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Starkey: Team Canada's hits and misses

AP
Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman speaks after the announcement of the team’s Olympic roster Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Toronto. Coach Mike Babcock (right) will have Penguins Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz on his team.

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Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, 10:36 p.m.
 

You probably knew before Tuesday that hockey is religion in Canada.

Just in case, though, the Canadian powers-that-be delivered as pious and protracted an Olympic roster ceremony as one could possibly imagine. Fans waiting with bated breath must have felt like children sitting through an endless sermon in some ancient cathedral.

Mommy, when will this end?

It began at 11 a.m. and included history lessons, literary references and enough back-slapping to draw a five-game suspension from Brendan Shanahan.

Funny, but nobody mentioned the recent World Junior Championships or the fact that Canada hasn't won Olympic gold outside of North America since 1952.

At precisely 11:22, by which time reporters nowhere near Toronto were tweeting roster decisions, the first player mercifully was announced. Five minutes later, the team was complete, and an entire continent had enough fodder to feed talk shows and newspaper columns for a month.

Give Canada its due. No team — not even the one representing the United States — draws as much attention. No one has as deep a talent pool. One could comprise a roster of the Canadians not chosen and have a chance to medal.

The decisions had particular impact in Penguins country, but before we get to them, let's remember this: Canada's GM, Steve Yzerman, presided over the winning team four years ago in Vancouver. That should count for something. That should give him some benefit of the doubt.

Choosing this team, in that hockey-mad environment, has to be one of the hardest jobs in sports. Joe Thornton leads the NHL in assists. He'll be watching from home. Martin St. Louis would seemingly be a perfect fit for the large European ice surface and has a pretty good connection — he plays for Yzerman in Tampa Bay — but he wasn't chosen. Neither was Claude Giroux.

And neither was James Neal. I was listening to TSN Montreal for the roster announcement, and the host said, “Rick Nash over James Neal? I don't think I've been watching hockey for the past two seasons.”

Indeed, Neal is the best goal scorer not recovering from a broken leg that Canada has to offer. He's also on a rampage. He's the kind of player who could flourish on the big ice and carry a team in a short tournament. Nash is a shell of his former self. It's hard to figure.

On the other hand, it's good for the Americans and gives Neal a chance to be healthy, rested and perhaps fueled with resentment for the Penguins' stretch run.

The Canadian brass made a wise choice by picking Chris Kunitz over bigger names. Crosby is their best player. You have to take his sidekick. Sure, Kunitz's numbers largely are a product of playing next to Crosby. That's the point, and it cuts both ways. As Yzerman put it, “Is Chris Kunitz being helped by Sidney Crosby? They help each other.”

Two other omissions merit a mention: Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Letang never had a chance after he was injured in training camp and played some of the worst hockey of his career. He didn't earn it. His battered body and bruised ego probably need healing. The break will provide him an opportunity to get right.

The Fleury omission has some people worked up. I'm not sure why. He's having a good season, as usual, but his numbers are inferior to those of Carey Price and Roberto Luongo and slightly above Mike Smith's. One must take into account that Smith plays for a less talented team. The newly patient Penguins — despite their injuries — are making life easy on Fleury, who says this is the best defensive team he's been on.

Fleury's playing a lot of games, too. He could use the rest.

Does that mean I trust Luongo? Absolutely not. Canada won in spite of him more than because of him four years ago. Price? Please. Show me his big-game resume.

For all the immense talent up front, goaltending is an issue. Even the most devout Canadian would admit as much.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

 

 

 
 


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