Kunitz, St. Louis hard decisions for Canada
TORONTO - For more than four months, Team Canada's management staff anguished over these decisions.
Still, it took until 1 a.m. ET Tuesday â€” 10 hours before the team was to be unveiled â€” for executive director Steve Yzerman and his staff to come up with a final 25-man roster for the Sochi Olympics.
"We had gone out last night for dinner and came back. We were down to a couple of names and it was a real strong, healthy debate," St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "At some point we had to stop at 25. When we got to that last name, we shook hands and said we're excited about this team."
With another gold medal the only measure of success, Yzerman, Armstrong and the rest of the management team read off names one by one, listing the group they hope will get the job done. Chris Kunitz, Patrick Marleau and Jeff Carter had their names called, while Claude Giroux, Logan Couture, Martin St. Louis and many others got phone calls from the staff delivering the bad news.
"The calls this morning to the guys that weren't making it, those are real difficult calls," Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said at Tuesday's news conference. "It kind of leaves an empty feeling in your stomach."
As difficult as those decisions and conversations were, they were necessary.
In the final analysis, Canada chose to put together a team of "different dimensions," in the words of Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland. Kunitz brings natural chemistry with Sidney Crosby, Marleau a mix of speed and scoring and Carter a nose for the net.
By the time the management team â€” made up of Yzerman, Holland, Chiarelli, Armstrong, Kevin Lowe, Hockey Canada executive Brad Pascall and coach Mike Babcock â€” got down to the final meeting, there was a general consensus on all three goaltenders, seven defencemen and 11 or 12 forwards.
Then it got down to brass tacks.
"The decisions, the late-night wrangling, it's like you go over things four, five, six, seven times," Chiarelli said. "Is this the right reason? Is this the right guy? What's the right reason? We talked about four or five guys at the end, and you have second thoughts, and you just got to be firm on what you believe and the fit."
Whether Yzerman wanted to acknowledge it publicly or not, Kunitz ultimately fit because of his production alongside Crosby, to the tune of 23 goals and 24 assists this season. Yzerman pointed to Kunitz winning the 2009 Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins and his 2008 world championship appearance for Canada, but this was always about Crosby.
"A lot of people have asked me, 'Is Kunitz being helped by Sidney Crosby?'" Yzerman said. "They help each other. He's a tremendous player and ultimately, we asked ourselves, 'Does he belong on this team?' And the answer is 'Yes.' "
The same went for Marleau, one of 11 returning players from the team that won gold at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver who fits as a natural left-winger. Carter, the last cut four years ago when Canada was waiting on Ryan Getzlaf's injury status, also earned a spot based on a need for pure goal-scorers.
With only 25 spots to fill, that meant saying no to a few players who were either considered locks at some point in the process or seemingly played too well to keep from going to Sochi.
A reported hand injury couldn't have helped Couture's chances, though his not being named just in case speaks to Canada's desire to go in another direction. A slow start hurt Giroux's chances, and though Yzerman said there would be no hard feelings for him not attending Olympic orientation camp, that did not reflect well.
Three Vancouver Olympians who still warranted serious discussion didn't get to come back: Eric Staal, Joe Thornton and Mike Richards.
Staal struggled early and suffered a lower-body injury last week. Thornton's 48 points weren't enough to offset his inability to play wing on the bigger, international-sized ice surface.
"You know what â€” Claude Giroux, Joe Thornton â€” all these players, I can go on and on," Yzerman said. "I'm going to have to walk into rinks and see these players as well and I don't feel good about not putting any of them on the team."
The toughest cut was St. Louis, who didn't make it in 2010 and looked like a no-doubter this time based on winning the Art Ross Trophy last season. Yzerman, who also serves as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, got to tell injured star Steve Stamkos he was on the team but couldn't say the same to his captain, St. Louis.
"All I can say is that Marty's been a tremendous player for us," Yzerman said. "This year with a transition to a much younger group and Stammer being injured, he's been a tremendous leader, he's played extremely well and he's been great for our younger players. I can honestly say that's not a decision that I enjoy making."
But it wasn't about enjoying the decisions as much as making them. Others, like Jamie Benn, Matt Duchene and Patrick Sharp made it nearly impossible to keep them off the team.
Jonathan Toews, Rick Nash, Patrice Bergeron, Getzlaf and Corey Perry round out the forwards returning from 2010, and there couldn't really be a true Canadian Olympic team in 2014 without young superstar John Tavares.
On defence, the top six of Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Drew Doughty came easy. Dan Hamhuis made it as the final left-handed shot, while P.K. Subban got the final right-handed spot after much debate.
"P.K. is a guy that provides a dimension â€” the ability to transport the puck, run a power play," Holland said. "He can make a big play to win you a game. He can be a game-breaker."
In goal, Armstrong said there wasn't much late debate after the management team reached a consensus on Roberto Luongo, Carey Price and Mike Smith. Luongo was in goal in Vancouver when Canada won gold four years ago, while Price's world junior experience and recent NHL play made him an slam-dunk choice.
Babcock wouldn't name a starter for the Feb. 13 opener against Norway on Tuesday for a very specific reason.
"What we did is we chose three goalies that could start because with the injury situation in the National Hockey League, to say this guy's your starter, I think you're foolish," he said. "Who can win any game? And that's what we tried to do."
This group won't be charged with winning just one game but many. Remembering the small margin of error in Vancouver, Yzerman hopes the calls made now pave the way to gold in Sochi.
"In our position we've got to make (a decision), and today we can't pull the eraser out and change a name," he said. "Every one of us in Canada has an opinion on who should be on this team and nobody's wrong. Nobody's wrong because they're all really good players."
â€” Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.