Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Olympic defense decisions

Edited Friday, June 14.

Considering that the Caps haven't made a deep playoff run in my hockey fan-time, the Olympics are the most exciting tournament for me. It's the only series of best-on-best games (where the players are actually trying), back-and-forth action with superb offense, defense, and goalie play. It helps that the United States was really good in 2010, and should challenge for the gold again next year in Sochi.

While their forwards remain exceptional, it's weird how the Canadians may actually have some trouble on the back end. Their goalies, first off, look like Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Cam Ward. (James Reimer is good enough to make the team, but I doubt he gets selected--he doesn't have the big name.) Luongo is very good, but public opinion may put him on the bench or off the roster entirely. The other three are good, not great. Meanwhile, Sweden should be icing Henrik Lundqvist, Finland could have Antti Niemi, Pekka Rinne, and Tuukka Rask, and the Americans Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider, and Craig Anderson.

Second, there's a potential imbalance on the blueline. Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, and Shea Weber are locks to make the team, returning from the gold medal-winning 2010 team. I imagine Brent Seabrook is in the same boat (though he looks like a #7 or #8 for Canada). Then there's Kris Letang, P.K. Subban, and Alex Pietrangelo. Of those seven, six are right shots. (From the Vancouver team, we've replaced righty Dan Boyle with another righty, and lefties Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger with righties as well.) It's not an ideal situation, and may mean a lefty like Jay Bouwmeester or Marc-Eduoard Vlasic gets the nod over one of the right shots. It's not much of a downgrade--all names involved here are top-pairing defensemen--but you're suddenly not icing six Norris-level D, and may have a relatively vulnerable pair. Depending on which team controls the matchups, that could matter.

Sweden could also have this issue, and not just on the blueline:
But the missing names are nowhere near as curious as the missing element: right-handers. Out of 35 total players, just two, Karlsson and Hornqvist, shoot right. The Swedes can still add players to the mix. If they do, this glaring problem requires addressing.

It's also not like there aren't other teams that can throw out six top-pair D. Sweden has Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Victor Hedman, Niklas Kronwall, Alexander Edler, and Tobias Enstrom, and the United States has Paul Martin, Ryan Suter, Ryan McDonagh, John Carlson, Dustin Byfuglien, Matt Carle, and Brooks Orpik. Neither team could even compare to Canada in 2010. Now, in 2013, looking ahead to 2014? The gap is narrower. And considering how young both those bluelines are, they could be even better than Canada's in 2018. (Remember than Jonas Brodin is a star on the rise for Sweden, and Jake Gardiner, Justin Faulk, and Cam Fowler are in the same boat for the US.)

Finally, up front, Canada is stacked with offensive firepower, but defensive responsibility could be a bit lacking. Patrice Bergeron (lock), Jonathan Toews (lock), Mike Richards (good chance), and Jeff Carter (great chance), and Claude Giroux (great chance), if selected, can help provide that. But what do you do with all the firepower that isn't as competent without the puck--John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Matt Duchene, Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal, Jamie Benn, etc? Do you pass over point-per-game players in favor of pluggers, like you did in 2010, picking Brenden Morrow over the likes of Martin St. Louis and Stamkos? How will the larger ice surface play into offensive strategy and the possession game--will dump and chase and cycling be more effective? Will there be so much room off the rush that raw skill will trump hockey sense without the puck?

The US doesn't have this problem. Between Dustin Brown, Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, David Backes, and Joe Pavelski, the Americans have forwards who will backcheck (which, as I wrote in my Pittsburgh-Boston preview, I think is more important to the possession game than great defensemen, once your blueline has achieved a minimum level of two-way competency). Sweden won the gold in 2006 with a system that hinged on the all-around ability of most of its players.

Canada is certainly the favorite, but I have a feeling that in the near future we'll see a country throw out 12 forwards, six defensemen, and two goalies that form a legitimately better team than Canada A. (I'm sure Canada B and C will remain miles better than anyone else's depth teams.) Luckily for us non-Canadians, depth only matters for the first (healthy) 18 skaters and one goalie.

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