job.
"I think Joe is a very good candidate for the Olympic team," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. "In a short-term tournament, when you're putting a group of people together, you want people you can trust. Obviously [USA coach] Ron [Wilson] has coached him before. If he feels the same way about him as I do, the trust factor is very big. He's a very smart individual. He's a player that can adjust on the fly. You only have to tell him once and it gets done. You like those type of people in a short-term tournament."
Ryan collected his 27th point in his 34th game Thursday night, and I'd be pretty surprised if he wasn't on Team USA.
"I certainly hope I'm in the mix," he said. "That would mean a lot to me to make that team."
Pavelski has tried his best not to think about it, but with the Jan. 1 Team USA announcement so close, it's hard not to.
"You try to block it out, but it's tough. You do think about it," he said. "There's articles all over the place. But when you come to the rink, you're thinking about this team."
Little Joe seemed a bit anxious to me about the whole Olympic thing. Big Joe seemed more at ease. Thornton, the NHL's leading scorer with 48 points (9-39) in 35 games, is a lock for the Canadian squad, which will be announced Dec. 30.
"I think I've been playing real well all year long," Thornton said. "I'm biased with that too, but I think I'm good enough to play."
For a while this season, Thornton was centering the hottest line in hockey between Marleau and Dany Heatley and received about the best possible endorsement from none other than Don Cherry, who, during his "Coach's Corner" segment on "Hockey Night in Canada", said GM Steve Yzerman should take the whole line for Team Canada.
Thornton's face lit up like a Christmas tree when asked how he reacted when he watched that segment.
"You give him a fist pump and say 'That's it, Don,'" Thornton said, acting out the fist pump for good measure. "You enjoying hearing Don say that, because it would be real nice to go as a threesome. My parents don't know anything about hockey, and they phoned saying 'Don Cherry said it, so it must be true.' We'll have to wait and see."
Canada's biggest problem in these tournaments is finding ways to create quick chemistry among players who have rarely played together before. That certainly wouldn't be an issue with three Sharks plopped on a line.
"I think in a short tournament like that, I think for guys to be familiar with each other definitely helps," Thornton said. "Me, Dany and Patty, we've been playing together for about eight or nine games now. I'm a little bit biased, but I think it might help."
But it's certainly no sure thing for all three to go. It just so happens the line has been broken up of late, as the Sharks were winless in five before posting a big win over the Ducks on Thursday night.
Talk about bad timing, with the Olympic announcement so close.
"It's not a divorce," McLellan said, downplaying the split.
"As much as it's Dany going to play with Pav and Ryane Clowe, they are two world-class athletes in my opinion, as well," McLellan said. "It's sure not a demotion on his behalf. I think that line can be every bit as good or maybe better than the other one."
It's hard to ignore Heatley's goal production since the lockout. And while Marleau gets criticized for his playoff performances, he's been on fire this season and reinforced the point Thursday with his 21st goal of the season. He's also a versatile player who can play both wing and center while also killing penalties. Not an easy call for Yzerman.
On the back end, Niedermayer was penciled in by Yzerman a long time ago. While we think that remains the case, the future Hall of Famer hasn't played as well as he can, especially of late. We asked him after Thursday night's game if he was happy with his game.
"No, not really," said the Ducks captain. "I think there's not too many guys who are happy with how they've played. But no, I'm not happy. It's been tough."
A pretty honest assessment from Niedermayer, but we find it hard to believe Yzerman would even consider not taking him. You know he'll raise his level for a big tournament like the Olympics, and you have to love the championship experience he brings.
Boyle, meanwhile, has been dynamite again this season and should make the Canadian squad. But because he's been overlooked so many times by Team Canada in his career, Boyle tries his best not to think about the impending announcement.
"Honestly, I haven't thought it about all year," he said. "I'm going to try and not think about it. It's out of my hands. All I can do is play my game, which I've done all along. If I'm there at the end, great. We'll see what happens."
His other teammates/Olympic hopefuls had a common refrain. They claimed that despite wanting to be part of the Games, they weren't thinking about it too much. Sorry, not buying it.
"They are doing what they can, one, to help our team and, two, to qualify for that tournament," McLellan said. "It would be a highlight in many of their careers to play in that. So for them to tell you they are not thinking about it, I think they are being real noble, but somewhere in the backs of their minds, it has to be there a little bit."
At least Thornton admitted it crosses his mind once in a while.
"You think about it some nights when you have a good night," he said. "You're like, 'I hope somebody was watching tonight.' Other than that, you're not thinking about it daily."
The question is, should the Sharks want all of their players to make it? They could have as many as eight Olympians when you also throw in goalie Evgeni Nabokov (Russia), defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic (Canada), defenseman Douglas Murray (Sweden) and goalie Thomas Greiss (Germany).
Will they have a tired team after the Olympics?
"In 2006 when we were in Detroit, we had eight or nine players in that tournament," said McLellan, who was then an assistant coach for Mike Babcock and the Red Wings. "I remember when they [Sweden] won. We looked around at each other and said, 'Did we just win our championship for the year?' We never got out of the first round of the playoffs."
But, McLellan said, he would be proud of his players for playing in the best tournament in the world.
"You can't deny them that opportunity, but you do have to make sure they have enough left in the tank, and that starts before the Olympics," he said.
Both McLellan and GM Doug Wilson have been asked by Yzerman for opinions on their players.
"I want our players to have the opportunity to play best on best," Wilson said. "It's a great experience; it allows you to grow as a player, especially in this situation. Do I lobby for our guys? I guess I support our guys. I get asked as much about other players from teams we play against than our own guys.
"I'd love to see up to eight of our guys play, because I think they'd be deserving of that opportunity."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.