Weber, Keith should lead strong Team Canada defence for Sochi
Blue-liners should step up without Pronger, Niedermeyer
No Pronger. No Niedermayer. No problem.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. After all, it’s hard to imagine losing two of the game’s best defenders and not have some kind of a negative impact on Canada’s chances of repeating as gold medallists at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
But if you believe coach Mike Babcock, the experience young defenders such as Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty picked up in Vancouver should help compensate for the loss of two – and possibly three – veterans. Dan Boyle was the sixth defenceman in 2010, and at 37, is on the bubble to make the 2014 team.
“Keith, Weber and Doughty were outstanding in 2010,” Babcock said. “Pronger and Niedermayer provided leadership, but let’s not kid ourselves, those young guys were very good players for us. The older defencemen got better as the tournament went on, but Doughty and Keith and Weber were good right from the [beginning].”
Canada went with seven defencemen in 2010 – Niedermayer, Pronger, Weber, Keith, Doughty, Boyle and Brent Seabrook. Averaging 20:44 ice time per game, Keith was the go-to guy while Weber (20:27) and Niedermayer (20:00) were not far behind. Doughty averaged 18:08 while Pronger came in at 17:45, Boyle at 17:04 and Seabrook at 8:26.
What is interesting is how the coaching staff employed its blue-liners as the tournament progressed. It was clear from the outset the team would lean heavily on the younger players, so a guy like Pronger, traditionally one of the NHL’s biggest minute munchers, took on a secondary role.
In fact in Game 3 against the United States, he played just 14:05. For a player who routinely played close to 30 minutes a game in the NHL, that was quite a drop in ice time. However, when it came down to crunch time, Pronger was the player Canada leaned on. In the gold-medal game, a 3-2 overtime victory against the U.S., he led all Canadian skaters at 23:35.
Ken Hitchcock, an assistant in 2010 and will be again with the 2014 club, said there is a method to the coaching staff’s madness when it comes to controlling the ice time of veterans early in the tournament.
“The older defencemen who have gone through the wars always play the most minutes on their team and are always the most beat up when the tournament starts,” Hitchcock said. “As they get their rest by playing reduced minutes, they get better. Boyle, Niedermayer and Pronger played extraordinary minutes for their teams in games leading up to the Olympics and all three guys were beat up and tired at the start of the tournament.
As these guys managed their time and got rested, they got better and better and better.”
Canada expected to go with 8 defencemen
Hockey Canada invited 17 defenceman to its summer camp in Calgary, and it is expected eight will be named to the team. The good news is Team Canada has the potential to include a couple of Norris Trophy winners in Keith (2010) and P.K. Subban (2013).
Keith is a lock to make the team, as are Weber and Doughty. Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietroangelo of the St. Louis Blues are strong candidates to play in the top six while Boyle, Subban, Kristopher Letang, Marc Staal and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are solid bets to battle for the No. 7 and 8 positions. Hitchcock said players should expect to check their egos at the door in the Olympics. Those used to playing big minutes on their club teams are often asked to take important, but reduced roles.
“It’s more about understanding how to control the two weeks,” Hitchcock said. “Everybody knows what the competition is going to be like, so it’s the way those guys handle themselves over the length of the competition that really counts. “Nobody will play the minutes they do in the NHL; no forward, no defenceman…nobody. But the tempo that we play at will never be any higher so there’s a little bit of a tradeoff. Your minutes are going to be less, but tempo is going to be right through the roof.”
Larger ice surface presents challenges
Playing on the larger Olympic ice surface presents challenges to defenceman accustomed to the smaller NHL ice surface.
With that in mind Babcock has a template in mind for the type of players he’ll choose to play in Sochi.
“We expect our defencemen to be elite skaters who move the puck and are outstanding without it,” Babcock said.
“You’re going to have a hard time making the team if you aren’t good without the puck. That’s all there is to it. We want elite skaters because we want to play a tight-gap game. We want them to jump in on the rush and to be strong on the offensive blue line. We’re fortunate that we have a good group.”